Months later, on a rare visit home for the upcoming spring fair, Hans stopped by the Less’ department store. Now seventeen, Hans found Frau Less working alongside her husband. At first, he thought they were just getting ready for the fair, an event second only to Christmas in Lüneburg. He soon learned otherwise.
“Almost all the help has quit,” Frau Less explained quietly, “so now we do it together.” At that moment, Walter came out of the stock room. Even at fifteen years old, he was almost six feet tall. He dropped the bolts of cloth he was carrying in his eagerness to greet Hans, shaking his hand vigorously up and down.
“Welcome back! You look great!” He punched Hans playfully. “Tell me all about Hamburg, the docks, the ships! It must be so exciting to live there!”
“It’s really an amazing place. There’s always something going on and … but, wait a minute … Walter, why aren’t you in school? Do top students at the Gymnasium get to take a day off?”
The smile left Walter’s face. He jammed his fists into his pockets. Even though his voice seemed controlled, Hans could sense that Walter was very angry.
“Well, school wasn’t a good place for me to be, with all the new laws against Jews and everything. No one would talk to me, not even my so-called best friends. The masters were giving me failing grades. I couldn’t participate in morning exercises. I was barred from group activities. After a while, I was the only Jewish kid who still dared to come to school.”
He paused. “But at least I didn’t get beaten up. I heard that happened to others. One boy was thrown out of a window.”
His quiet voice took on a hard-edged tone.
“I would have stayed, you know. I’m proud I’m Jewish. But there was no way I was going to make the Nazi salute, not after what they did to Ernst!”
Hans was almost afraid to ask. “Did something happen to your brother?”
“Nazi officials told him he couldn’t practice law anymore because he was Jewish. It’s so unfair! I told my teacher I wouldn’t salute because I wouldn’t tolerate that kind of injustice. He told me to get my things and get out. So I did. No one even said, ‘Good-bye’.”
Walter shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe what had happened. Then he shrugged. “So, I’m better off here, for now at least. I’m doing a lot of reading and practicing my English; my father and I play chess; I’ve been taking photographs; I work on my stamp collection; I ride my bicycle, I…”
“And you’ll never ride that bicycle again, if I have anything to say about it!” Frau Less’ voice shook. Hans wasn’t certain if it was from anger or fear.
“Do you know what this boy did, Hans? Without telling us, he pedaled off to a rally at the Lüneburg MTV-Stadium where that Hitler man was speaking. Twenty thousand people came to hear him. Walter said he wanted to see him for himself, in person! Can you imagine what would have happened if someone had recognized him? What were you thinking, Walter? Do you understand why I was so upset that I slapped you? Don’t you understand…?”
Frau Less stopped when she heard the tinkling of the bell above the door, announcing a customer. Hans looked up to see a pretty, well-dressed young woman enter the store.
“Guten Tag, Walter,” she smiled.
“Erika, how are you?” Walter started across the room.
Suddenly, a tall, overweight man in an ill-fitting brown uniform barged in, grabbed Erika’s arm, pulled her out of the store, and slammed the door behind them. Inside, Walter and Hans could see the man gesturing angrily and yelling at the girl. Even through the thick windows, they could hear the word “Jude” over and over. She cast one quick look inside before her father pulled her roughly across the street.
Hans was stunned, not just because of what he had just witnessed, but because he recognized Erika’s father as the burgher whose wallet he had returned so many years before.
“You see how it is,” Frau Less frowned. “Everyone wears a uniform these days. Everyone is afraid, even our oldest customers, even our city fathers, even the children.”
She spoke softly, but the disdain in her voice was unmistakable. Hans looked down at the floor, unable to meet her eyes.
“Not everyone, Mutti. What about Herr Beuss?”
“Who?” Hans asked.
“Herr Beuss, the dancing master. You know how students in my school are expected to take ballroom dancing lessons? Well, when I was enrolled in Herr Beuss’ school, some parents told him they would pull out their children if he didn’t kick out the Jews like me. Herr Koopmann, Erika’s father, was the most insistent. My parents even offered to have me leave. But the Beusses refused. They lost most of the class. None of the girls would dance with me. So I only danced with Lisa Behr. She’s Jewish, too. She hated dancing with me because she was taller than I was, if you can believe it. It was really uncomfortable. I was so glad when it was over.”
Walter allowed himself a quick laugh. “And I’m still a terrible dancer!”
As Hans walked home, he thought about all he had just heard. He was relieved the Lesses didn’t know he was in the Hitlerjugend. While he loved his country, the treatment of Jews and the friends he had known all his life, made him feel ashamed.
Over dinner, Hans argued how unfair it all was. “All the speeches about uniting our Fatherland against the enemy. It’s different when people I know are the supposed ‘enemies’ – Wolfgang? Walter? Ernst? The Lesses? That can’t be right!”
His father nodded his head wearily. “I suppose it is wrong. But everyone has joined the Nazi party. They’re in charge now. So, that’s why I’m giving Herr Less my notice. It’s too dangerous working for a Jew these days, even though I’m taking another job for half the wages.”
“Vater, please don’t,” Hans protested.
“Listen, Hans. Don’t worry. This fellow Hitler, he won’t last long in politics. People will get tired of him; then everything will be back to normal. Now, we just have to go about our business. Wait and see, Hans. Wait and see. There is nothing we can do.”