Hans’ apprenticeship was abruptly cut short when his father injured himself at his new job. Herr Lehmann was hired as part of a large Nazi construction project building new barracks to house the military in Lüneburg. A basement staircase, still under construction, had suddenly collapsed, burying Herr Lehmann under heavy beams. His leg was broken in three places and he had a serious concussion.
Hans rushed home to Lüneburg, realizing he would have to take responsibility for supporting his family. He promptly met with Captain Werner, the officer in charge, to convince him to let him take over his father’s position until he was well enough to return to work. Hans wore his HJ uniform to the interview and impressed the officer with his offer to work extra hours. Captain Werner was even more impressed when Hans told him about his Hitlerjugend training in Hamburg. Hans started work that very day.
Once his father was stable and life settled into a routine, Hans finally had time to ask his mother about what was happening in Lüneburg. He was shocked to learn Walter was no longer at home to help his parents run their business. They had sent him away to live with his uncle in America, who had agreed to officially sponsor him!
This, Hans knew, was the only way anyone could leave Germany, and, even then, it was extremely difficult to obtain a visa. Most countries were refusing to take in immigrants, especially Jews.
Hans wasn’t sure he’d have the courage to go to another country, to leave his family and friends, even though he’d sometimes dreamed about doing just that in Hamburg. He thought how concerned his mother had been when he went to live in another city. How worried the Lesses must be if they were willing to send their youngest child away, sailing alone across the Atlantic, all the way to California, not knowing if and when they would see him again!
It occurred to him that Walter must have boarded a ship in Hamburg at the very time he was working with his uncle. Why didn’t the Lesses let him know? He definitely would have been there to see him off! But he knew in his heart this was not a celebration. Probably the fewer people who knew about Walter’s departure the better. It was safer that way for everybody.
Suddenly, Hans felt very lonely. He would miss his friend. He remembered a time years earlier when Walter generously shared his allowance and took him to his first movie, an American Western. “Maybe he’ll meet some real cowboys in California,” he mused, “just like in the movies.”
For a moment, his mood lightened until he walked past the grounds of Lüneburg’s Kurpark, a public recreation area. The reasons for Walter’s departure again became ominously clear. A worker was busy nailing up a freshly painted sign.
In bold letters it read: “No Dogs or Jews Allowed!”
Hans had only been home for two months when an official letter arrived, inviting him to attend a Hitlerjugend military camp located in the northern German foothills. Boys from many cities and towns were selected for this elite group, based on skills they demonstrated during required testing. It was a great honor to be chosen. The letter stated Hans had been designated a platoon leader. It noted that he had scored the highest marks on a difficult, three-day hike and had shown, in the words of one officer, “exceptional courage and willingness to follow orders by fearlessly jumping from a four-story tower into a stretched canvas net without hesitation.”
Hans smiled at the letter’s wording. “Fearless!” He hadn’t let anyone know how scared he was. He had just closed his eyes and leaped out into space. When he landed, he carefully checked to see if he was in one piece before waving nonchalantly to the other boys, as if to say, “It was nothing, really. I do this every day.”
Hans didn’t see how he could possibly go. His family was depending on him. But when he mentioned the letter to Captain Werner, the officer insisted that Hans attend. “The Fatherland needs boys like you, Hans. I will talk to my superiors about paying your father’s wages until you return.” Hans was elated. He left two days later.
Camp training was nothing like his earlier experiences in Hamburg. There, at “home meetings” run by older boys, members sang songs, played games, learned slogans, and read required materials. They had gone on weekend retreats filled with hikes, athletic contests, and parade drills. More than anything, Hans loved firing air rifles and participating in mock battles. At night, all the boys sang patriotic songs around campfires.
Now, however, a sense of urgency permeated every activity of the camp. Above the entrance gate, a sign read: “We are Born to Die for Germany.” Camp life was highly regimented. Boys trained from early morning until late at night. Adult soldiers instructed them about military formations, how to shoot, throw hand grenades, and storm trenches. They were lectured on military engineering and taught to read maps. Hans excelled at these exercises.
But late one night, when every muscle ached and the only sounds to be heard were approved broadcasts on the official Nazi shortwave radio sets, Hans began to wonder what all this training was for. He heard his mother’s voice in his head, telling him she did not want him to join the Nazi movement.
“We already lived through the Great War. It was horrible. We lost so many young men, including my brothers. People call it ‘the war to end all wars’. Now, I think this man Hitler will lead us into another war. Not again! I do not want my son to have to be a soldier.”
Hans remembered how he had argued with his mother.
“Mutti, please, be careful what you say. Someone might report you. I’m telling you, Der Führer will end unemployment and poverty. He will bring Germany peace and prosperity. He’s promised: ‘There is only one yardstick for our conduct: Our great unshakeable love of peace.’ I believe that. Father will get a better job. We all will be better off than we are now!”
Tossing and turning on his narrow wooden bunk, Hans fell into a fitful sleep.
War games began the next day. Each company was pitted against another. Hans’ company commander, a tall, handsome eighteen year old named Karl Heine, was admired by all the boys for his athleticism, his sense of discipline, and for his fairness. Throughout the day, Karl directed his troops with exceptional skill, leading them cautiously through rough terrain, reminding them of the camouflage techniques they had been practicing.
Late in the afternoon, they found their opponents, identified by their blue caps, taking a quick break from their maneuvers. Karl quickly gestured for Hans’ section to move quietly behind the enemy, blocking their escape. Because of Hans’ position, he was able to clearly see what happened next.
Karl ordered his troops forward. The enemy scrambled to their feet, but it was obvious they were defenseless. Karl marched ahead to request presentation of the enemy’s flag, the signal of victory. But suddenly, without warning, some of his soldiers broke from the line and began to attack the other side, pounding them unmercifully with their fists. Stronger, older boys hunted for younger boys, caught them, threw them on the ground, and beat them, drawing blood. One even pulled out his dagger and held it at a smaller boy’s throat.
Karl immediately sprang into action, pulling his boys off the others, yelling for them to stop. Reluctantly, they obeyed. When order was restored, fifteen boys from Karl’s company were lined up at perfect attention with sullen expressions on their faces. Karl began to speak, not only to them, but to all the boys who had crowded around to watch and to listen.
“As Hitlerjugend,” he shouted in a stern voice, “You must always follow orders! I did not give you the command to attack. This was an exercise, a game, and you have injured your comrades. Many of you deliberately chose to attack those weaker than you. This is not what we stand for. We stand for a unified Germany where we all work together for the good of our Fatherland. We must demonstrate fairness and compassion, not brutality and violence!”
Karl then commanded everyone from both groups to return to camp at their own pace. But he ordered the fifteen attackers to maintain a quick march. When they got back, Karl required them to run laps around the drill field.
News of the event spread quickly. A special evening assembly was called by the military officers in charge of the camp. Karl was ordered to stand front and center. Every boy snapped to attention. What Karl had said and done made the young leader a hero in Hans’ eyes; someone he wanted to imitate. Hans waited eagerly to hear the Unterführer’s commendation and praise. The officer’s amplified voice boomed throughout the camp.
”Achtung! Attention! Karl Heine, step forward! You have disgraced yourself as an officer! There are now four million members of the Hitlerjugend. We protect The Fatherland at all costs. If you are not with us, you are against us! Each of you must be prepared to die for our country and our Führer! There is no place for weakness. Only the strongest survive! The losers must be made to pay! Those you disciplined deserve to be honored! You are dismissed from the Hitlerjugend. Get your things and return home. Heil Hitler!”
The voices of everyone in the camp returned the salute. Karl squared his shoulders and walked off the field. No one looked at him. Hans never saw him again.