Standing partially hidden in the doorway of the grocery, Hans’ first instinct was to avert his eyes and turn away, as he had done so many times before. But now he forced himself to watch the brown-shirted soldier who appeared to be drawing on the building across the street.
The storm trooper stepped back to the curb to inspect his handiwork. Yellow paint dripped from the crude drawing of a six-pointed star and the word “Juden” scrawled on the window of Less’ department store. The soldier put down the brush, picked up his weapon and nodded pleasantly at passers-by as he stood in front of the door, rifle fixed in the ready position.
At first, the store appeared deserted, but seconds later, the owner moved slowly into view. Hans saw Leopold Less pause for a moment to stare at the star, his hand over his heart. Then the old man walked to one of the many shelves filled with merchandise, checked his pocket watch, and, very deliberately, began to inventory his stock, just as Hans had seen him do so many times before, ten years earlier when his father worked for Herr Less. Everything seemed the same, right down to the jar of penny candy on the counter.
But everything had changed. Hans was now nineteen.
Since the National Socialist (Nazi) Party and its leader, Adolph Hitler, had taken control of the German government in 1933, Jewish families, families who had lived in Lüneburg for centuries, were now routinely discriminated against and insulted. Nazi soldiers roamed the city, taking over streets and sidewalks, loudly singing patriotic songs in the local taverns late into the night. They and their supporters paraded daily through the city, shouting, “Awake, Germany! Death to Jews!” Red and white flags with black swastikas hung from public buildings and private residences. Bäckerstraße no longer felt the same.
A shout interrupted Hans’ thoughts as people began to gather in front of the store, whispering among themselves. The storm trooper’s expression abruptly changed. He waved his rifle and commanded them to move along. “Weitergehen! Schnell! Get out of here! Right now!” A young woman walked past the store, clearly distressed by the soldier’s presence. She stopped to say something, but the soldier pushed her roughly with the butt of his rifle.
The soldier’s behavior was, by now, all too familiar. Memories turned over in Hans’ mind, as if he were turning pages of a scrapbook filled with old photographs. By themselves, the images were just random pictures; but, when linked to the event he was witnessing in front of the store, they illustrated how deeply his childhood had been shaped by the rise of the Nazi party.
Hans shifted his weight uncomfortably and bumped into one of the produce boxes displayed in the front of the Bäckerstraße grocery. An orange fell on to the ground and rolled between his feet. When he picked it up, the fruit’s scent triggered a memory so powerful it was as if it had happened only yesterday.
The time was early December 1924.