"Unless You Come as a Child..."
- Thursday, October 12, 2006
Hans was a quiet boy — not by nature, but by circumstance. It wasn’t easy being a five-year-old when there was a war going on. His father was away in the Kaiser’s army, his brother had succumbed to malnutrition, and now it was just he and his mother, Jenny. Two hungry souls in a sea of suffering humanity, waiting in line after endless line for their daily ration of rutabaga soup and dry bread. If all went well, there would be enough soup for their evening meal. If not, they would go to bed hungry… again.
And yet, even if Hans had to lie in bed tonight and listen to his stomach growl as he tried to fall asleep, he knew there would be another sound — a welcome, comforting sound — to drown out his complaining stomach. His mother’s singing; he never tired of it. Shuffling forward a couple of steps as he gripped his empty soup bowl in his hands, he looked up at her. She smiled at him, warming his heart as she laid her thin hand on his shoulder. Hans was old enough to realize his mother was short compared to most other adults in the food line, but he was still young enough to have to crane his neck to see her beautiful face.
For she was a beauty, his mother, despite the pain of having been orphaned at an early age, losing a child, and wondering whether her husband was dead or alive. Beautiful, despite the daily worry of trying to obtain enough nourishment for Hans, regardless of whether or not she ate anything herself — which she often didn’t, as she shared her own meager portions with her remaining son. Hans had heard Jenny’s stomach growl louder than his own many times, even as she sang him to sleep at night.
The young boy with the dark hair and sky-blue eyes returned his mother’s smile, in spite of the pain in his stomach and the ache of his cold feet crammed into the cardboard-soled shoes he had worn for two winters now. Shivering in the frigid wind that howled off the river and pierced his threadbare jacket, Hans marveled at his mother’s strength. Didn’t she feel the cold as he did? Or the hunger? If she did, she never said anything, only smiled her reassuring smile and went on with whatever needed to be done.
How Hans loved the comforting familiarity of his mother’s face. He scarcely could recall his father, who had been gone for more than two years now, or even his brother, who had died a year earlier, though Hans tried desperately to hang on to the memories. But it was his mother’s voice that kept him going, singing to him at night, soothing him, encouraging him, offering him hope where there was no hope. Things would get better, her songs seemed to promise, if not today, then soon… some day… whether in this life or in the next. God watched over them, the songs proclaimed; He loved them, and He would never, ever leave them. Hans clung to the words of his mother’s songs, even as their promises failed to materialize and the war dragged on, day after miserable, endless day. Better times were coming, the lyrics assured him. He had only to wait, and God would bring them to pass.
And so he waited. Through the ever growing food lines and the ever shrinking food rations; the bleak, dreary, freezing winters; the lonely, seemingly interminable vigil, shared only with his mother, as they watched and wondered if Hans’ father would ever return; the long weeks in an impersonal government-run hospital as the frightened, lonely little boy lay on his back, being treated for scurvy while his mother sat at his side, praying and singing….
Then, finally, it was over. The war had ended, and Hans’ father came home. But life in post-World War I Germany was still very hard. A sister and two brothers were soon added to the family. As the oldest child, Hans had to grow up quickly, accept responsibility, and get on with taking care of himself. By the time he was eighteen, he had left home, traveling thousands of miles alone, across the ocean from his native
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