While my father and brothers were working in Berlin, the rest of our family had our own trials closer to home. Mr L—the Blockleiter (Block Leader) for the neighbouring area and a Nazi party member—was dedicated to the cause of Adolf Hitler (remaining so right to the end of the Third Reich).
“Mrs Cieslar! Heil Hitler!” he would shout at my mother. She considered this form of greeting to be stupid, not to mention blasphemous, and would not reply in the prescribed manner. “Guten Tag, Mr L,” she would say cheerily, as she studiously avoided the hated Hitler salute.
“Mrs Cieslar, I said ‘Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!’ ” When Mr L spoke like that, people would freeze. They knew that their next sentence could take them to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
But my mother remained steadfast. “Oh, Mr L, I don’t really understand the ‘Heil Hitler’ greeting. I will stay with ‘Guten Morgen’ or ‘Guten Tag’—I understand those. Thank you, Mr L.” He watched her as she moved down the road and away from him as fast as she could.
One Saturday morning in April 1942, an SS man in a long grey-green coat walked up to our house. As he walked, he kept a careful eye on the woods, the farm buildings and any laneways. We knew the uniform and the cautious behaviour: for the SS man, every tree hid a potential assassin.
“Stay inside, children!” said my mother urgently. “Go into the kitchen!”
My two sisters, Marta and Ruth, did not need to be told twice. They kept looking out of the window and were clearly extremely frightened at the sudden appearance of someone whose very uniform meant incarceration, torture and death. I ran into the kitchen in fear, huddling with Ruth. Our hearts were beating loudly and we did not dare speak.
The SS man banged on the door roughly. As my mother opened it, the man pushed her aside and walked into the house as if it was his personal property. In his right hand, he carried a rifle and from the look in his evil glittering eyes, he was perfectly happy to use it if there was any noncompliance. He had the power of life and death over us, and he wanted us to know it.
“All children outside!” he screamed in a voice that suggested he might benefit from immediate psychiatric care. “The children are coming with me, is that understood? All of you, I want to see you in front of me.”
My mother’s immediate thought was that we were being rounded up for random execution, which was common at that time. As we came out from the kitchen with great trepidation, we could see that our mother was in a state of abject panic. To our astonished eyes, she leant forward in a gesture of supplication.
“Please, sir, do not take my children,” she said. “They are innocent. They are not guilty of any crime.”
Without a word, he responded with a vicious kick from his extremely well-polished, black, hobnailed boot. The thud of the boot and the violence of the act made me suddenly want to be sick. He had kicked her as someone might kick away a disgusting cockroach.
For a moment, there was silence in our front yard. We children looked at my mother, her face showing the physical pain she felt. Much worse was the prospect of her children being taken away.
The man did not waste time on niceties. “Come with me!” He gestured to Ruth and me.
My mother feared the worst. As the man pushed the two of us rudely in front of him I heard her voice. “Children, my prayers are with you. My prayers are with you!”
It was the voice of a mother who had every reason to fear that her children might be put to death.
n Without another word, the officer walked Ruth and me for 40 minutes to an old school. I was in a state of complete fear. My stomach was tied in knots of terror. I did not know what would happen, barely understanding that I was entering a world of brutality, pain and possible death.
The SS man’s violence against my mother reverberated through my mind over and over. How could he do that? Did he not have a mother of his own? The motto of the SS to which he belonged was, “My honour is loyalty.” It seemed that that honour included violence against a harmless and decent woman.
As we walked, I did not speak to Ruth and she did not speak to me. We were much too frightened to utter a single word.
“Get in there!” said the man as we approached the school building. We were ushered into a large room, possibly a gymnasium.
It was Saturday morning and children were in classrooms. But then there was us—the “special cases” who had been brought in. Our group were sullen, frightened and cowed. They seemed to have selected mainly children from Seventh-day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witness families. I knew many of them.
Someone brought in a large painting of Hitler. In the picture, Hitler appeared handsome, statesmanlike and he was looking into the distance. He had the vision of a man destined to bring order and, no doubt, “honour” to the lucky countries he was overrunning.
A man in plain clothes barked instructions. “When you are called,” he ordered, “you will take three steps forward in front of this picture of the Führer. You will raise your right arm so . . .” he demonstrated, “and you will say ‘Heil Hitler!’ three times, loudly and clearly.”
Some children complied immediately and were sent into one of the regular classes. They had relief on their faces that they had been able to do something that did not result in physical violence or being screamed at by a Nazi thug.
Ruth and I did not comply with the order and were sent with a few other recalcitrants into a corner of the gymnasium.
The problem was that my father had explained something to us, conscientiously and clearly. “Paul,” he had said, “this ‘Heil Hitler’ thing is blasphemy. A person may only use ‘Heil’ to Jesus Christ and absolutely no-one else.”
It did not matter how much the screaming Nazi officials might threaten me, I could not go against the teachings of my father’s Bible. If I had understood the real danger I was in, I wonder what I would have done.
The group who still refused to say “Heil Hitler” was ushered into another corner, but it seemed with less menace. I was starting to feel more confident that this was just some strange German charade. They were carrying it out for their own unknowable reasons. Perhaps we might even be home for dinner.
An apparently kind German gentleman asked us to sit down. He was dressed in civilian clothes, not the SS uniform with a sinister death’s head on the hat. But then the penny dropped. If he was in plain clothes and working with the SS, he was from the Gestapo. If I trusted him, Ruth and I and possibly all of our family were dead.
“Good morning, young man and young lady. What are your names?” he began.
Somewhere inside me, a voice told me I was facing imminent danger of an unimaginable level.
“Paul. My sister is Ruth, sir.”
“Quite so,” said the man, smiling at me in a most kindly fashion.
“Now Paul,” he said drawing a little closer. “Who told you not to say ‘Heil Hitler’?”
I knew I was in the most dreadful danger.
“Just tell me who told you. I am sure we can sort out any misunderstanding.” He beamed at me, showing every sign of friendliness. He was not threatening at all. Perhaps he just wanted to give me some friendly counselling or helpful advice.
counselling or helpful advice. But the image ran through my mind of that shiny hobnailed boot thudding with sickening force into my mother’s leg. I knew the game was getting nastier but was uncertain what to say.
I summoned whatever inner strength I had and smiled at this apparent gentleman. “I don’t know what is ‘Heil Hitler,’” I beamed at them and talked in a sort of yokelpidgin German.
As I smiled insanely at them, my face showed peace but somewhere deep inside my rib cage, my heart was thudding as if it was going to burst out and run home of its own accord, which is what I wanted to do. I was 13 and this had to be the performance of my life.
The Gestapo man looked at me quizzically.
“I know what is ‘Guten Tag’ or ‘Guten Abend.’ ” I smiled at him. Thump! Thump! He returned my smile, waiting for me to say something. “. . . but I do not know what is ‘Heil Hitler’.” Thump!
He was so calm, so controlled, so nice. “So was it your mummy who told you not to say ‘Heil Hitler’?” Thump! “Was it your daddy?” Thump! “Was it your pastor?”
“I do not know what you mean.” I smiled back while continuing to use my invented pidgin German.
He looked at me as though I was just an idiot. The room was quiet but I could hear the sounds of other children being asked similar questions in their corners.
“Dismissed!” He had believed my yokel story!
They sent Ruth and me into one of the school classes but the class was soon over. It was so wonderful to leave the confines of the school and feel the fresh air on my face and see the clouds above us. The grey cloudy sky was so beautiful!
It must have been a huge adrenaline rush. We ran all the way home to the farm, where my mother was so relieved to see us that she burst into tears of joy.
But questions remained: Why had we been targeted? Did Mr L report our family? Was it because we were Adventists and kept the Sabbath, when they wanted us to be at school? And then there was the threat of what might happen the next Sabbath. Would they come back for us again?
Extracted, with permission, from Paul Cieslar, No Heil Hitler! (Warburton, Vic: Signs Publishing Company, 2014