Bad Harzburg, Germany, 1945
Helga looked in the mirror hanging above her desk. She hardly recognized the face staring back at her. Those gaunt, sallow cheeks, the pale, almost white complexion, the limp blond hair barely controlled by two unraveling braids. Even worse were the eyes, those once sparkling blue eyes, now sunken and red.
What happened to the once bright, pretty face, rosy cheeks and golden hair? When did those eyes, once so full of life and joy, come to reflect exhaustion and despair? And what happened to the dreams, hopes and aspirations this little German girl once had? How did they disappear in only a few short months?
A loud rumble, like approaching thunder, gave the answer. Ten-year-old Helga Reiter stepped away from her mirror and looked out the window. Another rumble from the west, followed by the sound of small arms fire. It was coming, the enemy, the faceless terror, an entity bred for one purpose, the total destruction of her beloved Germany.
"Helga, come downstairs now! And bring Anna with you."
Normally when Mother gave an order Helga rushed to comply. Disobedience often brought painful consequences. But times were not normal. Helga was far too exhausted to worry about a possible session behind the woodshed. She left the window and sat on the bed she shared with Anna. She sighed, wondering if she had the strength for so simple a task as waking her eight-year-old sister.
"Anna, wake up." Anna didn't stir. The thunder of enemy artillery got closer. "Come on, Anna, before Mother gets angry." Helga gave Anna's shoulder a gentle shake. The small girl finally stretched and opened bleary eyes.
"What is it? Leave me alone."
The artillery sounded yet closer. A machine gun chattered in the forest. "Helga, Anna, what are you two doing?" Mother called up the stairs.
"Mother wants everyone in the basement," Helga said.
"But I'm so tired." Anna sat up and blinked. "I don't want to go down into the basement, I just want to sleep."
The artillery was now loud enough to rattle the windows. Another machine gun burst chattered in the woods, closer this time. "Can't you hear that, Anna? The Americans are almost here. If they find you alone they might--well, they might hurt you or shoot you. You heard what Poppa said about them."
"I don't care."
Mark, the girls' twelve-year-old brother, appeared at the door. "You two better get moving. Mother's getting really impatient."
"Mark," Mother called from downstairs, "where's the water you're supposed to get? Must I do everything myself? If you children don't start minding me the Americans will be the least of your problems."
"See, I told you." Mark rushed off to fill bottles with water.
Helga took Anna by the arm and helped her stand. Anna leaned on her older sister. "I'm dizzy, Helga. And I'm so hungry. When will we ever eat again?"
"I don't know, maybe after the Americans go away". If they go away. "Here, I'll help you to the basement."
Anna started to cry. "I'm sorry. I know this isn't the way a German girl is supposed to act. I can't help it. I feel so weak."
Helga continued to support Anna as they shuffled out of their room. Helga wished she had someone to support her. She didn't feel any better than her little sister. They met their mother by the door leading down into the basement.
"It is about time! Helga, where are the blankets I told you to get? Anna, stop that crying. We have no time for such behavior."
"Mother, she's sick. She can't help it. Let me get her downstairs and I'll come back for the blankets."
The boom of artillery shook the whole house.
"Never mind," Mother said. "I'll just have to get them myself. I wish you two could be more dependable."
Exhausted and hungry, Helga did the unspeakable; she talked back to her mother. "If we hadn't spent most the week loading wagons with stuff from the spa maybe we'd be more dependable. We're tired, Mother. We've never been so tired and hungry. How much more do you think we can take?"
Mother's face turned crimson with anger. Still holding on to her sister's arm, Helga blanched as if expecting a blow.
It never came. Mother's face softened. "I know, I've demanded a lot from all of you." The house shook again from the thunder of the advancing artillery. Anna cried out. "But there's no choice. We are Germans. Germans have to be strong, no matter what happens now. Germany is dying, but I will not let my family die with her. So please, Helga, you must stay strong for me. We have to hold on a little longer. It is our only chance of surviving this storm. Now help Anna down the steps then come back up and help me. Once we're all down there maybe we can eat something."
Helga did as ordered, this time without argument. She had always been in awe of her mother, a woman of endless strength and courage. All her short life she'd wished, hoped, someday to be just like her.
A deafening blast shook the whole world. The Americans were close. How had it come to this? Mother and Helga, arms laden with quilts and blankets, descended the steps into the dark basement. Mark followed carrying the last two water bottles. The rest of the children and two nannies were huddled together in a corner, shivering with fear.
Another loud blast. Somewhere upstairs a window shattered. The Americans were here. The end of Germany was at hand. Only one question remained, could the Reiter family survive Germany's death throes?