“WHY DID YOU slam that door? Do you want to bring the Nazi’s?” Sister Anastasia called hoarsely. She sounded frightened and her look communicated itself to the small boy.
Hans’s Gerber’s terrified eyes looked into the Sister Anastasia’s and remorse radiated from his small frame. The beginnings of tears clouded his eyes.
Her forehead pinched in her frown, the Sister put a finger to her mouth as Hans moved toward her for the safety of her touch.
Sister Anastasia looked at Hans’ older sister. “Greta, run quietly to the main court and see if Hans has drawn attention.”
The Sister crouched in the dark corner of the small stone room, her black habit flowing around her, while she held two shivering eleven-year-olds in either arm and prepared to encompass six-year-old Hans.
Another girl and boy, nine-year-old Marta and thirteen year old Rikard sat on either side of the nun, on a wall projection of cold stone.
The older girl, clothed only in the short dark blue uniform skirt and white blouse of the abbey, flat shoes and the wrap hat typical of the order, took off without a word. She kept to the shadows and moved like a wisp. She had no training in stealth, but light and agile as a fairy, she made as little noise.
At fourteen, Greta had had to shoulder much responsibility for a novice. Too much, Sister Anastasia thought sadly, and like me, she hardly smiles any more.
The German takeover of Austria, the so-called Anschluss in March 1938, fused Austria into the larger German state. It did not happen smoothly. Many landed gentry at first bucked the tide of the ruling National Socialist Party, but they had learned. Now they feared that if they disagreed with Hitler’s apparent design, retribution would follow. It had come; far worse than they could have imagined.
He’d brought the aristocracy down. Those who wouldn’t play along were brutally swept away. The Brown Shirts were mob mentality personified. Paul von Hindenberg, ailing president of the German state had given in to Adolf Hitler in January 1933, and begrudged him the title of Chancellor. Eventually Hindenberg signed the Enabling Act. When he died in 1934, Hitler quickly consolidated the offices of Chancellor and President into one office. This move gave him control of the Reichstag and the military.
Now, in 1938, people were being hounded to choose, basically to live and work for Hitler, or for imprisonment, impressment or flight from their native country. The other choice wasn’t a choice at all, but a sentence to oblivion.
The Abbey of St. Stanislaus stood on a high place, a foothill of the western Bavarian Alps, which became the Swiss Alps at some difficult and nebulous point high and deep in the mountains.
Two days before, his children stood quietly and fearfully as Karl Gerber disappeared into a long, black sedan. A look by his father galvanized Rikard into motion as soon as the car began to drive quickly away.
As previously instructed, he ran to get Leon Richter, a family friend. Richter, old, crippled and an unlikely conscript - thus relatively untouchable, although he too had air experience - hobbled over to the Gerber household and had them pack for a journey.
“Hurry, and quiet,” he said to them in the main salon of the great house as he inspected what they had brought. “You must leave. The SS will be here later today to take you to a camp. You would not like it there. Your chance is over the mountains.”
He brought them to the abbey.
The Mother Superior, woman of God and no friend to the current regime appointed Sister Anastasia to get the children into Switzerland.
“You are young and athletic,” she said. “You know the mountains. It is the wrong season of the year to try a passage, but you must. You will leave this evening, no later. Soon they will search for you. As soon as vespers are over, change into street clothes and take your charges and may God bless you.”
Greta’s mother Anna died six years before from childbirth fever after delivering Hans. Karl Gerber, a retired Airline pilot, had been summarily impressed into the Luftwaffe and taken away. Sister Anastasia now had charge of the remaining six young members of the Gerber family.
A long, dangerous trek faced them, but first they must get away from the abbey. The SS had set up a border patrol in Freidrichshafen and had taken over the hamlet of Berchesgaden, the town below. From there, SS police scoured the surrounding territory to discover any disloyalty amongst the population. They were enthusiastic, hardened and exceptionally thorough in their searches.
Greta rounded a corner. Coming toward her she saw two big uniformed SS. They noticed her. Quickly she put her hands together and looked downward. Her lips began a rosary and with her heart in her throat, she kept a measured step. The officers approached and stopped her.
“Fraulein, we are looking for a family with several kindern namst Gerber. Have you seen them?”
Not trusting herself to speak, she shook her head.
“You are certain of this, Fraulein?”
Again she shook her head. She removed a small bible from her pocket and put her hand on it and shook her head a third time.
“Vow of silence,” the other officer said. The first one grunted.
“We heard a door slam. Did you slam a door, Fraulein?”
“It wouldn’t bother you if we took a look, would it?” They looked at her searchingly. She shrugged.
“We have no time for this, Conrad. She’s telling the truth or she’s a very good liar. Nuns don’t lie, do they? Let’s get back. Our search parties will be here in zehn minuten. They will find the fugitives.”
“Ja.” They turned and retreated. Greta stood there, her breath ragged as perspiration formed around her lower lip and in the creases of her forehead. She forced herself to continue forward. To turn now would give her away. She must get back to the little group, but…
Yes, they turned to look back. Convinced, they continued on. When they turned the corner, Greta came upon a doorway into another part of the abbey and turned in. Barely breathing, she stayed out of sight under the archway and watched nervously until certain the Germans had gone back to their group. Then she ran as fast as she could to where her brothers and sisters hid.
She burst in on them and in a wild whisper, she said, “We must leave now! The search parties will be here in minutes and they know we’re here.”
Sister Anastasia, with a calm she didn’t feel, stood now and said, “Gather your things and come, children. Quickly! Be silent.”
She led them to a small, heavy wooden doorway with iron hinges. She produced a heavy iron key and unlocked the door. It creaked when opened. The children went in. The way smelled of dampness. Sister Anastasia pulled the door shut and locked it from the inside. A long set of steps led downward. A sputtering torch rested in a wall socket a couple of steps inside.
She grabbed it and called to them. “Come children. Be careful. The steps are slippery.”
They made their way with care to a landing. Inside an alcove in the damp wall they found clothing and heavy jackets. Stacked against a wall they saw seven pairs of snowshoes. Removing her habit and instructing Greta to do the same, she dressed rapidly.
Without losing precious time, Sister Anastasia told the party to dress warmly and for each to grab and tie to their backpacks one pair of snowshoes. Using leather thongs, she tied Hans’ snowshoes to her backpack along with hers. Then she led the frightened party lower yet. Water glistened as it ran down the gray of the stone walls. At another small door like the one they came through she called for silence.
She carefully unbolted the door and opened it a crack. A cold wind searched out the party and, although now dressed warmly, an involuntary shiver went through them. This door made no noise. The smell of recent oiling told Greta that someone had preceded them to help make their way safe.
The sister gazed outward for a full minute. Darkness had come. Good, she thought. She gave last instructions.
“Greta, take the rear and keep a good watch. Children, from now on, no talking, no crying, no noise at all. Do you understand?”
They all nodded. She bent down to Hans. “Hans, it is very important for you to be as quiet as you can be. If you slip, if you fall, do not cry. You must be a man now. Can you be a man like your older brothers?”
Hans started to whimper, but swallowed it with his fear. He nodded his little head. “I will be quiet like the church mouse,” he said. Sister Anastasia smiled at Hans and he returned it like a brave scout.
“Now we must go.”
She opened the door and went out into the October night. Once outside Greta closed it. Soon someone would follow to bolt it again. She walked slowly, looking in all directions. There were many who lived in the town who knew the abbey and its sympathies.
Attached to poles and trees the Nazi’s had attached flyers that told the townspeople they could earn a bounty by reporting the whereabouts of fugitives. Times were not good and dichotomies existed everywhere.
Someone could be out there. Their safety now required silence, slow movement, quick stops and breathless waiting before moving on.
Over the next two hours they worked their way along an old trail, keeping to ravines and little valleys. Suddenly a gunshot reverberated against the hills, echoing back and forth before dying out.
The fugitives instinctively dropped to the ground and lay there in terror. The shot did not repeat and in a few minutes, Sister Anastasia decided they had to go on. She waved the children back as she crawled to a ridge and peered over it with just her head showing.
Moving back to her group, she said, “I see nothing. We must take the chance that a hunter has found what he needed. Come, I know a place. We will be safe for the night in another hour.”
She knew she had lied and she would ask God’s forgiveness later when alone, but she believed it important to her charges that they not feel the constant fear that saps the body’s energy.
They followed her slowly. Hans’ mittened hand held Greta’s. He hadn’t said a word for three hours. Greta knew what the boy felt. She felt it too, and she felt justifiably proud of her youngest brother. She squeezed his hand. He returned it and looked up at her and she smiled at him.
In the deep night they came across a hunter’s hut. Sister Anastasia hadn’t been there since before she got the call to God, but she remembered it from the one hunting trip her father took her on when she turned twelve. The food they carried had been split out to the various backpacks so that they all had staple. Each had an ice pick and snowshoes, but no rope.
“We have blankets and we will be warm enough, but we must not have a fire. It is too dangerous. We are at the base of the mountains now and we will start climbing tomorrow. We must leave here before first light. By the time it is light enough for us; it will be light enough for a watcher. I know of a pass that is difficult and dangerous, but it is not watched. We can make it. I am sure of it,” she said.
“Now we must eat and tend to our bodily needs. Press closely together for warmth tonight. We will need all our strength tomorrow. I will say a special prayer for you tonight and if you remember it, it will give you the courage to leave this oppressed land and again find freedom.”
“I want my Papa,” Hans finally spoke after so many hours of silence, and then he cried softly into Greta’s chest.
Greta held her brother tightly and said, “Papa will find us, Hans.” Her conviction rang like a bell and even Sister Anastasia, who had many sad and awful thoughts within her, believed her. Yes, she thought, we will make it, and their father will find them.
They ate cold food and it satisfied them. Exhausted, when they slept that night, they slept without dreams. They’d made one dangerous passage already. Tomorrow they would face another, this time from nature. It would not be easy.
Chapter II next week