IN THE DAYS following the Germany’s annexation of Austria, many landed families found their distaste of the National Socialists turn to fear, as the laws of the land were warped to fit the new Fuhrer’s preconceived notion of his thousand year Reich. Many Germans were willing to march to Hitler’s goose step, seeing in it a way to improve their lot, many times at the expense of fellow Germans and Austrians. A dark pall descended over Europe as Der Fuhrer consolidated his political position.
The Gerber family had been broken up, the father impressed into the Luftwaffe and the children about to be ripped out of their happy life and thrust into a regimented camp where they would be trained as Nazi’s. Long before the father left in a black car with the SS, he decided they must flee over the German Alps into neutral Switzerland. He prepared. He contacted the Mother Superior at the nearby abbey and arranged for his family to make the attempt.
To throw off the SS, Karl Gerber thus sacrificed himself for the good of his family.
Having left St. Stanislaus Abbey as darkness descended, the six Gerber children, under the care of Sister Anastasia, managed to get deep into the foothills. The Sister, relying on years old memory found a hunter’s cabin whose location she knew. She’d been there once as a girl of twelve before she got the Call. Bone tired, they settled down for the night. The October night chill had a winter feel to it.
They could not build a fire. Smoke would advertise their presence. They ate cold food. They stoically bore conditions they had never experienced before. The youngest, Hans, had much trouble getting to sleep. Exhaustion hit them all, but at six, Hans hadn’t developed the stamina of his elder siblings and didn’t truly understand why they had to flee. He dreaded being forced into unnatural surroundings.
Sister Anastasia gave the boy to Greta and admonished her to keep him quiet; that there could be listening ears nearby, that they couldn’t count on only distance from the abbey to feel safe. She told them of dangers they would face on the morrow and said they only differed in character from what they had gone through the previous day.
They found blankets in a chest near the door. Greta took the boy lovingly under her wing and curled up with him under two old blankets. She and Hans got the lower bunk bed. The code of the hills required hunters make certain their cabin remained livable after they vacated it. Honor required it. The nun knew the cabin would be a temporary haven.
The blankets were musty and dusty and they made the twins, Helmut and Karl, sneeze. Sister Anastasia, after peering outside the cabin for a long moment, took the blankets outside and shook them violently. Dust wafted away on a small breeze. She returned the blankets to the twins.
“They won’t smell any better, children, but they shouldn’t make you sneeze again.”
“Danke, Sister Anastasia,” they said.
The two found a corner and huddled close, only their noses showing as they lay down together on a lumpy mattress, there to share the warmth of their bodies. Rikard took nine year old Marta under his wing and snuggled her in the upper bunk of the bed. Sister Anastasia got to sleep in the large rocker someone had left in the cabin years before. With her feet on a broad stool and her blanket wrapped all around, she managed to be comfortable enough.
Before she let them sleep, she made sure they took care of their bodily needs. Finally, she told them what to expect in the morning.
“We must leave before the day becomes light. We must be well up the side of the mountain behind this cabin before I can be certain we aren’t being tracked. Now sleep well, children. We have a long and difficult journey ahead. We can make it. Guten nacht, kindern. Schlaf gut.”
Sister awoke to a scratching sound outside the cabin. Carefully she brought her feet to the floor and went as quietly as possible to the cabin’s one window. The window had an interior wooden security door that covered it in the event of sudden violent storm, typical this close to mountain updrafts. She had latched it before they went to bed so no one could peer in. She wondered if she had become overcautious, but decided that extreme hazards required extreme measures.
The Sister unlatched the door very slowly and peered through the crack. Nothing. She opened it wider. Black as pitch! Suddenly she heard a low growl that became a scream. A cat. Mountain lion. Big one from the sound. She smiled through her fear. It couldn’t get in, but she saw it as a good omen. Mountain lions were leery of Man. It smelled them and it wouldn’t hang around long. It also meant no two-legged predators would be near. She closed the window’s storm door and latched it again.
The noise had waked all five of her charges. Their fear filled voices overflowed the cabin. In a firm voice she told them all was well and they should go back to sleep. To illustrate, she returned to her chair and covered up again. Hans whimpered, but Greta soothed him and the furor died quickly.
Sister Anastasia slept lightly but restfully for two more hours. Perceiving that dawn wasn’t far ahead, she got the children up. She directed the morning meal, praying over it and doling out a large portion.
“For strength,” she said. “Now, take care of your needs. We must leave in zwanzig minuten. We are leaving fall and entering winter. Dress warmly.”
The older children assisted the younger ones in practiced fashion. Sister Anastasia looked them over from head to mountain boots and pronounced them ready. She made certain their snowshoes were lashed tightly to their backpacks. They left the cabin in the first lightening of the day and trudged away. Green fields now faded in behind them in the October morning and dense forested slopes faced them.
Marta and the twins looked back longingly at the hills and again at the cabin as it diminished in the distance and then, resigned, followed along. Greta took the rear of the troupe and Hans stayed back with her. Capable girl, Sister Anastasia thought. Resilience; much needed now.
They passed a high point and descended into a little valley beside a rill. Now bright enough to see their footing without misstep, they moved confidently ahead. Forest enclosed them. They descended another two hundred meters, looking for a place to cross the small stream that had been their company. There they found a wide place where smooth, flat rocks provided stepping-stones and they leapt across it, Marta, Helmut and Karl laughing gaily.
“Children,” Sister Anastasia called sharply, “it is a beautiful day and you feel like romping, but you must save your energy for what is to come. I am sorry to say that, but you must.”
Now they began their long upward climb in earnest, leaving the pure mountain water tumbling in small falls as it disappeared behind them. The Sister called then into a group and told them to search for a sturdy stick they could use as a staff to help their walking.
“I do not wish to cause you fear, kindern,” she said, “but there are wild animals that live in these mountains. We will stay closely together and we shall use these staffs to protect ourselves, too, so choose your stick wisely.”
Hans’ eyes grew large and he pressed against Greta. He looked at his sister for comfort, but Greta chose this moment to be stern.
“Hans, we must protect each other. Do you understand?”
“Now find a strong stick and show it to me.”
Hans searched nearby and found one. Greta took it and bent it on her knee. It snapped in half.
“You see, Hans. That stick would not help you. Let me see if we can find one for you.”
Much of the forest was of pine, but a few hardy hardwoods stood nearby and Greta picked up two pieces from the ground that appeared recently blown off by wind. She tested them and gave the short one to Hans. She hefted the longer one and pronounced it good enough. The older children, with Rikard’s help, also found good staffs and soon the six continued on their way.
“Give them to me, children,” Sister Anastasia called. She removed her pack. She took her hunting knife and carefully sharpened each stake.
“Now, use them gently,” she said, “but remember, they can be a weapon if you should need.”
Moving through the trees, sometimes unable to see more than a few feet ahead, now and then sounds startled them. Once they spied a wolf and where they saw one, there would be others. Although it frightened them, no others came near. Sister Anastasia took Rikard’s staff and beat it with hers. The racket she made did not make the wolf go away, rather it seemed curious, but it kept its distance.
As the group climbed deeper it became markedly steeper…and colder. As the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so too Hans slowed them down and complained most. Greta did much to cheer him and to get his mind away from the ordeal. Only once did Sister Anastasia intervene with Hans, and that occurred at the crest of a false summit when Hans looked at an even mightier mountain than the one that had just tired him to a point of exhaustion.
“I’m tired. I want to go home,” he said, stubbornly, and he refused to go further.
“Hans,” Sister Anastasia said, “there is no going back.” She shook him gently to gain his full attention, “If you want to live, take another step…and another…and another…and don’t stop.”
Hans started to cry. The Sister enfolded him and held him and soon he quieted. When she held him out in front of her again, he wiped his tears and said, “I’m tired. I want to go home.”
“Home is the way we are going, Hans,” the Sister said. “We are going to a new place and it will be home, you will see. Now, can you be brave like your brothers and sisters?”
Hans pouted, but finally said, “Yes, Sister.”
They encountered snow at the six thousand foot level. Once on an icy slope one of the twins slipped and only quick thinking on Greta’s part stopped him from going over a precipice.
“Jam your staff through the snow pack, Helmut,” she screamed. The boy heard her and turned as he slid. He poked his sharpened stick into the icy snow and it stopped him. They waited in fright while the young boy carefully regained the path they were on. Safe again, they hugged each other and the Sister’s thanked God for sparing Helmut.
As they continued on, the mountain rounded off and with their staffs and snowshoes, they trudged slowly to its crest. Other mountains showed in the distance, and in between two of approximately the same height they saw a narrow pass. This time Sister Anastasia laughed gleefully.
She pointed. “Look, children, the pass!”
They saw a place, a thing they could grasp with their minds, a destination. A weight lifted from the little group. “Beyond that pass is Switzerland?” Rikard asked.
“Yes, Rikard. Another day and we will cross the border. We will walk another hour and in the day’s last light we will build a snow fort to sleep in. We will snuggle together and we will be warm. We have food. We have our health, and we have God. God is good and He will see us through.”
Courage to go on flooded in. They began again, lightly, this time. They made the ordeal an adventure. Hans became quiet. He kept looking ahead as if by doing so he might make the pass come closer through sheer will. Greta’s heart swelled with pride, not only for the strength she saw in the frailty of Hans, but for them all, for a leader who clearly walked a path ordained by God, to the brothers and sisters who helped one another at every turn, to sibling rivalry that had completely disappeared, and to the promise of hope and the promise of a future, a real future in which they could begin to grow again.
And in Greta’s mind she quietly held a thought she had harbored since that moment in the cabin - it seemed so long ago - when she’d held Hans and told him that Papa would find them and they would be a family again. As it was Sister Anastasia’s mission to get them to Switzerland, she made it her charge to reunite the children with their father. She saw God’s plan for her, and she gratefully accepted it.