I had a friend. When I was eight years old, I had a friend. Her name was Anni. Anni and I both had long braids and wore aprons to school to keep our dresses clean. We sat together in the same class.
Anni’s parents had a small farm with two goats, a cow, and some chickens. Anni taught me how to milk. I didn’t like milking the goats—they kicked a lot. The cow was less nervous, more docile. Anni’s father also mowed a ﬁeld of hay with his scythe; my friend and I helped turn the hay so it would dry in the sun. Our reward was a ride on top of the wooden hay wagon behind the team of horses that belonged to Anni’s neighbors. I can still smell the fresh hay and feel the soft, cushioned ride high on the wagon. We sang, riding on that load of hay. The world and life were good.
We also helped harvest potatoes. We walked behind Anni’s father with his horse-drawn plow and picked up the potatoes. After we had put them into sacks, we would build a ﬁre and roast potatoes, a delicious end to a day of hard work.
My younger sister also had a friend, Jutta. The four of us walked to and from school together, played tag at recess, and hide-and-seek after school. We lived in Ellrich, a small village at the edge of the Harz Mountains, and together explored the hills and valleys around us.
A change came over our lives. Our joy in each other’s company was darkened by fear, by forces we did not understand. Jutta was the ﬁrst to leave. She told us her parents did not want her to play with Jews. We were taken aback, and our own parents’ explanation did not satisfy our need to understand.
Then our other friends abandoned us one-by-one until only Anni was left. By this time, my sister and I understood what was happening. We met with stone-throwing and name-calling every day. Our teachers no longer greeted us or acknowledged our presence. Anni’s father had joined the Nazi party, but her mother would not forbid Anni to play with me.
One day during recess, a bunch of boys kept taunting Anni by calling her “Juden freund.” My family discussed this at the dinner table, and we decided it was too dangerous for Anni to continue to play with me. If her father’s Nazi party colleagues found out that his daughter was playing with a Jew, he would be severely punished. Her mother was also exposed to danger by letting me visit her home. I wrote Anni a letter, the hardest letter I have had to write in my entire life. I told her what my family had decided.
I can no longer talk or play with you, but I will be your friend and love you all my life.
I slipped this little, folded note to her at school. She read it during recess, and I could see her wipe her eyes with the back of her hand. I did not dare look at her the rest of the day because I, too, was ready to cry. The next few mornings on our way to school, Helga and I made a detour. We did not see Anni until we reached the schoolyard where every morning we had to stand in a circle and salute the Nazi ﬂag. Following that, we all had to sing the Horst Wessel Nazi anthem Die Fahne hoch. I avoided this by hiding my mouth in my apron rufﬂes. When I looked up at the end of that song, Anni’s eyes met mine with longing, love, and sadness.
I left the German village soon after and never saw Anni again. I did not dare write to her and knew that she did not know where I was. After the war, the village was in the Russian Zone, and communications were difﬁcult. I did hear that Anni’s ﬁancé was killed ﬁghting on the Eastern front with the German army. She moved from the village of our childhood, and I do not know what her life experiences have been. I do know that my love and friendship for her, my admiration and respect for her loyalty and courage in the face of Nazi pressures, are unaltered.
I had a friend. I had a friend when I was eight years old.
Excerpt from “Creeping Evil,” What I Have to Tell by Renate G. Justin, MD.
Available at renategjustinmd.com
Tattered Cover, Denver Book Bar, Boulder Books. Ole Firehouse Books.