A German Boy
Freddy’s world, nestled in the lush foothills of Germany’s Black Forest, was collapsing around him.
The signs were subtle at first: a slight from a classmate, a sneering glance across the neighborhood pool, as if to say, Stay on your own side. Then the noxious changes in the air became too blatant to ignore, even for a rambunctious boy focused mostly on cars and girls. There were the venomous speeches spewing from loudspeakers in Freiburg’s sun-splashed town square. The laws establishing Germany’s “Aryans” as supreme. The mandatory salutes, the fervent shouts of “Heil Hitler!” from the boys of the Hitler Youth, the red-and-black flags emblazoned with the crooked arms of the Nazi swastika fluttering from balconies across the city. It was hard for Freddy—“Fritz,” as everyone called the eleven-year-old—to look away. A place that had once seemed tolerant, even welcoming, was growing ever more menacing for his family and the other Jews of Freiburg, a tiny minority of scarcely a thousand scattered throughout the largely Catholic city.
One of Freddy’s best pals in town had already fled the country for Switzerland with his family. The book burnings and Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses had just begun in April of 1933, and his friend’s father didn’t want to wait to see what would come next; Freddy’s boyhood playmate was gone in a matter of weeks. Other Jewish families were leaving as well. No one knew where this would all lead, or how much worse it might get.
Freddy’s father assured him and his three siblings, again and again, that things would be okay for them. Heinrich Mayer was a decorated veteran of the Great War, after all, and he clung to his Iron Cross medal as a bulwark against anyone who might question his German patriotism. The cross, bestowed by the Kaiser two decades earlier for Heinrich’s valor in World War I, became his shield. “They’ll never come for me,” Heinrich would say. “I was a Frontkaempfer”—a German combat soldier. “Nothing is going to happen to us.”
The “gathering storm,” as Winston Churchill later described the dark forces at work in prewar Europe, was already beginning to breach Germany. Heinrich, a dapper dresser with a bushy mustache and thin, round spectacles, spent his days focused on the family hardware business, keeping his head down and wishing the storm away. He wasn’t about to let outsize fears lead him to toss away everything that he—and his father before him—had built over the better part of a century in Freiburg, in his home country of Germany.
Freddy’s mother, Hilda, who kept the books for the hardware business, wasn’t nearly so confident. They were Jews, after all, and Germany had a long and ugly history of turning against its Jews. They wouldn’t get any preferential treatment, Iron Cross or not, she warned Heinrich. In Hitler’s eyes, she feared, they would always be Jews first: inferior, subhuman. She was anxious and fretful, looking for a way out of a place that was turning increasingly hostile. Freddy could hear the fear in her voice. But that was a mother’s job, wasn’t it? To worry about her family. Freddy knew his father would protect them. That was a father’s job.
Freddy himself was not the nervous type, but still, it was hard not to worry about the changes in the air. He was a scrapper, a mischievous boy who spoke with his fists. He wouldn’t be pushed around. His ever-present smile—so wide that it seemed his ears might snap off from the strain—belied a fighter’s spirit. One day a classmate on the playground called him “a stinking Jude,” a phrase now heard with chilling regularity in the hills of Freiburg. The other Jewish kids would simply look away when the epithet was used. Not Freddy. Short but stocky, with lightning-quick hands, he slugged the name caller on the chin and readied himself for a round of fisticuffs as the boy hit the ground. A teacher sent Freddy to see the dean—a big, hulking Nazi official named Friedrich Ludin, who would walk through the hallways in his German uniform. Freddy braced for his punishment. “He called me a stinking Jew. I didn’t like that,” he explained matter-of-factly. Ludin eyed the boy. “I can understand that,” he answered finally. Much to Freddy’s surprise, the dean sent him back to class without even a reprimand. Nobody in class dared talk to him that way again.
Freiburg hadn’t always been so hostile to its Jews. Freddy remembered a time—not that long ago, it seemed—when the city, in the southwestern German state of Baden, hugging the French and Swiss borders, was a place that seemed to have accepted his people as its own.