To mark 75 years since the world celebrated the end of WW2, I’m delighted to host an excerpt from Marion Kummerow’s book, Stolen Childhood, from the collection, The Road to Liberation.
Marion Kummerow, “Stolen Childhood”
“Watch me and learn,” Laszlo whispered to Mindel, as they were hiding outside the back door of the kitchen barracks.
“What are you going to do?” Mindel whispered back, goosebumps rising on her skin. She was scared someone might see them and Laszlo looked as if he were up to no good, but she wasn’t going to let him see her fear. The other children in the group had argued she was too little to hang out with them, but he’d stuck up for her.
She looked up at him with raw adulation. He seemed so grown-up and was so courageous, he was her champion and she’d do whatever he wanted. For the past days she’d followed him around, always eager to please him and make him proud of her. She’d prove the other children wrong and show them she wasn’t too little.
Laszlo peeked around the corner of the building and then pulled her over until she could see as well. “That bucket is my goal.”
Mindel looked at the woman in the kitchen who was pulling potatoes from a large gunny sack and peeling them into a bucket – the same bucket Laszlo had pointed to.
“Those are potato peels,” she whispered back.
“And they taste really good. I’m going to get us some.”
“But that’s stealing,” Mindel said, appalled at his heinous plan.
She stared at him, her mind wandering back to her parents’ farm. One time, her mother had made a birthday cake for Israel, but everyone had only been allowed a small slice before she’d covered it and put it away for the next day. Mindel and Aron had waited until her mother walked out to milk the cows, snuck into the kitchen pantry and each grabbed a huge slice into their hands.
Out of fear of being caught red-handed, they’d crouched in the pantry and stuffed the cake into their mouths as fast as they could. Once the deed was accomplished, they snuck out and into the garden, pretending nothing had happened.
But the moment her mother saw them, her lovely face turned red and she called them out on stealing the cake. Even today, Mindel had no idea how her mother had found out, since they’d been so careful.
It had been a horrible moment when her mother had taken Mindel’s sticky hands, turned them with the palm upward and hit her with a wooden spoon. Aron hadn’t fared much better either, and both had been sent to their bedroom without dinner that day.
Mindel had never again stolen even a morsel of food from the pantry.
“Please, don’t. You’ll get in trouble. They’ll beat you,” she pleaded with Laszlo.
“Only if I get caught. And I’d rather take a beating than starve to death.”
Mindel heard his words and the truth behind them, but she wasn’t sure she agreed. In the camp people got beaten all the time for tiny misdeeds and it wasn’t with a wooden spoon, but with truncheons and whips. She’d even seen people fall down and never get up again after a beating. She didn’t want that to happen to Laszlo. He was her friend.
“See that little cubbyhole by the shelves?” Laszlo asked.
She craned her head until she saw it, and nodded.
“You’re fast and small, so you sneak inside and hide there. I’ll stand guard out here. Once the woman turns her back to you, grab as much from the bucket as you can and run back here to me. I’ll create a distraction if I need to.”
All the blood drained from her head and she suddenly felt dizzy. “You want me to steal the potato skins?”
“It’s called organizing food, not stealing. If you pass this test, I’ll make you a member of our gang.”
Mindel swallowed. She so badly wanted to be part of the gang. To belong to someone. And she was hungry. Very hungry. But stealing was wrong. Her mother would be so disappointed.
Laszlo saw her wavering and insisted, “I dare you. You can’t be with us if you’re a chickenshit.”
She hated this word. Aron had always name-called her this and worse when she hadn’t obeyed his stupid rules. She squared her shoulders and said, “I’ll do it, because I’m brave.”
Quivering with fear, she bit her lip, thinking of a way to get out of this dare. She repeated Laszlo’s words, telling herself it wasn’t really stealing – because the SS men were so mean and didn’t give them enough. But not even that helped to calm her nerves.
Laszlo nudged her forward. “Ready? Then go.”
Mindel nodded. Gathering up all her courage she crept forward, intent on pretending this was simply a game of hide and seek. Back on the farm she’d been a master, hiding in the smallest crevices without making a sound. Most of the time, her brothers would walk right by her, never knowing that she was merely inches away from them.
Suddenly, excitement pushed her fear away. The kitchen worker and those stupid SS guards would never know she was even there, and Laszlo would praise her master skills at playing hide and seek. As an added benefit she’d return with a handful of potato skins for their group of children. She gave a slow smile, encouraging herself, before she squinted her eyes, focusing on the task at hand. Silence was the most important factor, because adults tended to go more by ear than by sight where children were concerned.
She crept toward the door and waited until the woman wielding the potato peeler turned her back, then Mindel quickly slipped into the kitchen and pressed herself into the small hiding place. Barely breathing, she watched and waited until the woman picked up the tray of peeled potatoes and walked over to the stove.
Mindel wasted no time. She rushed forward, plunged her hands into the bucket, grabbed two handfuls of potato peels and ran for the doorway where Laszlo was waiting for her. She ducked out of the kitchen just as the sounds of the woman’s feet returned. Clutching her bounty to her chest, she ran with Laszlo toward another building where they’d left the other kids.
“Good job,” Laszlo said once they were sitting behind the hut, breathing hard.
Mindel smiled broadly at him and presented her spoils. “I did it.”
“Yes, you did it.” Laszlo was eyeing the potato peels and Mindel held out her hands toward him.
“You stole them, you get first dibs.”
Mindel put the food on a not-so-dirty patch of ground and ate two peels. They were slightly bitter and smelled like dirt, but tasted much better than the horrible gruel they were given for soup. Then she divided the bulk into five equal parts for each of the children in the group: Laszlo, Ruth, Fabian, Clara and herself.
“Here,” she invited them.
Almost reverently the children each took their share and chewed the unexpected treat. Once they finished eating, Laszlo grinned. “See, I told you she’s not too small.”
Fabian pouted, but Clara said, “You were right. Now let’s make her a member of the gang.”
After Laszlo nodded his approval, Ruth produced a strip of washed-out gray-brown yarn from her pocket, tied it around Mindel’s left wrist and said rather ceremoniously, “Welcome to our gang!”
Everyone shook her hand and Mindel felt herself grow a few inches with pride. The other children had accepted her as part of their group. She wasn’t alone anymore.
Later at night, she climbed into her bunk, surprised that it was empty. Apparently the two adults who’d slept there last night had found a better place and had taken the blankets with them, leaving her without one and without the warmth of two more bodies by her side.
She shivered at the thought of the upcoming night, because even though the days could be quite warm, the nights were still cold – although not as horrid as they’d been during the harsh winter.
The memory of herself cuddling with Rachel to keep warm under the threadbare blanket brought tears into her eyes and she took out Paula, kissed her dirty face, and cried as silently as she could because she didn’t want to hear the adults curse her for waking them up.
A small hand reached for her and she started. It was too dark to see who it was, but when she heard a familiar voice whisper, “Don’t cry. I’ll stay with you,” she relaxed.
“Thanks.” She smiled through her tears and eagerly nodded despite the fact that he could not see her and moved back to allow Laszlo to climb onto her bunk.
He brought a blanket with him, covered them both with it and they huddled together. She instantly felt warmer, clutching onto his arm with one hand.
“I will protect you,” he said.
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THE ROAD TO LIBERATION
Six riveting stories dedicated to celebrating the end of WWII.
From USA Today, international bestselling and award-winning authors comes a collection filled with courage, betrayal, hardships and, ultimately, victory over some of the most oppressive rulers the world has ever encountered.
By 1944, the Axis powers are fiercely holding on to their quickly shrinking territories.
The stakes are high—on both sides:
Liberators and oppressors face off in the final battles between good and evil. Only personal bravery and self-sacrifice will tip the scales when the world needs it most.
Read about a small child finding unexpected friends amidst the cruelty of the concentration camps, an Auschwitz survivor working to capture a senior member of the SS, the revolt of a domestic servant hunted by the enemy, a young Jewish girl in a desperate plan to escape the Gestapo, the chaos that confused underground resistance fighters in the Soviet Union, and the difficult lives of a British family made up of displaced children..
2020 marks 75 years since the world celebrated the end of WWII. These books will transport you across countries and continents during the final days, revealing the high price of freedom—and why it is still so necessary to “never forget”.
Stolen Childhood by Marion Kummerow
The Aftermath by Ellie Midwood
When’s Mummy coming? by Rachel Wesson
Too Many Wolves in the Local Woods by Marina Osipova
Liberation Berlin by JJ Toner
Magda’s Mark by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger