Sitting on Top of the World The first thing nine year old Kurt heard on the cool Tuesday morning of October 22, 1940 was Ilse whispering, “Kurt wake up.” With one eye partially open, a fuzzy vision of Kurt’s grandfather appeared at the foot of the couch Kurt slept on. It took an anxious Ilse one final “Kurt!” before her sleepy son sat up in bed.

“Good morning Herr Schteckl. Are you home from the front so soon?” yawned Kurt. “I told Fritz my family is going to the rabbi’s house for Succoth. When I get back, I will ask Opa if we can play.”

“Kurt, that is not Herr Schteckl,” said Isack. He inched closer to his grandson.

Ilse followed her father and literally draped herself around her son, until Kurt pushed at his mother.

“Mutti, please stop squeezing my hand so hard, you’re hurting me.” Kurt looked at his mother’s trembling hand while the younger of the two soldiers reached into his pocket for his written orders. He read, “You have 30 minutes before we leave. You can each bring…”

“Leave? What do you mean leave? This is our home. Where are we going?” asked a forceful Isack. There was no answer from the young member of the Wermacht or the salt and peppered haired soldier who sniffed the air in an effort to determine what had been planned for breakfast. “I want to show you something,” said Isack. The undeterred salesman reached into the top drawer of his library and spoke with a self assured voice.

“Look, Look,” pressed Isack. “This is me in my uniform. I am in the center of these other wounded German veterans.” (Photo) Isack looked at the blank faces of the men and then to Ilse and Kurt. “Trust me. That’s me. I’m just older now,” smiled Isack. He placed the picture over his chest. “I am a veteran like you. I fought. I killed. I was shot at. I was gassed. I did it all for Germany and I would proudly do it again.” He took a final step forward. “You see I am a German.”

Kurt listened in amazement. He had not known that his grandfather, who would be 66 years old in eight days, had fought in World War I. Kurt wanted to ask how his grandfather had been wounded and a thousand other questions, but he was content to look at the picture that was now nervously slapping at the side of his Isack’s leg. While the older soldier drifted towards the stale black bread, an undeterred Isack approached the younger soldier.

“What is your last name friend?”

“Groner,” answered the 18 year old member of the Wermacht.

Isack‘s confidence soared. He placed the photo in the soldier’s hand.

“I sent this to my wife while I was hospitalized.” Isack paused dramatically. “You know, I served with a Groner from Berlin. He was about six feet tall, blond hair, just like you. He was very good with a rifle. Where is your family from young man?”

The young soldier began to answer until the hungry soldier approached. He wiped away crumbs from his filthy uniform. “You have 30 minutes before we leave. You can bring one suitcase each, no more than 50 kilos in weight and only 100 Reichsmarks. And yes, bring food and water for three days.”

Kurt pulled on his mother’s arm and whispered, “Where are we going Mutti?”

The unmoved soldier answered, “The bahnhof-platz.”

The announcement coincided with Sophie shuffling past the startled soldiers. She exclaimed, “What do you mean the bahnhof? Why would we want to go to the train station? Besides, we have no money for the train.”

The lack of a response brought an angry look from Sophie. She glared at her wide eyed husband. Ilse quickly pulled her mother into the bedroom, while Isack did his best to distract the soldiers. “Young men please. I want to show you something else,” said Isack. He rummaged through the drawers of his library mumbling, “It’s here, I know it” until he pulled out a faded blue box. “Look at these my friends,” said Isack. He pulled out his service medals and placed them over his heart. “I am a German! I fought for Germany! I bled for Germany! I am a German! We are all Germans! Yes?”

Ilse stifled her tears, while a degraded Isack put his arms to his sides. He straightened his back and made sure that his fingers pointed with military style precision to the ground, while he sang a familiar marching song of soldiers going off to battle in World War I:

“We, are united, one people, one army.

In love and loyalty we get along.

We stand together! All differences disappear

Wherever they had been;

Whether of high or low birth, whether Jew or Christian,

There is only one people in our land!

We fight together for the Kaiser and the Reich.”

Isack marched towards the younger soldier, whose eyes he never stopped staring at. The soldier looked down and shuffled his black booted feet, until the older member of the Wermacht walked between Isack and his uncomfortable companion. “You have 30 minutes. Whether you bring anything is not a concern for me.”
Kurt waited for his grandfather to somehow fix the problem. But, the moment had clearly passed. Instead he was left to watch Isack placed his medals back into the drawer of his library.

Ilse leaned over to Kurt. “Put on both sets of clothes. Your pants, underwear and socks. All of it.”

“I cannot wear all of these clothes Mutti. Why do….”
Isack’s right foot crashed to the floor with such force that three Hanukah candles rolled off the library and onto the floor near Kurt’s sockless feet. Kurt felt the stares of the soldiers while his mother buttoned his second shirt and tied his only pair of shoes; which had been repaired with pieces of thick paper. The senior member of the Wehrmacht elbowed the younger soldier. “He looks like an onion with all those layers!” Once again, the young soldier shifted his feet and looked at some non-existent point of interest on the floor.

While the seconds of this insane moment literally ticked away, Isack and Ilse asked themselves, “Should I take photos? Bed linen, soap, pots, books? If they are taking us to Madagascar should we bring warm weather clothes?”

While the packing continued, Kurt watched his seated grandmother slowly rocking from side to side. Over the recent months, Sophie’s frequent bizarre behavior that left her screaming during rain storms, usually left Kurt unconcerned. But somehow this was different. “Mutti,” whispered a pointing Kurt. Ilse put one hand on her hip and the other over her mouth. “Mutti please,” whispered an anxious Kurt again before Ilse went into her parent’s room.

“Where are we going Ilse?”

“I don’t know Mutti.”

“Why are we going Ilse?

“I don’t know Mutti.”

“Then you should contact Heinrich.”

“But Mutti, Onkel Heinrich is in America.”

“Just do as I say Ilse. Contact Heinrich, and tell him Mutti Sophie wants to know what is happening. Trust me Ilse, he will know. Promise me you will contact him.”

She buttoned the last button on her mother’s white blouse that she had made for her birthday. “I promise Mutti.”

Kurt remained seated on the couch listening to his mother, until he heard the slamming front door to the apartment building. The soldiers remained motionless. Gustav Schroeder’s deep voice called out. “Isack when are you and Kurt coming for a haircut? Last night they had Kurt’s favorite show, the Yellow Wagon on the radio.” His familiar throaty laughs that covered his footsteps were replaced by mock anger. “I had 10 customers waiting, but I told them no. Isack and Kurt go first. You just can’t…”

The barber’s laughter abruptly ended with the soldiers’ appearance at the Ettlinger door. Isack moved his head from side to side, until he caught Gustav’s eyes. No words were necessary. The barber paused for a moment, before his arthritic knees allowed him to limp up the two flights of stairs.

The older soldier looked at his pocket watch as Gustav’s door slammed shut. “Thirty minutes are up. Let’s go.” Groner ran to the apartment building door ahead of the line of Ettlingers and stood there as the cool fall air thankfully washed over him. The strange moment of civility was quickly lost. “Move your ass Groner!” screamed one-half of the military escort. “They know how to open a door!”

Isack placed Sophie’s hand onto the belt of his coat and carried both of their bags out of the building, while Kurt followed through the tiny opening of the closing door. The impatient civilian truck driver smirked as he started up the engine. Kurt could not take his eyes off its cargo, nine adults and one child that were partially hidden by the black cloud of foul smelling fumes.

“Mutti, I thought it was just us. Are they taking everyone?” Isack grabbed Kurt at the shoulder and whispered. “No one speaks but me. Do you understand Kurt?” Kurt nodded “Yes” as the fumes choked him. When only the last wisps remained, Kurt saw Fritz Schuckle(2 dots over the U), along with his brother and sister running down the steps of their next door apartment. Fritz joined the growing crowd and yelled, “Where are you going Kurt? We are supposed to go to the schloss.”

Kurt let go of the handle to his bag and took a few steps towards Fritz, until his path was blocked by Ilse.

“What is going on here?” yelled Fritz’s mother who joined the growing crowd. Fritz and his siblings ran to their bewildered mother who pushed them behind her with a sweeping motion of her arms. “Ilse, what’s happening?” cried out Frau Schuckle.

Ilse put her fingers to her lips and mouthed “No” to her friend as a neatly attired member of the Gestapo walked through the parting crowd. “This is not any of your business. Stand back.” Frau Schuckle swung her arms again and captured her children who tried to pass in front of her. Her voice cracked. “Please… can you tell me what is happening to my friend?” Ilse put her fingers to her lips a second time as Isack pulled himself onto the truck that now held 12 people. Frau Schuckle tried again to call out to her friend, but the words just trailed off. “Ilse I don’t understand…”

In reality, Frau Schuckle and everyone else on the narrow street knew exactly what was happening. But for Kurt, it was not until he saw Frau Schuckle crying on the street and a distraught Gustav hanging out the window of his apartment, did it make some sense. He was nine years old and had seen 60,000 Nazis marching down the Kaiserstrasse in 1936. He had witnessed the destructiveness of Krystallnacht in 1938 by the hated Nazi Brownshirts and watched the waving Nazi Flags in the Hitler Platz. But his grandfather had always told him not to worry, because they were Germans and for Kurt, that had always been good enough. The Yiddish speaking prisoner standing next to him on the truck grumbled the obvious truth, “We have Hitler’s Nazis to thank for this day.”

When the truck finally pulled away Fritz, dressed in his uniform of black lederhosen, dark shirt and distinctive Hitler Youth silver belt buckle ran into the middle of the street and screamed, “Kurt.” By the end of October 22, 1940 when the truth filled the streets of Karlsruhe, the Schuckles learned they had witnessed one tiny part of the mass expulsion of 945 Jews from Karlsruhe.