First Words-Part IV

It will be published in several parts over the course of several days.


Lukas Becker walked with his head held high and his shoulders back, trying his best to not seem skittish and nervous, which is how he actually felt. He shifted the rucksack on his shoulders, hoping he wasn’t stopped or questioned, and could just be accepted as a student with a pack on his back, returning from an approved and appropriate gathering of young men, and headed toward home for a family meal. Perhaps he was headed to have a meal with a young woman’s family as a date. He was, after all, a tall, strong specimen of a German man. He looked very much ‘the ideal,’ a phrase that had become part of the common lexicon, and it sickened Lukas to think about what his grandfather had told him and how he looked the way this monster of a man and his minions thought all men should look. Lukas sometimes wished he could be shorter, darker, walk with a limp, wear glasses, anything that would draw attention to how unlike ‘the ideal’ he could be, but his grandfather had told him to use his good looks and his ability to fit into ‘the ideal.’ So that’s what Lukas did. In reality, he wasn’t going back to the family bakery to sit down to a meal with them after a day meeting with other similar looking young men training for what Lukas knew was eventual war he didn’t believe in. He was headed to a clandestine resistance meeting; the first one he’d attend without his parents and sisters and grandfather, and his rucksack was filled not with books or athletic gear, but loaves of bread from his family’s bakery. One of the other members at this meeting was a maid at the commandant’s residence at Dachau, and she’d smuggle the donated bread in to be distributed to at least a fraction of the hungry captives within that awful place. The authorities assured the people it was a harmless work camp, but Ilsa saw the people inside each day she went to work, and Karl had an uncle taken away from his family to Dachau for openly opposing a Nazi policy in his duties as a college professor of literature. Lukas ached to do more than be a day old bread smuggler, but the older and wiser sages in his life assured him that making bolder moves would put his own life in danger…like Karl’s uncle. They would do as much good as they could while remaining safe to continue doing as much good as they could. He arrived safely at the Holtzafel family’s doorstep and rang the bell. Herr Holtzafel opened the door to Lukas and greeted him with a gregarious, booming voice. “Good evening, young Herr Becker! Please do come in!” As the door closed behind him, Herr Holtzafel became more serious but no less welcoming. “Could you stay for dinner, Lukas? Klara has made enough to feed most of the countryside and there’s much to talk about. A new family will be coming this evening and I hoped someone from all the families could meet them. I know your folks are hanging back to avoid suspicions, but…could you stay?”

“Yes, I’d like to stay, but I don’t want Mama and Papa to worry that I’m not home when they expect me. May I call them?”

“Of course. But be sure you’re staying because that meddling Herr Holtzafel and his wife want to introduce you to a pretty girl. You know…they’ll know.”

“Yes, Sir,” Lukas replied. He smiled at the man risking his home and family and probably life to shelter a meeting of resisters, but it was a sad smile. He wished that he didn’t have to speak in code to his parents on the phone…just in case…and he wished Herr Holtzafel was serious about introducing him to a pretty girl. Not only because that would mean the circumstances surrounding them in political and practical German life would be different and less grave, but because it would mean Lukas wouldn’t be afraid to show anyone that his words had appeared. He hid them from even his own family, terrified to get them in trouble as well as getting in trouble himself. They were in English. And they really didn’t make much sense. He’d translated them himself from a book in the school library, still leftover from when the higher school taught English: ‘Hey you dropped your phone.’ Part of him felt he’d made a translation error, because a phone wasn’t something that could be dropped. No one would pick it up. Phones were attached to walls or sitting heavily on table tops. He thought maybe it meant you knocked your phone down (off the wall or the table), but he looked at the letters and it was definitely ‘dropped.’ He longed to ask someone who knew English for clarification, but he didn’t know for sure who could be trusted. No one inside Herr Holtzafel’s house or his own family was fluent in English and Lukas had become much too wary to venture outside that circle with a discussion of any more depth than talking about the weather, in order to protect himself and his family…so they could continue trying to protect other people. If he asked for a more precise English translation, whoever he asked would certainly inquire why he was asking, and he couldn’t answer. He knew wanting to translate English would seem suspicious at best and traitorous at worst and he knew having English words appear on his skin, indicating that his soul mate spoke to him FIRST in English at this point in German life would be disastrous for him. He spent his late nights and early mornings baking bread in his family bakery and afternoon meeting with their neighbors. Herr Holtzafel had told him the new family coming were relatives of Ilsa’s, and had come south without telling their own contacts where they were moving so no one could trace their relocation. Lukas wondered if they were Jewish. Or Romani. Or if one of them were vocal about how hateful and illogical the Nazi party’s platform and policies were. He picked up the receiver in the Holtzafel parlor and dialed the first number to call his parents’ home, and while the rotary turned back around from ‘8,’ the Holtzafels welcomed the new family inside. They were a couple, about Lukas’s parents’ ages and two teenage girls, obviously their daughters. The shorter of the two was so beautiful, Lukas lost all feeling in his fingers and the receiver he was holding clattered loudly to the table top. She stepped forward and handed it back to him with a friendly smile, but without saying a word.

“Thank you,” Lukas bashfully whispered. Her face lifted into an enormous, elated, open-mouthed grin. Still without saying a word, she practically danced around to her parents and sister and even their new acquaintances, emphatically showing all of them the words imprinted on her wrist: ‘Thank you.’ Finally, she showed Lukas. Embarrassed, he blushed and turned his eyes to his bouncing right knee. “Wow, Herr Holtzafel really did introduce me to a pretty girl,” he mumbled. The girl lifted his chin, now frowning. “I…” Lukas looked at her dropped expression and wondered what he’d already done to disappoint her. He’d called her pretty. Even if she’d heard the words under his breath, he felt surely she wouldn’t be offended by them.

“Melinda can only understand you if you look at her. She’s deaf,” her father said. “You have to look at her when you speak so she can read your lips. She understood, ‘Thank you.’ But then you looked away from her. I’m Otto Vogelsang. This is my wife, Katrina and my daughters…Melinda and Anna. And you are…my Melinda’s soul mate. I’m glad to meet you here…” Herr Vogelsang waited for Lukas to introduce himself, but the boy was stunned to stillness by the events unfolding before him.

“This is Lukas Becker, the baker’s oldest son. A strong nineteen, just out of the higher school. Bright boy, excellent baker. And…on the right side of history. He is a good young man, Otto. Lukas, do you have your words on your skin? Your Mama and Papa have never said that…” Herr Holtzafel asked.

“They are English words. And I feared…it would be an English girl and…” Lukas’s hands shook as he nervously rolled up his sleeve.

“When did they appear, Lukas?” Frau Holtzafel asked.

“Last year. I know what they say. I looked at school before…before the English books were removed. ‘Hey you dropped your phone.’ I thought they made no sense. I thought the girl who said them would be English. But…Melinda…” He nodded at the young lady he was now certain was his soul mate so she acknowledged him with a sober smile. “Melinda said this phrase to me without using words. I don’t know why it shows up in English, but I was afraid to… And my response to her is…on her skin.”

Melinda began furiously moving her hands, looking to her family, but unable to stop her anxious and excited eyes from repeatedly darting back to Lukas’s. “Melinda doesn’t speak because she can’t hear, but she has learned a language of gestures from a private tutor when we felt safe still in Berlin before…those people began to rule. And her lessons were in American sign language. She…did…tell you in a form of English…perhaps…that you dropped your phone,” Melinda’s mother said, speaking for her daughter, who had begun to cry.

“You can marry her! You can get visas to go to America!” Anna cried to Lukas and held her sister tightly. They were both crying. Herr and Frau Vogelsang tried to calm their daughters and quickly explained their concerns for Melinda to Lukas. They had already heard rumors that made them flee Berlin to the south, hoping to escape the fate of many the Nazis considered unfit or less than. Melinda couldn’t hide her deafness, and they weren’t sure which of their former neighbors and friends would even consider protecting her. And the rumors were gruesome and horrifying. Forced institutionalization. Sterilization. They’d even heard some with obvious handicaps were being sent to the internment camps like Dachau.

Lukas looked to the girl he knew was the love of his life and asked a simple question. “Could you teach me? To understand you when you speak with your hands?” She nodded and wiped a tear from her cheek. Lukas restarted dialing his parents. “Papa? Yes, I am very well, Papa,” he said when his father answered the phone. He reached out to take Melinda’s hand and ran the pad of his thumb over the telling words on her wrist. “I will stay here at the Holtzafel’s for dinner this evening, Papa. You know what matchmakers they fancy themselves, and they’ve outdone themselves this time. I’ve…I’ve met the girl I’m going to marry.”

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