A Rifle and a Soldier's Prayer
A young man's plea to heaven that he not be allowed to kill is answered.
I was barely six years old when the conversation around our dining room table began to revolve around a man named Adolf Hitler.
Dinner came in the middle of the day, and there were always 15 to 20 people present, including workmen from the water-powered flour mill that had been in our family for six generations. I can see them now, troop-hag in from work, still white with flour even after a scrubbing.
The talk about Hitler didn't start right away: Fast came Scripture reading and prayer. But when the Bible was put on the sideboard and the covers came off the steaming tureens, the excited discussions would begin.
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Tunes had been hard in Germany for many years. But Hitler was going to change all that, the grown-ups said. His latest radio address would be discussed point by point.
Papa noted that when Hitler talked about his plans, he would always add, "... insofar as the Almighty will help us." It was always the Almighty, never God, but still... "He sounds like a believer," Mama agreed.
Later, of course, Hitler's true colors came out. He began an unstated campaign against any loyalty other than to himself—especially among the young. At the age of 10 I had to start attending Jungvolk meetings; these "happened" to be scheduled on Sunday mornings, right at church time. At 14 I graduated to the Hitler Youth. Sunday after Sunday I'd put on my brown shirt and get on my bike and pedal off to march and sing and swear undying allegiance to the Führer.
My parents said little to me about their misgivings—to do so would put us all in danger. Occasionally, though, their feelings would show through.
By this time every business letter had to close with the words Heil Hitler. One day my father and I were alone in the mill office as he went through his mail. "In this family," he burst out suddenly, "we don't say, 'Heil Hitler!' We say, 'Heil Jesus!'"
But though they seldom put their feelings into words, my parents' actions spoke for them. Every Sunday evening a group met for worship in our home.
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One day the police arrived to enforce a new law closing such independent churches and confiscating their property. They carted away the hymn books, the portable pulpit, the banner saying "Jesus is Lord," even the broom Mama used to get the room ready for the meeting.
"The Führer is not against religion," the police chief read from the new regulations, "You may continue to meet, but never in groups of more than three."
My father and mother did not hesitate. They shifted the now-illegal worship services to the mill, where the roar of the water and the clank of machinery drowned out the songs and prayers.
I was 15 years old now and tall for my age, blond and blue-eyed, the very type Hitler associated with his fantasies of a "master race"—and the kind he wanted for his elite SS. Sure enough, one day an SS team arrived in our small town of Plüderhausen, seeking recruits.
A dozen of us boys were driven to a nearby castle, where we were met by an SS officer, splendid in gleaming boots, braided epaulettes and soft-crowned cap. He set our pulses pounding as he described the glorious exploits of his unit in the liberation of neighboring lands.
Stressing the honor being done us, he urged us to enlist then and there.
However, I did not understand the resistance rising within me. To a youngster of 15 brought up on Nazi doctrine, as sensitive to peer pressure as any teenager, everything this dashing hero-figure said seemed undeniable. Yet I felt a need for caution.