TWENTY THREE - Ester
It is past midnight when there is a frantic knock on the door. I quickly get up to open the door and see Father Petrek. It is hard to really sleep when you are expecting soldiers to burst in every next moment.
I am not sure what I am expecting as I open the door to the tiny room that Mama and I are sharing in the attic. But what I was not expecting was a very calm and collected Father Petrek.
“Ester, you and your Mama need to go into the crypts. Now. I have been informed of a company of SS heading this way,” he says quietly.
Mama is right beside me and she quickly speaks up, “Alright, Father Petrek. I know how to get there. We will go directly.”
I remember Mama had gone to the crypts in the morning when I was flaying Otto. We quickly grab our small bag of clothes and she leads me to the trapdoor hidden under the carpet in the nave at the opposite end from the altar. I screech to a halt when I see Otto standing just inside the door of the church.
“You here to roll out the red carpet for them, Otto?” I hiss. I know he is the one who told the Germans of our hiding place. He has to be!
He looks tortured and says, “Ester. No. I know I committed a grave error. But I am trying to make up for it. I am here to fight for you, Maus.”
“Don’t!” I snarl. I run out of steam. I know I have very little time to live, and what he says is true, then he hasn’t long either. Short of a miracle, there is no way we are getting out of this church alive. Keeping grudges, even for something as abhorrent as what Otto did seems so pointless, so puny. So I keep quiet and help him lift the trapdoor.
We open up the trapdoor and, to my surprise, I find a couple of arms extended to help us down. Mama goes in first.
She obviously knows these men hiding in the crypts. She introduces me to the three and I learn that these men are Czech paratroopers come from England to help the Resistance. I am humbled to know them. Suddenly, my anger at Otto’s betrayal, my incessant worry about Klara, my guilt at Papa’s death, all bleed away. To join the blood of thousands of men and women fighting this tyranny. Each one here has lost loved ones, if not the entire family, to this war. And yet, here they are. Back in their homeland after they had made it out to safety.
“From what we have heard, you have done a great job!” one of them, Novák, congratulates me.
“It was all my little sister, Klara,” I tell him. I want them all to know that she is the one who stepped up to the task and carried it through.
“No mission is successful because of one person, Fraulein,” another one comes up. He’d introduced himself to me as Jakub. “It is always a team effort, the success, or the failure,” he continues.
Perhaps. But I can’t reconcile with the fact that I sent her in there. In my place. I hope the German keeps her safe. At least, I will not be the cause of her death. The men lead us deeper into the crypts. It is a huge area running all along underneath the nave. It has narrow spaces, like really cramped bunks, carved out on the longer walls. Presumably for the coffins of the dead priests. What a fitting location for the finale of this macabre drama.
As I look around, I see that the men are armed. They have a surprisingly large amount of ammunition and guns. I am proud of all the accidental soldiers like Mrs. Moravec, the Fafek family and scores of others without whose help these brave men would not have had a chance to even defend themselves.
It is not long before I hear the first sounds of action. Down here, under the earth, it is all muffled. The first sound is a large bang. I have nothing to compare it against, so I am just assuming that it is loud. This is followed by a staccato series of smaller bangs.
“The first one was a grenade. The little bangs are machine guns,” Novák explains.
“So, what....Father Petrek is doing the shooting?” I ask, stunned.
The men all chuckle. “He would love to! But that blows his cover. So he won’t,” Novák says.
If it’s not Father Petrek, then who? Otto? I must wear thoughts on my face, because Jakub puts, “There are two other men, like us upstairs. And the other fellow, Otto.”
I am amazed at how long the three men are able to hold up the fort, so to speak. After a couple of episodes of the machine guns, there is a much larger bang. Followed by a some more of the same. I look to Novák for an explanation. He is quick to educate me, “That is the MG42. It is also a machine gun, but a much more powerful one.”
“What are they doing with that? punching holes in the church walls?” I ask.
“Yes,” comes the short answer from Novák. It feels too final.
But the battle doesn’t end after the MG42s are done. I cheer for the thick walls of the church. It has obviously decided to fight for us and is standing its ground.
There are more episodes of the same smaller machine gun sounds. Only now every episode is punctuated by the bombardment from the MG42s. Its almost as if the Germans are rushing into the church, firing, getting fired on, retreating back out, waiting for the MG42s to have a go and repeating the same exercise again.
I am overwhelmed by the bravery and grit of the three men up there, Otto included. They have kept the German’s engaged for hours now. I can see some light seep in through the breathing holes near the roof of the crypt. So, I know that it has, in fact, been hours since the battle started.
Soon after the shooting started, Mama and I found a spot and sit down on the floor. It is impossible to sit still for any length of time, though.
“So, it is just two men other than Otto up there?” I ask no one in particular.
“Yes. But you see, they are in the little room on the gallery. There is only the one narrow staircase leading to it from behind the altar. So, the Germans will have to go through single file. That is why they have been able to hang in there for so long,” Novák explains. He is the one talking to me the most.
“Do you know this Otto?” he asks. He has no idea how loaded that question is. What do I tell him? Yes, I was to be married to him in a few months time? Yes, he was the one who betrayed us to the Germans?
Finally, I simply give him the barebones thruth, “Yes.”
He seems to think over it for a moment, but then nods and asks me, “Can you shoot?”
“Yes. Not one of the things that you have here. But if you show me, I am a quick learner.”
“These are Sten guns. Come, I will show you how these work.”
I am so glad to be doing something with my hands. It gives me something to focus on. Otherwise, I was going crazy wondering when the last shot would ring out. Novák teaches me how to handle the Sten. It is not that difficult and I am sure I can manage a true shot in close quarters...if my hands stop shaking for long enough to take aim and if my stomach stops heaving for long enough to pull the trigger. The sight of an SS soldier should do the trick to fix all of those, I think.
It has been three hours since the battle started. I know, because when Father Petrek woke me up, I had looked at the clock on the wall. It was half past three in the morning. The shooting started not long after. There is now light outside. One of the men murmurs something about it being seven in the morning.
All my anger of Otto has died in the gunfire. He is going to die for his mistake. Was it really such a grave mistake that he has to pay for his life? I mourn for Otto, for the future we will never have together. I mourn for the other two men up there whom I have never even seen.
This time the silence lingers on. A stone settles in the pit of my stomach. Academically, I knew that at some point in time the brave heroes up there will run out of ammunition, time, life itself. That doesn’t mean that I was ready to accept their loss when it eventually came around. But this silence, after three hours of gunfight seems like the end.
The men also seem to sense it. For they start checking their weapons once again. Novák approaches me and says, “You know we are not getting out this alive, right?”
I just nod. My throat is too dry and my tongue is stuck to the roof. Besides, my brain is up there where the silence is smothering me. I can’t string a response together.
“We will not be taken alive,” he points to his two comrades.
“Will one of you please shoot me first?” For the first time since coming down into the crypt, Mama speaks up.
“Mama!” I am horrified.
Before I can continue, she says, “Ester, Liebling, if I am caught and they torture me, I will end up telling them the names of all the good people who helped us. I can’t have that, Maus. I would rather die before I have their blood on my hands.
Jakub has been quiet for so long, he suddenly speaks up, “Frau Barsch, it will be my honor.” He snaps a salute out to Mama who simply gives him a hug only a mother can give and whispers, “Thank you.”
I do not get to say anything as we suddenly hear scraping at the trapdoor.
Novák mutters, “Here we go folks. Our turn to kill some Germans.”
Yep! When he puts it like that, I am happy to pick my gun up and shoot a few of my own!
I say a quick prayer. Not only for us, but also for the poor German soldier who will meet their make today. After all, there are bound to be some among them who are not really bad at heart. Perhaps they are simply following orders.
All our eyes are trained on the trapdoor now. All, except one, who is our lookout on the street. He has his eyes trained on the breathing slit near the roof of the crypt.
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