Albert Maltz: A children’s wartime bestiary
From The Cross and the Arrow (1944)
“Tell me the story of the sparrow,” the child said.
Marianne smiled mechanically at Willi. “It’s the one he wants to hear every night,” she explained. She leaned close to the boy so that his cheek was pressed to hers. Her lovely face was a mask, her fine eyes were hot with pain.
“The spider kills the fly,” she began. “Then the sparrow kills the spider – and the hawk kills the sparrow – then the fox kills the hawk – and the dog kills the fox – then the wolf kills the dog – and then what?” she asked her son.
“Then what?” he echoed.
“Why, you know – Who kills the wolf?”
“You tell me, ” the lad said in his slurred baby talk.
“Why, a man!” his mother replied. “And that’s the way the world is, Dickie boy. The strong always win and kill their enemies. Will you be strong when you grow up?”
“Will you be the strongest man there is and kill all your country’s enemies?”
“And what will you be, when you grow up?” she asked, as she turned half toward Wegler with a proud smile.
“A solya,” the child answered.
“That’s it; a soldier,” Marianne repeated.
Willi was at work when the British bombers came to Düsseldorf. He emerged from the factory shelter in a fiery dawn to find the five-story tenement in which he lived sheared in half. Kathe had been in the cellar with numberless others. He helped dig their bodies out. As an old soldier, he knew enough about death to be aware that Kathe had not suffered. Still, even for an old soldier, it was not good to look upon the body of his wife and see it without arms, its viscera exposed.
He cursed the British that day. He stood upon a carpet of rubble and broken glass and raised his fists to the heavens. And when he had ceased cursing these foreign marauders, he fell silent, remaining as tearless and graven as a lump of statuary. To any bystander, his mien must have seemed the very incarnation of grief. It was not. It was quite beyond grief. It was numbness, it was a new state of being, it was the state of a man whose soul has gone to sleep.