By Karen Truesdell Riehl
Excerpted from the book
I met Helga in 1977. She was the librarian in an elementary school east of Seattle. We became friends and daily lunch companions. Helga had a heavy German accent but never mentioned growing up in Germany. One day I asked her how long she’d been in this country. She told me she met her American soldier husband in Germany, shortly after the war. They moved to the United States in 1948.
I asked her to tell me about her experience during the war. She hesitated a moment, then announced, not proudly, “I was Jugend.”
“What’s a Jugend? I asked.
She looked me in the eye and said, “We were his child army, trained to revere and obey the Fṻhrer.”
“Did you want to be in his child army?
“Not at first.”
“Then, how did they persuade you?”
This is Helga’s story.
THREE: Clever Seduction
Life for us has been hard since the Great War. Germany never truly recovered economically. America’s 1929 stock market crash deeply affected us. Friedrich owned a construction company, but with little construction going on, he worked as a plumber and carpenter. Like most Germans, we were so desperate for a savior that we saw only what we wanted to see. That made it easy for Hitler and his gang to lie and push their way to power. We listened to his promises of work for the unemployed, to bring an end to class distinctions, to make Germany strong again and to stamp out corruption. He had many catch phrases he used over and over.
“The most brilliant propagandist technique will not yield success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”
For a time life did get better. People were called up for the Reich Labor Service, and employment was high. We were quite happy and celebrated often. But as he gained control, our lives got worse. Our freedoms were sliced away, bit by bit.
When the letter arrived, ordering Helga to join the Jugend, I felt angry and helpless. How could we, the German people have allowed this to happen? We had let things go. Avoided the truth. We’d been lazy and let ourselves be duped. A dictator had taken charge. We knew about the Jugends and that Helga might have to join one day. We closed our minds against the thought, with the unrealistic hope that things would change, that Hitler would go away. Now he had ordered our own child to serve him. There was nothing we could do to stop him. We were caught in a web, woven in an insane world.
TEN: What’s an Aryan?
We always began our school day by paying homage to the Fṻhrer. The rest of the day we studied arithmetic, reading and writing. Then a great day arrived: We were each given a children’s version of Mein Kampf, told to memorize it and be ready to recite. When I held it in my hand I felt as though the Fṻhrer had written it just for me. I would make him proud when it was my turn to recite passages from it.
So one Sunday afternoon, when Grossvater, Grossmutter and Tante Alvina, Vater’s sister, were visiting us, all sitting in the living room, I asked Vater if he thought I was perfect.
“Of course you are, Helga, especially when you obey me.” He winked at me.
“What exactly is an Aryan?” I asked.
“My little girl is getting technical. Why do you ask?”
“Because at the Jugend meetings our leaders say we must be perfect Aryans.” I said.
Grossvater stood and crossed the room to the bookcase. He took down Vater’s big black, dictionary. “Let me answer that for you, Helga.” He searched a page. “This is what it says. The Aryan race is a concept in European culture that was influential in the late 19th and early 20th century. It derives the idea that speakers of the Indo-European languages constituted a race.” Grossvater did a slight bow, marched to the sofa, and sat next to Grossmutter.
“Don’t be misled into thinking you can fight a disease without killing the carrier, without destroying the bacillus. This Jewish contamination will not subside, this poisoning of the nation will not end, until the carrier himself, the Jew, has been banished from our midst.”
-Adolf Hitler, Speech at NSDAP Meeting, Salzburg, August 1920
“Does that answer your question, Helga?” Mutter asked.
“Well, at least I know I’m not a Jew,” I said.
There was silence for a moment until Grossmutter said, “Helga, why do you say something like that?”
“The Jugend leaders teach us that Jews are devils who cheat us out of our money and never wash.”
After a moment Grossmutter explained, “Helga, that’s not true. There are good Jews and bad Jews. They’re just people like the rest of us.”
That was the first time Grossmutter had ever told me something that I knew was not true. It made me angry. “Mutter, may I go to my room? I have some reading to do for class.”
No one said a word as I left the family gathering. I went to my room, leaving the door open enough to listen.
“It’s terrible what they are teaching her at those meetings,” Grossvater said.
“Yes, it is. But what are we to do? If we say anything, she might…”
“No. Not our Helga,” Grossmutter said.<
“Just the same, we have to be careful.”
FIVE: I see The Fṻhrer!
By the time I was eleven, Czechoslovakia had been taken by the Nazis. Britain and Poland had signed a Mutual Assistance Treaty, and I had become a proud Jugend.
As the months passed and we learned more about our Fṻhrer, we looked forward to his birthday on April 20. It would be our first chance to see the celebration. Our teacher, Frau Schmidt, and our Jugend leaders prepared us for the great day.
“It was not the intellectuals who gave to me the courage to begin this huge task. It came from two classes alone- the German farmer and the German worker”
-Adolf Hitler, 1932 campaign speech
“You will join hundreds of other Jugends in the Berlin stadium.”
“Will the great Fṻhrer be there?” Emma asked.
“Yes, and he will give you a wonderful speech,” Else said.
“Will he greet each of us?” I asked.
“There will be too many of you for that. But seeing him will be such a thrill. Some of you may find a white paper square on your seat. That will be a sign to remove your brown jacket.”
Agatha asked why they would want us to take our jackets off. Else explained some would remove their jackets and others would keep them on. “When everyone is seated, the filled stadium seats will spell, “Wir danken unserem Fṻhrer!” We thank our Fṻhrer. I felt a wonderful chill run down my back.
“What does he look like?” Emma asked.
Else pointed to the poster behind the desk. “Just like his photos. He is tall and handsome.”
“I can hardly wait!” I said.
The morning of April 20 I had no appetite for breakfast and needed Mutter’s help getting into my uniform. “I am sorry that you can’t come too, Mutter. Frau Schmidt says to see him in person is thrilling beyond words. I’m so excited! It feels like a holiday.”
“You can tell me all about it when you get home. Now, button your jacket. It’s time to go.”
Agatha, Emma and I met at our usual spot, about a mile from my house. We linked arms and skipped and giggled our way to the Berlin stadium. We stopped so often to greet people on the street to hail Hitler we were nearly late for the ceremony.
“Humanitarianism is the expression of stupidity and cowardice.”
-Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1925
“I have a new secret, and I can’t hold it any longer,” Emma announced halfway to the stadium. “My brother, Eugene, has joined the military. I’m so excited to see him in his uniform. He’ll be so handsome. I know he will be the bravest soldier ever. Mutter says he will be coming home for a visit before he is sent to the front. I can’t wait to see him.”
“That’s wonderful news,” I said, and hugged her. Then we all hugged and Agatha said, “This is a wonderful day. Eugene in the military and we get so see our Fṻhrer.” We raised our arms and saluted Hitler again. Then we did it again and giggled.
I envied Emma. I didn’t have a brother or even a boy cousin. I wondered if Hitler would love me less because of it.
“Do you think one of us will find a white paper square on our seat?” Agatha asked.
“I’m not sure I want to,” Emma said. “That would mean I’d have to take off my jacket, and it’s too chilly a day. Do you want to find one, Helga?”
“Yes. I’d be so happy. It’s good to suffer for the Fṻhrer.”
“Well, then I hope you find one,” Agatha said.
Several blocks away from the stadium we heard rousing patriotic music blasting from loudspeakers and ran the rest of the way. We arrived breathless. As we filed in with hundreds of others we were welcomed with a gift of a small Nazi flag from our remarkable Fṻhrer. This was truly the most exciting day of my life.
More excitement followed when I found a square of paper on the seat of my chair! “Oh, what luck!” I shouted. “It’s like being awarded a great prize.”
Emma squeezed my hand. “Helga, I’m happy for you. But you’re going to catch cold without your jacket.”
“I know, and I’ll probably spend a few days in bed. But I don’t mind. It’s for the great Fṻhrer. OUR Fṻhrer!”
We waved our flags until our arms hurt. I could barely stand the waiting. It seemed hours before he arrived. Suddenly, there he was! As tall and handsome as his photos, he stood in the front seat of his shiny, black, open car, waving to us as it slowly circled the field. We waved our flags and shouted, as loud as we could, “Heil, Hitler!”over and over again. My heart raced. I felt jittery all over. I wanted desperately for him to look up and see me. I knew if he did, I would drop in a faint and he would jump out of` his car and run up the stairs to gently pick me up in his arms. Then he’d look into my eyes and see how I loved him.
We all screamed his name louder and louder and waved our flags faster and faster, jumping up and down. Then the car stopped. Hitler stepped out, walked to a side opening, and disappeared into the stadium. I thought he’d left us and screamed for him even louder, again and again. Where did he go? Come back! I was dizzy with excitement. Finally he reappeared, standing on the balcony at the end of the field. We were all jumping up to get a good look at him and were rewarded with a view of the most superb looking man I’d ever seen. Tall, slim, with broad shoulders, he looked wonderful in his uniform. We went crazy waving our flags and screaming. I was breathless with excitement, but we kept shouting louder and louder, “Heil, Hitler! Heil, Hitler. Heil, Hitler.”
Remembering that Frau Schultz told us, “A man standing behind the Fṻhrer will wave a red cloth for you to be quiet and listen,” we instantly fell silent when the man with the red cloth appeared.
We didn’t want to miss a word our great Fṻhrer would say. He had such a strong, fine voice, and he gave an inspiring speech. He told us we were Germany’s future. I’ll never forget his words.
“The Jew today is a great agitator for the complete destruction of Germany. Wherever in the world we read of attacks against Germany, Jews are their fabricators.”
-Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1925
“What is our Germany today? How very beautiful and heroic! When I cast my gaze upon you, I know my life’s struggle is not being fought in vain. Always remain faithful, as Germans always have. You must learn to accept deprivations without ever collapsing. Regardless of whatever we create and do, we shall pass away, but in you, Germany will live on.”
Then he sounded a warning to be prepared. He would not tremble at the hour of decision, but he wanted us to see his feet planted strongly in our earth, ready to withstand any onslaught. He told us we will stand by his side should that hour ever come. We will stand before him, behind him, beside him and at his hands, and together, we would carry our banners to victory!
It was as if the Fṻhrer had spoken directly to me. I was truly one of the chosen. He had chosen me, little Helga, to help him fight against the demons and guide the world. I thought my heart would burst with pride!
Then he left the balcony and disappeared out a side door. The man behind him no longer waved his cloth. We were screaming Hitler’s name. Where was he? My heart sank. Would I see him again? Then he re-emerged, stepping into his black car. He stood waving to us as he was driven from the stadium, I wanted to run down to him and beg him to stay. The man with the red cloth reappeared to signal us to end our shouting. I couldn’t stop. No one could. I was jumping up and down and screaming. Hitler had looked at me, I was sure of it, and I couldn’t stop calling his name. If only he would look at me again!
We walked home, speaking in raspy voices with tears in our eyes, feeling dreamy, each admitting to having a crush on him.
“Now I know what it’s like to be in love,” Agatha sighed.
“Do you think he has a girl friend?” I wondered.
“Yes. Probably a beautiful movie star,” Agatha guessed.
“I could look at his cute mustache forever,” Emma giggled.
“I want him to put his arms around me,” I said, hugging myself.
“I do, too. And be like that for hours.” Emma rubbed her chest and hips.
“When he was speaking, he looked right at me,” Agatha said.
“At me, too,” Emma said.
“Me, too,” I whispered to myself.
“He is truly the greatest and most wonderful man in the world,” Agatha declared.
“And the handsomest!” Emma said.
“I wish he would speak to us every day so I could look at him.”
“I wish he would come to our school or to our homes.”
We all hoped he would be our leader forever. That night I put my wooden bird in my dresser drawer. I wouldn’t need it again. Dear Hitler would protect me now. As I drifted off to sleep, I could still see my Fṻhrer standing in front of me and hear the wonderful shouting. My body shivered. My sleep was filled with the Fṻhrer. He was looking deep into my eyes as we danced to a Strauss waltz in the stadium. Thousands of Jugends cheered us as he kissed me.
A week later we celebrated my baby sister’s birthday, but for me it was a drab affair. I had seen the Fṻhrer. Nothing else mattered.
Karen Truesdell Riehl’s writing achievements are remarkable, given the award-winning author’s lifelong battle with dyslexia. She was unable to read until the age of ten. Her published works now include a 2014 San Diego Book Awards winner, Helga: Growing Up in Hitler’s Germany. Her other books include a memoir, Love and Madness: My Private Years with George C. Scott, telling of her 30-year hidden liaison with the international film star; eight novels; eight plays; and a radio comedy series, The Quibbles, available from ArtAge Publications. Her children’s play, Alice in Cyberland, was an award winner in the National Southwest Writers Contest.