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Faces of Courage, Annaliese


There was chaos; everyone was running in all directions in the forest. Annaliese held the hand of a young boy and they ran together behind a tree. The soldiers were firing their rifles in all directions. There was screaming and crying. The shooters were relentless and bodies were scattered everywhere. Annaliese and the young boy were murdered with the twenty-five other young people who lived in St. Joseph’s Home in Silesia. The Nazi officials calmly boarded the bus that was meant for the young residents. The priest buried his head in his hands and the nuns wept.

St. Joseph’s was a small school for children and young people with mental and physical disabilities. Like other small religious schools in remote parts of Germany, St. Joseph’s school was a haven for children with disabilities during the war but as defeat came close, the Nazis intensified their killing of children and adults with disabilities as well as prisoners in concentration and death camps. The children and young people of St. Joseph’s were killed in March 1945.

Annaliese never knew her parents. She was placed in a state orphan home for girls when she was a baby. Alone and abandoned, there was no one to whom she felt close. The teachers at the school and supervisors in the Home did not pay very much attention to the quiet little girl who worked hard at school and never caused trouble. When Annaliese was 14 years old, the war began and the orphanage became very crowded. There was a shortage of food and clothing and more and more troubled girls were sent to the Home. It was chaotic, noisy and dirty and Annaliese became increasingly uncomfortable and retreated into herself. She missed the girls who had been sent away and felt uncomfortable with the new director, who gave the girls cleaning chores to do. After school, Annaliese and the others barely had time for their school work. They had to wash the dishes and clean the rooms of the smaller girls. The only relief was attending church on Sundays, but the new director preferred the girls to attend meetings and march in the streets chanting Nazi slogans, rather than go to the church. Annaliese felt lonelier then ever and did not enjoy the outings with the German Maidens. She did not like the girls who were the leaders, they were bossy and picked on the smaller or weaker girls.

Modest and shy, Annaliese was not even aware of how pretty she was. She kept her long blonde hair in braids and when she looked in the mirror, she saw only sadness in her blue eyes. When the director told her she was being moved to a home in the country, Annaliese was surprised. She looked forward to leaving the noisy, crowded home. She had never been out of the city, but she knew the countryside was quiet and peaceful. The Director did not tell her anything about the home except that it was a special place for German Maidens.

One week later, after her sixteenth birthday, Annaliese found herself on a train

with one other girl from the Home. Seated next to a window, she could not take her eyes away from the sight of rolling hills, forests and farms as the train sped along the tracks. She thought about her life and hoped that life in the country would be peaceful and that she would make friends in the new home. An older girl accompanied her and she was happy too. She told Annaliese that they were going to be treated very well because they were specially chosen by the German Maidens. No one told her that the girls in the new home were expected to make babies for Hitler.

The house was an old mansion with rugs on the floor and lovely dark furniture. Annaliese was given her own room with a comfortable bed and curtains on the windows. The girls in the home came from all over Germany and at first they seemed very friendly. The girls were given new and pretty dresses and the food in the home was delicious. Annaliese never tasted so many different kinds of foods before. In the new peaceful surroundings, Annaliese began to relax her guard and took long walks around the grounds. She loved the big gardens with their rosebushes. But she could not help wondering why there were no supervisors in the home, there were maids who did the cleaning and laundry and one older woman, who did not bother to call the girls by name. She referred to them as “Maidens”. Annaliese offered to help with the chores in return for living there. But the woman just shrugged and laughed. “You’ll have plenty to do when the soldiers arrive. Don’t you know you are here to give our soldiers a good time?

Annaliese did not understand what she meant and asked another girl what they were expected to do. One of the other girls laughed at her and told her they would be making beautiful babies for Hitler. Annaliese was stunned, she had heard of girls getting pregnant before they were married but she did not want that to happen to her. She hoped to finish school and become a nurse before she married. After all she was only sixteen years old.

The other girl saw her fright and told her, “Don’t worry”, the other girl said. “We’re going to have fun and have dances and parties. The soldiers are really handsome fellows”.

“Not me” Annaliese said, “I’m much too young to get married. I want to be a nurse”.

“Oh they won’t marry us. They just want us to have babies for the Fatherland. It’s a great privilege to make perfect babies for the Fatherland. Don’t you it’s your duty to make beautiful babies for Hitler” the other girl said sharply.

Annaliese suddenly felt frightened, but then she thought no one would force her to do something she did not want to do.

That night there was a party, but Annaliese pretended to be sick and did not go.

She refused the next night after as well. The woman in charge of the house scolded her and threatened to send her back to the orphanage. Annaliese asked to go back and the woman promised to try to arrange it.

There were parties nearly every night and Annaliese discovered how hopeless her situation was. One night a soldier forced his way into her room and roughly pulled off her clothes and made her lie down with him. He was rough and cruel and caused her a great deal of pain. He got up off the bed and laughed at her as he got dressed and left the room. Annaliese lay in her bed in terror. She felt violated and ashamed, she had nothing, not even her body belonged to her, she thought. Suddenly she knew that the only one who could help her was herself and she planned her escape.

She did not sleep that night and with the first light of dawn, she left the mansion. Outside the first rays of light were streaking the sky and Annaliese walked quickly. She stood at the edge of the forest wondering in which direction to go and then she entered the forest. Forcing herself to be calm, she stepped carefully around the bushes and trees. She rested against a tall tree and imagined that the trees were protecting her. The thought comforted her and she continued walking. The sun was shining brightly when she reached the end of the forest and saw noticed that she was close to the edge of the forest. She saw a small church on the other side of the road and she ran towards it.

Sister Mary was coming out of the church when she saw a disheveled girl running towards the church. As soon as Annaliese saw the nun, she began sobbing. The sister put her hand on Annaliese arm and pulled her inside the church and calmly spoke to her. She asked her if she was running away. Annaliese nodded and then decided to tell the Sister everything. She told her about the mansion where the girls were ordered to make babies for the Fatherland. Annaliese told her about the soldier and how he had hurt her. Sister Mary listened quietly and then took Annaliese’s hand. “You are safe now”, she said. “There is no need to be afraid.”

Sister Mary brought her to the priest who told her that the church was also the home of 26 children and young people who were disabled. He asked her if she were willing to work and help take care of the boys and girls who lived there. Most of the children and young people were independent, but they required some help to do their chores and their school work. Annaliese nodded her head, she was so nervous she could barely hear what the priest was saying. But his voice was gentle and calming and she saw the kindness in his eyes.

“I’ll do whatever you like, but please let me stay,” she said.

The priest nodded and told her she would be expected to help with the cleaning and cooking chores.

Annaliese did not hesitate and promised to do whatever they asked of her.

Sister Mary took Annaliese to the dining room where the residents were eating breakfast. The residents were seated around a long table. There was no fighting or loud talk, but there were smiles and quiet laughter. Sister Mary walked her around the table and introduced Annaliese. One by one they stood up and greeted her politely. The sister introduced each resident by name. Annaliese barely noticed the slight physical disabilities or deformities of some of the residents. Their friendliness was what important to her. One of the boys invited her to sit with them and have breakfast. They brought her a plate filled with eggs and fresh bread. He told her to eat as much as she wanted. For the first time in a long time, Annaliese felt safe.

After breakfast, Sister Mary showed Annaliese the small room where she would live and brought her some clothing. After she washed her face and changed her clothes. Sister Mary took her around the grounds and explained that most of the boys worked on the small farm in back of the church and the girls worked inside the Home. There was a sewing room and a school room for the younger residents. It was calm, friendly and peaceful at St. Joseph’s and in a short time. Annaliese settled into the routine of the home. She worked in the kitchen helping with cooking and cleaning chores and assisted the younger children with their school work. The residents appreciated the help she gave and they were always polite and respectful. Annaliese felt as if she had found a real family and she joined in all of the activities of the home. She always there to help a child solve a problem and they began looking for her whenever they needed help. And when one of the residents was ill, Annaliese sat by their bedsides and read or talked to them. She took the boys and girls on picnics and outings and earned their love and trust. The priest and the two Sisters who worked at the Home told Annaliese that she was making life easier for everyone. Annaliese felt that she belonged and had a great respect for these young people who accepted and encouraged one another. There was no teasing or bullying and everyone cooperated.

One afternoon, black smoke surrounded the barn. One of the older boys was the first to see the smoke coming out of the barn and he called to the others. Annaliese watched in quiet admiration as the boys filled buckets with water and quietly put out the fire. Even the priest and the Sisters were surprised that the residents knew exactly what to do. No one panicked or refused to help. Afterwards they even helped to repair the part of the barn that was damaged. Annaliese thought that the young people at the Home were a lot smarter than the girls who were making babies for Hitler.

Annaliese had been at the Home for two years and her life was good. Germany was losing the war and Sister Mary confided to Annaliese that she was glad. “Life was good before the Nazis and will be good again”, she told her. But then groups of soldiers and many Nazi officials came to the village that was near the Russian front. They wanted to escape the approaching Russian army

Until the end of the war, children and young people with disabilities were safest

in homes run by religious orders in rural parts of Germany. In other places Nazi doctors were killing them. The killings continued even though Germany was losing the war and the killing operations were being extended to rural homes like St. Joseph’s.

It was just a few months before the end of the war, when the public health doctor came to see the priest and told him that his residents were to be put to death. The doctor told the priest that the residents were a burden on the government and that as a good citizen he was obliged to cooperate. The doctor planned to inject everyone with poison.

The priest knew that children and adults who lived in the big institutions and hospitals were murdered, but he never thought that would happen at St. Joseph’s. As soon as the doctor left the priest went to the town hall to beg the Mayor to intervene, but the Mayor refused to help. When no one offered to help, the priest and the nuns and Annualize tried to make a plan to keep the residents out of the Home when the public health doctor paid a visit.

Annualize took the residents for long walks in the forest and stayed there until nightfall. It was an abrupt change in routine and older children sensed the fear. They stayed close to one another and to Annualize tried to be cheerful as she led them through the thickest parts of the forest.

The Russian troops were getting closer and the Nazi officials knew they would be taken prisoners. They too planned to escape, but that did not keep the public health doctor from planning the murder of the residents. The doctor did not disguise his anger with the priest, who secretly arranged for a bus to come and take the residents to another church far away in another village. Finally the bus arrived on a Saturday night and was parked in front of the church. Early the next morning, the residents went to the church and the plan was to board the bus after the Mass. But as soon as they emerged from the church, Annaliese saw the soldiers coming and shouted for everyone to run into the woods. One of the younger boys tripped and fell and Annaliese stopped to help him and together they ran into the woods.

The Russian troops were expected to be coming soon and the Nazi officials were eager to escape before the Russians came. The soldiers were yelling and shooting and there were dead bodies everywhere. Annaliese held the shaking boy in her arms and tried to calm him. She took him behind a tall tree, but a soldier saw them and fired his rifle. Annaliese and the boy were killed.

The priest and the Sisters stood in front of the church in silent horror and watched helplessly as the Nazi officials climbed aboard the bus to escape from the Russian army.