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Faces of Courage, Karl


A small crowd of villagers watched in tearful silence as Karl was taken away from his home by the public health official. His parents were sobbing. No one knew when he or she would see Karl again. When his father was told that Karl had to leave the village and go to the state hospital, he protested angrily. The official warned him that Karl would be taken by force, if they did not let him go willingly.

The Nazi government had a law that required all children with mental or physical disabilities to be reported to the public health authorities. The village priest urged Karl’s parents to avoid trouble with the police.

The fifteen-year-old boy looked no different from other boys his age, but his speech was slurred and sometimes he had trouble putting words into sentences. No one thought of him as being “feebleminded”, the word the public health official used to describe him. Karl’s parents treated him no differently from their other children and he went to the village school with his brothers and sisters. The teachers at the school knew that Karl was slower than other children, but they knew he was eager to learn and did not fuss over his inability to learn as quickly as the others. Then the Nazis took over the schools and children like Karl were no longer permitted to attend the village school.

The new headmaster was a Nazi official and he reported Karl to the public health authorities. A public health official came to Karl’s home and told the family that Karl could not stay in the village and had to go to the state hospital. Karl knew how sad his family felt and he tried to be brave as he got into the small car. He saw his mother sobbing and heard his father say, “Don’t worry son, you will come home again.”

It was a long ride to the old gray stone building that served as hospital and home for children with disabilities. As soon as Karl stepped inside the hospital, a nurse took away the suitcase his mother had packed for him and gave him a uniform just like all the other boys wore. The gray and white shirt and the gray trousers the boys wore made
them all look alike.

The nurse took Karl to a long narrow room with two rows of beds lined up against the walls. There were thirty narrow beds in the long narrow room. Karl was shown his bed and then he was pushed into the line of boys who had to march to the dining room. This was a large room filled with wooden tables. Ten boys sat at each table and ate in silence. There was no talking allowed in the dining room. Karl looked around him and felt very lonely. He did not understand this place where everyone was dressed the same and no one was called by his name. The nurses and attendants never looked at him and no one seemed to care.

At night, Karl could hear some of the boys sobbing and he struggled to keep himself from panic. He felt lost, afraid and confused and did not understand why he was in this place, but he managed to suppress the fear. He thought if he obeyed and did as he was told, he would be able to go home again.

All the boys had jobs to do; they scrubbed floors, collected garbage, swept and washed floors and walls. There was nothing else but work to do in this place. Sometimes in the evening, the boys marched around the grounds. They were taught to sing Nazi songs and salute to Hitler.

It did not take Karl long to make friends, his best friend was Rudi, the janitor’s assistant. Rudi made Karl laugh by making funny faces and telling him funny stories. Karl felt safe with Rudi. When the janitor let Rudi pick his helper, Rudi chose Karl.

Every day more children were brought to the state hospital and the wards were crowded with children of all ages. Some were blind or deaf or physically disabled. There were enough wheelchairs or beds. Some children slept on straw mats on the floor. The food was drab and tasteless and there was never enough to eat. Karl was given more work to do, but he did not mind when he worked with Rudi.

Then Rudi told Karl that he was leaving the hospital. Karl knew that Rudi had an operation to make it impossible for him ever to become a father. Boys who had the operation were allowed to leave the hospital and go back to their homes. They joined work crews in the towns and cities.

The day Rudi left, he gave Karl a paper with his name and address written neatly on it. He told Karl that his home only a few miles from the hospital. Karl took care never to lose the piece of paper, he kept it with him all the time. At night, he carefully put it under his pillow and every morning he put it back in his pocket.

Karl had to collect big bags of garbage from the dormitories and he saw how miserable many children were. Some had to lie on their beds all day. There was nothing to do on the wards and he was glad he was able to work. He collected the garbage in big sacks and brought the sacks to the big garbage behind the building. Karl missed Rudi and when a new janitor replaced the man who worked with Rudi, Karl was even more upset. The new janitor was a cruel man who called the boys “idiots” and “morons”; he slapped the boys when they did not work quickly enough to suit him. And he never explained what they had to do; he simply shoved brooms or mops into their hands. With the new janitor, the boys did all the dirty work, while the janitor sat and drank from a bottle he kept in his pocket. Karl worked as fast as he could and tried to stay out of the janitor’s way.

One afternoon, just as Karl was carrying a sack of garbage to the outdoor bin, he saw the janitor beating a boy with a broomstick. “I will teach you not to make a dirty mess,” he shouted, hitting the boy again and again. Without thinking, Karl threw the bag of garbage he was holding at the janitor. The garbage bag hit the janitor in the head and spilled all over him. Suspecting that the janitor had seen him, Karl ran around the side of the building and hid in a barrel. He knew the janitor would be looking for him and he ran to the back of the building and hid in a barrel. He could barely breathe but he dared not make a sound. He could hear shouting and cursing and then it was quiet. Karl climbed out of the barrel and ran to the road, he did not stop running until he was some distance from the hospital. He did not know where to go, and then he remembered the paper Rudi had given him. He took the paper from his pocket and read the name of the town where Rudi lived. Rudi said it was not far from the hospital. It was getting dark and there was a chill in the air, but Karl did not stop to rest. In the twilight, it was hard to see the signs. Finally he came to a large sign and as he came close, he saw it had the name that Rudi printed on the paper. Rudi told him he lived in a brown house, but it was too dark to see the color of the houses. He was not sure what to do, but then he saw a man sweeping the street in front of a shop. Taking a deep breath, approached the man. “I look for my friend, ” he explained, showing the man the paper. The man pointed to a narrow lane and told Karl to go down the lane. “It’s the third house on the lane,” he explained.

Karl ran to the house and knocked loudly on the door, shouting “Rudi, Rudi”.

A woman’s voice called out, “Who is there?” Karl stood at the door, not sure that he had come to the right house. A woman opened the door and looked at Karl. “Please I want Rudi, I look for Rudi”, Karl was almost sobbing as he showed the woman the paper Rudi had given him. The woman recognized the uniform and knew that the trembling boy had run away from the hospital. She pulled Karl inside and quickly closed the door.

“Rudi told me come to see him. Tell Rudi I am here. I am Karl”.

Rudi came into the room and Karl rushed to him. “It’s me, Karl. You remember me, you gave me paper and told me to come to you.”

Trembling from head to toe, Karl tried to explain why he had to run away. “They going punish me bad. The janitor beat the boy and I throw garbage at him. So I run away fast”.

Rudi nodded and told Karl “You do a good thing. You are safe here.”

Rudi’s mother brought a blanket and wrapped it around Karl; she gave him a glass of warm milk and bread.

“You can stay here tonight,” she said as Karl gulped the milk and stuffed the bread into his mouth. Then she made a bed for Karl on the sofa. Feeling safe and secure, Karl fell into a deep sleep.

Early the next morning, Rudi woke Karl and gave him a clean shirt, trousers and a sweater. He told him he had to leave for work but his brother was coming to take care of Karl. Rudi began work very early in the morning. His mother made a good breakfast for Karl and explained that Rudi’s brother was coming to take him to a place where he would be safe.

“I want go home, Karl said. “You please help me go to my family?” Rudi’s mother explained that the police would be looking for him and would go to his home. “It is safer to live where no one knows you for a while,” she said. Rudi’s brother will take care of you. Please do not worry,” she said. A tall good-looking man who looked a lot like Rudi came into the house. He asked Karl if he knew how to work on a farm.

Karl nodded his head and said “I like work on farm. I work on my father’s farm.”

“Then you can help my friend. He is my neighbor”, Rudi’s brother said kindly and helped Karl climb into the back of his truck and covered him with a pile of rags. “No one will find you now,” he said.

Karl trusted Rudi’s brother and did not mind the long and bumpy ride. When they reached the farm, Rudi helped Karl climb down from the truck. Rudi’s brother introduced him to a farmer and his wife. The farmer and his wife seemed to be expecting Karl. Rudi’s brother had told them that Karl was a family friend who was looking for work.

“You show me you do good work and I’ll try to get you work on other farms too. Then you can earn some money.”

The farmer took him to the barn. Karl helped the farmer clean the barn, spread new hay on the barn floor, fix a broken fence and clean the shed where the farmer kept his tools. The cellar in the farmer’s house was a cold, but the farmer’s wife made sure that Karl had enough to eat.

Karl woke up early in the morning, washed his face and hands in a bucket of water and went upstairs for breakfast. After a good breakfast, Karl worked around the farm. Rudi’s brother came to the farm to see how
Karl was doing. The farmer told him that Karl was a good worker. Rudi’s brother told Karl that some of the other farmers had work for him too and would pay him money. Karl went with Rudi’s brother to a neighbor’s farm, but the man asked Karl to show him his identification paper.

Every boy over 16 years of age needed an identification paper in order to work. Karl had no papers and the farmer was suspicious. “If he escaped from somewhere, we’ll be in trouble if we do not report him”, he told Rudi’s brother who took him to the village priest

“Why doesn’t he have identification papers?” the priest wanted to know and asked Karl many questions.

“I have no paper. Nobody give me paper”.

“Everyone is given an identification paper,” he answered. “If you want me to help, you must tell me the truth.”

Karl put his hands on his face and cried out, “I run away from bad place. They hit people there and I not go back. I want go home”.

“It is dangerous to give false identification papers, but let me see what I can do,” the priest said quietly. He had heard about the terrible conditions in the hospital from the nuns who tried to visit there. Looking at Karl, the priest told him he would try to help.

The next day the priest brought Karl an identification paper. Karl looked at the neatly typed paper and did not recognize the name that was printed on it. The priest explained that now had a new name and that he had to remember it. With his identification paper, Karl was able to find more work on the neighboring farms and make some money.

When the first snows came and there was no more work on the farms, the priest found Karl a job in a nearby market and let him sleep in the church. He also managed to notify Karl’s family and tell them that their son was safe. Karl always carried his identification paper with him and did not forget his new name. He knew that having a different name did not make him a different person.