The Faces of Toy Soldiers

The little girl ran, red shoes slapping along Kössener Straße, her head pounded, and face grew flushed. Behind her, German boys advanced, stretching out their gloved hands as they sprinted forward, trying to grasp her coat. Her mother had bought it for her, three winters ago, when Ruth knew, even then, that they hadn’t the money to spend on such an extravagance. But she went to school and flaunted it, even though when she stuffed her hands inside the pockets, her fingers slipped through the worn lining. Now as she ran, she felt the soft crinkle of paper money, sewn within. Just in case, her mother had said, in case we have to disappear, like Uncle Heinz. 

“Renn Jude! Lauf!” Run Jew! Run! One of the boys cried out, the rest joining the taunts as they rushed after her, the clanking and thudding of their boots echoed through the streets of Munich. Their uniforms protected them from the frosty darkness as day bled into the evening. 

“Wir warden dich fangen!” We will get you!  Then she was on the ground. Skin scraped. Knees bloodied. 

They surrounded her, eyes narrowed and hands twitching. A dog howled in the distance. Kicking furiously, she pushed herself up from the ground and lurched forward, narrowly evading the boys’ lunging arms. The red of her shoes scraped against the ground, vinyl flakes intermixing with blood. 

She stumbled onward and rounded the corner to the safety of her family’s antique shop, Geschäft von feinen Antiquitäten, on Hansastrabe Straße. Her home was above the shop, across from which a general store displayed the latest Der Stürmer newspapers. Her mother would buy them sometimes and throw them in their fireplace in the kitchen, hissing under her breath, bastards. As Ruth slammed the door shut, her mother, polishing a silver ladle, looked up with concern. Both stood silently as clocks ticked and church bells rang, knowing that for the past month Ruth had been chased home and no customers had entered the shop – other than Jews. 

Ruth made her way upstairs, the floorboards creaking beneath her. She watched from her bedroom window the bustling street below. A father and son walked towards the general store, stopping at the newspapers which detailed the assassination of Ernst von Roth and the Jew responsible for it. What will Jews do next? one headline read. They walked along the display and stopped at a cartoon depicting a jailed Jew. The son, blond hair slicked across the top of his head and curling perfectly around his ears, convinced his father to hand over a single Reichsmark to the assistant. The boy pointed at the funny pictures. He asked his father is Jews were dangerous. The father nodded, Very, they replied, stay away – they will rob you of everything you own. Ruth looked away; fists clenched. 

That night, as Ruth’s parents slept, the darkness of the German night pressed down on the streets of Munich. A streetlight shone through the front window and thick shadows fell upon the antiques within. Ruth quietly slipped down the stairs. Making her way into the shop, she concealed herself beneath a mahogany table. A week ago her father had told her not to let people see her playing at night, it will cause suspicion, he told her as his hand brushed through her hair, we don’t want to be noticed more than we already are. From her dressing gown pockets, Ruth extracted three tin soldiers and then lined them opposite each other, playing a game of war. Her mother had purchased them years before, from a town near Hamburg. The soldiers’ faces were stoic, lips straight and eyes wide. One knocked the other over and clattered against the floor. Before the street erupted with screams. 

Outside, boots pounded, wood splintered, locks broke, German soldiers burst through doorways. Dark shapes blocked the street light. Ruth was silent, not daring to breathe. She quickly picked up the toy soliders, hugging them to her chest.  

Minutes later, five streets away a synagogue burned, flames disappeared into the darkness. Ruth cowered beneath the table and cried silently into her toy soldiers, as she heard the heavy footfall of SS officers, dragging her parents from their slumber and onto the chaotic street. 

A rock was thrown through the window, a dark blur colliding with a telescope, contorting its stand as both hit the floor. The face of a china doll smashed and the rock fell to the shop floor. 

“Die Juden!”, a man screamed through the smashed window, “abschaum!”, then seeing there were no more windows to break he proceeded to the next shop front, The Koshner Butcher. It was this shop he attacked with a petrol bomb. 

Shops and houses burned. Families were pushed into the backs of trucks. Ruth pressed her hands to her ears and waited, staring down at the blank expressions of her fallen toy soldiers as an uneasy silence returned. 

When the sun rose, Ruth heard glass crunching as the odd pedestrian passed by. She couldn’t see the butcher’s family from next door or the seamstresses from the end of the street. Shattered doors and windows were a testament to the night’s terror. 

The only person Ruth recognised was Elga Burgas, who was crossing the street, hiding her face with the collar of her coat as she came to stand next to Ruth. Elga was the short, thin wife of a mechanic. She was also a friend of her mothers, who would come over every weekend to sit in the kitchen and talk for hours, staying for dinner most nights. Ruth wondered why Elga was not taken like her parents, then saw her hands covered in the thick layer of tar. She must have hidden in the chimney, Ruth thought. 

“It was all that Grynszpan boy’s fault,” she hissed, glaring as a German woman picked over some broken objects, lying in the gutter. 

“Who?” Ruth’s mind was filled only with sharp thoughts of her parents, being ripped from their home, the broken telescope still on the floor and the smashed face of a china doll. 

“The one who shot the German diplomat in France. He only gave the Germans more reasons to hate us. Because of him, we all suffer”.  Unknown to the pair, as they stood silently and wondered the fate of their loved ones, hundreds of miles away countless men, women and children were ushered through open gates, signs reading ‘Arbeit macht frei’. Work sets you free. Elga looked at Ruth. This daughter of her close friends. Seizing the small girl’s hand, she prayed. 

Within the hour, Elga was standing before the Ulm Children’s Home. Ruth stood beside her, wrapped in the worn coat with the crinkled money concealed within. Elga had helped her find a few essential items in the ransacked home. “Just be quick”, Elga had hissed, “no one can see you”. Ruth had collected her three toy soldiers from her hiding place, her coat, and her mother’s emerald necklace. Elga was waiting for her at the bottom of the shop’s stairs, eyes scanning the street before meeting Ruth’s in silent relief, noticing in her hand the emerald necklace. 

Elga did not tell Ruth where they were going, only informing her that if they were stopped, “Say I am your mother.” Weaving through the back streets they reached a poorer sector of Munich. Traversing a bridge over the Isar river, Ruth peered into the water below, spying the scales of fish as they darted past, through the murky reflections of Munich. A decaying sign ‘Ulm Dječji Dom’ greeted them several blocks later. Autumn leaves crunched as Elga opened the gate to an imposing residence. Ulm Children’s Home. A middle-aged woman was sitting on the porch. With narrowed eyes she watched Elga and Ruth traverse the path between the front garden, passing some boys playing, using sticks as makeshift swords as if in battle. 

It was Elga that spoke first, “This is Ruth.” A reassuring hand was placed on Ruth’s shoulder as Elga continued. “She is an orphan, she has been in my care for months but my husband and I cannot take the burden any longer”. Ruth wanted to protest, but she had been well schooled by her parents for such an eventuality. Instead, she drew comfort from the familiarity of the toy soldiers, thumb rubbing over their painted façade. On the grass one boy was pushed to the ground, a stick pressed playfully against his chest. 

The woman replied, “That lie will cost, she will need papers. I know what she is. She will be safe here, but only for a price.” Elga frowned, she had nothing to give. 

She then glanced at Ruth’s coat, guessing at the worth contained within. 

“Hand me your coat,” Elga said, Ruth knew better than to argue. She extracted the necklace. “This will do,” Elga said with finality, handing the coat back to Ruth, making no mention of the money hidden inside. The older woman seemed satisfied with their arrangement. 

The woman directed her attention to Ruth. “You will refer to me as Fräulein Weber. Say goodbye, then go and play with the others. Lunch is at noon, then we walk to church.” Fräulein Weber stood up, observing the children in the distance before moving inside, hiding the necklace beneath an upstairs floorboard in a small wooden box, along with other such payments. 

As Elga left, she hugged Ruth. Aware of the three tin soldiers Ruth held tightly, the woman whispered in her ear, “May God bless you and guard you. May God show you favour and be gracious to you. May God show you kindness and grant you peace.” 

Ruth knew, without being told, that her parents were never coming back. Her memories of them became like shards of broken coloured glass, their hue fading over time. 

As Ruth clutched the soldiers in her sleep, she knew not of their futures. That the warmth of her palm on their metal forms would, one day, cease.  

It was September 1939, the warmth of Summer overtaking the cold of previous months. The orphans walked in pairs through the arched doorway of the church, Ruth clutched one of her toy soldiers as she passed through. A priest pried the toy from her hands, sternly stating, “The Lord’s house is not for such things.” He replaced the toy with a small wooden cross. 

That night Ruth threw the wooden cross in the fire and watched it crackle and burn. The radio was turned on that night in the orphanage, a correspondent proclaiming that Hitler had successfully invaded Poland. 

In April 1945 she lost her second soldier. At church women whispered tales of the Russians reaching Berlin, the priest talked of salvation.   

Returning from church, Fräulein Weber told the children to collect everything they owned. That night the orphans had heard her talking with the cook, the old woman clutched the wooden box containing the emeralds once worn by Ruth’s mother as she leaned closer to the other woman.

“Leave the children. Half of them are Jews! No need to be risking our lives for them!”

A boy, two years younger than Ruth, decided his fate. Choosing to sell one of Ruth’s soldiers for rations, he took it from under her mattress before he climbed out the kitchen window and into the darkness of the night. He never made it out of Germany, shopkeepers whispered on the streets. 

Days later the orphans surrounded the crackling radio, Fräulein Weber and the cook had left the children the night before. Ruth had tried to search for the box containing her mother’s emerald but to no avail. They listened intently as a voice spoke of German defeat. Outside, Russian troops traversed the streets. Ruth clutched her last toy soldier in her hand and pulled open the front door of the orphanage as the Russians made way for the trucks and tanks rolling behind them. A Russian soldier, with a cigarette held in his left hand and a semi-automatic rifle in his right, called out, “Gitler mertv!” Hitler is dead! An orphan boy tugged on the side of Ruth’s coat, asking if they were safe now. She nodded and forced a smile. But Ruth had heard what the soldiers had done, the women they had pulled from their beds and homes they had destroyed, and suddenly, the soldier she clasped no longer felt as safe as it once was. 

It was her birthday that day. She turned seventeen. 

In 1946 Ruth walked through the streets of Paris, her coat, no longer containing money within, was wrapped around her shivering form. The last of her three toy soldiers were hidden within her purse. It was as she headed towards the Jewish Restitution Commission to ask about a woman named Elga Burgas, that sunlight peaked through the thick clouds above, and shone upon the murky glass shopfronts, reminding Ruth of her childhood home in Hansastrabe Straße, of her mother polishing antiques and her father shaking hands with friends, of glass long replaced. Her heart ached, and the sun faded behind the clouds as rain began to pour, Ruth long forgotten under the cover of black umbrellas that rose to meet it.  

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