Book I of the World War Two Series
Fiction: war/adventure/historical romance
Over the summer of 1938, three spoiled English girls take a trip to Austria to visit the sons of family friends. They hope to recreate the enjoyment of the boys’ visit to Britain two years earlier, but in the intervening two years things have changed, and for the worse. Austria has voted to become part of Germany, a Third Reich run by an ever-increasingly powerful Hitler. Even the small Austrian town of Emmerspitz is affected by the spread of Nazism, and it seems that everyone there has their secrets. Without meaning to, the girls discover the darker side of their friends’ lives, and the mountain itself hides the largest secret of all.
Austria 1938 Facts
Austria’s fledgling democracy ended in 1934 with the establishment of an authoritarian regime. For the remainder of the 1930s Hitler, an Austrian himself, pressured Austrian chancellor Schuschnigg to allow his country to become part of the Third Reich, despite the Versailles Treaty of 1919 specifically forbidding Germany to again unite with its neighbor. How hard he had to bully is a matter of debate, but in March of 1938, Austria chose to become the first of Hitler's conquests. More than a puppet state, Austria was for the remainder of WWII an extension of Germany, ruled by the Nazis, and for the most part enthusiastically enacting their barbaric racial policies.
Sample chapter: © David Andrew Westwood 2014, all rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced without written permission from the author.
Chapter 15. The Gorge.
“Goodness!” Leonora puffed, mopping her brow with a handkerchief. “If you walk this far in England, there’s always a pub. You can get a shandy and a sandwich, and then be on your merry way. Here there’s…” she looked around at the high alpine meadow, “bugger all.”
They had walked up into the foothills to the east of the Schäfer farm. Hilde had told them they should be sure to see the Emmerspitz gorge before they left, and they thought the bridge might be two or three miles — they weren’t sure about their kilometer conversions — along the trail.
“Well, I think I’ve had enough of Austria,” said Leonora, “Lukas has gone off to be a soldier, Dierk’s some kind of Aryan scorekeeper, and Konrad doesn’t seem to find it odd that his Bavarian police chums club innocent people to the ground. That’s how our three friends here have turned out.”
“I’ve had enough too,” Penelope said. “It’s all gone quite sour. Not at all what I had imagined. Let’s change our tickets and go.”
“No, no,” Verity said. Moshe’s predicament was never far from her mind, and her friends’ comments brought it again to the forefront. “We only have another ten days — let’s make the most of it.”
“We have made the most of it,” Leonora said in a caustic tone. “We’ve seen state-run bullying, blatant xenophobia, and religious intolerance. What’s left? Outright murder? Because if we stay here much longer we’ll likely witness that too.”
“Oh, it’s just a few more days.” A few more days would allow her to feed Moshe at least one more time. Enough, with luck, to last him until Lukas returned. “Just think of all the fuss it will be to change our itinerary.”
Leonora stopped and swung around to face Verity. “You want to stay, don’t you? After what we saw on the way back from Nuremburg? How could you?”
Verity stopped, startled. “It’s not Konrad’s fault. He—”
“Don’t make excuses for him. He works for the German police. Those were German police.”
“But he’s an assistant or something. He has no authority. He can hardly—”
Leonora’s whole body shook with passion. “He can speak up! Like a man! That’s what it takes to stop evil. Because that’s what it is — evil.”
Verity had trouble speaking at all in the face of this tirade, let alone assemble a convincing riposte. “Look, all I’m saying is let’s make the most of the last of our holiday.” She turned to Penelope. “Pen? Don’t you agree?”
Penelope looked from one to the other, undecided. “Oh come on,” she said, “we can walk and talk at the same time. We should be able to see the bridge around this cliff.”
Sure enough, in another two hundred yards they could see in the distance the tall and graceful arches of a gray stone bridge joining one mountain with its neighbor. It was a stunning piece of engineering.
“I’m upset too, Len,” Verity persisted, “but leaving won’t change anything. We’ll be back home soon enough.”
It took another forty minutes for them to reach it, during which time their conversation was desultory. At last they stood at the reinforced buttresses that marked the start of the span.
“It’s a railway bridge,” said Penelope, disappointed. “I hoped it would be a suspension bridge — you know, all swaying from side to side, hundreds of feet in the air.”
“Good God, no!” Verity said.
“Oh, I like railway bridges,” Leonora told her. “Trains have an air of… possibility. I always associate them with exciting journeys. And this has a walkway alongside the rails. Let’s cross.”
Penelope said, “I prefer ships. All those horizons. All those sunsets.” She gazed down the sheer granite walls to the rushing river below. “When we first got here I was struck by the beauty of the place. It’s still beautiful, of course, but somehow… soiled. Do you know what I mean?”
More than you think, thought Verity.
The three began to walk across the span. Even though it was solid and unaffected by the wind, Verity’s legs immediately turned soft and her stomach sank. She grasped the railings at the side of the bridge and eased herself slowly along them, hand over hand.
Penelope turned and watched. “Oh, for God’s sake, Verity, it’s as solid as a rock. In fact, it is rock.”
“I… can’t help it. The… view below, it just turns my knees to water.”
Leonora laughed, casually walking backwards and rummaging in her rucksack for the packed lunches. “You wouldn’t exactly make one of those Deutscher Mädel we saw doing calisthenics at Nuremburg. You’re lucky you’re English, and not a citizen of the Third Reich. They’d ship you off to some camp for neurasthenics.”
Penelope was shocked. “Len! That’s cruel!”
“Well, everything frightens her. She’s such a hothouse flower.”
“I am n-not,” Verity protested, “I’m just afraid of heights.”
“And the dark. And confined spaces—”
“Oh leave her alone, Len. What’s for lunch?”
Leonora plucked out an egg. “Hard boiled eggs again. I hate ’em.” She walked to the edge and carefully dropped one over the side of the bridge, watching it as it fell hundreds of feet and spattered against the side of the ravine.
Verity watched in horror and wobbled on her feet. “Oh God. I have to go back.” As she turned to retrace her steps to the side of the gorge, a piercing whistle came from the tunnel in the rock. When she turned to face the sound, the tunnel reminded her of the cave. She froze, unable to move in either direction.
A single light appeared in the gloom and grew bigger, and suddenly the locomotive burst into the sunlight, gouts of gray smoke billowing from its stack and rising up, throwing long shadows across the rock face.
The train moved out onto the bridge and toward them. Its front was black, its sides a dark green and its brass fittings gleamed in the mountain air. They could feel the stone reverberating with its weight and momentum. The rails next to them began to sing. Verity waited, desperately clutching the balustrade, while Leonora and Penelope looked eagerly toward the locomotive.
“Perhaps Verity’s right,” Leonora conceded. “We should try to make the rest of our trip pleasant. The boys have gone, but we can still enjoy our last few days here. We—”
The single sound of the locomotive now separated, as it drew closer, into the multitude of clanks and jingles and rumbles of a trainful of cars, and the girls stopped to watch it go by.
“Oh,” said Penelope, disappointed, her hand half-raised. “It’s just a goods train. I was going to wave to the passengers, like in The Railway Children.”
The locomotive hissed by, its driver glancing over at them, expressionless, from under his blue cap. Behind, it pulled a series of slat-sided wagons used for livestock. Something poked from between the slats, straining toward them.
The train receded across the bridge and disappeared into the black mouth of the tunnel on the opposite side. A single red light on its rear carriage dwindled and winked out in the dark.
The three looked at each other, wide-eyed.
“W-what was that?” Leonora asked, her voice uncharacteristically shaky.
Verity’s mind struggled to fashion what they had seen into a semblance of normalcy, but Dierk’s words about Die Nürnberger Gesetze and Lukas’ story about the burning synagogue surfaced as hindrances to her attempts. “P-perhaps they’re… criminals?”
“Right — that’s it,” Leonora said, with finality. “I’ve seen enough.” She began striding back across the bridge.
After a moment’s hesitation Verity and Penelope followed.
Leonora wrenched down her case from the top of the wardrobe, and it crashed to the floorboards of their bedroom.
“Wait, Len,” Verity said, “Perhaps it’s not all that bad.”
“You… are… so… stupid! Don’t you understand what’s going on here? The Nazis were never interested in purifying the race! That’s all nonsense. They just want the Jews’ money and property, to fund their rearming, their hunger for territory, their need to control others. They don’t give a damn how blond and blue-eyed the so-called Aryan race becomes! It’s all a façade, a blind, like hunters use to fool their prey! Don’t you see? You can stay here if you want, but I’m leaving. This country is just as bad as Germany. They won’t stop until they remake the world in their loathsome, distorted idea of society. This is government by menace, by force — the antithesis of democracy. All human gains for the past five hundred years have been undone in eight! Every striving for equality, suffrage — gone as if they never happened.”
Verity and Penelope watched as Leonora indiscriminately shoved her dresses, her blouses, her skirts and shoes into her suitcase and portmanteau.
Penelope pulled down her own case. “I’m leaving too. This place is awful. These people, they’re… just not our kind.”
Verity wished she could do the same, but all volition had left her limbs and she felt as immobile as a statue. It was not that she disagreed with Leonora — her friend was obviously right — but her heart was here. Her head told her to scurry home, but her heart refused to budge. She saw, with icy clarity, that she had no choice. “I’m staying.”
Penelope froze in her actions and looked up at Verity. “What?”
“I’m staying. At least, for a while.”
“For God’s sake, why?”
Leonora sneered, “Because she’s in love.”
Penelope looked at Verity, surprised. “Is that true?”
Verity looked away. She had to admit to something, and it was the truth, after all. Part of it, anyway. “Yes.”
“With which one?” Leonora asked her.
“Lukas or Konrad. Or is it both?”
Verity turned back to Leonora, trying not to back down. It was difficult. Leonora was not a small person, and her fury made her seem even larger. “Konrad.”
“A bloody Nazi?”
“He’s not a Nazi!”
“I… I can’t.”
Leonora slammed her cases closed and clicked home the locks. Penelope finished packing hers too, a little more carefully. The two girls straightened and regarded Verity.
“Verity,” Penelope said, “we’re going. Come with us.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t. Not just now. Tell my parents… tell them I’ll be along shortly. Tell them I’m fine.”
Leonora took Verity’s hand and gazed with an unnerving directness into her eyes. “There is real danger here. It’s not safe. You should come with us. Tomorrow.”
“I’ll be along shortly.”
The three stared at each other.
“Once we leave,” Penelope said, “we can’t help you.”
Verity reached inside herself for something to say, something to refute their argument, something to prove she was not a fool, but she could find nothing. In the end, she simply said, “I’ll see you at college.”
She walked out of the room, down the stairs and out to the oak tree that Lukas had climbed. She sat on the bench around its trunk. The warm air was filled with the hum of insects. Acorns dropped softly around her.