“It was June of 1941,” said Walter Cross, looking at his grandson through the steam rising from his coffee, “I hadn’t been in the army more than a few months when I was captured by the Nazis. They sent me to a POW labor camp. They worked us all day and didn’t feed us enough to keep a kitten alive. Half the men I came in with never came out.”
Matt looked intently at his grandfather.
World War II, Nazis, and labor camps were only things he’d ever read about or seen in movies. His grandfather had lived it.
“What was it like?” Matt asked.
“Well, I can tell you what it wasn’t like—it wasn’t like in the movies.”
Matt suddenly felt embarrassed at his pathetic knowledge of such a huge part of history… and one that his grandfather had been a part of too.
He covered up his embarrassment by taking a swig of coffee.
Walter continued, “I mean, some of them were more accurate than others, but most of them just… they glamorized it. They made it look like it was some kind of… adventure full of intrigue and… and it wasn’t. It was endless days of backbreaking labor, beatings, and starvation. We were dirty, hungry, bloody, and broken—broken men with broken bodies and broken spirits. There were a few of us, though, who refused to let them break us—our spirits, I mean. We knew they could do anything they wanted to our bodies. They could starve us, they could beat us, they could kill us, but there was one thing they could never take from us, one thing they could never break, never kill, not if we didn’t let them… and we didn’t.”
Matt looked at his grandfather, saw the chalk-white hair, the wan face creased with ninety-one years of lines and wrinkles. Yet he could see him seventy-three years ago, a young man, strong and healthy, wearing a private’s uniform, defying his Nazi captors.
Matt wondered if he would have borne the oppression as well or if he would have fractured under the brutality.
Walter sipped his coffee and stared off out the window at a wren twittering on the branch of a maple tree.
“I don’t think I would have made it, though, if I didn’t have faith,” he said turning back to Matt, “That’s what really kept me going. I knew I had the hope of a life after death… and I knew that God was right there in that camp with me. If it was His will for me to come home to Him, then I would… and if it was His will for me to live, then I would live and I’d put everything I had into it… and nobody could touch me. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t start out with faith that strong. In the beginning I was all full of doubt and anger and despair all rolled into one… but I finally realized that I only had two choices and there was only one that I liked. Giving up would have been a mistake. In my heart I knew it was. I had to make a choice. Staring death in the face tends to force a man to do that. So I chose to live, to have faith, but it was still hard. I remember one night, laying in the darkness on the cold, concrete floor, tears falling down my face, and I prayed for God to give us something, anything, some kind of relief. I guess he knew we needed it. Two days later, one of the guards snuck into our bunkhouse. We surrounded him; we didn’t know why he was there. Then we saw the box he was holding and we opened it. It was full of food. He said he sympathized with the Allies and he admired our courage. I broke out into wild sobs and fell down on my knees praising God. It was a feast. The best food I’ve ever tasted.”
Matt smiled and Walter laughed.
“But, Matt… that’s how I know God’s real, that’s how I know He’s always with me,” Walter said, “Even in the presence of my enemies.”
© Whitney L. Schwartz