June 1st, 1942; Freiburg, Germany
Men marched in the street below Greta’s window, guns leaning against their shoulders. With their grayish-green uniforms and silver eagles, they were clearly German. But all soldiers from all countries were the same in her mind. Every one of them walked in a straight line, staring ahead, obeying orders, each made to be the same as one another.
The fabric of the uniforms looked stiff, and Greta wondered if that’s what made the soldiers move robotically. Or were they simply trained to be that way?
Soldiers cut through the streets of Freiburg all the time. Greta hardly remembered a time when they didn’t. She was supposed to feel pride whenever she saw men with swastikas on their armbands, but their presence sharply contrasted against the fairytale scenery Germany was known for, like an undertaker in a hospital’s maternity ward.
This realization struck Greta the Christmas prior, when her cousin, Johannes, visited them during his break from the University of Munich. She had found a draft in a pamphlet in his bag with the words “White Rose”, which would be the shade his face was when he saw her looking at it. He brought her to her room and told her not to tell anyone, but Greta being Greta, she had hundreds of questions about this mysterious rose. Johannes trusted her, and quickly convinced Greta what the truth was. Not that it was hard to do. Antisemitic posters were hung everywhere and Jewish shops were frequently vandalized, each sight being a wound on Greta’s empathetic heart.
Her reflection hovered over the scene, a ghostly image on a background of Nazi flags and battle scars. Greta was perfect. She had yellow-blond hair and blue eyes, no disability or mental ailments to bother her. She wanted to kiss boys and not girls, just like she was supposed to. There were no undesirables in her family, nor were there any people who conspired against Hitler. Her parents and older sister, Hilde, enthusiastically supported and obeyed the Nazi cause. Greta, however, wished every day that she would wake up and be a part of a different family in a different part of the world, a part where hatred didn’t exist.
Certainly, such a place was out there. There just had to be! Greta just had to find it. And as soon as she did, as soon as she was old enough, she would move there, no matter how difficult the journey or how much money it cost.
Another perfect ghostly figure materialized behind her. “Mäuschen! Mama and Papa are waiting for you downstairs.” Hilde smirked.
Greta crinkled her nose at the scene below. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
“Oh, mäuschen, my dear schwesterchen. You can’t stay in your room all day!” Hilde sauntered over next to Greta and looked out the window. “Papa went through a lot of trouble to get you into the examination process. It would seem very unappreciative if you hide away when it’s time to go take it.”
“I’m not hiding away! I’m just watching.” Hilde was already admitted into the Magda Goebbels School for German Girls and had been going for several years already. At seventeen, she would be starting her last year there. Since Greta was twelve, she was old enough to try to get in. She didn’t want to go, but her parents prided themselves on being perfect Germans, raising perfect German daughters. Acceptance into this school meant that she was perfect enough.
Hilde put her hand on the glass, her face wistful in a far-off place. “They’re quite handsome, aren’t they?”
“That’s a silly thing to say. We can’t see their faces from up here.” Greta turned to her sister, whose shoulder-length yellow hair curled artfully around her face and her turquoise dress laid perfectly on her body as if every thread was placed with precision by hand. “Besides, you have a boyfriend already, Fritz.” Greta didn’t know what her sister saw in him, other than he also had blond hair and blue eyes. He had big teeth and his head was too big for his body, which made him look like a lollipop.
Hilde laughed. Some people called her laugh musical, but Greta thought it sounded like a broken engine because most of the time, her sister was laughing at her. “Dear schwesterchen, I’m just looking.”
The door creaked open a little further behind the girls and they spun around. Their mother stepped inside, dressed for her role as an academic’s wife in her nice suit and perfectly coiffed hair, also blonde. “Girls, what’s taking so long?”
Hilde playfully tugged at one of Greta’s braids. “Oh, Greta is just being silly!”
Their mother, Frau Eberhardt, tapped on her gold watch. “Come, you two. There’s a car waiting, and we don’t want to be late for the exam.”
“Coming, Mama.” Hilde took hold of Greta’s sleeve and dragged her towards the hall. “You heard her. Come along, schwesterchen.”
Greta shook her off. “I can get there myself!”
It was a very short train ride from Freiburg to Villingen. From there, a cab took them from the station to the school.
Greta leaned against the window, watching the town go by. Hilde pointed out various stores and restaurants. “If you do well, you get special privileges. One of them is being able to go out into the town. But they don’t let the younger girls out without a chaperone.” Her sister wagged her finger at her. “So, if you want a chaperone, you’d better be nice to me, mäuschen!” She teasingly jabbed Greta’s arm.
“Stop it!” Greta swatted Hilde’s hand away, which only made her poke more. “Hilde!”
“I will if you promise to be nice to me.” Hilde laughed.
“Girls, behave!” Their mother sighed. “For heaven’s sake, Hilde, you’re seventeen.”
Hilde’s face turned pink. “Sorry, Mama.”
Greta crossed her arms. “Besides, we don’t even know if I’ll get in or not.”
“Of course, you are, Greta. Don’t say such silly things.” Her mother pursed her lips.
Her father said, “I have a prestigious position at the university and have taught you well. A girl as smart and German as you is guaranteed to get in.”
Hilde laughed. “My little schwesterchen doubts herself too much sometimes.”
A boarded-up facade interrupted the stream of open, albeit struggling, shops, with a Star of David drawn crudely on it. Greta remembered seeing something like that happen back in Freiburg, to a shoe store. It was the first time she’d seen the horrors in person and it gave her nightmares that night. Even before Johannes told her the truth, she still felt terrible for the family who owned it and wondered what happened to them.
They continued making their way through Villingen and were soon traveling down a road through the shady woods that gave the Black Forest region its name. The trees here, however, seemed to be denser than the rest of the region, blocking out most of the light. This would be where Hansel and Gretel would find the witch living in the gingerbread house, where the old haggard woman would stash Rapunzel in her tower. Greta almost expected one of the shadows to be one of the evil sorceresses from the fairy-tales.
Finally, there was a clearing, but the dreariness still remained. It didn’t help that it was an overcast day with mist drifting through the air. They passed a cemetery with decaying headstones, most of them in the shape of crosses and angels. Some of them were starting to be overtaken by shrubbery. The rusted fence no longer fulfilled its duty, for it was bent and broken in some places.
Greta frowned at the scene. “Why doesn’t anyone take care of them anymore?”
Hilde sighed. “They died a long time ago. There’s no one to take care of them.”
“I don’t know. Papa, do you know why?”
Their father turned to them. “Because those are the graves of those who lived in the abbey and monastery. Ever since they were both turned into schools, people have cared more about making sure the future of Germany is secure in the hands of our youth instead of keeping the place where dead people live pretty.”
Greta looked down, pouting. “That’s sad that no one cares about them anymore. When I die, I don’t want to let my grave become forgotten and ugly like that.”
Her mother put her hand on her chest. “Greta! Don’t say such morbid things. I can’t think about that happening to you just yet.”
A little past the cemetery, there was a fork in the road. As the cab turned left, Hilde pointed to the right. “That’s the way to Fritz’s school.” He was a student at the German Brotherhood, which was the Magda Goebbels’ brother school.
At last, a cluster of large, medieval, stone structures appeared, surrounded by a wall. A Nazi guard stood at the gate, holding a clipboard. He stopped the cab and the driver rolled down the window. “I have an applicant and her family with me.”
The guard moved to the back. “Name?”
Her father leaned out the open window. “Hilde and Greta Eberhardt.”
After scanning the clipboard, the guard nodded. “Danke.” He opened the gate and let the driver in.
As Greta stepped out of the cab and onto the gravel, she looked at the ancient grandeur of the abbey. From its arched windows to its high towers, she thought it would be the perfect place for a prince to rescue a trapped princess.
They entered an area off to the side, where the new postulates were originally taken in. The room was filled with Aryan girls, mostly around Greta’s age, and their families.
Every so often, a stern woman stepped out and called out a name, then a girl would follow her to another room. While waiting, Greta contemplated failing the exam on purpose, since she didn’t want to be considered a perfect German girl. However, if she did, her parents would be so disappointed in her, and she didn’t know what would happen if they had a daughter who wasn’t up to their standard. Her father had a distinguished position at the University of Freiburg as the dean of humanities and had to uphold his reputation.
As Greta stood up to follow the woman, Hilde squeezed her hand. “Good luck, schwesterchen! I know you’ll have no problem getting in.”
Her father looked at her with stern eye. “Remember, I went through a lot of trouble to get this for you.”
“I’ll try my best, Papa.” Greta’s voice was meek.
Frau Eberhardt smiled. “If you do well, we’ll get you any kind of sweet you want.” Greta wondered if her mother knew her promise was slightly empty. Sweets were still available, but not as many as before since the war made sugar harder to get. And her favorite, the Haribo dancing bear, hadn’t been sold in several years.
Despite not wanting to pass the exam, Greta’s stomach skipped around as she followed the woman down a hall with Gothic windows to a small office, where another woman was seated behind a desk.
The desk woman nodded. “Danke, Freida.”
Freida left, shutting the door behind her. Even though Greta was expecting it, the sound still made her jump.
The woman was thin with a large, pointed nose. She extended her hand with its long, spindly fingers, and pointed to the chair across from her. “Take a seat.”
Greta sat down. The gangly woman peered over her glasses at a sheet of paper. “Greta Eberhardt?”
“Your sister goes here, Hilde Eberhardt?”
She smiled. “Well, she must’ve told you plenty about this place already. My name is Frau Pfenning. Shall we begin?”
Frau Pfenning administered a short exam, which covered basic history, science, grammar, and math. Of course, she had to answer the way the fuhrer told her to. Greta was tempted to write the wrong answers. Not wrong enough to raise suspicion that she was secretly a rebel, but enough for her to not be a fit for the school.
Once she completed all the questions, Frau Pfenning tucked them in a folder with her other papers. “Now, I must conduct a short interview. Ja?”
“Do you consider yourself a loyal citizen of the fuhrer?”
“How do you try to be a model citizen?”
Greta clenched the hem of her skirt. “I follow all the rules and encourage others to do the same. I look down on those who don’t follow the rules and aren’t perfect citizens.” The second part was mostly a lie. Ever since the Nazis took over, Greta became a good liar.
“What are your aspirations?”
Greta remembered what Hilde told her. “To do well in school so I can teach my children how to make Germany a better place.”
Frau Pfenning wrote something down, her face stoic, so Greta couldn’t tell if she was saying the right things or not. “Danke.” She rose from her seat, and Greta noticed how she stood slightly hunched over, which, combined with her nose and thinness, made her look like a vulture. “Freida will take you down the hall so the doctor can examine you.”
Hilde told her about the doctor’s exam, so Greta was prepared. His purpose was to make sure she was genetically perfect. Fortunately, it was quicker than she thought it would be, and she was soon reunited with her family.
“How do you think you did, mäuschen?”
“I don’t know.”
Herr Eberhardt looked down at her. “You did try your best, didn’t you?”
Frau Eberhardt placed a manicured hand on her hip. “You know, it’s very important for your Papa and I to have both of our daughters attending this school.”
“I know, Mama.”
What was done was done, and all that was left to do was wait for the results. Greta couldn’t undo the choices she made during the exam. In several weeks, she would find out if her parents would be proud or disappointed to have her as a daughter. She feared that either way, she would be disappointed in herself, for either passing the exam giving in to the Nazi institution or by failing her parents.