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Peter has had more identities than he can remember and suffered pains and humiliations he longs to forget. But, whether spy or prisoner, slave or propaganda tool, none of his roles has brought the one thing he wants above all: freedom.
THE CHILDREN'S WAR
Bad papers. That's how Peter's nightmare began. Living in contemporary Europe under Nazi domination -- more than fifty years after the truce among the North American Union, the Third Reich, and the Soviet Union -- Peter has struggled to make sense of the reign of terror that governs his world. Now, arrested for bearing a false identity, he is pulled full-force into a battle against Nazi oppression. The crusade for freedom that belonged to generations past is now Peter's legacy -- and his future depends not on running away, but on fighting back.
Escaping a Nazi prison camp and joining the Underground Home Army, Peter dedicates himself to breaking down the system that betrayed him. But by facing the evil at the heart of the Nazi political machine, Peter falls deeper into a web of intrigue and adventure that risks everything he holds dear -- in this life and for the sake of future generations.
A disturbingly real vision of what could have been, The Children's War is a page-turning epic thriller with a mesmerizing premise and an unforgettable cast of characters. J.N. Stroyar's searingly authentic, impassioned vision of human triumph over the forces of corruption and cruelty stands as a powerful tribute to the millions who have sacrificed and died in the name of freedom.
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J.N. Stroyar, a nuclear physicist living in Frankfurt, Germany, has also worked in America, Belgium, and England. Her extensive research for The Children's War included visits to Poland and what was once East Germany and the USSR as well as studies of Nazi Germany and resistance movement archives, family accounts of slavery and concentration camps, and personal interviews with torture victims, Holocaust survivors, and former Nazis. This is her first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"As the London divisions of the glorious troops of the Fatherland march proudly past the gauleiter's podium, they salute the Thousand Year Reich!" the announcer intoned pompously. "Following them, in impressive formation, are the noble soldiers of our great allies, the Red Army! Together our victorious armies will defeat the evil empire of capitalist gangsters across the Atlantic and claim our rightful place as the only superpower of the millennium!"
It was enough to make him get up and turn the television off. The room went dark, illuminated only by the thin strip of orange light that scattered off the night fog to find its way through the gap between the shade and the window frame. The ominous thump, thump, thump of a police helicopter flying low overhead rattled the thin glass of the windowpane. Neither of them took any notice of it.
Allison slumped onto the pillow on his bed and took a deep drag off the cigarette he had momentarily abandoned. "Did you go?" she asked, waving her hand at the television to indicate the parade that they had just seen on the news.
"Of course! You know me, always the patriot!"
"Yes, our little blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan boy!" she enthused comically.
"There's more brown than blond," he sniffed, "and my eyes are gray!"
"It has always bugged you, hasn't it, looking like one of their poster boys?" she guessed with an indulgent smile.
"No. Other people have always bugged me, trying to convert me, trying to get me..." He stopped, suddenly aware that she had been teasing. He smiled sheepishly at his folly and she laughed in response.
"So why did you go to the parade?" she asked.
"It ran right past the restaurant, so I didn't get much choice. We all stepped outside, waving our little flags. Look." He pointed at the bedside table. "I brought one of each back for you."
She glanced at the two flags lying intimately one on top of the other, the hammer and sickle obscuring most of the swastika. "Ah, yes, so we're allies again," she observed.
"They did the switch rather fast this time."
"That's because nobody gives a fuck anymore," he guessed as he returned to the bed and gently removed the cigarette from her fingers. He stubbed it out, then turned to look at her suggestively. "I certainly don't, do you?"
"What's this?" She picked up an official-looking piece of paper that was lying underneath the little flags.
"Ach, a notice from the neighborhood committee. I've missed three meetings this month. Don't worry, I'll get the restaurant to say I was on the evening shift."
"I do worry," she countered. "You should go to these things. It doesn't look good to miss so many."
He waved his hand in exasperation. "Every time I go, the local matrons swoop down on me like vultures so they can introduce me to eligible and near-eligible women. 'Not married! How are you ever going to get a flat?' " he mimicked. "Sooner or later they're going to march me and some other poor unfortunate to the registry office and we'll be married before we can sober up enough to object."
"Maybe you should get married. Find someone you could trust, you know, from the organization."
He sat next to her on the bed and gently curled one of her dark locks around his finger. "Then there'd be two divorces necessary, wouldn't there?"
She smiled wanly. "Isn't it about time we go pick up those papers?"
He shook his head. "No, I was warned off our contact this morning. May be tainted."
"So there's no work for tonight?" she sniffed. "I canceled going to a concert with..."
"Your husband?" he asked as he leaned into her and kissed her neck, then her cheek, then her lips.
"Why didn't you tell me earlier?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to mislead you, I only just found out this morning. There's still time if you want to go." His hand slid down her arm to clasp her hand.
Her fingers wove into his. "I'd like to stay," she murmured.
"Do you have any idea how much I love you?" he whispered, choking back the intensity of his need for her.
She reached out and pulled him onto her, and there, in the darkness, in the privacy of the simple room he rented under an assumed name, there, where no one would find them, he made love to her, to the woman he loved, to the woman he loved more than life.
To a woman who was dead. Dead for four years.
His thoughts choked on this paradox, and gasping at the inconsistency, he opened his eyes. There was nothing but darkness surrounding. He frantically searched for a meaning to this part of his dream, but he could see nothing, not a hint of light. Jarring memories swept through him: fighting for his life, crashing noises, dizzying pain. Blackness. A nothingness as horrible and irremediable as Allison's death. With a slow, burning terror, he realized he was not dreaming.
He blinked his eyes and forced them to focus. Still nothing. Something was pressing against his eyes, and he tried reaching for his face but could not locate his arms. He finally found them by shaking them a bit, and as they awoke, he reached for his face again but they would still not move. He tried moving his legs, but they were frozen into place, numb from inaction. He tried to shake himself free and became aware that he was constrained in every direction.
Was he dead? Is this what death felt like? Dark, silent, immobile. He knew though that he was alive: a splitting pain in his skull made him feel certain of that. Not dead. Just surrounded by silent darkness. Maybe he was in a coffin. Maybe they thought he was dead. Maybe they had buried him. Or maybe they knew he was alive and had buried him anyway.
The muscles of his chest tightened; he could not breathe! He panted uselessly, his throat constricted in panic. He licked his lips but his mouth was dry, and he choked on the dust he imagined surrounded him. He struggled to gain control of himself, swallowed hard, and nearly retched. Something was in his mouth! Cautiously, he concentrated one step at a time on determining what was going on. His tongue probed forward and tasted cloth: he was gagged. He moved the muscles of his face and recognized that he was blindfolded, too.
He explored further, concentrating on his arms. With an effort, he was able to move his hands a fraction of an inch -- enough to determine that his wrists were bound together and tied to something else. He pulled sharply upward, and sharp pains shot through his arms and back. Clearly he had been in this position for some time. As his nerves awoke and he rediscovered each bit of his body, he ascertained that he was sitting with his arms wrapped around his legs and his wrists bound by a short length of cord to his ankles. If he dropped his head forward slightly, it could rest on his knees.
So, he wasn't in a coffin, not unless it had a very odd shape. As he calmed down, he began to wonder how he had remained upright for so long in such an awkward position. He rocked from side to side gently and felt something brush his shoulder on either side. He tried rocking back and forth, and he felt something supporting his back and could just scrape something with his feet. With growing dread, he raised his head as high as he could and felt his hair brush against something rough. It smelled like wood.
He swallowed hard several times before he allowed himself to realize that he was inside a crate just large enough to accommodate his curled-up body. He focused on breathing slowly, deeply, and tried not to notice how stale the air was. Tried not to think about the weight of earth that must be pressing down on him. Tried not to think about death by asphyxiation. Tried not to think about his lonely body moldering away to an unidentified skeleton.
Sunshine! Yes, he would think about sunshine. A bright, sunny, breezy day in the distant future. A desert, in fact. Endless sand cliffs and sunshine. For some reason, the distant future was sun-swept and barren with red dust and a cloudless, crystal blue sky. The sun beat down mercilessly on an empty landscape of ravines and canyons. There was no sign of life, or was there? The scurry of a rat, the cry of a distant hawk circling high above, two children playing, poking into the sand, digging up odds and ends. By a ravine. And what's that? A bit of wood sticking out from the cliff edge. No. An investigation, people standing around, curious. No, stop this! A box. Careful, don't break it! No, no! Look! A crumpled skeleton! No, it doesn't have to be like that! Poor bastard must have died in torment, wonder why. Perhaps religious significance? No! And so alone, some voice intones.
No, no, no, no, NO!
Despite his efforts, his breaths came in shorter and shorter gasps and he began to tremble. Not here. Not alone. Not now. Not like this! Oh God, oh God, oh God, they had buried him alive! Bound and gagged and blindfolded in a crate. Oh, God, not like this, not like this! He threw his head wildly backward, struck the wood hard. The shock brought him up short. Had it given slightly? As if the crate were not packed in earth? And where was the smell of dirt? He stifled his breathing and listened carefully. Were those sounds? Industrial noises? A train?
If they had wanted to strike terror in his heart, they were succeeding. But who were they? Clearly, somewhere along the line, he had been betrayed back into the hands of the Reich. "Time to go home, boy." That's what those thugs had said. The very last words he had heard: "Time to go home." Home to endless uniforms, to the stomp of boots, to ranting propaganda. Home to snooping neighbors, to droning officials, to permits and permissions. Home to fluttering flags, to ubiquitous swastikas, to gray and lifeless cities. Home to prison.
He listened intently, heard no sound over the pounding of his heart. Had his ears deceived him? Had they just left him somewhere to die horribly in a wooden crate? Was this their revenge, their sentence of death? If they had wanted to kill him, why not just do it? Why suffocate him or starve him or whatever? Surely, he had not been left to die; it was just too bizarre. As bizarre as quicklime-laden railway carriages, as bizarre as gas chambers...
The blackness closed in on him. Impotent surges of energy tormented his limbs. He needed to move! He needed to see! He did not want to die like this! Alone, ignorant, abandoned. He began to struggle mindlessly against his bonds, threw himself against the walls of the crate, attempted to scream through the cloth that choked him. After an unmeasurable time, he stopped, exhausted. Sweat streamed down his face, bright flashes danced before his eyes with each pound of his heart, his wrists were raw and slick with blood, and no one had come to him.
He struggled to keep his panic at bay, searching his past for something to fill the blankness. His grandmother's flat, sitting on the floor, his head resting on his knees, eyes shut tight against the sight of the dingy, moldy concrete of the walls and the leaden skies outside. The phonograph's volume so low he had to listen with his entire being. Music drifting around him: There'll be bluebirds over, the white cliffs of Dover... As the old, illegal song ran through his mind, he worked quietly on removing his blindfold. By scraping his face against his knees, he managed to work the cloth off his eyes and over his forehead. There'll be love and laughter... Next he forced the gag from his mouth, down his face, and let it settle around his neck. Elated by his progress, he began working on the knots that held his wrists in place....when the world is free. As he contorted his wrists in his struggle to untie himself, the words ran out and silence closed in. He could not remember any more of the song! The melody became garbled with his confused effort to remember. The darkness pressed against him, seeping like a cloud of death into his ears and eyes and mouth, working its way into the depths of his being, seeking out his soul and destroying the music. He tried to divert the pressing blackness with other thoughts, with laughter and light and fresh air, but the effort of untying his hands broke his concentration, and time and again the darkness threatened to envelop his being.
There'll be bluebirds over... He pushed his terror back....the white cliffs of Dover. He could see them now, could hear the sound of the waves pounding against the seawall. He felt the sting of the bitter salt air as he had awaited the ferry those four years ago. It had been a dark day, a "terminal day" was what Allison would have called it. "It's a terminal day," she would state, indicating that the mood of the weather was like some sort of ending. It was never clear whether terminal days were good or bad; they just were. He remembered the impenetrable barrier of gray on the horizon and had nodded his head in agreement. Yes, it had been a terminal day.
The wind had been high, or at least so it seemed to someone who had lived his life in the confines of a city. Seagulls mewed incessantly, and he had looked up at them to try to determine if Allison's spirit animated one of them. It had been only a month since her murder, and he still did things like that: he still looked for signs. There was nothing though; the birds were just birds. Flags slapped and banged noisily against their poles as the wind whipped around them, their clanging competing with the normal din of an industrial port. The ferry terminal was surrounded by flags, one on each post of the barbed-wire fence, the familiar red with its white circle around a black swastika -- the flag of his country, the flag that had, so many decades ago, before he was even born, won its right to dominate his island home.
Hundreds of boys were around him, shifting uneasily, cold and anxious to get under way. He remembered feeling distinctly out of place among all those kids. There were some other men, but the vast majority were sixteen-year-olds; that was the age when every able-bodied male from the conquered nation was required to serve his Reich. They received their notices with their sixteenth birthday and were marshaled once a week at the local train station. From there, hours of travel and even more hours of organization brought them tired, hungry, and cowed to the docks at Dover.
A few cold drops of rain were carried on the wind. They slapped into his face and he closed his eyes to savor the salt breeze, but it felt hot and the salty taste trickled into his mouth. He opened his eyes to the terrifying blackness and the enforced paralysis of his bonds. He had known it was there, but the reality nevertheless shocked him. It could have been hours later; hunger gnawed at his thoughts, thirst was driving him mad. The knots refused to budge. He could not work his fingers around far enough to get a good grasp on the ropes. Finally, he stopped, tasted the sweat that dripped into his mouth, and wondered what he should do next.
He closed his eyes against the darkness and tried to hear something. There was nothing though, nothing at all. Before the insanity of silence claimed him, he let his thoughts slip back into his memory. He heard the buzz of conversation around him: boys making friends, telling where they had come from, exchanging insights. Most of them had probably never left their native district, and now they were to be sent away for six years to work somewhere on the Continent as Pflichtarbeiter. For some it was like a great adventure, a welcome break from the crowding, the shortages, the tedious routine of their homes. For others, the ones who had an intuitive understanding of ju...
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