“You’ve done what?”
Reverend Christoph Gottschalk hoped the purplish tinge to his deacon’s skin was a reaction to the cold. He had not the time to deal with Alfons Thalberg’s stubborn temper. Against his better judgment, he repeated himself.
“I have been hiding Jews in the crypt.”
Alfons’ face flushed deeper purple, eliminating cold as a possibility for the color. His bass voice ground out the words. “How long, Pastor?”
The title was an accusation.
Christoph’s chest tightened to quell the dual wave of defensiveness and guilt that gushed through him. “Six months now.”
Alfons turned crisply on his heel and paced away from him, words rumbling indistinctly in his chest. Christoph rubbed his hands briskly up and down his arms. The stone walls of the old chapel did little to protect from the creeping chill of the snow-laden day. Alfons turned suddenly, dark eyes sparking fury.
“With Gestapo in our village? Have you gone geisteskrank? Have you no thought of the safety of your congregation?” The words bounced off the stone walls hideously, shattering the tranquility of the sanctuary.
Christoph stumbled on his reply. Alfons was big – a farmer whose work-hardened muscles strained at his woolen coat and whose long limbs set him several inches over his pastor. It was difficult to stand up to his wrath.
“No family has stayed longer than two days. I’ve done little more than offer food and shelter to refugees. “
“Why not in your own home? Why at the church?”
“Who watches the goings on in the crypt of a church, Alfons? The Gestapo themselves have not suspected a thing.” He was gaining confidence. It was good to have someone to speak with, even like this. “It is only this latest snowstorm that has given us trouble. It was far too dangerous for them to try to find their way while the snow fell, and now their contact has gone into hiding.”
“Why tell me now? People will be arriving for pageant rehearsal any moment.”
“Yes, precisely.” Christoph motioned Alfons toward the window nearest them.
The black outline of a man paced in the soft light from the lanterns in the street. He turned on his heel, the metal stock of his gun glinting ominously.
“They almost caught the contact. They know there must be Jews in this village – and they’ve been patrolling outside the church all day. I think we can send the Benesh family safely on their way tonight if my plan works.”
“Listen closely, Alfons.”
The discordant strains of musicians warming up followed him down the stairs to the crypt. Alfons was keeping the pageant rehearsal on schedule and informing the appropriate people of the changes in order.
The crypt. Dank and moldy in summer, it was bone-chilling and dangerous in winter. He stepped over a thin patch of ice glinting menacingly at him in the lantern light. His conscience revolted at keeping people here, but it was for their protection. Christoph tightened his grip on the lantern and pressed on.
A man materialized on the edge of the light. “Christoph. We did not expect you today.”
“Come, gather your things. With God’s help, you’ll be on your way before the night is gone.”
Mordcha nodded and turned back to his family. No questions, no time spent hashing out the fool-hardiness of his plan. Alfons could take a lesson from this man, Christoph decided.
It took pitifully little time to pack up the few possessions the Benesh family carried. The first strains of “Stille Nacht” floated down the steps as they ascended.
“Your congregation – they will not…”
The faint, incomplete question came from Avi, the 9-year-old with ancient eyes.
Christoph smiled. “Those that can be trusted will know – the rest will not notice.”
“Christ, der Retter ist da…” The trio of young voices continued the carol as the family threaded their way toward the side door. The pageant participants ignored them. At any moment, Alfons and a few others would make a commotion to attract the soldiers’ attention…
The back door flew open and four soldiers spilled into the sanctuary. Alfons stepped into their path as Christoph edged the Beneshs backwards toward the platform.
“What business have you here?”
“We are ordered to search for Jews.”
“We are rehearsing for our Christmas service…”
“Then you will have no objections.”
Alfons looked to Christoph helplessly, then stepped aside to let them pass. The children shakily picked up their carol as the stamp of army boots overpowered the music.
To be continued…
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