Mountains of Hope
Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler. Concentratin and death camps. When a plane with 10 American soldiers crashes in her only place of refuge, 14-year-old Alexi Wintrop instinctively offers them protection, gaining a friendship she would come to deeply cherish. When she is betrayed, however, and sent to Auschwitz, she must endure its terrors, examine her own beliefs, and answer, for herself, the question of whether or not loyalty and courage are enough to overcome evil.
German Police Station
Alexi didn’t know how long she’d been in the room, but it felt like hours when finally the door opened again. Two more men entered. Both were dressed in the black Nazi uniform of the Gestapo and wore the red swastika band on their arms. Black shoes completed the uniform. Both had blond hair and light faces. But that’s where the similarities ended. One was tall, with an athlete’s build. His blond hair was cut just above his ears and carried a slight curl to it. His eyes were narrow and ocean blue, and they seemed hidden beneath thick, black eyebrows. The other was average height and overweight. His hair was blond, too, but a darker shade than the first officer’s and cut in the buzz style. His eyebrows were thin and his skin was darker. His eyes were the dominant feature of his face, being large and topaz.
Alone with these two, Alexi’s fear escalated, and she was once more on alert. The tall one smiled casually at her, showing off large, white teeth and a slightly crooked smile. While he walked to lean against the wall to the right of Alexi, the shorter man took a seat across from her, leaning back in the chair. The room suddenly seemed to get smaller to Alexi. The men allowed silence to rule for a short time, making Alexi more uncomfortable. Finally, the tall one arched his eyebrows and moved one shoulder forward, arms over his chest.
“Miss Wintrop, my name is Joe Barsnelli. Sergeant Barsnelli to you, of course. And my partner here,” he waved a hand towards the other officer as Alexi’s gaze flittered to the second man and then back to Sergeant Barsnelli, “is Officer Darrell Santini. Alexi, do you know why you were arrested?”
Alexi opened her mouth but she couldn’t find her voice.
“Alexi, it would be very wise to answer Sergeant Barsnelli’s questions because, otherwise, we may have to find a more–uh–harsh method of getting you to cooperate,” Officer Santini threatened, his hand touched his baton.
Alexi swallowed heavily, looking back at the sergeant.
“Yes–yes, sir, I think I do.” Alexi ordered herself to remember she needed to stay strong.
“Why do you think you were arrested?”
“You think I hid American soldiers.”
“Very good. Now, we can get this over very fast if you’ll only answer my next question with nothing less than honesty. Did you hide American soldiers?”
“No sir, I did not.” Alexi’s fingers curled into balls behind her back.
Alexi took a deep breath. “Sergeant, if I may speak?”
“Why would I hide Americans? Where would I find American soldiers to hide in the first place?”
“Alexi, let me advise you, the very next time that you speak to the Sergeant in that tone of voice, you’ll live to regret it,” Officer Santini said, his eyes never wavering from Alexi’s.
Alexi lowered her eyes.
“Would you like to know why my men and I know you’re lying? Your own aunt told us,” Barsnelli said.
He waited to see surprise or shock fly over her face, but it never came. Alexi already knew that. When she didn’t reply, he smiled. “She told us that you went into the woods a lot and that she saw you carrying a basket into the woods. Now, won’t you tell us what was in that basket?” he asked in a sing-song voice, as though he were a father trying to lull a baby to sleep.
“Nothing was in that basket, Sergeant, either when I went into the woods or when I came out of them.”
“Really? Then how come you were carrying it? People don’t carry around empty baskets for no reason, do they?” he asked, frowning sarcastically and looking at Officer Santini, who laughed shortly.
“Because I love the woods, Sergeant, and I wanted to go exploring. I thought I might find some wild flowers or berries or something worth collecting.”
“What a charming story.”
Alexi remained quiet and still.
“Now, come along, Alexi, be so kind as to tell us the truth. Food was in that basket, wasn’t it?”
“Wasn’t it?” his voice raised.
Alexi still shook her head. “No sir.”
Silence rang loud until the Sergeant uncrossed his folded arms, heaved a sigh, and walked to stand behind her. He snapped his fingers at Santini, who tossed him a set of keys. The sound of them jingling as they flew through the air made Alexi flinch for fear that they would be used as a weapon against her. A moment later, however, she was out of the handcuffs. “There you are,” the Sergeant said pleasantly.
Alexi moved her arms in front of her and rubbed her sore wrists. She turned her head to see Barsnelli. “Thank you, Sergeant.”
“Alexi, were you aware that, two months ago, a plane carrying approximately ten American soldiers crashed in a clearing inside the woods you love so much?”
Alexi shook her head. “No, Sergeant, I was not aware of that. What happened to the soldiers?”
Barsnelli tossed the keys back to Santini and moved both his arms behind his back, bent his head forward, and walked around to stand behind Santini.
“We do not know. We assume they either burned so badly, and literally within minutes that their bodies disintegrated, or, more likely, they ran into the woods and managed to escape. Perhaps you could enlighten us as to the truth of their fates.”
“I wish I could, sir, but I know nothing about that plane crash.”
Alexi remained quiet, her hands now folded together, sitting on her lap. She bit the urge to chew on her bottom lip as she knew it would show guilt to the soldiers. Her heart, though, was beating so loudly she was terrified they could hear it.
The Sergeant began to walk around the room, with his hands loosely intertwined behind his back. Without looking at her, he asked the next question. “Do you deny that your behavior became different around that same time? Two months ago?”
She seemed to think about this and then shook her head. “No, sir. I suppose it did change some.”
“What would have caused that change?”
“Lots of things. For one, my father, whom I have not seen or heard from in almost five years, began sending me letters about that time. It was a shock that required getting used to, as you can imagine. For another, my studies became more difficult and I spent a lot of time on my grades. And my aunt and uncle decided to divorce, which affected me maybe more than my aunt knew.”
“How terribly sad,” he said, his voice dripping with ice.
It sent chills racing over Alexi’s back.
“Did you know that your aunt tells me that it was you who caused her and her husband to split?”
Unexpected pain seared through Alexi’s body, so forcefully it made her head swim. If the sergeant physically struck her, it couldn’t hurt as much as those words. She wet her lips. “No, sir, I was not of aware of that. That is terribly upsetting.”
“Good. Maybe now you’ll tell me the truth.” He stopped walking and lifted his head to look at her. “Where did you hide those men?”
For the next two hours, the sergeant questioned her. Alexi never lost her cool. She always remained detached and showed no visible sign that anything he said had affected her, although it did. The sergeant pretended to be a kind man, until about two hours into the interrogation, when he finally decided he didn’t care and just wanted the ordeal to be ended. All he wanted was a confession. A confession that Alexi was determined he wouldn’t get. He finally began to lose patience. “Alexi!” he warned, putting both hands on the table and leaning forward towards her face. “I do not,” he yelled, “appreciate being lied to by a mere child! Tell me the truth! Where are those men?” he yelled, his voice thick and booming with strength and impatience.
Alexi flinched. Still, though, she shook her head, holding her ground. “I do not know. I am sorry, sir. If I did, I would tell you.”
“Are you aware that lying to me is a felony? A felony for which you could be thrown into jail? I could kill you right here, right now, for treason. You are at my mercy, so I would advise you to think very carefully before you lie to me just once more.” He paused for emphasis before he narrowed his eyes. “Did you… hide… American soldiers?” he asked slowly.
Alexi inhaled and met his eyes. “Sergeant, my family, my entire family, is loyal and sympathetic to the Third Reich. We love Adolf Hitler as much as you do. If I had ever been in a position to either turn in my country’s enemy, which I have not, or to shelter them, I would have told you immediately. I would not turn my back on my family or Germany, especially for men I did not know and could be killed for helping. So, to answer you, Sergeant, no, I did not hide any American soldiers.”
Barsnelli stood upright and drew his hand back before he swung and hit her hard in the face. Her chair slid backwards and she fell off. The sergeant took his baton and hit her in the stomach as hard as he could. Alexi moaned and curled her legs up to her chest. Then he kicked her back with the toe of his boot. She arched and her face contorted with pain. Tears stung the backs of her eyes as he kicked her again, until she was lying on her back, and then he rested his boot on her chest. He leaned down until his face was inches from hers. He didn’t speak for a long moment before he spit in her face and stood again. He turned to face Santini, who had remained silent through the ordeal.
“Take her downstairs.”
Santini stood, walked over as if nothing had happened, and watched her momentarily. “Stand on your feet.”
Alexi couldn’t move.
The baton hit the backs of her knees. Santini leaned down and grabbed her upper arm. Yanking her to her feet, her legs threatening to collapse, he grabbed her chin in a menacing grip. “Haven’t you yet learned to do what I say?”
She opened her mouth but couldn’t speak.
“Answer me!” Santini shouted.
She sighed. “I’m sorry, sir,” she mumbled, her teeth chattering and her body shaking. Without another word, Santini dragged her down the stairs. He pulled her along a hallway until they reached a gate. “Open it!” he barked.
A moment later the gate opened. When they entered the hallway, Alexi could see the cells where people laid but she couldn’t meet their faces. He pulled her down the hallway further. Each time she stumbled, he pushed her onward, always keeping a bruising grip on her arm, to keep her from collapsing. They finally reached the end of the hallway, where he pulled out a set of keys and opened a cell. Without a word, he pushed her in. As he closed the cell with a loud bang, Alexi fell to the cold floor, relieved to at least be alone. Her eyes caught sight of a mouse. She swallowed, fear eating at every corner of her body. She placed one exhausted hand flat on the floor and used every ounce of strength to push herself to the opposite corner, away from the mouse. She then laid her head on the concrete floor, curled her body into the fetal position, and slowly allowed the tears to fall as she closed her eyes.
***** ***** *****
Several hours later, another guard came to the cell and dragged her out. Having some of her strength restored, she was able to walk unaided alongside him. He led her to the same interrogation room as before and left her there. Several minutes passed before Officer Santini and Sergeant Barsnelli entered. They interrogated, threatened, beat and harassed her again for several hours. Gone was the calm and collected sergeant. He was as harsh as the rest of them. When he finally became exhausted, he again ordered Santini to take her to the cell and leave her there. Alexi was too battered to wonder about what was going to happen to her at first light. She was far too beaten and exhausted to be able to shed a tear. Most of all, she was too broken, physically and emotionally, to even care.
***** ***** *****
Alexi’s eyelids were so swollen that it hurt for her to open or close them. Her young face was also swollen. It had been the most agonizing night of her life. It hadn’t taken long to fall asleep, but the peacefulness that usually accompanied sleep eluded her. She dreamed of seeing the soldiers again. She saw Charlie’s face smiling at her, but then the image suddenly changed to Charlie’s troubled eyes as he left the cave. She saw David’s beautiful dark eyes teasing her, and then she saw the way he clenched his hands together in fear and concern. Terry’s gentle, father-like voice assured her, but she also recalled the desperation and intense fear she’d felt in his last hug. The tear that rolled down Tony’s face replayed itself in her mind, mixed with other times when she’d heard him laugh. Long before daybreak, Alexi woke up, on her back, with her eyes on the ceiling. She rolled to her stomach and put her arms in front of her.
Unable to stop, her mind drifted to her aunt. For the first time since everything happened, she felt her aunt’s betrayal seep into her bones. She’d known Marilyn hadn’t really cared one way or another about her, but nothing could have made that clearer than the betrayal Marilyn perpetrated by turning her over to the police. Alexi wiped the escaped tear from her eye and sat up. Her hands were bruised, chapped, and aching as were her sides, stomach and back. The sergeant hadn’t hesitated to use his boot or baton; he had treated her as though she were a football. Alexi remembered the anger in his eyes when he’d spit at her. Though she would have liked to pretend otherwise, Alexi was really scared. She’d been afraid that the interrogation would turn into an execution. He’d promised her it could. Murder her and explain how the prisoner confessed to betraying her country, and he’d have gotten away with it with nothing more than a congratulations from his superiors. Alexi wondered now why he’d spared her life. Were there more tortures he wanted to show her? What else could he possibly want with her?
***** ***** *****
Alexi stayed awake, listening to the other prisoners cry or scream until about eleven that morning. An officer, one she didn’t remember seeing the day before, opened the cell and ordered her to stand. Alexi dragged herself into an upright position and waited for the Nazi to grab her bruised arm and half-drag, half-pull her wherever it was they were going now. Instead, the tall, lean, dark-haired man with the oval shaped aqua eyes watched her quietly for a long time, in silence.
Finally he inclined his head. “Alexi Wintrop?”
“I’m Officer Broderick. I need you to follow me.”
“Yes sir,” she whispered.
Instead of grabbing her arm to pull her, he waited until she stepped out in front of him. “Walk until I direct you otherwise.”
The officer and Alexi walked along the long hallway until they came to the end of it, to the door that led to the interrogation room Alexi hated. He pushed it open and waved a hand. “Go in,” he ordered.
Alexi stepped inside.
“The sergeant will be with you directly,” he informed her before he closed the door, leaving Alexi alone once more. Alexi’s eyes were wide as she slowly turned to look at the room again. Nothing changed. It was still the same stark and cold room where she’d been beaten the day before. The sergeant came in alone this time, which only frightened Alexi more.
“Good morning, Alexi,” he drawled as he kicked back the chair across from her and sat down.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Did you have a pleasant night?”
Alexi decided that question was best left unanswered. Barsnelli knew the answer anyway, and it had been a cruel and sarcastic thing to ask. He smiled and leaned forward to drop his elbows on his knees.
“Well… Alexi, I went home last night and started thinking.” He’d done nothing of the sort but a gentle and soothing voice that a child could relate to was a good means to an end. “And I’d like to make a deal with you. You tell me the truth about the soldiers, about how you hid them, and tell me whatever else you know, such as their current location, and I’ll send you home to your aunt. She’s assured me that she’ll watch over you this time. I don’t want to hurt a child, and so I’ve agreed to this plan. Do you agree too?”
“Sir, I told you the truth. I don’t know any American soldiers, did not hide them, and know nothing about their whereabouts. If you know beyond a doubt that men hid in those woods, I promise you that they did so without my knowledge.”
Barsnelli remained silent for a long time before he leaned back against the chair. “Alexi, if you don’t tell me the truth right now, I’ll have no choice but to send you to a camp. We call them work camps. Do you know what people do in work camps?”
“Well, I’ll you the truth. Some people would say that you don’t need to know the truth because you’re a child. Some of my men even would say that. But I disagree. Here is the truth. Jews are sent there. Other undesirable people are sent there. They do very difficult work and if you think the lesson I gave you last night was bad, you should witness some of the lessons the soldiers there give the prisoners. They sporadically and systematically kill many people, even children, especially children, children much younger than you. The workers there, they dig graves. You wouldn’t last a week. Now…”
He paused as Alexi’s face went white, her insides trembling. The picture he painted was not pretty, and she had no reason to believe it wasn’t true. “Alexi, be honest with me and you’ll never have to know about the work camps.”
Alexi briefly considered her options. She could betray the soldiers or she could go to a work camp. There was no option.
“Sergeant, I’m sorry. I don’t know anything.”
He tipped his head to the side, pursed his lips and stood. “All right then.”
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