If someone told you that you couldn’t say your opinion, what would you do? Would you fight back? If your choices and freedom were taken away “for your own protection,” how would you react? Imagine you couldn’t fight back, not if you wanted to live that is.
Now think of it this way: everywhere you look you see people going bankrupt and falling into poverty, and all of a sudden, a savior arrives. This person promises to give everyone jobs, to pull the economy out of depression, and show that the country and its people cannot be messed with or blamed for world destruction. Would you welcome this rescuer, and be willing to live with less freedom or would you choose to live with poverty, so you could say what you want?
Helmuth grew up in Hamburg, Germany with two step-brothers, Hans and Gerhard, and his mom, Mutti, in a flat with his grandparents as neighbors. After the Nazis gained power, Helmuth’s mom started seeing Hugo H bener. When Hugo moved in, he declared that the flat was too small for the family, so they moved. That upset Helmuth because he didn’t like how Hugo came into their lives and started to direct everyone and make decisions without the other family members. These actions remind Helmuth of Hitler.
Not too long before Helmuth had joined the Hitler Youth, he had always wanted to. Growing up, Helmuth wanted to become a hero for his country and to be a leader, but living with Hugo has changed his views. Everywhere Helmuth goes he is told that the Jewish people are bad and the reason why Germany is suffering. He is told how Germans are superior to all. But at his church he learns that Jews were God’s first people and that everyone has a right to believe in what they want to. However, he is also taught how to honor one’s country – by obeying, honoring, and supporting its laws. Helmuth wants to be a good German, but he doesn’t agree with the country’s laws or leaders.
After Gerhard turned eighteen, he was sent to France to help with the war, and when he came back he brought a shortwave radio. These were illegal in Germany because it was against the law to listen to enemy propaganda. After Gerhard gets deported again, Helmuth finds the courage to retrieve the radio from the locked safe. Twisting the dial, Helmuth finds BBC London – a British radio station. The announcer starts reporting about the war, which startles Helmuth. He learns more information than he expects, including whether it is a loss or win for Britain. The reports are different from Germany’s because they show the whole picture, not just the part that makes their country look good. This enrages Helmuth. He feels betrayed by the Fatherland because they are being lied to; Germans thought they were winning the war, but they have actually had heavy losses. Helmuth wants to tell everyone, but what can he do? One teenager can’t fix the entire country, so he remains silent – like he has been since Hitler gained power. “He’s silent every night around Hugo. Every day at school when Herr Vinke says terrible things about Jews. Every meeting with the Jungvolk when they play games like ‘Capture the Jew’” (p. 73). But how long can you keep your feelings and thoughts to yourself before it tears you apart? How long can a person keep agreeing with something that feels extremely wrong?
After Helmuth graduates, he starts to work at the Bieberhaus (a department that is in charge of the public wellbeing at City Hall). A task Helmuth is given requires him to go the storage room where he finds thousands of books. All the books were written by people who weren’t German or who had criticized Germany so having these books is against the law, but Helmuth just can’t resist. He takes a book home with him and shows it to one of his closest friends, Rudi Wobbe.
A month later, a church leader, Heinrich Worbs, gets arrested (at the age of sixty-six) for speaking his mind. The arrest of Brother Worbs and the book Helmuth has read, Geist und Tat, Spirit and Action, written by Heinrich Mann, push Helmuth over the edge – he realizes what he wants. “Helmuth sits, closes his eyes. Takes a deep breath. Feels a warm calm fill him, and suddenly knows. He opens his eyes. ‘Geist und Tat,’ he says. Spirit and Action. That’s what Helmuth wants” (p.110).
Helmuth knows what will happen if he gets caught just listening to the radio, will he be daring enough to break more laws in order to expose the truth? How will Helmuth awake the country? Who will Helmuth be able to trust with this huge task and enormous secret? How will his story end?
After reading this book, it really opened my eyes to how the world was during World War II. Susan Campbell Bartoletti took me through Helmuth’s life; while I read the book, it felt like I was there, standing next to Helmuth when all of these events occurred. After I learned the fate of this one seventeen-year-old boy, I became extremely grateful. Helmuth always wanted to be a hero for his country, and by undertaking the tremendous task that he did, Helmuth became one.
by: Polina Eskin
September 13, 2015