The fall of the Third Reich is imminent. As the merciless Red Army advances from the East, the German people of Prussia await the worst.
Among them is twenty-year-old Gisela Cramer, an American living in Heiligenbeil with her cousin Ella and their ailing grandfather. When word arrives that the Russians will invade overnight, Ella urges Gisela to escape to Berlin—and take Ella’s two small daughters with her.
The journey is miserable and relentless. But when Gisela hears the British accent of a phony SS officer, she poses as his wife to keep him safe among the indignant German refugees. In the blink of an eye, Mitch Edwards and Gisela are Herr and Frau Josep Cramer.
Through their tragic and difficult journey, the fabricated couple strives to protect Ella’s daughters, hoping against hope for a reunion. But even as Gisela and Mitch develop feelings beyond the make–believe, the reality of war terrorizes their makeshift family.
With the world at its darkest, and the lives of two children at stake, the counterfeit couple finds in each other a source of faith, hope, and the love they need to survive.
Heiligenbeil, East Prussia
February 8, 1945
Bright red and orange explosions lit the dark, deep-winter East Prussian evening. Gisela Cramer hugged herself to ward off the bitter chill. Her warm breath frosted the window pane and with her fingernail she shaved a peep hole. She didn't know what she expected to see. Maybe the Russians surging over the hill.
An icy shudder racked her. She couldn’t block out the sights and the sounds of the last time the Russians found her.
Behind her, Ella Reinhardt’s two small girls giggled as they played on the worn green and blue Persian rug which covered the hardwood floors. Gisela’s Opa dozed in his sagging, old, overstuffed chair, his Bible open on his lap. His skin hung on his thin face. Every now and then he coughed and stirred, then settled back to sleep.
Each day he grew weaker. His condition worried Gisela, especially since he refused to let a doctor see him.
A Red Army mortar shell hit its target not far from them in town and rocked the earth beneath her feet. The vibrations almost buckled her legs. Her heart throbbed in her chest. How much longer could the German army hold off the Soviets? What would happen to them when they arrived?
Almost at the same instant, an urgent pounding began at the door, accompanied by Dietrich Holtzmann’s deep voice. “Herr Eberhart. Herr Eberhart.”
Not wanting Opa to have to get up, Gisela spun from the window, tip-toed over and around the children’s dolls and blocks and answered the door.
The breathless older man, their neighbor Herr Holtzmann, stepped over the threshold. The wind had colored his cheeks. He pulled his red knit cap over his ears, gray hair sticking out of the ends. “I had to warn you right away.”
Gisela held out her hands to take Herr Hotlzmann’s coat, but he shook his head. “I can’t stay.”
“Let me get you something hot to drink at least. Some ersatz coffee maybe?”
“Have a game of checkers with me, Dietrich. We can talk as we play.” Opa sat straighter in his chair.
“I don't have time. We’re leaving, Bettina and Katya and me. Tonight. Whoever is left in town is going west, as far and as fast as possible. By morning, the Russians will pour in from the south. You need to come with us. All of you. Take the children and get out of here. It is too dangerous.”
Gisela had feared this moment for many days. Though she had pleaded with her family to leave, they delayed. Opa’s health was too poor.
Gisela peered at the girls, who now clutched their dolls to their chests and stared at Herr Holtzmann with their big gray eyes. A shudder ripped through her. She knew all too well the peril they would be in if they didn’t leave before the Red Army arrived.
Opa’s hands shook as he grasped the chair’s armrest to stand. “Ja, it is time to leave. We knew it would come, though we prayed it wouldn’t.”
Her cousin Ella stepped in to the living room from the tiny kitchen, wiping her cracked hands on a faded blue dish towel, then tucking a strand of blonde hair behind her ear.
The cold wrapping itself around Gisela intensified. How would Opa make the trek? They had no car, no horse, only bicycles. “Are you sure they will be here by morning?”
Herr Holtzmann nodded. “If you wait for daylight, it will be too late. Pack whatever you can and get out of here. My sisters and I are leaving within the hour.”
Gisela rubbed her arms. “What about Opa?”
Her grandfather shook his head. She recognized the determination in the firm line of his mouth. He couldn’t be thinking about staying here. Surely not.
Herr Holtzmann pulled his red knit cap farther over his ears. “Go. Right now. Get out of this place and head west.”
Ella ushered their neighbor into the frigid night. “We will be ready in an hour.” She took a moment to lean against the door after she closed it, breathing in and out. Gisela followed her lead, willing her galloping heart to settle into a canter. Another nearby blast rocked the house, reverberating in her bones.
Closer. Closer. They were coming closer.
In her memory, she heard those soldiers kick in the door. Heard screams. Gunshots.
She clutched her chest, finding it hard to breathe, and snapped back to the present.
They had to run.
An hour. They would leave in an hour. She drew an unsteady breath and steeled herself. “We can’t let them catch us.”
Deep sadness and fear clouded Ella’s face. “You leave.”
Gisela took a step back. “What about you?”
“What about Opa? He will never survive the trip. He needs me. And the DRK. There are so many refugees already in the city.” She squared her shoulders and straightened her spine.
Gisela glanced at Annelies and Renate playing once more, now pulling a tin train on a string. “What about the girls? They can’t stay.”
“I want you to take them.”
Had Ella lost her mind? She couldn’t leave her opa and her cousin here alone to face a horrible, certain fate. Those screams she had heard once rattled in her brain. “Nein. I won’t leave without you. Both of you. Let’s get packed.”
Opa stepped in front of her, his arms crossed. “Ella and I discussed this weeks ago, when the Russian offensive began. You will take the girls and go. She and I will remain here. When the fighting is over, we will join you.”
“If all of us don’t go, none of us will.” Gisela headed toward the kitchen. Ella grabbed her by the shoulder, her fingers digging into Gisela’s flesh. “You’re not listening to me. I am not going. And Opa can’t.” Annelies and Renate ran to their mother and clutched her leg.
Ella lowered her voice. “I will help you get ready and give you whatever money I have, but you have to be the one to take my children. For now, Opa needs me. I have the nursing skills to take care of him. And when the war is over, this is where Frederick will come looking for me. If I’m not here, he won’t be able to locate me. Bitte, bitte, take my children to safety. Opa and I will join you as soon as possible.”
Chilled to the core, Gisela bit her lip. The pleading, crying in Ella’s voice pinched her heart. Should she take the girls and leave her cousin and opa behind? “You know what awaits you if you stay.”
“You have to do this. For my sake. Save my girls. Take them from here. It’s their only chance.”
The fluttering in Gisela’s stomach meant she would never see Ella again. Nor Opa. They both knew what would happen. Her throat constricted, making speaking difficult. “Think about this. Your girls need you. Their father is gone and you are all they have left. I’m not their mother. I’m not enough for them. You have a responsibility.”
The color in Ella’s fair face heightened. “And I have the nursing background to take care of Opa and a vow to my husband. This isn’t easy for me to send my children west. Believe me, my heart is breaking. But remember, your parents did it for you. I am asking you – begging you – to do this for me.”
Thoughts whirled like a snowstorm through Gisela’s mind. How could she take care of the girls? Even if she got them to safety, what would happen to them after the war? Their mother would never come and their father would never find them, if he even survived.
And Opa. The Russians would not show mercy to an old, sick man.
Ella drew Gisela’s stiff body close and whispered in her ear, her words laced with tears. “I trust you. I have faith in you. Bitte, for my sake, for the girls’ sake, take them.”
“I will not separate them from their mother. If you don’t come with us, I won’t go, either.”
Ella released her hold and Gisela fled up the steep wood stairs to her second floor bedroom. The pictures on the wall of Opa and Oma with their children rattled as another shell hit its mark. They had no time to waste.
The room had a sloped roof and was tiny, with little space not taken by the bed and the pine wardrobe. A small, doily-covered bedside table held her Bible, a picture of Mutti and Vater, and a photograph of her beloved sister, Margot.
Without thinking much, she grabbed all of her underwear, a red and green plaid wool skirt, two blouses and a gray sweater and stuffed them into a battered, well-traveled pea-green suitcase. All of it donated by Ella when she arrived here last fall.
Gisela yanked the drawer pull of the nightstand so hard it shook. Fighting for breath and to hold back tears, she picked up her Bible, the one she had always kept here and the photos and stuffed them into her suitcase.
Hurry, hurry, hurry. The words pounded in her head in time to the pounding of her heart. What else must she take? Money.
A rusty coffee tin hidden in the back of her wardrobe held all the cash she had in the world. She withdrew it and removed the small wad of colorful Reichsmarks, counting them three times to make sure she knew what she had. Or didn’t have.
She folded the cash and slipped it into a pocket sewn on the inside of her dress, along with a handful of cigarettes from the tin. They were like gold, barter for whatever they needed. Anyone would sell anything for a cigarette.
She did much the same as she had two years ago when she traveled to East Prussia and to safety, away from her parents, away from the Allied bombs in Berlin. The war had caught up with her when she stayed with Tante Sonje and her cousins farther east in the country.
And it had caught up again.
About The Author
Liz Tolsma has lived in Wisconsin most of her life, and she now resides next to a farm field with her husband and their two daughters. Her son proudly serves as a U.S. Marine. All of their children have been adopted internationally and one has special needs. Her novella, Under His Wings, appeared in the New York Times bestselling collection, A Log Cabin Christmas. Her debut novel, Snow on the Tulips, released in August of 2013 and was a 2014 Selah Award finalist and a 2014 Carol Award finalist. Daisies Are Forever released in May 2014. When not busy putting words to paper, she enjoys reading, walking, working in her large perennial garden, kayaking, and camping with her family. Please visit her blog at www.liztolsma.blogspot.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@LizTolsma). She is also a regular contributor to the Barn Door blog.
Liz Tolsma is giving away a copy of Daisies Are Forever. To be entered in the giveaway, leave a comment along with your email address. You can enter the book giveaway twice—once on each Spotlight post for the author. Please note: The giveaway is for U.S. addresses only.