Everyone has a story to tell. And one northern Illinois woman has found a way to tell hers, 77 years after Nazis dropped the Blitzkrieg on her doorstep.
World War II started for five-year-old Henriette Kraus on May 10th, 1940.
“I woke up. And there was a lot of noise, and my sisters in their nightgowns, looking out the window. So I went there, too,” she recalled. “And here is the tanks, the trucks, everything is coming down the street. The airplanes are flying over. I mean, I didn't know what was happening. You know, that's how the war started. For me.”
Now her name is Henriette Agnes. And she lives in a comfortable home in St. Charles with her husband Albert. Both of them built their lives in Illinois after the war: She, from Luxembourg. He, from France. But back then, she was the youngest of seven children living with their parents on their farm in Hostert, a town of about 150. Germans were pushing into their country. Soon, their own government fled and the Third Reich announced, “Luxembourgers, you are German.” They had to drop their languages, French and Luxembourgish. Their sons were conscripted into the German military. They belonged to Nazi Germany.
Henriette’s family resisted. And that’s the story she wants to tell now. So she went to a meeting of the St. Charles Writers Group, to ask if anyone thought she had “a story.”
The answer was unanimous: Yes.
Bruce Steinberg couldn’t wait to talk to her after the meeting. An author himself, he says a fair number of people come to the group looking for someone to tell their stories. But this was different.
“She was striking, tall, bright blue eyes. She's got the accent,” Steinberg said. “And she didn't ask ‘will someone write my book?’ She said, ‘does anyone think I have a story?’ Which I thought shows a lot of humility.”
And they got to work, co-writing her story covering five years of her young life in Luxembourg, especially her family’s struggle to keep her oldest brother out of the hands of the Nazis. Steinberg had a lot to learn…including how to write in her voice. He said if he strayed from the truth, she was there to pull him back.
And she said that especially in the beginning, “his American” came through in the writing. So he had to learn more about her country. And the more he learned, the more the writing sounded like her time, her home.
Two years and 456 pages later, they had Henriette’s story down on paper.
Really, it’s the story of the Kraus family. And others whose experiences at the hands of Nazis during World War II aren’t as well-known.
It’s the story of Henriette’s mother surprising her son Leon at a train station with an escape plan after he had been forced into the German military.
“And she knew what board he would have to stand in front of to figure out his train,” Henriette said. “And so she went and stood behind him. And she said ‘Leon, don't turn around. It’s mom.” She pauses. “I still can't talk about it without tears. And she said look at the bottom (of the board), there's a suitcase there. And I packed your Sunday clothes and everything. She said go to the bathroom if you can and then take your uniform off. Then you should go see the people who are going to take you wherever. You know, my father had arranged all that. And then she left him.”
This is where we pause for tears, back in 2019, in the Agnes’ living room as Henriette ponders what her mother went through, standing so close to her son, but having to stay apart.
It’s the story of hiding food from the Nazis and getting it to the young military deserters who hid in unused parts of a local mine.
It’s the story of a “magic” family dog named Flocki, who had a different bark for different people – and saved the family a number of times by alerting them to Nazi visitors.
It’s the story of a secret panel in an armoire that opened into a hay-filled loft. That’s where the family hid the oldest son, Leon, the deserter, from the prying eyes of a Nazi neighbor – and the Germans who were looking for him.
“Bang bang bang on the door. There were seven S.S. or whatever. They wanted to check the house and spent three hours looking for him. They didn’t find him.”
This is the story that Henriette Agnes has waited her whole life to tell. She’s named her book “Henriette: A Child on the Doorstep of the Nazi Blitzkrieg.” She has had copies printed up for family – Leon’s grandchildren are especially awed to learn how life could have been very different if their great-grandparents hadn’t fought so hard to save the family… and hadn’t been so lucky. The book is being translated into Luxembourgish – her native tongue. But she is still looking for a publisher here at home. Henriette also hopes the book that bears her name will encourage people to think about their own stories and how to get them out there.