Grete couldn’t recall much about the day she and her brother, Erich,
were taken away from their home. Four years old, her memories were
already confused by the recent death of their mother, which had brought
their father home briefly. Then he left again, and a little while later,
one of Grete’s older sisters said that he, too, was dead, killed in
the line of duty. It was the war, she had said, the Big One. For the
first time, the whole world was at war.
Grete couldn’t remember much about her older sisters, either, except
for the dark outlines their slight bodies made in the front window that
day, when the tall, skinny man came and lifted her and Erich into the
rickety black buggy. The horse’s hoofs set up a steady “click,
click, click” as it unenthusiastically pulled the buggy down the road,
leaving behind the little house with its young occupants, soon to be
sent to entirely different orphanages.
Grete and her brother sat close together through the long journey, Erich
quietly sucking on the fingers of one hand, Grete silently watching the
man, who never spoke or smiled. Finally, they pulled up in front of a
massive brick building. The man helped the two out of the buggy and put
their matching little black suitcases next to them. “Wait here,” he
ordered. The children clutched each other’s hands as he rang the bell.
Presently, a woman stepped out. She was dressed in flowing black robes,
with a black winged hat held fast on her head by a stiff white hood that
kept her chin high and wound around her neck as if to choke her. Down
the front of her robes hung an enormous golden cross; on her face sat a
heavy, smoldering anger. The horse shook its head wildly and neighed.
Grete shivered. The woman in black stopped in front of her.
“What is your name?” she demanded.
“Grete,” the girl whispered, unable to find her full voice.
“I can’t hear you!” The woman forced a horrible smile. “What is
your name, child?”
Paralyzed with fear, Grete could not turn her gaze away from the angry
eyes. “My name is Grete!” she answered much more forcefully than she
The black-clad woman showed her horrible smile again. “Grete. Good. I
am Sister Sarah. I will be taking care of you. Come!”
“You may go,” she added to the man, who stood waiting a few feet
away. He patted the children on their heads and muttered something
inaudible, avoiding Grete’s eyes. “Follow me,” the nun commanded,
snatching up the two little suitcases and walking briskly toward the
Grete stood rooted to the spot until the man climbed into his buggy.
Then she began to scream.
“No, don’t leave!” she cried hysterically. The horse pulled away
from the curb. “I want to go with you! Don’t leave us here!”
Erich, who had been standing motionless the entire time, began sobbing.
“I’m scared,” he whimpered.
Suddenly Grete was spun around in a fierce grip. “Stop your wailing at
once!” Sister snarled, bringing her face close to Grete’s. “Stop
it, do you hear?”
Instinctively, Grete’s mouth snapped shut as her eyes stretched wide
with pain. “Now start walking!” the nun hissed. “I don’t have
Grete groped for Erich’s hand. Together, they followed the sister
through the dark hole into the dank, shadowy building.
Sister Sarah led the children down a long hallway with towering windows
on one side. The linoleum-covered floor shined like scuffed glass; the
air was rich with wax. The nun stopped in front of a wooden door that
seemed to loom above her. Grete tightened her grip on her brother’s
The door swung open to reveal a large room filled with rows of beds.
Grete could hear her own heartbeat as she and Erich followed the nun
down one of the rows.
“This is where you sleep,” Sister said, pointing to a bed that
looked exactly like all the others. “Keep it clean! I do not allow
Grete nodded as if the words made sense. Sister dropped her suitcase.
“Empty it!” the nun commanded with an impatient gesture. “Stack it
all neatly on the bed, and wait here until I come back to get you!”
She took Erich’s hand and headed back out of the room.
“Where is he going?” Grete asked with alarm. Sister whirled around.
Her eyes had narrowed into slits behind her glasses. Moving
deliberately, she bent down to poke her face close to Grete’s.
“Boys and girls do not sleep in the same room,” she hissed. Her
teeth gleamed cold like ice, her breath felt stale on Grete’s cheeks.
“Attend to your things. I will be back for you.”
As Grete watched the nun’s retreating back, her knees began to shake
and a pain gripped her insides.
Erich, squirming in Sister’s grip, reached his free hand toward Grete.
“I want to stay with you! I want to stay with you!” he screamed.
Sister Sarah roughly yanked his little arm and dragged him out the door.
It swung shut with a resounding boom that echoed briefly through the
room. Alone, Grete stood trembling from the quiet, which settled like a
weight on her shoulders. A moment later, she threw herself on the bed
and sobbed uncontrollably, the strange-smelling pillow muffling her
cries of “Mutti, Mutti, Mutti.” Finally, exhausted and heartbroken,
she fell asleep.
“Now, isn’t that nice?” Grete awoke to a coarse shaking hand and a
voice she was already coming to fear. “Didn’t I tell you to put all
your things in order? I’ll let it go this time, but if it happens
again, you will be punished. Do you hear me? Severely punished!”
Grete nodded, her eyes swollen with sleep and tears. The Sister’s face
softened. “Let’s go! Wash your face, then I’ll comb your hair.
It’s time for dinner.”
Sister sat down on a chair, and positioned Grete in front of her to comb
Grete’s blonder-than-blonde hair. “All right,” she sighed.
“That’s better. Let’s go.”
Even walking as fast as her legs would go, Grete had trouble keeping up
with the nun, who strode briskly toward the door of the sleeping hall.
When she caught up, Grete reached out for a comforting hand. Without so
much as a look at the child, Sister Sarah yanked her fingers away,
buried them in a pocket of her robe, and quickened her pace.
Grete trailed behind the straight back of the sister through a labyrinth
of long hallways. Finally the nun stopped and threw open another door.
Dozens of eyes turned on Grete, whose face grew hot. “Listen, all of
you!” Sister’s voice boomed out. “This is Grete!”
Grete stared down at her nervously twisting fingers, unable to face all
those eyes. She was determined not to let them see her cry. Suddenly a
small voice cried out, “Grete! Grete!”
Forgetting her fears, Grete quickly searched the room, then ran to meet
“Stop that!” Sister bellowed. “Come back here right this
Ignoring her, Grete and Erich clung to each other as if they had been
apart for months instead of hours.
“Grete, you come back here at once!” the nun growled. She stomped
over and ripped them apart. “You, young man, go back to your table and
sit down!” her voice quivered. “And you!” The nun’s face
reddened cheeks quivered with fury.
“But I want to stay with my brother,” Grete gulped, trying to
forestall the tears she somehow instinctively knew would only anger the
nun even more. “Please,” she whimpered. “Please.”
“What did you say?” The nun snarled, each word hanging in the air
separately. Her rage seemed to echo through the terrifying hush of the
“Please,” Grete’s mouth formed, but no sound came out.
“Please,” she said again, louder. “I want to stay with my
A silent gasp spread through the children watching from the tables.
Sister released Grete and Erich, and took a shaky step back. Her eyes
were burning slits in her face. She seemed to grow six feet taller as
she glared down on them. Awed by her immense fury, they stood
transfixed, mouths open.
“Evil!” The word exploded out of Sister’s mouth, and she was
suddenly in motion again. Grabbing Grete in one hand, Erich in the
other, she took off toward the far end of the dining hall. “Wicked,
wicked girl! The devil lives in your soul! You have no discipline! You
have no obedience! You must learn! Oh, you will learn!”
She dragged the children out of the hall to another dark, heavy door,
letting go only to fumble for the right key on a huge keychain. Her
breath was heavy; the red circles on her cheeks had grown dark. She
opened the door and pushed the children inside a forbiddingly black
“You want to be together? Please, can you be together?” the sister
mocked. “Now you be together!” She slammed the door. The key turned
in the lock. Through the heavy wood she growled, “You would be wise to
think about your disobedience, wicked children who want to be
Stuffed into little more than a large closet, with barely enough space
to sit down, Grete and Erich clung to each other until their wails
dwindled into whimpers. Eventually, they fell asleep, one head resting
atop the other.
Days turned into months, the months into years. Grete’s life got no
better. The boys were strictly separated from the girls except at
mealtime, so she did not see Erich very often. They learned to smile at
each other from a distance when no one else was watching.
Grete learned a lot of other things. She learned about discipline and
obedience, and how to stay out of Sister Sarah’s way. She also learned
about God and Jesus, and how much He loved all people. Often, she would
lie in bed at night and think about the strangeness of the things she
was learning. If God loved all people, why didn’t He love her? If
Sister served God, why did she hate Grete so? If Jesus had died for all
their sins, why was her punishment in life so harsh?
“Come closer!” Sister was impatient, her voice angry. She tightened
her hand around Grete’s skinny arm. “Closer, I said!” Her knees
pushed against Grete’s legs as she yanked the girl close.
Grete squeezed her eyes shut and clutched her hands together as Sister
scraped the fine comb across her scalp, opening anew the thin scabs that
had not had time enough to heal. Whimpering in spite of her resolve,
Grete shuddered as the comb struck a particularly sore spot, and ripped
off the new, delicate knot of skin.
“Stay still!” Sister almost shouted. Grete let out a scream as
Sister took her ear and began twisting it. “Will you stand still
“Yes...no...yes, I will, I will! Please! Let go!” The girls in line
behind Grete were silent, watching Grete’s torment and awaiting their
“Lice! That’s all we need!” Sister screamed as she had every day
for the past three days. “Lice, of all vermin! Which one of you
brought this pest in here? Which one? Which one?”
She released Grete’s ear and reached once more for the comb.
“Nothing but trouble, nothing but trouble! What you put me through,
trying to get a handle on this mess! Nothing but trouble!” Sister
continued her task with every angry word until blood tainted Grete’s
blonde hair. Finally, she put the comb down and pushed Grete away. “Go
clean yourself! Go on! Next!”
Her head pounding, Grete dragged herself slowly down the corridor, its
shiny glass-like linoleum reflecting back her misery.
Excerpted from "Night Before Dawn (Grete's Story)" by Ilse Shea. Copyright © 2013 by Ilse Shea. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.