Young Friedrich stood, quivering with nerves despite the sweltering heat of Sydney’s summer climate, staring up at the perfectly rectangular brick building. Inside were countless children and teachers speaking a language which still sounded, to him, like a jumble of nonsensical noises thrown together. His stance was rigid, his stiff, new uniform preventing any movements that did not make him resemble a waddling penguin. The scrawny boy squeezed his eyes shut, and counted to ten: eins, zwei, drei… With a breath so large he thought his lungs might burst, he shuffled towards his new school. Every step Friedrich took filled him with dread, as if he were a lamb inching ever closer to its inevitable slaughter.
The entranceway to the building swallowed him up like a monstrous beast and the school hallways seemed to close in on Friedrich as he confusedly hurried through them. As he peered into each room, an ill-fated attempt to locate the main office, his heart began to pump fiercely in his chest, and nausea grew in the pit of his stomach. On the verge of giving up, he finally glanced into a room where the administration staff were awaiting his arrival, his mounting queasiness dissipating.
Upon entering the office, silence fell between the two receptionists who had previously been energetically chattering. Friedrich strained to remember how to speak in their dialect, his roaring uneasiness almost tangible as it hung over him, an ominous, brooding cloud. After several excruciating moments of discomfort, one woman muttered almost unintelligibly to the other: ‘It’s the German boy.’
The other woman abruptly sprang into action, like a child’s toy that had been switched on, scrambling toward Friedrich from behind the desk.
‘You German student?’ she said, slowly and emphatically, to which the frightened child nodded.
‘I take you to classroom now. I walk you to class.’ she declared, drawing out each syllable and accompanying her words with vivid and quite ludicrous gestures. Clutching his skinny arm, she hastily led the way. Inside the classroom, Friedrich’s eyes darted from child to child, all gazing up at him with confusion etched in their eyes.
The teacher announced his arrival, stating loudly, ‘This is Friedrich – he is German and new to the school.’ Instantaneously, the class erupted into an infuriated uproar, expressions of horror and repulsion plastered onto their young faces.
‘What’s this horrid German doing here?’
‘Quiet class, quiet! Now, now, the past is in the past, is it not? And I’m quite sure that little Friedrich here was not fighting personally in the war, was he? So I expect you all to treat him as you treat each other – with respect,’ the teacher bellowed indignantly.
A voice came from the back of the classroom, ringing in Friedrich’s ears like a gunshot:
‘My dad didn’t die in the war for this bloody Nazi to come to our school!’
With that, the class exploded once again into an enraged state. Tears threatened to escape Friedrich’s eyes, and he desired nothing more than to sprint from the classroom - from the malicious insults being hurtled at him – into the arms of his mother. She would hold him and gently run her fingers through his hair, just like she did when they anxiously huddled together in their house, hoping his father would return from his army duties when the war had ravaged Europe, only two years ago. But he remained, motionless, rooted to the ground, his eyes wide as he witnessed firsthand the extent of the horrific and horrendous hatred for his people.
Eventually, after much yelling, Friedrich’s teacher regained control of the class and motioned for him to sit, where he remained, perturbed and perplexed, for the next thirty minutes until the bell clanged.
He tentatively and cautiously trailed after his classmates to the playground, eyes cast downwards to his feet. Out of the teacher’s sight, several of the boys pounced on Friedrich like lions ready to viciously devour their prey. They knocked him to the ground, pounding and pummelling him with their fists and kicking him ferociously. Agonising pain spread through his body like shrapnel from an explosion piercing skin, and his assailants laughed mercilessly as he whimpered and cried in suffering.
One by one, the pairs of legs and arms bashing his bruised and battered body reduced in numbers, as a small voice screamed, ‘Leave him alone! Stop it!’ until finally, the callous attack ceased altogether. As Friedrich lay, crumpled in the dirt, his eyes screwed shut in a vain attempt to somehow reduce the pain rippling throughout his body, he heard the same voice, even smaller now, whispering to him.
‘Are you okay? They’re gone now. It’s alright.’
He slowly pealed one eye open as the other was swollen over, a mottled tattoo of purple and black imprinting itself rapidly under the skin. With his one, unscathed eye, he gazed up at a little boy peering down at him with his eyebrows knitted together. The child offered Friedrich his hand. At first, he hesitated, sceptically squinting at the boy, before reluctantly accepting his help. Sitting up, he felt a stab of pain across his ribs, but he was distracted by the boy, his eyes, alight with kindness and gentleness.
‘It’s not fair that they’re so mean to you, just because you’re German,’ he mumbled, frowning at the ground.
‘My father was Nazi officer, but only following orders! Did not agree!’ Friedrich cried, desperate to make at least one ally.
‘My daddy fought in the war too, but he just wanted everybody to get along. Now the war is over, everyone needs to start forgiving and forgetting. The past is in the past, as our teacher said!’ the boy exclaimed earnestly.
The two boys rose from the dry, crunchy grass, Friedrich mostly relying on the other child to stay upright.
‘I’m John, by the way. And welcome to Australia,’ the boy said, with a warm grin.
And suddenly, Australia didn’t seem so frightening anymore.