“King of Tunnels,” a short story
The iron studs in the Nazi soldiers’ boots rang against the cobblestones, splitting the foggy night like a dagger. Adam quickly herded his friend Jacob and the two girls into a doorway. They crouched in a dark shadow just as the soldiers turned down their street. Adam watched them pass through the halo of light that hung in the damp air beneath the corner streetlamp. They were regular soldiers, well armed.
Adam’s heart pounded. One of the girls whimpered. Adam reached out and placed his hand carefully over her mouth. The patrol passed within inches. The children could hear the creaking leather of the soldiers’ supply belts. They smelled the gun oil on their Mauser rifles.
A few words of German floated back through the night as the soldiers passed on. Adam began breathing again. “You’ll have to be quiet,” he whispered to the girl. She stared back at him, blank with fear. What was this girl’s name? Adam wondered. He had been introduced to her only an hour before. The plan had been to help Jacob escape, not these girls.
Adam met Jacob purely by chance one day when he was exploring a dank canal that ran underneath the crooked, old streets of Warsaw, Poland. The beam from Adam’s coal miner’s lamp had lit up Jacob’s dirt streaked face and caught the flash in his dark brown eyes.
“And who might you be?” Jacob challenged at once.
“I’m the King of the Tunnels,” Adam said.
“We’ll see about that,” Jacob shot back with an impish grin.
The two became fast friends almost at once. Adam grew up far from Warsaw in Poland’s coal mining region. He loved visiting the mines with his uncle and dreamed of becoming a miner himself, but his father wanted nothing to do with mining. He brought Adam and his mother to Warsaw and found work in a bank. Adam felt lost in the big city until he discovered there was a vast labyrinth of old canals, tunnels, passages, and cellars underground. He convinced his father he could navigate the tunnels safely and after that he spent all his time there.
Jacob’s family had lived in Warsaw for generations. Like Adam, Jacob loved to explore. He knew every alleyway and hidden courtyard in his part of the city. He had just discovered the old canals when he ran into Adam. Together the two boys crawled and clawed their way through miles of forgotten passageways. They drew maps and invented secret symbols to mark spots beneath the city. But the two boys’ adventure didn’t last.
The year was 1939. That September the Nazis launched a surprise attack against Poland. They swarmed into Warsaw behind monstrous tanks and heavy bombers. The city was occupied. Poles suffered terribly under the Nazis, but it was nothing compared to what Jewish people faced. They lost their jobs, had their property taken. They were beaten, arrested, imprisoned, and had nowhere to turn for justice. Adam had never paid any attention to Jacob’s being Jewish—he couldn’t imagine what difference it made—but suddenly an iron wedge was being driven between the two boys. Adam went to his father. To his surprise, his father told him, “Best you should play with your other friends.” In Poland, a son did what his father said, but Adam couldn’t give up his friendship with Jacob. He continued to meet him in secret.
Then one day Adam watched in horror as the Nazis began erecting a wall right down the middle of the street between where he and Jacob lived. They were creating a ghetto where all Jewish people were forced to live. Adam waited until all the work was done. He didn’t want to be discovered below ground by any Nazi engineers sealing up escape routes. Then he searched out an underground passage into the ghetto. The day he appeared back at Jacob’s front door, Jacob was amazed. “I told you I was King of the Tunnels,” Adam said.
Jacob’s family now shared their apartment with other families. Furniture, suitcases, and boxes were stacked to the ceiling in the hallways. The place was noisy and the air thick with the smell of cabbage soup and sweat. From time to time the Nazis would send trains into the ghetto and people would be transported off. Rumors spread that the trains were not going west to labor camps in Germany as the Nazis said, but south to some place much worse than a labor camp. Adam went to his father again.
“Don’t interfere,” his father said angrily. “You could get our whole family into trouble. I could lose my job.”
“But, Father, what if Jacob’s family is taken away?”
“This is between the Nazis and the Jews,” his father said. “Listen to me. You’re still a child. When you become an adult, you’ll understand.”
Adam didn’t see how being an adult was going to make things any different. Once again, he decided something had to be done. Adam asked around and was surprised to find how many Poles were part of the resistance movement against the Nazis. He was introduced to a man called “The Fox,” who spoke in short bursts and never stopped glancing around. “A deserted farmhouse. The outskirts of town,” the man said showing Adam on a map. “You get your friend there. We’ll get him to safety.”
Jacob’s father was overjoyed to hear of Adam’s plan. “Jacob’s mother and I are old. What happens to us will happen. But Jacob has his whole life ahead of him. We have relatives outside Warsaw. If he could go to them, he might be safe.” Tears filled the old man’s eyes. “You are our only chance.”
The night Adam came for Jacob, he found everyone gathered in the kitchen. They were saying goodbye to Jacob and two young girls who stood with knapsacks on their backs. The girls’ parents insisted that Adam take them as well.
A man in the back spoke up, “We should all use this way out, not just these children.”
But others told the man to be quiet. “If too many use this route, word will get out. Informers will have the Nazis here in no time. We should thank God for this chance.”
Adam led the way into the dark streets and down into a coal cellar that connected to the tunnels that led them out of the ghetto. The children eluded yet another patrol before they came to the edge of the city. The night was too dark to see the distant farmhouse but Adam knew where it was. He had scouted this area thoroughly and had found a gap in the sentry posts that ringed the city.
Adam stopped to listen. It was quiet in the deadening fog. “Hold on to my jacket,” Adam said to one of the girls. He stepped forward.
“HALT!” a shout came from behind him. Adam froze. He turned around slowly. Hidden in the corner of the nearest building, he saw a brand new sentry hut, probably built to plug the very gap Adam had discovered. “Hands in the air! Hands in the air or I’ll shoot!”
A lone soldier crouched behind them holding a rifle pointed directly at Adam’s chest. But there was something strange about him. Adam noticed the soldier’s uniform was ill fitting, much too large. Beneath the field cap, Adam saw a young face. The boy was barely older than himself. It dawned on Adam he had heard a familiar accent in the boy’s voice.
Adam made a desperate gamble. He dropped his hands to his sides. “Hey, you,” he said. “You’re from Silesia, aren’t you? I’m from there, too. Why, you and I should be working a coal seam together there right now, not playing these games.” Adam had guessed the boy was one of many the Nazis had forced into the army to fill out their ranks.
Taken off guard, the boy hesitated. Adam stepped up and grasped the end of the gun’s barrel. The boy struggled to pull the rifle from Adam’s grip but Adam held on tight. “Let go,” the boy hissed through clinched teeth.
Adam kept his voice calm. “You’re no Nazi. You’re a Silesian, just like me.” The boy stopped struggling and met Adam’s gaze. “We’re going on through,” Adam said. “We’ll be very quiet, my friend. No one will know.”
The boy looked at Jacob and the girls. “Are these Jews? You’re risking your life for them?” he said. “They’re the Nazis’ business.”
Adam cringed as he heard the echo of his own father’s words in what the boy said. No, Jacob is my business, he thought. And I am right to help him. My father is wrong. The whole world is wrong.
Adam released the end of the rifle. He turned and pushed his friends down the road. As they moved off, the boy raised the rifle and took dead aim at Adam’s back. His finger rested on the trigger. But he couldn’t decide what to do. He waited and the dark night closed over Adam.
Stumbling along the road, they saw the light from a candle burning in the farmhouse window. It was a signal from the partisans that all was well. “You better get back now,” Jacob said. “It will start getting light soon.”
“Find me when this is all over,” Adam said.
“I will,” Jacob said, “if it’s the last thing I do.”
Then Jacob walked with the girls toward the flickering candlelight while the King of the Tunnels melted back into the shadows and was gone.