The most dangerous race
Henriette Kraus celebrated her 9th birthday in bed and missed a month of third grade in April and May as she recovered from the bout of pneumonia that almost killed her. A couple months later she tumbled down a hill littered with bramble thorns. A doctor plucked out over a dozen thorns from her legs. One thorn, though, was too close to an artery to risk removing. She had to confine herself at home for two weeks, resting her leg on a towel soaked in diluted vinegar, waiting for the thorn to rot its way out.
Less than a month later, her teacher asked her to participate in the 100-meter sprint competition.
First she beat her fourth-grade classmates. Then she beat the fifth graders. Finally, she defeated the sixth-grade boys. She did so wearing a knee-length dress, a protective gown over her dress and her heavy leather shoes.
Subsequently, she received the attention of an organization interested in recruiting her prodigal sprinting skills.
This led her father to say, “Henriette, slow down and let others win the races.”
Her father’s command was what she had to follow if her family were to survive.
Hiding to stay alive
Henriette was born the youngest of four sisters and three brothers, children of parents who worked their ancestral farm in the village of Hostert, Luxembourg, population 150. She won her races in nearby Folschette in October 1943.
Just under 1,000 square miles, Luxembourg fell to the Nazis on May 10, 1940, at the start of their invasion of Europe.
Henriette’s cousin Athoine (“Tony”) Kohl joined the underground but was captured in 1942. He was thrown into a prison in Luxembourg City, Grund, taken to the prison of Wittlich, near Trier, Germany, dumped in a concentration camp in Hinzert, and then sent back to the Luxembourg City prison before being released only because he suffered from advanced tuberculosis. He died in his uncle’s home soon after Henriette won her races.
Henriette’s oldest brother, Leon, was swept up in the Nazi draft. To escape the clutches of the Wehrmacht, Germany’s armed forces, he hid in a straw loft over the family’s pig barn. The entrance was a secret passageway crafted by their father through an armoire.
A neighbor’s hired farm hand had become a Nazi collaborator and often spied on Henriette’s family. The family dog, Flocki, barked as though he had developed his own code, howling whenever a Nazi or collaborator neared. Leon spent much of the day in a second-story bedroom. When Flocki howled, Leon slipped through the armoire’s secret passageway to the loft of the barn.
After Henriette won her races in October 1943, bad weather prevented additional races until the following April. The organization interested in Henriette’s running skills was the Hitlerjugend, the Hitler Youth. The harsh weather saved Henriette from having to join the group, but only temporarily.
The family risked punishment if caught listening to BBC radio broadcasts or giving food to their starving countrymen instead of to the Nazis. Something as simple as wearing a pin symbolizing the Luxembourg century of independence risked Nazi anger. Most of all, if the Nazis found Leon, the entire family faced deportation and death.
Searched & captured
One morning, pounding on the door at 5 a.m., seven Schutzstaffel (SS) officers took over Henriette’s home and ordered the family to sit in a room with an armed officer. They made Henriette’s next oldest brother, Charles, help them search for Leon.
In the bedroom with the secret entrance way, the Nazis ran their hands over the interior of the armoire. The craftsmanship, though, kept the secret passageway a secret.
But there was another way to the loft, through the barn, which the SS officers ordered Charles to help them search next. One German officer set up a ladder to the loft and was beginning to climb when another officer burst in, shouting, “We found one!”
The capture of another young man in hiding distracted the SS and saved Henriette’s family, but at the cost of ruin to another household. This boy’s parents were deported. They survived the war. However, they were broken by the murder of their son by Nazis.
Leon’s hiding lasted from December 1943 until September 1944. In April 1944, Henriette’s teacher ordered her to go to another village, Rambrouch, on Wednesday afternoons to compete under the eyes of the Hitlerjugend.
Pressure to compete
Henriette’s father wouldn’t let her go. He feared she would be vulnerable to Nazi detention. He understood that a nine-year-old could only last so much questioning before she was forced to give up Leon’s hiding place.
Each Thursday, Henriette’s teacher peppered her with questions about her absence from the Wednesday races. She stood her ground, repeating her father’s words that he didn’t want her to go. The teacher kept her inside during recess to write over and over why she should have attended the race. The next week, the same thing happened, earning Henriette the same punishment.
The teacher began allowing her to play dodgeball, but only so he could join her opposing team. The dodgeball they used was a heavy, leather soccer ball, and the teacher threw it at Henriette as hard as he could. Henriette either dodged each of his throws or caught the ball. Her chest suffered bruises but she refused to give in. And she didn’t tell her family what the teacher was doing out of fear her father would respond angrily, which might result in Leon’s disclosure.
This battle lasted until July 1944 when the school term ended. Soon after the start of school in September, the Allies’ advance had liberated most of Luxembourg. She had a new teacher and the Hitlerjugend was gone. Best of all, Leon was able to leave his hideout to taste freedom at last.
Running talent came to Henriette at a young age. When she recounts her experiences, she owes it to long legs, a farm life filled with physical chores, and her almost daily task of chasing errant cows, chickens and pigs up and down the slopes of the family’s ancestral farm. After the Nazi defeat, Henriette returned to applying her athleticism to working the family farm.
Now a friend of mine in northern Illinois, I’ve learned Henriette never took to competitive running again. Leon, who the Nazis had sought to find and kill before his 20th birthday, took over the family farm. He stayed there until he passed after his 86th birthday. That was the race she wanted to win.
Bruce Steinberg is a father, husband, lawyer, novelist and silent sports enthusiast in St. Charles, Illinois.