“Dear Lord Jesus – please take care of my mom. Please welcome my papa into heaven, Lord. He was a good man and you’ll see that when you talk to him. Everyone knows it. My mom’s good, too, so please watch over her. She says she doesn’t believe in you – but I do – and I know that she does in her heart. She knows how much you love all of your children and I don’t want to die. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.”
The boy’s whispering prayer cast a small cloud in the cool morning air. He was the last of five prisoners marching up to the gallows. Roped together, they weaved their way through a thick crowd of spectators. The boy recognized a few faces from his church. He wanted to see his mother once more but he knew this wasn’t a safe place. Not now.
The next prisoner in line was racked by sobs. His shoulders bounced up and down while a latrine-smell wafted behind him. The inside of his pant leg was wet.
The boy, still whispering: “Yes, Jesus. Please comfort us in our time of need. If I die because I saved others – so be it. I’ll die. I will. I’ll die, Lord. I’ll be your soldier, walking in the shadow of death, fearing no evil. I know that you love us and your love lifts us and thank you – thank you, thank you, thank you.”
They walked up a pine wood staircase to the platform with the five hanging nooses. As the boy’s view rose above the sea of faces … he didn’t see her. His mom wasn’t anywhere in sight. He saw no one from his family.
A cool breeze brushed across his face. It chilled his teary eyes. The same chill spread throughout his body.
Several soldiers manned the platform. The closest pointed at the trap door. “Stand there.” There was an X on top of it, crudely drawn with chalk.
The other men lined up on their own X’s.
The boy glanced at the Swastika pinned on the soldier’s chest. It always reminded him of the cross. Both symbols were just two crossed lines, after all. They meant different things, he knew. But good men from his church followed both. They died for both.
“Lord Jesus – please forgive those who do this. They know not what they do. Show them love. Show them mercy. Show -”
The sobbing prisoner tried to run. Soldiers quickly tackled him. He was slammed face first onto the platform. He screamed “We’re guilty of nothing! Nothing! We only wanted to live!”
The man looked at the boy and grunted “You … you don’t deserve this.”
“I know,” said the boy. “Peace be with you now. Jesus loves you, sir.”
The man smiled. It seemed like he was about to laugh – right before a soldier pulled out a revolver and shot him in the head.
The crowd gasped – while the boy staggered back. Something wet and warm had hit him in the face. Droplets of – he wiped them with his hands, streaking his palm with the man’s blood.
Soldiers dragged the corpse away, dropping it behind the platform on a steaming pile of bodies.
The boy clasped his hands together. They shook. He brought his knuckles up to his lips. His prayer warmed them some – “Please forgive all of us. Please. What these men are doing – it’s not what you want. It can’t be. It can’t. So please save us. Please save them. A-a won-der-ful sav-ior is Je-sus my Lord; a-a won-der-ful sav-ior; on-ly trust him; on-ly trust him – now.” He sang while a soldier draped a noose over his head. Parts of it were stained with blood. When tightened, frayed threads bit into his neck like tiny thorns.
The soldier tied the boy’s hands to a rope around his waist. The crowd went silent.
Looking up at the grey sky, the boy couldn’t tell where the sun was. He remembered how his father once told him that Jesus would come down from heaven in billowing clouds.
“Why? It’s out of love, I know. But I don’t understand. I don’t. I know you love me. I was trying to save lives like you.”
With a deafening clap, the trap door dropped. For a second, the boy was weightless before his own weight rip-tugged his neck straight and stretched. Sharp needle pain shot up and down his spine, leaving him tingling all over. He kicked his feet.
He couldn’t breathe.
He stared up into the sky. He still couldn’t see the sun.
With his last breath, he said “Jesus saves, Jesus saves, Jesus saves.” The soldier pushed down on his shoulders – hard. The boy’s heart thumped like a snared rabbit’s.
His head turned strangely cold. His eyes hurt.
Then … he began to relax. His kicks turned into twitches.
Even when he could no longer speak, his mind rehearsed the same message – “Jesus saves, Jesus saves, Jesus saves.”
The boy watched the sky until everything went black.
The boy hung there, motionless. Slight steam rose from his pale face and blue lips.
Like ripples across a still pond – voices broke the silence.
“He looks so angelic.”
“He had the voice of an angel. Sang in our choir.”
“I wonder what he was saying.”
“Does it matter?”
“Was he – wasn’t he the boy who helped his father hide these Jews?”
“The twenty they hang today – found in his cellar.”
“Oh, yes. The hidden cellar.”
“His dad died trying to escape. Shot. The boy – twelve – was caught trying to save him.”
“My God. A little saint.”
“Where’s his mother?”
“On the train.”
“To the labor camp?”
“Stop saying that.”
“God? Where is God?”
“Yes, where is He now?”
“He’s up there – what’s left of him. Hanging by the gallows.”
A note from the author:
The story God on the Gallows was inspired by a historical event, as chronicled in Elie Wiesel’s memoir of life in a German concentration camp. In Chapter 4 of Night, he accounts for the hanging of a young Jewish boy, known for his kindness. Although other members of the camp were used to seeing death, nothing affected them quite like this. The question arose Where is God amidst such atrocity?
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