When a Sparrow Falls
May 30, 1939
Karl Ibsen repeated the date three times in order to remind himself
that all days were not exactly the same. There was a world beyond the dark
confines of his cell where dates meant something more than burned oatmeal
for breakfast and thin soup sipped from a dirty tin bowl.
He had counted the days of his imprisonment by scratching rows of
tiny notches on the bricks of his cell. Like a calendar, each month was
represented by a brick. Six bricks were filled. He carved another notch on
the hard red clay of May.
Somewhere it was spring, with flowers blooming in gardens and
couples sitting together at sunny tables in sidewalk cafés.
"It is spring," he said aloud.
As if in answer to his words, a tiny bird fluttered to the bars of his
high, narrow window and perched on the ledge. It carried a fragment of
string in its yellow beak. Only a sparrow, the kind of bird Karl's father
had paid him to shoot with a slingshot in the family peach orchard
many years ago. Karl had been paid one pfennig for every ten sparrows
he killed in those days. His heart was filled with remorse as he eyed the
tiny brown creature and prayed that it would stay to keep him company.
The killings were clear in Karl's memory as the bird cocked its head curiously
and gazed down upon this man in a cage.
One thousand sparrows fell to my slingshot. I bought Harold Kiesner's old
bicycle with my earnings. Forgive my cruelty, little bird . and stay.
The sparrow shuddered, dropped its string, and hopped three steps
before disappearing off the ledge with a momentary flutter.
"Gone," Karl said aloud. And then he groped for the words in the
gospel of Matthew. The ones about the sparrows . something about
God caring even for sparrows, knowing when even one sparrow fell to
Like a knife in his weary heart, he thought about the thousand and
wished he had known then how much more precious they were than the
used bicycle. What he would not give to have even one little bird perch
on his window ledge now!
But Karl had nothing to give, and so such thoughts were useless. He
stared at the barred fragment of blue sky as though his longing might
bring the sparrow back. The sky remained as empty as the window ledge.
Karl sank down onto the dirty straw and stared at his calendar. Brick
by brick he kept a mental diary of the gray days he had passed in this
Four and one-third bricks had slipped by since the Gestapo agent
named Hess had threatened to harm Karl's children if the pastor did not
bend his beliefs to the Nazi will. Karl had not yielded in all that time. He
was certain now that his children had somehow eluded capture by the
Gestapo or Hess would have made good on his threat to use Jamie and
Lori against him. Perhaps then I would have broken. Ah, Lord, You know how
weak I am. I could not remain steadfast and be forced to watch . if they hurt
His gaze skipped back to the notch that marked the day he had
heard that his wife had perished in prison. Helen . Helen . it must be
lovely where you are now. I don't begrudge you that, but I am sorry I can't see
it with you.
Other marks represented days on which news of a less personal nature
had been passed along to him. This litany of Nazi victories in nation
after nation had been intended to convince Karl that there was no use in
one Christian pastor holding out when the whole world capitulated to
the Führer's iron will!
Seventeen notches into the January brick, Denmark and the Baltic
states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania had signed a nonaggression pact
with Germany. These tiny nations gave their pledge that they too would
look the other way, no matter what else happened in Europe!
"Why do you not see, Prisoner Ibsen, that the Führer has been given a free
hand? Do you think it matters to any country that one insignificant man remains
stubborn in his beliefs?"
One the first mark of February, the government of Czechoslovakia
ordered all refugee Jews to leave the country within six months.
"The Czechs have at last come to their senses about the Jews. That leaves
only you. Prisoner Ibsen!"
On the twenty-second notch, the German-American Bund of Fritz
Kuhn held a demonstration twenty-two thousand strong in New York to
block additional immigration of refugees to the United States.
"And who do you think will speak for you if you continue to speak up for
people no nation will have? Troublemaker! You are despised and forgotten
here! Confess your wrongmindedness and come back to your own people, who
will forgive you and welcome you!"
With March, the rains had come through Karl's cell window on a
strong, cold wind. And with the wind came news that made him tremble
for Jamie and Lori!
On the fifteenth mark of March, the German army had swept across
the line of the Sudetenland, which France and England had offered Hitler
in Munich to save the peace. All that remained of the Czech nation
had been swallowed up by Germany in one unresisting bite. That night
the prison guards were exultant. Hitler himself had ridden into Prague
and spent the night at Hradcany Castle! The swastika flag waved proudly
over Old Town Prague. German soldiers danced on the Charles Bridge as
the Führer's voice rang through the streets, announcing that Czechoslovakia
was now under the "protection" of the Third Reich. And not one
shot was fired. Not one German soldier fell in battle.
"Now you will see, Prisoner Ibsen! You will see what will happen to those
refugee Jews of yours! Now you will see!"
Karl had continued to carve away the days. At night he lay awake and
dreamed of Lori and Jamie running from the Gestapo, who smashed the
Protestant soup kitchen in Prague. Karl had told his children to flee to
Prague. He had sent word ahead to the Refugee Relief Committee to warn
them that his children were coming. And now Hitler slept in Hradcany
Castle! Those refugee Jews who had been ordered out of Czechoslovakia
in February were fleeing for their lives to escape the force that had
hounded them throughout central Europe. Karl prayed that Jamie and
Lori were not among those masses of desperate humanity.
The notches of March ticked by. Nameless camp was packed to overflowing
with human flotsam washed up on the Nazi shore with the sinking
of Czechoslovakia. And Karl waited. He waited for his guards to slam
into his cell and drag him to a room to watch the torture of his children.
He waited, knowing he would say anything they wanted-anything-if
only they would not hurt Lori and Jamie!
On the twenty-second notch, the guards came to tell him that Germany
had also taken the Baltic seaport of Memel from Lithuania. "Certainly,
Prisoner Ibsen, you must see that it is useless to resist the righteous
Aryan cause! The Führer has traveled by sea to Memel!"
Karl had smiled with relief because the news was not about Lori and
Jamie. The guards had taken his smile as a sign that perhaps he was coming
to his senses. They reported his reaction to the warden. Karl was
given an extra ration of bread to celebrate the Nazi occupation of the
The next day he was interrogated. His smile was questioned. He answered
that he had only wondered if the Führer had gotten seasick. For
this answer he was beaten, but when he regained consciousness he
found that the smile within him had not died. Somewhere Jamie and
Lori were still free!
In that same month, Spain finally fell to the German-led forces of
General Franco. One million had died. Britain and the U.S. recognized
the new Spanish government immediately.
"Soon the whole world will be Fascist. Everyone but you, Prisoner Ibsen!"
On the first notch of April, the rattle of tin plates in the corridor had
announced breakfast. Karl heard the guards talking outside his door. England's
Prime Minister Chamberlain did not much like the fact that the
Führer had taken all of Czechoslovakia without asking. The English and
the French were now saying that they would go to war against Germany if
the Führer set his sights on the Polish port of Danzig. In reply, the Führer
had renounced the British-German naval treaty, telling the English, "Who
cares what you do?" Maybe there would be a war after all! Maybe it would
come at last . over Poland! Even little Holland had mobilized.
The guards had sounded pleased. They sounded hopeful. The metal
slot in the door clanged open, and the plate of burned oatmeal was
"Feeding time at the zoo," a voice cried. Amid much laughter, the slot
clanged shut again.
Once again Karl had smiled. He too had been hopeful that day. Perhaps
at last the democracies had drawn a line across the pocked face of
Europe and said, "No farther!" So little Holland had mobilized its army to
fight if Germany should, in fact, step over the line! David against Goliath!
From that first day of April until today, the thirtieth mark on the
brick of May, there had been no further news. No interrogations. No
laughter in the outer corridor. Prisoners on either side of Karl's cell had
been moved. The silence was complete. His meals were passed to him
without comment, his latrine bucket emptied in the dark by a faceless
Kapo who entered the cell when Karl slept. The straw in his cell remained
unchanged. His confinement became totally solitary. He
prayed. He recited Scriptures to himself. He let his mind walk through
the past again and again until that mental path became worn into a
groove that was easy to follow. He called out questions to his captors as
they passed him his rations. "Was there a war?" They did not reply. They
did not seem to hear him.
Could he be the only man left, as they had warned? Had everyone
else gone off to fight in Poland?
Until today, the thirtieth of May, he had found himself slipping into
such morbid thoughts. But today the sparrow had come to his window!
Today he was reminded once again it was spring! Somewhere there were
gardens with flowers blooming. Maybe Jamie and Lori . maybe .
maybe they were out walking-looking at colors, wondering about their
father, hoping they would see him again someday soon.
* * *
For months in France, important visitors had been picked up at their hotels
in Paris and driven through the peaceful countryside of Alsace-Lorraine
to tour the great concrete wall of defense, the Maginot Line.
Politicians and industrialists and celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh
had all been invited to "take the tour." They had descended into the
maze of concrete bunkers and gun emplacements; they had spoken with
the French soldiers who manned this fortress; they had emerged again
into the bright sunlight of the peaceful French countryside, convinced
that there would be no war waged by Germany against France, not with
such a massive line of defense to get through.
Today it had been American journalist John Murphy's turn to tour
the Maginot Line. He was the logical choice for this week's guest list. As
the head of Trump European News Service, he was establishing one of
the most successful newspaper and radio news agencies serving America
from the Continent.
Added to that, Mr. Murphy was a personal friend of the venerable
British statesman Winston Churchill. The two had crossed the Channel
together, stayed at the Ritz in Paris for a day, and now walked through
the steel-and-concrete caverns beside the French captain, Edmone
Perpignon. Captain Perpignon was forty years old, with an erect carriage
and snapping brown eyes. His entire career in the French army was tied
to the Maginot. He loved its smooth gray walls and bristling gun turrets,
which pointed across the Rhine toward similar German fortifications.
"You see," the captain said to Murphy in a soft, thick accent, "General
Gamelin said that perhaps you are the sort of person who should see
the Maginot. Perhaps you will then understand it."
Murphy understood perfectly well how much stock the French put in
this cement marvel that stretched from Switzerland all along the border
to the lowlands of Belgium. Certainly the German army would not want
to confront such an obstacle. But wasn't it possible that the Germans
might simply go around it? The government of Belgium had just announced
that it would remain strictly neutral if war should break out;
Murphy and Churchill had discussed just how much such a declaration
would mean to Hitler. A few hours' march across little Belgium, and the
German divisions could simply go around this hulking wall like a quarterback
doing an end run.
Murphy considered using this analogy with the French captain, then
remembered that the French had no Rose Bowl football games they
might compare to war maneuvers.
The captain was ecstatic. "And if anyone in America doubts for a moment,"
he said, waving a hand at the long tunnel, "that peace is our only
war aim and defense is our only strategy, tell them this: We have anchored
all our millions of dollars' worth of great guns in five hundred
million dollars' worth of concrete!"
Murphy exchanged an uneasy glance with Churchill. Churchill had
just been saying that the strength of the German war machine would lie
in its mobility. Against armored tank divisions, concrete was indeed a
barrier-provided the Germans attempted a frontal attack.
The French captain was in love with the Maginot; he was also in love
with the history that had inspired it. "You must promise me you will do
an article for the American newspapers about Lorraine! This place was
the gateway used by the barbarians to invade France since the time of Attila
Churchill broke his long and thoughtful silence. He paused and relit
the stub of his cigar as he eyed the captain. "Yes, I can see the similarities
between the barbarians and the Nazis. Herr Hitler would make a commendable
Attila." He cleared his throat. "But are you sure they will try to
come through this way again?"
The captain also paused. He shrugged. "They always have before."
"Last time they came through Belgium," Churchill remarked dryly.
The captain raised an instructive finger. "We have urged the Belgians
to see to their own defenses, and soon we will be extending the Maginot
along the Belgian border."
"Why hasn't it been done before now?" Murphy dared to ask. "The
crisis is imminent."
No doubt more important men than Murphy and Churchill had
asked similar questions.
The Frenchman had a ready answer. "Partly because of cost. Partly
because of time. But mostly because if the Belgians see our guns and
forts facing them, they might think that we French are as aggressive as
"Even though the guns are in concrete?" Churchill asked.
"It will be remedied in time."