Hans Fischer and the Angels
By David Weiss, based on the recollections of my father, Frederick Weiss, and some written notes from my Great Uncle Ernie Fischer.
It was April 1917 and Hans Fischer was sick. In those days illness could move through an entire community silent and sure, like a sand dune, creeping unseen during the night until it engulfed your own home without warning. In the Fischer household only Hans was sick, but I doubt anyone considered that good fortune. Hans was really sick.
Hans was 5 years old and the second-oldest of six children born to Ernst and Pauline Fischer (they would have 3 more children born in the following years). An older brother was 7, and his two younger brothers and two younger sisters were 4, 3, 2, and newborn. It was a full home, and as Hans’ illness grew worse everyone hoped for the best—and everyone feared the worst.
It seems that Hans had developed complications from the measles. The measles were bad enough in the days before vaccines, but when they worsened from a skin rash, fever, and cough into a systemic infection an awful waiting game ensued. There were steps that could be taken to ease the fever and combat the chills. Unsophisticated things like cool rags on the forehead or blankets piled on and then pulled off at least gave a frantic parent something with which to busy themselves. Teas and soups might hope to take the edge off a cough. But against the illness itself, both medicine and love seemed impotent.
Hans fought the illness with all the fury of a five year-old. Which is to say, his tiny body longed for life with every God-given instinct it had—and his tiny body was battered by the gale force of a disease that took no pity on children.
Who can imagine the anguish that Ernst and Pauline felt daily as they watched little Hans flail about in discomfort, one day seeming to rally, the next day seeming to fade. Who can know the way his struggles weighed on his older and younger siblings; his disease possibly a threat to their health, his suffering the measure of each morning, afternoon, evening, and nightfall for the whole family. But even in this tragic tale there are twin moments of Mystery, small signs of that which is simply Greater Than, that which holds us and in which we live and move and have our being.
The first moment came late in the afternoon on April 25th. Hilda and Ernie, three and two years old, played on the floor not far from the crib in the living room where Hans spent his days tossing and turning. Their toddler energy was small comfort to Pauline, but the need to care for her other children, including the newborn Gert, may have been her only balm in those long days. That afternoon, though, as Ernie and Hilda amused themselves, Hans suddenly stopped his restless rocking. His eyes catching the beam of sunlight that danced through the picture window, he exclaimed in German, his words punctuated by wonder but not by fear, “Look, Mama, the angels!” It would be his last lucid moment. Almost immediately the feverish twitching engulfed his tiny body again.
His mother felt a rush of comfort and anguish. Like Mary in the Bible, she must have wondered to herself, “What can this mean?” Did she mention Hans’s strange words to her husband that evening? Did she share them immediately with any of the womenfolk who no doubt came around to offer aid as they were able? We don’t know.
Later that night, in the wee hours of April 26, the second moment arrived. Sometime after midnight, with little Hans’s crib pulled into the parents’ bedroom and set at the foot of the bed, his breathing began to wane and the restless movements found their rest at last. It was silent, this coming of death. No screams or cries, only a certain holy stillness. Nothing even to wake a parent—except that Pauline did find herself awake. Sleep came to Pauline fitfully those days, when it came at all, but she was exhausted and sound asleep, when, ever so gently, she felt herself awakened as the room, the house itself, seemed filled with what she would later describe simply as “a fluttering of wings.” Thunderous yet soft, this beating of wings came to her as sheer comfort. Before she reached the crib she knew that little Hans was no longer there.
There is no doubt that she wept bitter tears of grief for his little life cut short; little doubt that his death left an ache in her heart that stayed with her all the rest of her days. But there is also no doubt about this, because she did tell these stories after Hans had died: she was convinced that in the afternoon Hans had received the comfort he needed by a glimpse at the angels soon coming to carry him home. And she was certain as well that what had awakened her in the night was the blessed assurance of a host angels, their wings fluttering as if to say as St. Julian of Norwich said: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Alongside the ache in her heart she carried the comfort of those angels all the days of her life.
… There is a brief second chapter to this story, and a third as well.
By the time that Hans died, Ernst Fischer had attended St. Paul Lutheran Church for twenty-five years, from his youth into adulthood. A devout parishioner, even a member of the church council, he was by all accounts a member in good standing. Except by one account.
We sometimes forget how quickly the past becomes a different country, a place of customs entirely foreign to us today. Only 100 years ago at St. Paul Lutheran one’s church giving came in the form of a pew rental. You paid a fee for the pew you sat in at church. The pews closer to the front cost more money; thus the front pews came as a mark of status and wealth. But every pew cost some money. And for this family of eight, what with food and clothing and now illness as well, money could be more than scarce. Ernst had fallen behind in his pew rent.
After Hans died, Ernst met with the pastor to make preparations for the funeral for his little son. It was a hard meeting, for sure. But then came a harder meeting still, when the Board of Trustees summoned Ernst and told him that because he was behind in his pew rent they would not allow the church bell to toll while Hans’s casket was led out of the church.
There was no denying: he was behind. Bills had piled up everywhere. But this was his child—moreover God’s child—and he had died at the same age that Ernst was when he first ventured into St. Paul Lutheran on a Christmas Eve so many years earlier. Could nothing be done to toll the bell for this little one?
No. There were expectations to be upheld, not just for Ernst, but also for the whole church. No exceptions could be made. So, on a day filled with weeping and wailing during the funeral service, what Ernst heard most loudly was the silence of the untolled bell as Hans’s casket was carried down the aisle and made its way to the cemetery.
At some point, maybe that day, maybe years later as he recounted the bitterness of that silent bell, Ernst made clear that on his funeral day he wanted no bell to toll for his departing casket either. The disgrace that the church felt was sufficient for his child would be sufficient for him as well.
A lesser man might have internalized the bitterness of that day and allowed it to consume him and alienate him from the church, or worse, from God. But Ernst was a bigger man. For fifty-five more years he remained faithful, not only to God but also to St. Paul Lutheran. He served the church and the school in elected office, exemplary character, generous spirit, and seasoned wisdom. By the time he died in the summer of 1972 at the age of eighty-five, he was an icon of the church.
It was neither stubbornness nor vindictiveness that kept the bell from tolling as his casket was carried down the aisle that day in June. It was a father’s love for a child, strong as yesterday, that led his children to honor his wish. His casket also departed the church in silence—but not in disgrace. The silence allowed him, in one last gesture, to honor and accompany Hans who had died so many years earlier.
And although it isn’t in the stories I’ve heard, I will add it here, because I’m sure it’s true. If you had listened carefully in the silence left by that untolled bell, you would’ve heard again, there in the sanctuary of St. Paul Lutheran Church, a great fluttering of wings … and maybe even the voice of a little child, this time exclaiming, “Look, Papa, the angels!”
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This is the third in a series of family history vignettes.