The way father tells it, grandfather lost his composure entirely as soon as the tanks began rumbling in the distance. When the newspapers announced the peace conference, he said it would be alright. When the radio revealed the occupation, he said the world would not let it stand. Even when squadrons of fighters and bombers filled the skies, he told his family that little time would pass before the clouds were theirs once again.

My father expected him to say that the Panzers would not come within several kilometers of the village, and that we would be left alone until the Allies forced the Nazis back out of Czechoslovakia. But he learned that day that tanks only sound so loud when they are headed your way, in the same breath becoming aware that we were about to be inducted into the German Reich. Grandfather ripped a newspaper in half when my father pointed out the sound, weeping in his chair and stomping on the pages with the force of a stallion. Grandmother made no attempt to calm him down; they now shared the pain of returning to slavery after falling in love amidst the Austro-Hungarian ashes that birthed their briefly free homeland.

The village slowly filtered into the street, man, woman, and child alike, nobody waving flags for fear of retribution. Our government had abandoned us to the wolves, and we could only offer ourselves up peacefully. My father remembers seeing the Mayor and village elders standing at the entrance of the city, the merchants and constables behind them. Curiously absent was the family of Baron Lhotak, the old Austrian lord who had renounced his nobility when the Empire was overthrown yet maintained influence in the community. The baron used his wealth to enrich the city, strolling through town every day to speak with elder and commoner alike, in contrast to his reclusive scientist son, Mikhail.

Everyone remembers fearing that the baron would be dragged from his home and hung in his own orchard, a warning to all who dared defy the Nazis. Some remembered strange lights in the home the night before that had pierced through thick fog, and my father hoped that some marvelous new invention had arrived that would protect the village. But as the tanks came into sight and finally halted, the relief in his ears did not come with the salvation he desired.

German soldiers proudly waved their flag as they marched up the road into town, a colonel in the lead to greet the Mayor. My father was too far back to hear them speak, but he knew that the leader of his village was there simply to hand over the keys to the city.

Constables quickly parted the crowds to the sides of the avenues and German troops marched into the center of town, replacing the Czechoslovak flagged with the bloody swastika. To my father’s surprise, the first Nazi salute to the Fuhrer received several responses from the crowd, and he later learned that collaborators in the village had been contacted long before the Germans arrived.

A proud Nazi officer soon ascended a platform in the town square and began speaking in German, a tongue that my father would only begin to learn while attending university. As women pulled handkerchiefs from their pockets to weep, they were quickly silenced by constables, fearing that troops would harshly punish dissent. My father did not realize the depth of the danger, however, until he heard screams from homes on the outskirts of the village. His fellow villagers did nothing, bowing their heads with their hands behind their backs as soldiers began marching his Jewish neighbors down the street.

The first captive to step foot outside the village jumped back in fear as a heinous roar sounded from the Castle Lhotak, and the villagers quaked in fear. They could only think of the giants of the Krkonose Mountains, tumbling along ridgelines in their mythology. Such creatures were confined to myth, and they would stay that way. Nazis nervously clung to their machine guns and German tanks roared to life, ready to pulverize whatever came their way.

I will always be haunted by the look in my father’s eyes the first time he recounted this tale to me, and I do not envy his experience. He recalls the roars growing louder while trees lining the hillside bristled from some unseen force. A giant brown figure eventually emerged from the trees, pulling its head back and roaring in defiance as bullets and shells rocketed toward it. The villagers expected to see the immediate death of the hideous creation that had seemingly arisen from Mikhail Lhotak’s lab, but as gunfire faded, they saw the monster simply shake its body and let out a short, sharp laugh.

My father remembers the next few moments as a blur, families racing back into their homes and grabbing their weapons while Nazis raced into the field, attempting to overwhelm the new opponent with gunfire. Instead of sheltering in the basement with his family, my father propelled himself to the attic and sat upon his roof, watching in awe as the creature turned over tanks and ripped soldiers limb from limb. Within half an hour, any surviving Nazis had fled the scene, leaving a warped portrait of carnage and chaos painted over the old meadow. Finally at peace, the monster turned toward my father and locked eyes with him, appearing to almost smile before it turned and marched back through the forest to its home.

Shock overwhelmed my father even as he found himself raptured in a provincial celebration that lasted through the night. Dismissing great dissent, the Mayor ordered the Nazis be buried while constables collected their discarded weapons. As the men cleaned the meadow, women baked and cooked a legendary meal that was washed down with a river of beer. Sometimes when my father told the story, however, he recalled realizing that none of his Jewish neighbors joined in the celebrations. Many of them would have preferred to depart after realizing the cowardice of their fellow villagers, but they knew there would be no sanctuary in the rest of the Sudetenland.

Over the next month, the village saw no more tanks in the village even if the Luftwaffe still controlled the skies. Newspapers were not sent our way, but radio signals now delivered only in German told tales of peace and prosperity befalling those territories ceded to the Nazis. Old men would laugh at the broadcasts, knowing that theirs was the only true refuge in the region. Nobody spoke of the monster, even in jest, preferring to dismiss the Nazi destruction as an act of God. Baron Lhotak’s family was similarly absent from talk, the estate keeping its gates closed as its occupants tried to contain the horror that had been unleashed.

A month later, the village found itself awoken in the early morning by cries of desperation from Baron Lhotak. Groggy villagers in bedclothes stumbled outside carrying lanterns, rubbing their eyes extra in the dim light in disbelief. In the city square, constables had chained Baron Lhotak to a pole, pointing machine guns outward in defense of those who would free him.

Before long the villagers cried aloud in fear at the sound of tanks, louder than the Panzers that had made the journey before. These new machines were beasts themselves, twice as large and belching horrid clouds of smoke. Several columns of Nazis marched alongside the tanks, walking in bizarre synchronicity that was broken only to shout a salute to their Fuhrer. Standing atop the front take was a man in a bright red uniform, saluting with his men and waving aloft a great spear. Once the units had entirely surrounded the village, the Nazis began pumping their arms into the air and repeatedly shouting, “Heil!”

Their leader lowered his spear and his soldiers suddenly became silent, keeping their hands in the air while he climbed down from the tank to meet with the villagers. An extremely anxious Mayor continuously wiped his brow with a handkerchief and nervously greeted the Nazi leader, escorting him and his men through a procession of half-dressed villagers who had comfort only in suspecting that they were dreaming. The Nazi leader ascended the stage with a companion and waited as his lieutenant unfolded a piece of paper.

“By order of the Wermacht, the Jews of this village are to be escorted to a relocation center where they will receive food and living quarters.” The Nazi spoke Czech. “Our Fuhrer is providing you the opportunity to feed fewer mouths and keep your city safe while the Jews are placed in the care of the Third Reich. Allow your neighbors to join us by tomorrow morning or we will relocate them by force. And know this: We heard the reports of your giant, and we brought the weapon that will bring it down.” He tapped his spear on the stage twice. “We saw the graves you left for our comrades, and we honor you with this delay. Our Fuhrer also pledges to leave your village in peace for the future. Disregard our request, however, and we will not so much as honor your dead.

My father does not know what followed, but by the evening, his village had been cleared of Jews. Their homes on the outskirts stood vacant, and the old smells of baking pastries and roasted meats that he knew and loved were gone. In the dead of night, the Lhotak’s fled the country, never to be heard from again. Children would sneak into their mansion occasionally and claim that they saw an old Jewish mystic, who was said to have guided Mikhail, though the villagers were certain he had been removed. The giant did not reappear, even when the Soviets arrived and flew yet another flag over our village square.

In all the years since the arrival of the Nazis, my father did not go a day without a stiff drink. The giant may have been a guardian of his village, but his butchery scarred my father’s heart. Worst of all, the giant’s disappearance stung my father, making him wonder whether any protector’s promise could be trusted.

You can imagine the look on my father’s face when he heard the giant roar once again decades later, as in the folly of my youth I decided to sneak into Castle Lhotak with my friends. We sought to prove the existence of the old mystic once and for all, but he was nowhere to be found in the halls of the estate. The moment we gave up our quest in the castle’s labyrinthine basement, I heard a great rumbling and felt unimaginable pain as the roof collapsed on me. My friends vanished with their lanterns, leaving me to lose consciousness in the dark.

I awoke without my friends later but I was not alone, accompanied by indiscernible grunts and the quaking footsteps of something behind me. A great unseen brute wrapped its slimy arms around me and began to pull my mangled frame from the rubble. When I would not give, I felt the presence pass over me and remove the chaff pinning my legs to the ground. New waves of pain caused me to pass out once more, but I recall the doctor saying that I was covered in some brown slime that would never wash out from my clothes.

Of course clothing was the least of my worries, as both of my legs were amputated and I was carried about town until a wheelchair could be procured. I count my blessings every day that I live in a time where science can replace limbs as they have mine. These legs are not perfect, but the doctors who built them for me have my eternal gratitude.

As for the giant, I cannot say for certain whether the monster my father saw was real. I believe that perhaps the old mystic or a vagrant occupying the castle pulled me from the ruins, though I cannot explain the residue he left. All I know is that when faced with an impossible choice, my grandfather’s generation took the easy way out, refusing even to fight for the freedom of their neighbors. Giant or no giant, they would have let our neighbors burn, a choice that they made twice. I tell this story to let the children know that the real enemy of mankind is not Nazis or giants, but ambivalence toward human life. Are you willing to fight for your neighbors, should evil enter our village once more?