He had no trouble with brushes or dustcloths; it was only the firearm he refused to wield. Every possible sort of punitive labor was imposed upon him, but nothing helped. I can see it falling to the ground as if in slow motion. At first we merely asked him questions and tried to talk him out of it. Just hold it! I, too, worked up my ire against him. We were expected to give him a hard time, and so we did. He had put us under pressure; we would return the favor.
He was beaten in his barracks by the very boys whose boots he had polished mirror-bright.
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All against one. Through the boards that divided room from room, I could hear his whimper, the snap of the leather belt, the loud counting. These sounds are ingrained in my memory. But neither the hazing nor the beatings, nor anything else, could force him to carry arms. Morning after morning, when we gathered for roll call and the drill instructor started passing out the weapons, the incorrigible insubordinate would let the one meant for him fall to the ground like the proverbial hot potato and immediately return to his ramrod position, hands pressed to trouser seams, eyes fixed on a distant point.
In a voice neither loud nor soft, he pronounced what he and his refused to do. Four words fusing into one: Wedontdothat. His behavior transformed us. From day to day, what had seemed solid crumbled. Then we let him be. No more beatings on the bare behind. The insubordinate stood above us, as if on a pedestal. In the end, this morning ritual was cut off by his arrest. From then on, discipline and order reigned.
Someone—was it the drill instructor or one of us? No doubt about it. One day his locker was cleared out: private things, including religious pamphlets. We did not ask where to. I did not ask. But we all knew. And since we knew of the camp, Stutthof, only by hearsay, we thought Wedontdothat—which was what we called him in secret—was in good hands. I must say that I was, if not glad, then at least relieved when the boy disappeared. I was pleased with myself and sated. A self-portrait from that period would have shown me well nourished.
When the bulletin of the Wehrmacht high command, which was tacked up daily on the notice board, announced the landing of the British and American forces on the Atlantic coast, the battle for the Atlantic Wall pushed everything that had preceded it into the background. Increased vigilance was the order of the day. One of our duties was to fortify the camp: we dug trenches, set up mined wire barriers. We also had to install a complex alarm system, though nothing alarming ever happened, except that one Sunday we were ordered out onto the parade ground in full force, all two hundred and fifty of us, in our shit-brown garb plus ass-with-handle headgear on our closely cropped hair.
A shiver ran through us. Something akin to piety sent the sweat seeping out of our pores. The heavens were once more, or still, on our side. We sang both our national anthems. We shouted Sieg heil! We were irate, we were incensed at the still nameless traitors. We were dismissed from the Labor Service soon after the assassination attempt, our term served. Back in mufti, I was ashamed of my naked knees, my forever sagging kneesocks: I was beyond all that now, no longer a schoolboy. It took less than two months for my induction letter to arrive, black and white on the kitchen table, signed, dated, and stamped.
Mother had refused to accompany son to the station. She was smaller than I was, and when she hugged me in the living room she seemed to dissolve into tears between the piano and the grandfather clock. Father accompanied me. Then he had to buy a platform ticket. He insisted on carrying my cardboard suitcase.
How I Spent the War | The New Yorker
He hugged me; I hugged him back. Or did we only do the manly handshake thing? All I remember seeing clearly was the city with its towers against the evening sky in the distance. I also think I heard the bells of nearby St. It was going so slowly as to invite the passengers to write everything down, or at least fill in the potential memory gaps ahead of time.
Here is what I retained: there were houses, entire apartment houses, on fire on either side of the embankment; there were flames coming out of the windows of the upper stories, and glimpses of dark gorgelike streets and courtyards with trees.
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The only people I saw were isolated silhouettes. No crowds. Fires were considered normal by then; Berlin was in the throes of dissolution, and the situation worsened by the day. The city had just been bombed and the all-clear signal sounded. That was why the train was moving so slowly, offering what seemed like a personal sightseeing tour.
People at the station appeared oblivious of the fires. It was business as usual: shoving crowds, curses, sudden salvos of laughter; soldiers on leave hurrying back to the front, soldiers on leave hurrying home; representatives from the female arm of the Hitler Youth, the League of German Girls, passing out hot drinks and giggling when the soldiers pawed them. In the hall with the ticket windows, I joined a group of recent recruits my own age and, after a brief wait, was handed marching orders naming Dresden as my destination.
I can picture my fellow-recruits jabbering. We are curious, as if on an adventure. A motley crew was soon crammed together there, soldiers and civilians, and a lot of children. There were wounded soldiers lying on stretchers and leaning on crutches. There was also a troupe of music-hall performers. They were all in costume: the siren had sent them directly from stage to cellar. While outside the gunfire hammered on and bombs dropped far and near, they continued their show: a dwarf juggler who kept ninepins, balls, and colored hoops all in the air at one time had us mesmerized; a dainty little lady tied herself gracefully in knots while blowing kisses to the wildly applauding crowd.
The troupe, whose job it was to entertain front-line soldiers, was led by a tiny old man who performed as a clown. He also coaxed a sweet, melancholy music out of a row of empty to full glasses by stroking their rims with his fingers, the smile never leaving his rouged lips. An image that has stuck with me. As soon as the all-clear sounded, I took a tram to another station. The train for Dresden waited for departure in the gray light of morning. It was not until here, in a Dresden as yet untouched by the war, that I understood what division I had been attached to.
My new marching orders made it clear where the recruit with my name was to undergo basic training: on a drill ground of the Waffen S. There is nothing carved into the onion skin of my memory that can be read as a sign of shock, let alone horror. I most likely viewed the Waffen S. I did not find the double rune on the uniform collar repellent. Someone who stood for freedom, liberation. Besides, the Waffen S. So there were plenty of excuses. Yet for decades I refused to admit to the word, to the double letters.
As Green as Grass: Growing Up Before, During & After the Second World War
What I accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame. But the burden remained, and no one could alleviate it. True, during the tank-gunner training, which kept me numb throughout the autumn and winter, there was no mention of the war crimes that later came to light.
But the ignorance I claim cannot blind me to the fact that I had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organized, and carried out the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could not be accused of active complicity, there remains to this day a residue that is all too commonly called joint responsibility. I will have to live with it for the rest of my life. At first I thought that that was how it had to be, but my initial supply of enthusiasm soon dwindled. All of us—recruits my age and old-timers who had been transferred to the Waffen S.
I had read about it in books. I intentionally suppressed the names of the slave drivers, even the worst of them. All that I learned from the experience was mute compliance or clever tricks. I got out of drill once by feigning jaundice—I swallowed some heated oil from sardine cans—and once because of an outbreak of boils, but the infirmary, which was chronically packed, could offer only temporary refuge.
Our instructors, who were young in years but had been turned into hard-boiled cynics by their year or two at the front, were eager now to pass on the experience they had gained at the Kuban bridgehead or in tank warfare at Kursk. They did so in bitter earnest or with merciless wit or however they felt like it. Now loudly, now softly, they plied us with military lingo and outdid one another in bullying us with newfangled or time-honored Army tortures. I did everything I was ordered to do without a second thought. Night marches with combat pack. It was all supposed to make a man of me.
From then until Christmas, only letters; after Christmas, nothing. The notice board led us to believe that the Ardennes offensive—the Battle of the Bulge—was going swimmingly and would turn things around at last, but soon came the bulletin admitting that the Russians had entered East Prussia. Reports of the rape and murder of German women in the Gumbinnen region occupied my thoughts during theory lectures. All day we saw enemy squadrons sending bundles of vapor trails through the frost-bright sky, wending their unimpeded way—where? It looked quite beautiful, actually, but where were our fighter pilots?
There was still a lot of talk about the V1 and V2 rockets, to say nothing of the miracle weapon that was expected to materialize any minute. Toward the end of February, when rumors of the Dresden firestorm started making the rounds, we took the oath. The moon was full, the night freezing cold. Soon thereafter, I witnessed an event that should have made the downfall of the German Reich evident—the organized chaos of defeat moving slowly, then with dispatch, and finally at breakneck speed. Was I able to recognize what things were coming to? Did the never-ending activity, the all-consuming need for a ladle of soup and a crust of Army bread, along with fears of various magnitudes, leave any room for insight into the general situation?
From the training camp in the Bohemian Woods we were transferred group by group to a number of outlying garrisons: one lot set off in the direction of Vienna; another was sent to defend Stettin. Mine was taken one night on a freight train via Tetschen-Bodenbach to Dresden, then farther east into Lower Silesia, where the front was reputed to be.
Some claimed to have seen shrivelled corpses, others heaven knows what. We covered up our horror then by quarrelling over what had happened; much as today what happened in Dresden lies buried under verbiage. After being shifted in one direction, then the next, we finally found the company that we had been assigned to and joined its as yet incomplete squad in an evacuated school.
The school benches piled up outside were being sawed into firewood by the kitchen crew. The accommodation awaiting us in the courtyard made it clear that the barracks existence I had led since my days as a Luftwaffe auxiliary was not over yet. And there we sat, waiting for our famous Tiger tanks to arrive.
The wait proved long but, given the regular meals and the loose discipline, tolerable. We even got to see movies. And although we lacked the training to operate them, we had to clear out of the barracks and mount them in our capacity as escorts, equipped with rifles and other assault weapons. The front was supposedly the Silesian town of Sagan, which had been recaptured but was still under fire. From Sagan, there was to be an offensive, or so we were told, to liberate Breslau, which the Russians had besieged.
Expertise. Insights. Illumination.
At that point the film rips and, when I splice it together and switch the projector back on, all I get is a jumble of images: somewhere I throw away my threadbare footcloths and put on the woollen socks we have found in an evacuated military storehouse.
We have stopped in an alluvial plain and I am stroking the first pussy willows. Did I hear an early cuckoo? Did I count its calls? And then I see my first bodies. Soldiers young and old, in Wehrmacht uniforms. Hanging from trees still bare along the road, in marketplaces. With cardboard signs on their chests branding them as cowards and subversive elements. A boy my age—his hair, like mine, parted on the left—dangling next to a middle-aged officer of indeterminate rank, or, rather, stripped of his rank by a court-martial.
A procession of corpses that we ride past with our deafening tank-track rattle. Off to the side, I see peasants working their fields, furrow after furrow, as if nothing were wrong. One has a cow hitched to his plow. Then I see more refugees, filling the streets: horse carts and overladen handcarts pushed and pulled by old women and adolescents; I see children clutching dolls, perched on suitcases and rope-bound bundles. An old man is pulling a cart containing two lambs, hoping to survive the war. At this point, the reel of my first contact with the enemy must be singled out from the arbitrary concatenation of images.
I can only assume that the encounter took place sometime in mid-April, when, after lengthy artillery bombardment, the Soviet Armies broke through the German lines along the Oder and the Neisse between Forst and Muskau to take revenge for their millions of dead, to conquer, to triumph. I see our Jagdpanthers, a few armored personnel carriers, several trucks, the field kitchen, and a thrown-together troop of infantrymen and tank gunners taking up position in a grove of young trees, either to launch a counteroffensive or to form a line of defense.
Buds on the trees, birches among others. The sun giving warmth. The birds chirping. We wait, half drowsing. Someone is playing a harmonica. A private lathers up, starts shaving. Grass, far right, with his family, in Photograph from Akademie der kunste. There is no time to wonder where the name comes from.
Is it the way it howls, hisses, and whines? Two or three rocket launchers blanket the grove. They are ruthlessly thorough, mowing down whatever cover the young trees might promise. There is no place to hide, or is there? I see myself doing as I was taught: crawling under one of the Jagdpanthers, where I find someone else—the driver, the gunner, the commander?
Our boots touch. We are protected by the tracks on either side. The organ goes on playing for what is most likely a three-minute eternity—scared to death, I piss my pants—and then silence. No, the chattering had begun even before the organ had played its piece to the end; nor did it stop when the screams of the wounded overpowered all other noise. When I crawled out from under the Jagdpanther, I was assaulted by images.
There were bodies everywhere, one next to the other and one on top of the other, dead, still alive, writhing, impaled by branches, peppered with shell splinters. Many were in acrobatic contortions. Body parts were strewn around. The survivors were either crawling here and there or, like me, rooted to the spot. Some wailed, though not wounded. I made no sound; I just stood there in my piss-soaked pants, staring at the innards of a boy I had been shooting the breeze with.
Death seemed to have shrunk his round face. But I had already read everything I write here. Then, suddenly, the teeth-chatterer was at my side, pulling himself up to his full height and exhibiting the rather elevated Waffen S. On the double. Get them back into formation, chop-chop. Prepare for the counterattack. I watch him stepping over shattered bodies, both dead and alive. He looks ridiculous striding along, waving his arms, the picture-book hero no more.
From then on, the units I belonged to had no names. Battalions, companies kept dissolving. The Frundsberg was no more—if it ever had been. The Soviet Armies had moved on beyond the Oder and Neisse and formed a broad front. Our main battle lines, steamrollered and broken through, existed only on paper, but what did I know of battle lines and what they were or meant?
In the chaos of retreat, I sought to join up with scattered soldiers who were likewise trying to find their units. Even though I had had no direct contact with the enemy, I was scared to death. The soldiers hanging from the trees along the road were a constant warning of the risk run by every one of us who could not prove that he belonged to a company or was on his way to this or that unit with signed and sealed travel orders. They would then be summarily and conspicuously hanged.
Twice in mid-April, I ended up behind Russian lines as part of an improvised unit. Both times I was attached to a reconnaissance troop with an unclear mission, and both times I was saved by luck, if not by chance. My first opportunity to croak under machine-gun fire or be taken prisoner and learn to survive in Siberia presented itself when a troop of six or seven men led by a sergeant attempted to break out of the cellar of a one-story house.
The house was in the Russian-occupied part of a village still under dispute. Through the cellar window we could hear shots—single shots and machine-gun fire—going back and forth at intervals. There was nothing edible on the cellar shelves, but we could tell that the man living there, who had obviously cleared out just in time, had owned a bicycle shop, because he had used the cellar to hide his much sought-after wares, a number of which were hanging by their front wheels from wooden racks, their tires pumped and ready to go.
Grab a bike, each one of you, and make a run for it. Nobody laughed. Grab the machine gun and cover us. It may be that one or another of the privates, while dutifully removing his bike from the rack, tried to allay my fear. If so, his words went unheeded. I was at the cellar window taking up a position with a weapon I had not been trained to operate. The doubly incapable soldier never had a chance to fire, however, because no sooner had the five or six men emerged from the cellar, bicycles and all, than they were mowed down by machine-gun fire out of nowhere—that is, from one side of the street or the other or both.
I think I see a wriggling, then only a twitching pile. Someone—the lanky sergeant? Then nothing moves. I may also see a front wheel sticking out of the pile, turning and turning. Behind and between gardens, I was hidden by bushes already in bud, and, having left the village still ringing with gunfire, I suddenly came to the tracks of a narrow-gauge railway bordered on both sides by shrubbery along embankments the height of a man.
They ran straight in the presumed direction of our front. After little more than a kilometre of gravel and wooden ties, I saw an undamaged bridge arching the tracks. Crossing it were jeeps and trucks carrying infantry, then a horse-drawn howitzer, then small groups of unmistakably German foot soldiers dragging their feet. Blindly, I joined their column. Since I had managed to lose my rifle, I was given a submachine gun of Italian manufacture, which, had there been occasion for me to use it, would have been in unsure hands.
Dusk was descending, and after a number of false starts we wandered onto a forest path churned up by tank tracks. The tracks had been made only hours before, we learned, by a column of Tigers and armored personnel carriers racing forward to serve as an advance guard. But, hard as we tried to make radio contact with them, all that came over our walkie-talkie was gibberish and static. The tree stock on both sides of the road was highly repetitive, pine giving way to pine.
We may have had no heavy artillery to weigh us down, but we had picked up an old man along the way—his armband identified him as a member of the Volkssturm, the Home Front Army—as well as two lightly wounded soldiers, both of them, like twins, with lame left legs. The man from the Volkssturm was constantly babbling about something, quarrelling with God or cursing his neighbor; the wounded men had to be helped along, half carried. We made slow progress. After further vain attempts to contact the tank brigade, the sergeant called for a halt. Putting to use his evident front-line savvy, he had decided to wait for the armored personnel carriers that were expected for the retreat, in the hope that they would provide transport for at least the hobblers and the Home Front bore.
Luckily, he singled me out to stand watch and ordered me to keep my eyes open. I see another picture: Myself in my own imagination. Myself under my sliding helmet. Myself obeying an order. Myself eager to do a good job. And that, tired as I was, I did. It divided in two as it drew nearer. My first intimation of surprise may have come from the fact that the rapidly approaching vehicle had its headlights on full beam, and when it came to a halt two steps in front of me I realized why. Only Russians would waste lights like that.
I broke ranks before they could shoot, diving into a stand of young pines to the right of the road, out of sight, though not out of danger. I heard shouting in two languages immediately overlaid by gunfire, until only the Russian submachine guns had their say. Crawling through the dense pine thicket and slowly increasing my distance from the road, I was shot at from right and left but not hit, which was not necessarily the case with the group around the sergeant.
The old man was no longer cursing God or his neighbor or calling for scores to be settled. The only voices I heard were Russian voices, now quite far off.
As Green as Grass
Someone was laughing. He must have been in a good mood. Because the dry twigs made such a racket, the isolated tank gunner stopped inching forward on his elbows as he had been trained to do, and played dead, as if he could thereby escape the march of history. Not until the enemy tank, which had been followed by others, started moving did he begin to crawl forward again, and he crawled on until the pine cover turned into a mature wood with Prussian-neat rows. What do I see when I hold up that lone tank gunner by the half-moonlight and view him as an early edition of the man to come?
He is about to cry. He is still armed, still holding his submachine gun at the ready. A gas mask dangles uselessly from him like an elongated drum. All he has left in his haversack is a few crumbs of zwieback from his last ration. His canteen is half empty. His Kienzle luminous-dial wristwatch, the birthday present from his father, has long since stopped.
Now he is asleep, propped against a tree. Now he casts a shadow like the tree trunks, because it is day, but he cannot find his way out of the wood and stumbles around in a circle without knowing it, takes some crumbs out of his haversack, unscrews the top of his canteen, and drinks, sending the helmet back over his neck. Now it is dark again and an owl is calling, and, hungry and abandoned under the moderately cloudy night sky, he chews his last crumbs.
I heard steps, or something that could be construed as steps. Twigs crackling underfoot. An animal of some kind?
A boar? Maybe even a unicorn? I stood stock still and made not a sound; he or it—the animal, man, or imaginary beast that had been stepping through the wood—followed suit. Then a figure appeared, drew nearer, withdrew, only to come near again. Too near. Take cover behind the tree trunks. Lessons from military training. Two men assuming each other to be enemies. Conceivably, many years down the line, an idea for a ballet or a movie scene. Like the one that sets up the climax in every classic Western: the ritual dance before the final shootout.
Whistling is said to help dispel fear in a dark wood. I did not whistle. Something, perhaps the thought of my far-off mother, made me sing instead. I did not seek out a melody from among the marches we had been taught. My singing partner was equipped with a rifle, several more years, and several fewer centimetres than me.
What I saw under his field cap—he had no helmet—was a puny little man, and what I heard was a Berlin drawl that you could cut with a knife. The scare was over the moment he lit up: a cigarette in a sullen face that said nothing. Later, I learned that in the course of the war, starting with the Polish campaign, moving on to France and Greece, and getting as far as the Crimean peninsula, he had made it to the rank of private first class. He had no desire to advance any further.
Nothing could throw him, a characteristic that in our precarious situation soon proved its worth. He became my guardian angel: he led me out of the woods and over the fields and across the Russian front line. Log in to your account. Advanced search Recent comments Tag cloud. Login: Password:. By: Smith, Emma , [author. Description: pages large print ; 24 cm. ISBN: ; Tags from this library: No tags from this library for this title.
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