A Journey with
One Who Did
"You are travelling far, Gnädige Frau?"
"Far? Well, not so far really, it all depends what one calls far..." the old technique, an answer and no answer.
"It's very cold in this compartment isn't it? Would you care to have my army coat over your knees? I don't need it as I have my sheepskin affair."
"That's very nice of you, but actually...I am fairly all right as yet."
How I wished he would leave me alone; I was so tired, I was finding it so hard to concentrate, but his next question had me wishing sincerely that I had followed Herr Lemke's good example and left the carriage.
"Would you mind my asking where you come from?"
I supposed I had made some mistake with my German, but there was a chance that the question was put quite innocently, so I told him I didn't mind his asking a bit, but wondered could he guess. After a moment's pause he said he did not know. Sweden? Holland, perhaps? But then a little while back I had made some remark in unmistakable Black Forest dialect. "I am living in the Black Forest at present, with my children," I said. "I am neither Swedish nor Dutch. By the way, where do you come from?" In order to evade a straight answer I knew that I was getting drawn into a wretched conversation, but I was too tired to think up a way out.
"Me? Aha!" he gave a short rather brittle laugh. "I come from Riga. Do you know Riga? It is very beautiful. We Latvians are what is called a border people, which means that we have been 'liberated' very often. You know, perhaps, the story of the Alsatian boy who was recruited for the German army in 1942 and he was asked which side he thought would win the war. He answered that his great-grandfather had fought in 1870 for the French and lost, and his grandfather in 1914 for the Germans and lost, and his father in 1940 for the French and lost, and now he was going to fight for the Germans and he didn't really know what to think.
"It was much the same with us, sometimes we were 'liberated' by the Poles, then by the Swedes, just lately by the Russians, and then lastly by the Germans. We were glad, very glad, for the Russian occupation had been very hard. My father was killed by the Russians and my mother died of grief --- I think it must have been. Our people baked cakes and stood by the roadside and gave them to the German troops as they marched through our villages. The troops looked splendid, crack German regiments, and each soldier had a flower in his cap, and as I watched I knew that I had only one wish in the world and that was to get into uniform as soon as possible and to march with them.
"You see, I felt that this would be the only chance to take my revenge for what the Russians had done to my home. So I volunteered and, as my head had the correct Aryan measurement: my shoulders, my chest, the shape of my nose, truly Aryan, also I hadn't flat feet --- I had the particular honour of being recruited for the SS."
His slow voice had quickened, and I could hear him move in the darkness. He seemed to be leaning forward for his voice sounded nearer as he asked suddenly: "But where do you come from, Gnädige Frau? Are you German?"
"No," I said, "I'm not, my people come from Ireland."
"Ach, now I understand, the Irish, they are musical, hence your voice. You have a very sympathetic voice, Gnädige Frau. Perhaps it is because of your voice that I'm telling you these things --- that and the funny expression you had on your face as you stood on the barrow outside the window. Then perhaps you can understand a bit the feeling. Your country, too, was occupied by the British. Your people were insulted, starved, murdered --- but where was I? Oh yes, my Aryan contours, my hopes for revenge.
"Well, they told us that we could revenge ourselves on our enemies and they sent us to Poland. Not to fight the Poles, oh no, they had been defeated long ago --- but to kill Jews. We just had the shooting to do, others did the burying," he drew a deep, sighing breath. "Do you know what it means --- to kill Jews, men, women, and children as they stand in a semicircle around the machine guns? I belonged to what is called an Einsatzkommando, an extermination squad --- so I know. What do you say when I tell you that a little boy, no older than my youngest brother, before such a killing, stood there to attention and asked me 'Do I stand straight enough, Uncle?' Yes, he asked that of me; and once, when the circle stood round us, an old man stepped out of the ranks, he had long hair and a beard, a priest of some sort I suppose. Anyway, he came towards us slowly across the grass, slowly step by step, and within a few feet of the guns he stopped and looked at us one after another, a straight, deep, dark and terrible look. 'My children,' he said, 'God is watching what you do.' He turned from us then, and someone shot him in the back before he had gone more than a few steps. But I --- I could not forget that look, even now it burns into me."
The window I had climbed through would not close properly and a numbing cold seemed to be creeping upwards from my feet, but the voice, just a voice in the darkness, went on and on, sometimes pitched so low that I could hardly hear it above the creaking and rumbling of the train, sometimes raised to a note of near hysteria. He told me that he had resigned from the Death Commandos and joined the Waffen SS, the fighting SS units, and he told me of how he had tried to be killed, but his comrades had fallen around him and each time, by some miracle, he had lived. The ones with the photographs in their wallets, the frightened ones, and the ones with the dreams of the future, they were the ones who got killed, he said. Only those who didn't care, got the Iron Crosses. Now be was going to the front, to his unit if he could reach it, otherwise anywhere, anywhere, did I hear, where he would be allowed to die.
During his story I had found it increasingly difficult to listen. I had eaten practically nothing all day and the cold in the carriage was intense. As I fought wave after wave of exhaustion, my head kept falling forward and only the most startling points of his story penetrated the fog of sleep. The little fair-haired Jewish boy --- the old Rabbi. Oh God, was it for these that Adam had done penance and maybe now, Peter, too?
Some two years back I had been in a tram with Nicky when an elderly lady, with the Jewish star pinned to her coat had got up from her place so that my Aryan eight-year-old son could sit down. I had got up too and the three of us had stood silently looking at the empty seats. I had felt quite proud of my little gesture at the time. How utterly feeble it seemed now. Too much --- too much. "You are silent, Gnädige Frau? You are horrified at my story?" He seemed very near. "No --- no," my own voice from somewhere far away; it seemed no longer my own. "I am not horrified, I think I pity you, for you have more on your conscience than can be absolved by your death."
And suddenly, for a second in time, the fogs cleared and it was as if Adam's and Carl's dying and Peter's imprisonment seemed a splendid, glowing, real thing, absolutely necessary and right. "But others have died and may have to die for you," I heard myself murmuring. I do not know if he heard, as I was already nearly asleep. The train rumbled rhythmically onwards into the night. Totteridge, where I was born --- a village church --- a small Chris collecting her weekly text at children's service. Miss Osborne at the organ. "He died that we might be forgiven. He died to make us good. He died --- He died ---"
I awoke twice before reaching Tuttlingen. Once, when the train jerked to a stop at a half-lit station, I realized that I was warmer and that my head was resting on something hard and uncomfortable. The man had moved and was sitting beside me, his greatcoat was over my knees and my head had fallen on to his shoulder. His SS shoulder tabs had been pressing into my cheek. In the half light I saw his face for the second time: perhaps I had been mistaken about that twitching nerve; it looked peaceful enough now anyway, almost childlike. His hand, with the signet ring of the SS, was resting on mine, and as I moved it closed with an almost desperate grip and then relaxed. I put my head back on his shoulder gently, so as not to waken him, and I slept again. The next time I woke, the carriage was empty and the train was moving. A grey, cold dawn lightened the window. I glanced involuntarily at the sky and the low snow-clouds scudding past. It was not going to be a very good day for an air-raid I thought, and so there was a chance that I might be home in my valley before evening.
--- from When I Was a German
By Christabel Bielenberg
©1998 University of Nebraska Press