I’ve forgotten what my grandmother was wearing the time that nasty word ‘Asia’ got her back on her feet. The bomber squadrons, which now passed overhead in broad daylight on their way to Berlin, were already out of earshot. Someone had pushed open the door of the air-raid shelter, and in the bright triangle of sunlight at the entrance stood a pair of knee-high black military boots, and in them an SS officer, whose blond brain had registered every single word my grandmother had uttered during the long air-raid alarm: ‘No, no, I’m not budging from here, I don’t care if they kill me, one old woman more or less won’t matter.’
‘What?’ said the SS officer. ‘Tired of living? You’d rather fall into the hands of those Asian hordes? Don’t you know that the Russians lop women’s breasts off?’
That brought my grandmother wheezing to her feet. ‘Oh, God,’ she said, ‘what has humanity done to deserve this?’
‘Are you starting up again!’ bellowed my grandfather. Now I can see them clearly, walking into the courtyard and taking up their positions alongside our handcart: Grandmother in her fine black coat; on her head the brown striped kerchief which my children still wear when they have a sore throat; Grandfather, wearing a cap with ear flaps and a herring-bone jacket. Time is short, the night is drawing near, closing in along with the enemy, although from a different direction: night from the west and the enemy from the east. In the south, flames rage against the sky. We imagine we can decipher the fiery script. The writing on the sky seems clear and spells out: Go west.
We tried to follow the country road but strayed from it in the darkness, groping about on side paths until we finally came upon a tree-lined drive leading towards a gate and a secluded estate. There was a crooked, slightly shaky man who was limping to the stables in the middle of the night–Kalle, he was called. He was not given to wondering at anything and so addressed the desperate, exhausted little troop in his particular, indifferent manner: Well, folks, Sodom and Gomorrah? Never mind. There’s always room in the smallest cabin for a happy, loving couple.
The man is not so bright, my mother said uneasily, as we followed Kalle across the courtyard, and my grandfather, who never said much, declared with satisfaction, He is pretty crazy in his head. And so he was. Kalle called my grandfather boss, he who had held no higher rank in his lifetime than that of private in the Kaiser’s infantry regiment, cobbler’s apprentice under Herr Lebüse in Bromberg, and signalman for the German Reich in the administrative district of Frankfurt (Oder). Boss, said Kalle, it’s best if you take that cubby-hole back there in the corner. He then disappeared, whistling, ‘One More Drop for the Road.’
Kalle woke us at daybreak and asked my uncle if he knew how to drive a horse and buggy. The owner, Herr Volk, was moving out and needed someone to drive a cart loaded with feed bags.
Herr Volk showed up in person a little later. He was wearing a hunting hat, a loden coat and knickerbockers. And Frau Volk came to bestow a kind and cultured word on the women. I didn’t like her because she called me by my first name without asking and allowed her dachshund bitch, Suzie, to sniff at our legs. Then the shooting began right behind us and we headed off at a quick pace. God takes care of his own, said my grandmother.
This is supposed to be a report on liberation, the hour of liberation, and I thought nothing could be easier. That hour has been clearly focused in my mind all these years; it has lain ready and waiting, fully completed in my memory. I need only say the word and the machine will start running, and everything will appear on the paper as if of its own accord–a series of accurate, highly defined pictures. But do they add up to anything?
I saw my first corpse at the age of sixteen; rather late for those years. (I don’t count the infant I handed in a stiff bundle from a truck to a refugee woman; I didn’t see him, I only heard his mother scream and run away.) Chance had it that Herr Volk’s foreman, Wilhelm Grund, was lying dead instead of me, for pure chance alone had kept my uncle with a sick horse in the barn that morning, so that we weren’t heading towards the country road alongside Grund’s ox cart as usual. We could hear the gunfire from the barn, and the fifteen stabled horses were wild with fear. I have been afraid of horses ever since. But what I have feared more since that moment are the faces of people forced to see what no person should have to see. Wilhelm Grund’s son, the young farmhand Gerhard Grund, had such a face as he burst through the barn door, managed a few steps and then collapsed: Herr Volk, what have they done to my father!
Gerhard was my age. His father lay in the dust at the side of the road next to his oxen, eyes staring upwards. Nothing would lower that gaze, not his wife’s wailing or the whining of his three other children. This time around, they forgot to tell us that this was not a sight for us children.
‘Quick,’ said Herr Volk. ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’ They grabbed the corpse by the shoulders and legs and dragged him to the edge of the woods and wrapped him in the tarpaulins from the granary of the estate–just as they would have wrapped any of us, myself included. I, too, would have gone to the grave without words and without song–only their wailing–just like Wilhelm Grund the farmhand, and then they would have pushed on. For a long time they would have said nothing, just as we remained silent, and then would have had to ask what they needed to do now to stay alive. They would have torn off large birch branches, just as we did now, to cover the handcarts, as if the foreign pilots would be fooled by this little wandering birch grove. Everything, everything would be like now, only I would no longer be one of them. And the difference, which was everything to me, meant hardly anything to most of the others here. Gerhard Grund was already sitting in his father’s seat, driving the oxen forward with his very whip, and Herr Volk nodded to him: ‘Good boy. Your father died a soldier’s death.’
I didn’t really believe this. It wasn’t the way a soldier’s death had been described in the textbooks and newspapers, and I told that authority with whom I was continuously in touch and whom I labelled with the name of God–though against my own scruples and reservations–that, in my opinion, a man and father of four children did not deserve an end such as this.
I happened to be on guard at the time. It was my job to signal the next attacks by whistling. There were two American fighters. The birch grove came to a halt. Just as I had figured, it was clearly visible from afar and easy prey on the desolate country road. Everything that had legs jumped out of the handcarts and threw itself in the ditch, myself included. This time I did not bury my head in the sand but lay on my back and continued eating my sandwich. I did not want to die and I certainly was not up to defying death but I did want to see the one who dared shoot at me. First I saw the white stars under the wings, and then the helmet-covered heads of the pilots and, finally, the naked white spots of their faces. I had seen prisoners before, but this was the attacking enemy–face to face. I knew that I was supposed to hate him and it seemed unnatural that I found myself wondering for the space of a second if they were having fun.
When we got back to the wagons, one of our oxen sank to its knees. Blood spurted from its throat. My uncle and grandfather unharnessed it. My grandfather, who had stood alongside the dead Wilhelm Grund without uttering a word, now hurled curses from his toothless mouth. ‘The innocent creature,’ he said hoarsely. ‘Those damned bastards.’ I was afraid he might begin to cry and hoped he would get everything off his chest by cursing. I forced myself to look at the animal for an entire minute. It couldn’t be reproach that I detected in its gaze, so why did I feel guilty? Herr Volk handed his hunting rifle to my uncle and pointed to a spot behind the ox’s ear. We were sent away. At the sound of the shot, I looked back. The ox dropped heavily on to its side.
All evening the women were busy cooking the meat. By the time we sat in the straw, sipping broth, it was already dark. Kalle, who had bitterly complained about being hungry, greedily slurped from his bowl, wiped his mouth on his sleeve and began to sing croakingly with contentment, ‘All dogs bite, all dogs bite, but only hot dogs get bitten . . .’
‘To hell with you, you crazy fellow,’ my grandfather went at him furiously. Kalle fell on to the straw and stuck his head under his jacket.
One need not be afraid when everyone else is afraid. To know this is certainly liberating, but liberation was still to come, and I want to record what today’s memory is prepared to yield on the subject. It was the morning of the 5 May, a beautiful day, and once more panic broke out when we heard that we were encircled by Soviet armoured tank troops. Then word came that we should march to Schwerin, where the Americans were. Anyone still capable of asking a question would have found it strange, that surge forward towards the enemy who had been trying to kill us for days now. But no one did. The world stubbornly refused to end and we were not prepared to cope with a world that refused to end. I remember the horrific words uttered by one woman when told that the miracle weapon longed for by the Führer could only exterminate everyone, both the enemy and the Germans. Let them go ahead and use it, she said.
We moved past the last houses of a village along a sandy road. A soldier was washing up at a pump next to a red Mecklenburg farmhouse. He stood there, legs apart, with the sleeves of his white undershirt rolled up, and called out to us, ‘The Führer is dead,’ the same way one says, ‘Nice weather today.’ I was stunned more at his tone than at the realization that the man was speaking the truth.
I trudged on alongside our cart, heard the coachmen’s hoarse shouts, the groaning of the exhausted horses, saw the small fires by the side of the road where the papers of the officers of the Wehrmacht smouldered. There were heaps of guns and anti-tank grenade-launchers sprouting from the ditches, along with typewriters, suitcases, radios and all manner of precious war equipment senselessly lining our way.
Then came the paper. The road was suddenly flooded with paper; they were still throwing it out of the Wehrmacht vehicles in wild anger–forms, induction orders, files, proceedings, documents from the headquarters of a military district, banal routine letters as well as military secrets and the statistics of the dead. As if there were something repulsive about the paper trash, I did not stoop to pick up a page, which I regretted later. I did, however, catch the canned food which a truck driver threw to me. The swing of his arm reminded me of the movement, often performed, with which, in the summer of ’39, I had thrown cigarette packs on to the dusty convoys which rolled eastward past our house, day and night. In the six-year interim I had stopped being a child; summer was coming again, but I had no idea how I would spend it.
The supply convoy of a Wehrmacht unit had been abandoned by its escort on a side road. All those who passed by took as much as they could carry. The order of the column dissolved. Many were beside themselves, no longer with fear but with greed. Only Kalle laughed, dragging a large block of butter to our cart, clapping his hands and shouting happily, ‘Well, I’ll be damned! Look at them getting all worked up!’
Then, out of nowhere, we saw the prisoners from the concentration camp nearby. They stood at the edge of the forest and gazed at us. We could have given them a sign that the air was clear, but nobody did. Cautiously, they approached the road. They looked different from all the people I had seen up to then, and I wasn’t surprised that we automatically shrank back from them. But it betrayed us, this shrinking back; it showed that, in spite of what we protested to each other and ourselves, we knew. All we unhappy ones who had been driven away from all our possessions, from our farms and our manors, from our shops and musty bedrooms and brightly polished parlours with the picture of the Führer on the wall–we knew. These people, who had been declared animals and who were slowly coming towards us to take revenge–we had abandoned them. Now the ragged would put on our clothes and stick their bloody feet in our shoes, now the starved would seize hold of the flour and the sausage that we had snatched. And to my horror I felt that it was just, and I was horrified to feel that it was just, and knew for a fraction of a second that we were guilty. I forgot it again.
The prisoners pounced not on the bread but on the guns by the side of the road. They loaded up on ammunition, crossed the road without paying any attention to us, struggled up the opposite slope and mounted sentry there. They looked down at us. I couldn’t bear looking at them. Why don’t they scream, I thought, or shoot into the air, or shoot at us, goddamnit! But they stood there peacefully. Some of them were reeling and could barely bring themselves to hold their guns and stand up. Perhaps they had been praying for this moment. Everything about them was completely foreign to me.
There came a call from the front that everybody except the drivers should dismount. This was an order. A deep breath went through the convoy, for this could mean only one thing: the final steps towards freedom lay ahead. Before we could move on, the Polish drivers jumped off, coiled the reins around the stanchion of the wagon, formed a small squad and set about going back, eastward. Herr Volk, immediately turning a bluish-red colour, blocked their way. At first he spoke quietly to them, but soon he began to scream. Conspiracy, foul play, refusal to work, he shouted. A Polish migrant worker then pushed Herr Volk aside.
The world had truly turned topsy-turvy, only Herr Volk hadn’t noticed yet; he reached for his whip, but it was stopped in mid-air; someone was holding his arm. The whip dropped to the ground, and the Poles walked on. His hand pressed against his heart, Herr Volk leaned heavily against the cart and let himself be comforted by his thin-lipped wife, while Kalle railed at him from above, shouting, Bastard, bastard. The French people, who stayed with us, called out farewells to the departing Poles, who understood those farewells no more than I did, but understood their sound. It hurt being so strictly excluded from their shouting, waving and the tossing of their caps, from their joy and their language. But it had to be that way. The world consisted of the victors and the vanquished. The former were free to express their emotions. We had to lock ours inside us. The enemy should not see us weak.
There he was. I would have preferred a fire-breathing dragon to this light Jeep with its gum-chewing driver and three casual officers. I tried to make an expressionless face and look right through them, and told myself that their unconstrained laughter, their clean uniforms, their indifferent glances, the whole damned victor’s pose had probably been planned for our special humiliation.
The people around me began to hide watches and rings. I, too, took my watch off my wrist and carelessly put it in my coat pocket. The guard at the end of the line, a lanky, hulking man, showed the few people carrying arms where to throw their weapons, while he frisked us civilians with a few firm, routine police motions. Petrified with indignation but secretly proud that they believed me capable of carrying a weapon, I let myself be searched, and my overworked sentry routinely asked, ‘Your watch?’
So he wanted my watch, the victor, but I told him that the other one, ‘your comrade,’ his brother officer, had already pocketed it.
It was then that my heightened sense of hearing signalled the rising sound of an airplane engine.
I kept an eye on its approach route out of habit and threw myself to the ground as it swooped down; once more the horrid dark shadow flitting quickly across grass and trees, once more the atrocious sound of bullets pounding into soil. Still? I thought to myself in astonishment, realizing that one can get used to the feeling of being out of danger in a second.
I should be capable of saying how it felt when it became quiet. I stayed put behind the tree. I believe the thought did not occur to me that, from now on, no bomb would be dropped on me again. I wasn’t curious about what would happen next. I didn’t know how the horned Siegfried is supposed to act if the dragon asks him for his watch rather than gobbling him up, hair and hide. I didn’t feel like watching how Herr Siegfried and Herr Dragon would get along as private citizens. I didn’t feel like going to the Americans in the occupied mansion for every bucket of water or having a fight with black-haired Lieutenant Davidson from Ohio.
And I felt less up to the talk with the concentration-camp prisoner who sat with us by the fire at night, wearing a pair of bent wire-frame spectacles and mentioning the word ‘Communism’ as if it were a permitted, household world such as ‘hatred’ or ‘war’ or ‘extermination’. No. And least of all did I feel like knowing about the sadness and the dismay which were in his voice when he asked us, ‘Where, then, have you lived all these years?’
I didn’t feel up to liberation. I was lying under my tree; all was quiet. I was lost and wanted to make a note of the branches against that very beautiful May sky, when my lanky, off-duty sergeant came up the slope, a squealing German girl hanging on each arm. All three moved in the direction of the occupied mansion, and finally I had a reason to turn away a little and cry.
Photograph: Walniernburg, 18 April 1945. German refugees were forbidden by the Allies from using the roads. Photograph © Hulton Deutsch Collection