Fleeing the Children's Krusade
FLEEING THE CHILDREN'S CRUSADE
Travis Godbold All Rights 2003
It was autumn 1944 in Germany, although we did not call it
that, for it came with no rotting leaves and hardening trunks, but with
mud and a stench of filth. In the mountains, the muck lay frozen on the
rocks, even splattering itself on pines. Below their needles, the metal
from our gas mask canisters shone gold and silvery in the morning sun.
The pounding of our feet sunk into a frosty sludge, as our drill
sergeant, Lessing, kept us at a sprint, his leather boots taking the
trail in haste.
"Garbage! You're all garbage!" he shouted as he ran ahead on
the trail. "I am not your mother, you bastards. Some of you think
mother is still here to clean your dirty shoes, but she's not. Stop
your childish whining. No more, I tell you. Enough nonsense! Today you
will not be afraid to die. Oh, no . . . for dying will be the easy way
out. Today, you'll be afraid of giving up!"
I did not listen too much on what he said, being an ignorant
soldier who had just passed my seventeenth birthday. Besides,
Hitlerjugend, soon to join the ranks of the Waffen SS, were not meant
to think but to do, and I was busy obeying instinct. We wore gray
tunics spun of wool, a simple soldier's tunic with trousers of itchy
cloth. In my hands were boots, brown in mud, for we had to carry them
as our bare feet beat the icy muck in the woods.
Hermann failed to spit-shine his boots and Lessing knew how
to resolve problems in the ranks. Today, he chastened Hermann by
sending us on a miserable sprint through a brush full of thorn bushes
and fallen remnants of pinecones, our boots held high above our heads.
"Come on you bastards!" Lessing cried.
"Ja Oberscharf?hrer!" we replied.
"Der F?hrer raises soldiers, not gasping swine," he shouted
again as he thrust his torso into a thicket and came out with a twig
stuck to his uniform.
Of course, Hermann ran behind us, beaten by shame for his
mistake. He could not help himself, could not even put up a bout
against a child. He looked so frail in his gray uniform as his face
reddened; only his ears were big and the fat lobes stuck out from under
his steel helmet. Some of the boys wanted to stop on the trail and tell
the young fool to go back to his mother, then flick his lobes for all
it was worth until he shouted a scream of hurt.
"Come on, Hermann, you no-good Tommie. Schnell! Schnell!
Schnell!" Lessing yelled.
Those immense arms swung under the fold of his shirt as he
went to a tree limb and tore off a branch. His hair sat like golden
wheat after being threshed, his blue eyes seeming to dart from a skull
of pink tight skin.
"Don't fall behind, Hermann!" he shouted. "Or you'll have me
pushing you through the whole way."
I thought of Hermann as the hurt bear cub in the iron cage,
who after months of being poked by sticks, huddles into a corner in
"Come on, Hermann," I blurted, in an attempt to show sympathy
for him. "Come on."
"Do you need help?" asked another boy, his toes bloody with
thorns. He swung a boot at the little boy and laughed as it gave a
strident smack when it hit his cheek. Hermann shrieked, yet never gave
a sign of faltering his pace in response to my chants of encouragement.
"Hermann you can do this, just keep up with me," I said to
Still, he began to fall back in his run, brought down by
exhaustion. Lessing saw him lag and we knew it was not good to see the
smile curl up from his cruel lips.
"Achtung!" he ordered.
We snapped to attention on the muddy trail under the shade of
a spruce, all eighteen of us with our mouths agape, savoring each quick
"Shut your panting faces!" Lessing snarled. "You sicken me.
All of you. You're not the select few we need against the Ivans. You're
just a bunch of babies who still need a stick to your behinds. Run in
place, damn you! Run in place, you swines of muck! And,
Our noses snorted out short clouds, but they were powerful
puffs, as the legs below went up and down in place, quick to match each
other's stomp against the mud. The filth thrown by the movement of our
hurt feet sent clods of earth into the air; flung high, they hit the
bottoms of the boots hanging above in our pain-wracked
"Hermann," Lessing roared. "They gave me a reason to come
here. And it's not to slow down for a sheisskopf with legs. I should
kick you out of the Kompanie and save the waste you'll make by staying
on." He gave him a gregarious look. "You hear me, Hermann? Do you want
to leave or run?"
"Run, Oberscharf?hrer," he choked out and his squat legs
struck the ground more quickly as he strove to run in
"Good, now keep those legs chopping."
"Ja Oberscharf?hrer," Hermann wheezed.
"Run. Don't talk?just run. Save your breath."
The poor boy ran in place without respite. His nostrils
flared, breaths became a wheeze, but his legs kept at a sprint, knee
up, knee down, going ever faster, or get a foul retort from Lessing.
"Aaaah!" Hermann cried as fatigue deadened his shanks. His
cheeks suffused with blood, the sweat descending from under his helmet
to drown his eyes. He did put up a struggle.
"Run you scoundrel! Don't think of giving up," Lessing
"Relief, Oberscharf?hrer!" Hermann squealed.
"No, don't talk to me. Just concentrate."
I was so glad it was not me running in place at a grueling
speed in front of Lessing. I could feel the pain in my calves start to
climb into my lower limbs as we marked time with our bursting lungs.
" Schnell! Schnell! Schnell! Faster, Hermann!
"Ja Oberscharf?hrer," the small boy wheezed. He ran to the
point of exhaustion. His breathing was painful to us. I could hear his
lungs desperately inhaling oxygen to keep him on his feet.
The sergeant's face turned ugly, wrinkles in his forehead
becoming furrows, his eyes swelling out belligerently below thick blond
"Hop! Hop! Hop! Hop!" he shouted.
I rapidly thrust my feet in the mud to keep pace with the
others, my arms sagging from the weight of the boots. I could only
imagine the pain Hermann felt as his body collapsed while he tried to
endure the merciless demands.
When Hermann could take no more punishment, his legs buckled
and he fell flat into the mud. He dove into the slop headfirst. He lay
there whining in long gasps of misery. I thought he would break right
there and cry, but he looked up at our sergeant and got to his feet.
Hermann's standing did not impress Lessing.
"So you want to give up, eh? 'Cause what happens to boys who
give up is bad, you know. They get killed or they kill
"No, Oberscharf?hrer," he gasped.
"You run," Lessing ordered. "I don't care if you can't
breathe. Run! Get up front of the herd, you swine! You're going to lead
us the whole sprint."
Hermann, broken by Lessing's physical tortures, discovered it
too hard of an effort to rush far in front of us. When he got to the
head of the pack at a limp and made a vain attempt to run, the boys in
the lead swung at the back flange of his helmet with their boots and
kicked his heels. They would neither go around him nor did they slow
down. When we got to the clearing, Hermann's trousers and shirt were
torn and muddied. The sergeant ran aside to let the soldiers voice
their hate on the boy, sometimes pointing at us while he shouted
A trance began to set into my mind. I saw only the horizon
with its tall blades of grass and the sun overhead. The rhythmic
pounding of my feet reminded me of the futile effort we kept in
maintaining a firm principal in this sprint of madness. What was it all
for? I thought of children who were too young to join the ranks.
Instead of being beaten, starved, or kept awake all night to keep
watches, they were given drink and rest. Every morning we awakened not
to the ring of clocks or the affectionate touch of a mother's hand, but
to shouts and chants similar to those yelled down on miscreant dogs,
and then sent to run the same windy trails and mountains only to return
into camp wanting to go home.
Out beyond the edge of the wood in the gray grasses of the
clearing the trail led to ten canvas tents, white under the sun. We
hung our undergarments on lines strung between these shelter tops. We
were allowed time only to give the clothes one swipe with a scrub
brush, dunk them in a wash basin and then throw them on the line. Many
of the garments hung dirty with dark stains under their sleeves. A
large steel washbasin was kept in the middle of our grounds for easy
use. Two men were now standing by it. They wore long, black watchcoats
and distinct officer caps. We had not seen them there before; they were
men of respectable rank, and one of them laughed at us as we ran out of
"Go to your tents and bring the swine bastard with you,"
Lessing ordered when he saw the two strangers in the
Even with the sweat blurring my vision, I could see these
men. Their eyes seemed in shadow under the rims of their caps, and they
often dropped their gazes away from us to look down at the ground.
When I caught up to Hermann, his face looked flush. He
breathed hard through his mouth, almost unable to speak.
"Let's get into the tent," I said to him.
"Can't," the boy wailed. "Please. . ."
Hermann sank to his knees in the grass. I got him back up by
hugging his armpits.
"Come on, we've got to get over there," I
"Yes, you can. It's only right there." I pointed at the tent.
The wind made ripples in the cover cloth and the wooden poles bulged
from behind the canvas.
"My feet? they hurt," he said.
"But we got to," I said.
Hermann worked up enough strength to stand, so I let go of
him. He put his hand on my shoulder to steady his balance as he
lumbered toward the camp.
"You know, you shouldn't have done that," I
"Geez, Otto!" he gasped. "Shut up. I've got my
"You're going to get more than a lesson," I said, watching a
grasshopper glide past, fluttering its leaden wings over the waist-high
grass. "That Lessing, you know, he's a sergeant who won't let a thing
"Don't," he muttered, and I saw he was about to cry.
"None of that?none of the crying. It won't
"But? it's so hard." He bent his head down, so I would not
see him pout under the steel helmet.
"It's hard being tough, I know," I said. "But you don't see
me crying over it."
The scurrying group of boy soldiers ran into the camp,
toppling over their equipment and shovels piled against the tents. Some
even took up their bulky rucksacks set under the door flap, before they
went inside, incase of a surprise road march. Lessing went along with
the officers into his quarters leaving nobody outside but us.
I went to the washbasin, put my hand into the cold water and
then took it out. My hand made ripples as it retracted from the pool
and I saw the ugly red face under the lip of my steel helmet from the
reflection in the water. How I hated the nose mother gave me at birth!
It was a woman's nose. The gentle tuck and smooth bridge of the skin
was not manly and it gave my plain cheeks and eyes a touch of her
With a quick grab at my trousers, my hand took hold of a
canteen, unfastening its leather straps hung below the belt loopholes.
I brought up the canteen then sunk it into the liquid. It made a
kerplunk, as I dipped it into the basin. Large bubbles escaping out of
the mouth tit shot up to the surface, making a floating fizz of tiny
invisible eggs that clung together as water lilies do in a pond.
Hermann followed the canteen with his eyes. His small nose
stuck out pink from a sunburned face and the forehead was bruised below
the bill of his steel helmet. He licked his dry lips.
"Please, Otto. May I have some?" he asked.
"Ja, that's why I got it," I said. "It's for
He took the canteen and gulped it down, his red face staring
into the sky where the flask hung vertically from his hand. The ball in
his throat bulged then sunk downward with every
"Come on, hurry," I whispered. "I want to get some for
He drank all of the water without pausing to take a breath. A
gurgle came out his throat. He threw his hands to his lips. I took a
step back before a milky fluid spilt through his fingers and dripped
onto his uniform.
"You spit all over yourself," I said.
He bent over the side of the basin and blew out a mess of
"Nein," I cried to him. "Don't do it there." But it was too
late. A chalky cloud began to form in the water. I took hold of his
collar to wring his neck.
"Don't do that," I whispered. "I don't care if you're sick,
you'll make us run again."
"I tried," he coughed. "But can't help when it?when it goes
in the water."
Suddenly somebody came out of a tent. I did not look up, for
I feared it would be one of the officers. On the earth a long shadow
crept toward us, a black panther's paw stretching over the ground to
strike us down. Nothing would get me to look up and still the small
ears under my steel helmet were open to the stomping of heavy boots,
thunderous steps out of a giant we knew would give us nothing but
"What you two ape-dicks doing out here?" rang the baritone
voice from the shadow.
"Achtung!" I shouted, and Hermann and I went rigid, our arms
flat at our sides with hands open and against the seams of our
"Look at me when I speak to you, swine of muck!"
It was a game, I thought. He would not hurt me if I looked at
"Oberscharf?hrer, we came out to get water!" I shouted. When
my gaze rose to examine his large chest, gray in its flawless tunic of
medals and shiny buttons, I felt a great fear.
"What? A drink of water?"
"Ja Oberscharf?hrer," I said.
On Lessing's shirt pocket, at a perfect center below the
button flap, was the Iron Cross First Class. The black of that
crucifix, cold and sinister, gave me only more fear for this beast of a
man. I thought of Jesus and the cross from which he had hung on nails
struck into His palms. Then I saw a portrait in my mind of Lessing in a
suit of brass Roman armor, a tall wooden spear close to his side with a
sponge soaked in red wine atop it. He knelt below the Savior hanging in
His final throes, with a grin on his tight visage, a smirk of
glorification for this man being crucified. I really did believe he
wore the Iron Cross to show us how he gave honor to men who could die
more horrible deaths than any of us, men with enough courage to be put
on crosses even though given chances to live a fruitful
"A drink of water, eh?" Lessing growled. "Hermann doesn't
deserve any drink. Did you give him any?"
"Ja Oberscharf?hrer," I said.
"You gave him water?"
"Yes, sergeant, but I only did it for he was about
"No excuses!" Lessing cut in. "You disobeyed a direct order
to go to your tents."
"Ja Oberscharf?hrer," both of us replied.
" And I will punish you later. Now flip, damn you! Somersault
back to your tent!"
I fell quickly over into a somersault, the top of my steel helmet
taking the brunt of my thrown weight. "Flip now! Flip!" he
I threw my body into another somersault and at the end of the
turn, my legs fell hard on the ground, and my head felt dizzy. We did
this all the way to our tent, where it was we did not know, but the
coarse yells from our sergeant told us, if we went astray. Hermann was
sick at every turn and I heard him spit out a foul brew all over
himself. The stink came up from his clothes and my stomach
"Hermann," Lessing said laughing. "You're going the wrong way
you stumm defunct one. Were you hit in the head with a brick as a
"Nein, Oberscharf?hrer," Hermann groaned.
Finally, in one of my ground flips, I saw the flap door of a
tent ripple in the breeze; it quickly fled from vision when two dirty
feet struck out at the blue sky as my body came out of another toss.
When I landed inside the shelter in the middle of one dizzying
somersault, laughter broke all around and fists were thrown at my
helmet and back. I rolled into a canvas lining and got the toe of a
muddy boot in the mouth. The boot was hung on laces thrown around my
shoulders, and the dirty taste of it got on my tongue. I do not know
why, but the bitterness of the mud made me think back to Mother's
vegetable sausages and how she used to overcook them. She was such a
bad cook, and those sausages, although I ate them, were no better than
the filth on the toe of my boot.
I stood on the ground, or tried to stand, for the earth suddenly swung
above me in a wild spin. Shadows passed by, and in my dizziness, these
black forms danced around the room in laughter. I made a grab for one
and caught only air.
"Lost, are you?" a spinning dark outline cried. A kick was
thrown at my groin for being so happy to smile at this remark.
"You bastards!" I shouted in pain, trying to keep a firm
balance on the ground, as everything flew into a maelstrom. I rubbed my
crotch to take away the soreness, but the pain had set on the nerves
and sent me down hard on the dirt. A boy knelt over to whisper into my
ear, but I could not hear what he spoke for he did not mean to say
anything-he only did it to show off to the others.
"It's been four weeks now we've been in this rot hole," he
said aloud. "And still he gets himself licked for the lousy
"He's a scoundrel. Throw him to Ivans and let him be good boy
to them. He can run around kissing them Ivans cheeks and pull daisies
to sniff," another boy said who sat on a wooden box positioned next to
a few knapsacks laid out behind him. When my head had stopped spinning,
I could see two youths at the far corner of the tent lying on the
covers of their sacks at work on their feet. Three others stood over
these bruise pickers, wearing muddy boots. Behind them, the sun shone
indigo through the gray lining, giving a shade of blue to everything.
In this dim light, their appearance was murky, almost in darkness for
inside, the livid glow was prominent. The glow was luminous as when the
early-morning sun has yet to peek above the horizon and gave a bluish
glare to the glint in the boyish eyes that stared down at me.
A little to my left four rifles leaned against their own
stocks in a pyramid stack, muzzles stuck out similar to four wooden
poles of a tepee with their butts sitting in the dirt. They were always
unloaded, for Lessing did not trust any of us. When the call for
formation rang into our tent, those carbines were taken outside quicker
than Lessing could utter the last word. If one carbine got out late,
say, two seconds, we would have to run our legs weak with sprints in
For a moment, I had forgotten about Hermann, and when he made
a somersault into the tent, the boys took their attention away from me
to mock the new arrival. This is good, I thought. Let them have
something even more horrible than myself to laugh at-a boy who is
completely hopeless. But when I saw Hermann's sick body roll inside, a
white splatter all over his uniform, my sorrow went out to him.
"Look, he's almost dead!" I heard someone shout.
Hermann did have the bleak look of a corpse. The skin shone
an eggnog color and the bruise on his forehead was split with a
blister. The blood from this wound made a messy blot on his countenance
and had soaked into the eyebrows. I crawled to him and smelled the
waste rise from his clothes. He was breathing heavily, and the boys who
were laughing all around did not assist in his struggle to get air into
"Don't help him, Otto," one boy said. He made a pull at my
trousers and dragged me some feet until he ran back into a canvas wall.
"He don't belong with us."
"No," I said. "He's tough! You just don't see. But he's
"Tough? Tough for the mules," said a red-haired boy who lay
on a knapsack busy picking at thorns stuck in his foot. This boy was
Heinrich, the wise fellow of our ranks. He held titles of being the
first to master the rifles, the quickest to strap on a gas mask, and
the first to grow scratch hairs above his top lip, but he was so cocky
in a tight gray uniform, and only made friends with the bullies of our
Kompanie. "With big ears he's got," he said. "We could tie his lobes
around the tail. Watch him spin around when mule runs. Spin he goes on
his ears. Then he falls, splat, right under Ivan tank!"
"Let him quit, you know he's no good," said the youth who
held onto my legs. "You've seen what he's done to us, Otto. He's no
good." He let go of me and went over to the knapsacks.
"No, no," I said. "It's not him who get us in all the bad. He
tries hard, so hard to be a sch?tze."
"A mule try hard to be horse," Heinrich said as he grinned at
me. "But he'll always have big ears and be dumber than monkey faced
The group behind him laughed heartily at this remark. Even
Hermann, the boy who was being made fun of by Heinrich's witticism gave
a nervous giggle. It came out faint from his pale lips.
"Get him up," Heinrich said. "He's a fake. He's just
"Your Feldflasche," I pleaded, pointing at the felt covered
canteen kept near his toes.
"Throw me it."
If the canteen had been close to my side, I would have
certainly chanced a reach, but Heinrich's eyes were on the swollen
Feldflasche. He wrapped a dirty foot over the shell and sent it closer
"Come on give it to me."
"Why?" I heard the anger rise in his voice, taunting
It was impossible to ask help from Heinrich. His eighteen
years and grandeur as a Hitlerjugend toughened his red head with
selfishness. I missed having things come easy under my mother's roof.
Back home, water or good meals were not contested over by greedy acts
of savageness. Here in the camp, everything had to be fought over or
one would be trampled under foot.
"It's for Hermann," I said, beginning to feel uncomfortable
talking to a soldier who refused to listen.
Hermann turned to look at them. "Don't, don't," he muttered
weakly. His chest rose under the tunic after he brought in a big
breath. "I don't want any. I'll do good with no water."
"See Otto," Heinrich said. He sat up cross-legged on the
knapsack. "He's so useless, water can't save him."
"He just doesn't give up easily. He's more a sch?tze than
you'll ever be."
"More of a sch?tze?" Heinrich shot to his feet and sent me a
grave stare. "You think the swine is better than me?"
"He can't, he's too young to be better. If it wasn't for him
knowing Ivan's talk, he'd have never been let in. He'd be sucking up
them foolish words in grammar school. He's only here cause' his mother
was an Ivan. Boy's like him after the war just going to be sent to the
gutters. They're too weak Otto, we don't need them here."
Another boy, Wern?e, thin in the waist and tall as his Viking
ancestors, a height he was not proud of when it came to hiding behind a
bush in concealment exercises, strode over to Heinrich to steal the
canteen. Till that moment, I had not seen him in the tent, though one
could not miss the soldier for his high standing in small boots. He had
remained at a distance from the whole scuffle that erupted with our
entrance into the tent. His curling blond hair sat messy on a sweaty
scalp and a fly clung onto a knot of strands, fanning its wings. After
a quick shrug from his shoulders, as if the motion would pester the fly
to buzz away from him, he scooped up the Feldflasche and threw it at me
and I caught it just before it hit the ground. "I've got so many thorns
in my foot, verdammt this Kompanie," Wern?e complained and almost
stumbled over the wooden box before sitting down next to Heinrich on
the sheet. "I should have enlisted in the regular ranks of the Waffen
SS, not this hell unit."
"Another Hermann are you?" Heinrich said.
"I think you say foolish talk," Wern?e continued, picking at
a pink pimple under the bridge of his nose. "No one's got it worst then
us swine, no one, and here you make fun of Hermann who only follow
orders. You know what my brother says. My brother says he got out of
Waffen SS training and the ausbilders, you hear me, did not yell at him
as ours does to us, can you believe that? They did not do anything bad
to him or punish him severely for a mistake, and all the fodder we get
thrown with. I say it's cruel for us to be treated like dogs in here.
That's what I think."
"Then go over to Oberscharf?hrer and tell him you want to
leave," Heinrich said.
"I wish I could."
"What are you afraid of? Go tell him you're too shy to carry
rifle or kill Ivan and he'll listen."
"If I was out of my mind, I would. But knowing him, I would
be put to death by some firing squad." After saying this, Wern?e
mimicked the sound of a rifle report by pursing his lips and shouting
out short and loud exclamations.
"You're just weak as Hermann, with rocks in your boots and a
need for Mother. He gives it to us hard so we fight like Ivans. Don't
you remember? Don't you remember when he said he does it all communist
way so we give Ivan a cheek of devil's arse?"
"Communist, Ja. But we're Germans," Wern?e
"He just does his things so we fight strong," Heinrich said.
"Ivan treats their soldiers like rats."
"But Ivan don't make you crawl on hands and knees like the
Oberscharf?hrer do us everyday."
"Ivan does worse," Heinrich retorted.
The bully was right, although he had the tendency to repeat
the same points on the fairness of Lessing's training throughout our
three weeks of torture. Following the end of combat basics, I knew we
were destined to enter the ranks of a division fighting somewhere on
the Eastern Front. With our understanding of the enemies tongue, we
would probably go behind enemy lines and act as partisans. The Ivans
showed no hospitality towards simple soldiers. Broken limbs, unsettled
stomachs, and the cut Hermann received by quick somersaults, were all
lessons taught by an instructor who understood the savageness that
could arise out of communists. He gave us harsh treatment for our own
A wind picked up from outside and blew strongly at the lining
of our tent. A large bubble of cloth stretched out from the wall,
filled with pressing air, and one of the soldiers laying on a knapsack
closest to it, got up and punched the thing until it fell flat again.
"I wish I had a cigarette," Wern?e complained, lost in
thought, probably not knowing he spoke aloud. "I would kill someone for
a cigarette. But no, I think we'll never see a smoke. Not so long as
we're here. Those Offiziers who come into the camp, I think there were
three, weren't there?"
"Two," I uttered, and then gave Hermann the canteen. The boy
grabbed it in earnest, raised a weak chest, and with great strain
struck an elbow out against the earth to support his upper trunk as he
took quick sips at the canteen gripped in his other free
"I hope them Offiziers, I hope they have cigarettes," Wern?e
stated. "If they don't, I'll go crazy."
Heinrich giggled after he said this, flashing a set of clean
white teeth. He laughed not from humor found in Wern?e's words-the tone
was too pathetic and came out in a gasp. We could all relate to these
sudden outbursts of false merriment that masked our inner misery.
"Why you worry?" I asked.
"Huh," Wernoe said.
"Ja, why you worry so much on smokes? We got only a week and
"Easy for you to say Kamerad ," Heinrich shouted. "You don't
"Shut your mouth Otto," Heinrich cut in. "I hate hearing you,
you sound like a sissy girl when you talk."
"No, I don't," I said.
"You should hear yourself, you sound so much like my sister,"
he laughed. Then he made guttural utterances just to start me off.
"Blaah! Blaah! Blooh!" and he came right in front of my face opened his
mouth to spit out his tongue before he made a last and very pathetic
murmur which sounded much like a pout from a monkey who never gets the
chance to grab onto a banana stuck into its cage.
Suddenly there was a long quiet after he performed this
foolish stunt. We sat silent listening to the tent cloth flap against
the breeze. Some of the boys pouted while taking stickers out of their
feet. In this quiet solace, a strange image materialized in my
thoughts. I saw the frail figure of a woman in a white bodice, youth
swelling from her tan skin. She sung a melody my mother used to sing
when tucking me into bed. I forgot the words but the humming of her
voice rang true and I remembered my childhood. There was the sun
outside the window casting a bright glow on the panes and when my
fingers crept to it, they were white in the light. She had always kept
the bed near the window so I could see everything and not feel lonely.
Then came months before joining the camps, moments filled with great
happiness, where many times I skipped school to play with a Jewish boy,
Franz. We would run in the groves growing out of the expanses of our
backyard, a cool breeze blowing at our backs, and the sun, high in the
sky, touched its rays on branches, the leaves allowing only spangles of
yellow to fall in messy patterns on the grass. The green went soft
against my skin as I rolled in it for hours on end, Franz giggling as
he sped down a hill doing cartwheels. Those were such different times,
days lost to becoming a Hitlerjugend, and I longed to see Franz once
more, scratching his curly crown of black strands, always smiling, for
he never looked sad being blessed with a jester's face. He was one of
those boys born out of some spirit crop that captured all the souls of
king's entertainers and made them alive through the deep carves around
his cheeks, and the smile went wide all the time.
Where was Franz now, I wondered, did we scare him away? I
never meant to shout at him, no, I never meant to call him names. Those
rocks, the fists, and Franz in the middle, his shirt torn to ribbons,
his face still smiling, no it was not my fault. Boys in tan shorts with
wisps of Franz hair clinched in their fingers dragged him along the
road cut through trees, and they called him "Dirty Jew," yet all I
could do was stare and follow them.
The shout cut through the tent and awoke me from a trance. I
looked around in a blur, seeing only the gray flashes of uniforms. It
took a hit on the back to make me realize it was time to leave the
tent. I leaped for a carbine on the ground and took it up without
looking where my hands went.
"No rifles," shouted a soldier who was about to leave. He
grabbed onto my sidearm and
flung it to the side.
Cries clamored from soldiers outside. The others under cover
of canvas were now leaping out the slit door into the sunlight, yet I
still had to put on my boots. My dirty feet kicked into the soles of a
pair resting on a knapsack but my toes would not push through under the
"Ficken!" I shouted. This was not a moment to be late for a
formation with officers about the camp. I could only imagine the abrupt
smirks on their faces at seeing me late. Lessing would probably call
the formation to attention, look me over with a devilish smile, and
then send the whole Kompanie on a three-mile run into the brush.
The laces were so tight that my toes felt like they were pushing into
brick. It would take too long to untie them. So in an effort to forge a
hole in the small cave without wasting time, I made frantic stomps
against the soles. The leather at first did not allow a budge, but then
gave way to the repeated thumps and let the feet slip through for a
I shot out of the tent in a sprint, screaming with everything I could
muster from weak lungs. With every swift pound against the earth, the
loose shoelaces bounced yet did not threaten to entangle. Drowsiness
kept my thoughts in a cloud and I never noticed the bright glare of the
sun nor the chattering birds flying above me.
The boys pressed themselves together in a square beside the
basin breaking the autumn air with their animal screams. They bustled
about to form a straight line centered on the first boy who took his
place at the right. I had just made it in time, amidst the bustle, and
fell into the ranks at a spot open for me between two burly youths.
Occupying my right flank was a quite conspicuous youth of nineteen
years, who drew attention to his bushy eyebrows. These strips of hair
gave him a false appearance of evil and caused many to feel uneasy in
his presence. I knew him as Schroeder, a waiter who left his occupation
when an officer seated at one of his tables almost shot a round into
his skull when he had mistaken him for a Russian. He coughed now, too
exhausted to scream, and did not look at me. For a moment, he glanced
at the ditch near the brush line, his wet hands squeezing at his
crotch. "Ah, it hurts," he whispered with a cringe. I knew he was in a
bind and could not leave.
When raising my right arm to touch his shoulder, I scooted
backward until my whole body, like a railway car that reaches the end
of a curve in the tracks and must swing level behind the lead
locomotive, came center to the ailing Schroeder's left. In response to
this change, the train of soldiers on my left made short precise
movements to maintain a perfect line at the toes.
Schroeder hissed through his teeth, trying hard to brave the
pain in his bladder. I was afraid for him.
"I don't think I can make it," he whispered.
"Just go in you pants," I said to him under my breath.
"Why don't you go in your pants, you rotten dog?"
More worried that one of the officers might see my shabby
boots with their untied laces then their notice of my suffering
companion, I knelt down, tucked the laces under the shoe tongue, and
then got right back up. It was done with such swiftness that most of
the boys in the formation never knew I moved.
"It will burst," Schroeder cringed. "When will this be over,
I can't stand it. I just might go in my pants." He gave one last
vicious grab at his crotch. I thought he would tear out his bladder
with the effort he threw into calming his bodily fluids.
Propped large and white in front of us, Lessing's tent hinted
no exit from the occupants within. There were voices and laughter
inside, sometimes an occasional cough, but other than these murmurs, it
was no more than an ordinary henhouse with its over talkative roosters
and conversing chickens. I thought it a good time to tell Schroeder to
make a break for the latrine. If he was quick about it, he could dump
his load before Lessing came out, but I feared of retribution if the
plan were to fail and decided not to tell him.
A powerful hand thrust out of the tent and it grasped onto the slit
door. The tense knuckles grew like mountain peaks as the hand suddenly
formed into a fist. Our formation held its breath, the tent was thrown
open to the world, and Lessing's gray body strode out in a steel
helmet, the muscles twitching in his red cheeks. The air was heavy over
him and he knitted his brows. As he stood there, he must have known how
powerful his authority and strong figure meant in our presence. He
looked not willing, even among superiors, to show a weakness.
"Kompanie Stillgestanden!" he shouted, with shrill points in
I snapped to attention, as did the entire formation, with a
slight bend in my knees, hands flat against trouser sides. He gazed
over our square of helmeted heads, his attention distracted at the
sight of the bird making a loud racket in the pines.
"Damn ravens," Lessing spat. "They're all tongue but no
fight." He made a gesture with his fist at the bird as if challenging
it to a brawl. "Augen rechts!"
Our heads swung in unison to stare over our right shoulder. I
saw the back of Schroeder's helmet and the sun made a bright gleam on
its metal. The formation was already a solid mass, with the boys all
standing in even lines, but Lessing, keen on exactness, always made
sure there were no gaps. He took care of a formation like a librarian
takes care of his bookshelves, making sure no one stood in the wrong
place or leaned a little too far ahead or behind the comrade at his
right. Had he noticed the officers who came out through the slit door
he probably would have uttered the next order with a harsher note.
"Augen gerade aus."
A swift crank of the neck sent my eyes staring forward at the
tent. Two officers appeared in front of me. They wore tight gray
uniforms, but in place of a helmet on their heads, sharp caps of the
same shade gave their hard boned faces the appearance betoken of Roman
generals. It was our duty now to follow them with our gaze.
The overseeing commander of our Kompanie, scratched the red skin where
his razor had cut too close at a sideburn. He was young as Lessing with
a large jaw that seemed hard as iron. Two gashes spread over his brow,
making his squinting eyes appear fierce under the cover of cap. This
man became the first to grab my attention since his first words came to
me as a surprise.
"Fine soldiers, very fine!" His jaw fell like a drawbridge as
he said those words, and the grin disturbed me, for most of his teeth
were gaunt from neglect of a toothbrush.
He walked across our front rank with careful strides. "You are the
finest soldiers ever sought in Germany," he said in delight. "I see now
what your Oberscharf?hrer was talking about. I see quite clearly now?"
he stopped short in front of a member of the forward rank to give him a
close inspection. The boy stood nervous in response to the officer's
sudden attentiveness and sweat trickled down his pale cheek. Now he's
trapped, I thought, spotting the dry clumps of mud that hung on the
boy's boots. At last, the officer turned from him, with a relaxed
expression, as though he did not find any offense in his discrepancies
and went on to say, "I know some of you have wondered why you are being
treated unfairly. Believe me, I do feel for your pain," and he frowned
as if to show us his repugnance to our ill treatment. "But think of how
worse the Ivans have it. Your drill sergeant has been picked out of
hundreds to lead you into a special battle against these communist
monsters. It is not hate he has for you. Believe me when I tell you, if
he carried any vice he would not be here leading you through training
but sulking in a labor camp for invalids riotous against our
Lessing, who was side by side with the iron jawed commander, smirked at
"Your Oberscharf?hrer has trained you well. You are the only
soldiers of the Waffen SS to have experienced such hard training as you
have seen these last four weeks," he stopped to chew on something in
his mouth and then stood silent as if waiting for words to come to him.
"Yes, he has given you a personal courage, a strength to surmount any
hardships thrown at you in your fight against these communist infidels.
I have known Ivan for a long time. They are barbarians in the greatest
respects and I have seen with my own eyes, and I'm telling you this to
prepare you for what lies ahead. I have seen Ivans who had strangled a
mother with a baby still in her womb. Strangled her with a rope," he
made a sweep with his hand to the back of his neck then yanked his fist
skyward to show us how she choked. "Until they knocked out her breath
and her life was no more. A body of limp flesh. This was done not
before they performed such vile acts of debauchery to her that if she
had survived and was still living today she would not look at a man
again without hate in her heart. Such barbarism is expected from the
enemy, and they do these things to our mothers and sisters."
The rising song of the raven broke over his frightful speech.
The bird was laughing at him, as though mocking the news of the dead
"Not one of us is safe," he said with a louder voice. "Until
all these Ivans are sent to an end. They have put up a great fight, but
they will never break down our walls of defense, for we have you, brave
soldiers, to stop these monsters. Heil Hitler!"
The other officer, whose physical softness made me believe
him to be of good propriety and intellect, drew himself nearer the
tent. He was rubbing a runny nose and tried to stay out of the way of
the orating Hauptsturmf?hrer. I had seen men similar to him at the
local colleges near Frankfurt plaid in brown sweaters and ties. The
gray uniform was quite unfitting to his probable past of great
intellectualism. Although his face was strong, the dove complexion
proved of many days indoors, and the pigeon lips were pale, as though
snowflakes had painted them.
"Oberscharf?hrer," the commander said with a declaring tone.
"You told me you conceived of some peculiar task or endeavor. A match
to test their wits. I would like to see this display of their
"Yes, sir," Lessing said with a twisted smile. He passed the
heavy jawed commander and vanished behind the tent.
The raven sent out a stutter call on its branch. I wanted to
answer with whistles, so nervous was I now, but knew such a thing would
turn ugly for me.
A sigh came from our commander, as he stood motionless staring at my
standing form. I felt he knew something the others could not fathom.
The arm he swung at his side shook on its own volition. He grabbed it
with his other and made several pats against it, ending the incessant
shakes. I thought him an epileptic, for one of my cousins, without
warning, had shone the same symptoms in his fits.
"You soldier," he pointed at me. "What is wrong with
His question hit with the force of a hammer slamming down on
"Me, sir?" I stuttered out.
No, not you. Your comrade to the right of
"Oh, Schroeder, sir," I said, and my voice was so deep it
almost made me choke with embarrassment.
"Yes, Schroeder," the officer said. "What's wrong with you
that you can't keep still at attention?"
"Sir," Schroeder half yelped. "Permission to fall
"To use the latrine, sir," and he started to slur his words.
"Fall out before you make a mess."
"Ja, sir," Schroeder cried and he waddled out of ranks. He
took a painful passage to the latrine, all the while, walking like a
duck over every disturbance of ground he had to push himself over.
"Anyone else feel they need to relieve themselves?" asked our
No one answered.
"Well then," and the officer shut his lips and paced about
while conversing with his second officer.
Lessing came out from behind the tent. He was leading by the
leash a stalwart black pig. It trudged along the dirt very near to his
leg and let out snorts from its pudgy noise.
"Swine!" Lessing shouted. "You are all rotten. It's time to
kick the hams out of you."
I wondered what had driven Lessing to throw in such a stunt.
What he called entertainment; we garnered as murder, and needed no more
proof to convince ourselves of this after the first pig we had chased
to a brutal end. The Oberscharf?hrer, slipped his other hand into the
neck of his shirt, took up a shiny whistle hung by thread, and put it
to his lips. We all knew what to do when he blew into this instrument.
"Rotten, I say! All of you are rotten swine!" Lessing
proclaimed, reddening in the face. He blew the whistle.
I broke into a scream, a loud shrill that almost ripped out
my vocal chords. Everyone followed in succession. Soon nothing could be
heard over our loud chorus and we became a formation of rancorous
"Rotten, I say," Lessing kept on shouting, but he was
deafened by our shrieks. In my mind, I conceived that even a hunter
could hear us from a miles distance. Unlike most soldiers in training,
there were a few days where our sergeant was able to get someone to
take a swine from a local farm, and force us to chase it for our
evening meal. Lessing started the cruel game to encourage our ferocity,
now I knew he did it to show off. The goal was to end the pursuit
before the pig made passage into the wood. We were forbidden to advance
beyond the stretch of clearing for our Oberscharf?hrer knew of its
invitation to weak boys who wanted to runaway from camp. If we let the
dinner escape, our stomachs were left growling until breakfast, and
that was far worse then murdering an animal born with a death
"You sound like a bunch of lousy chickens!" Lessing screamed,
both of the officers behind him were laughing at the spectacle. "You're
a pitiful sight." He let the whistle drop. "Silence! Silence!"
We went quiet in unison. My throat burned from the loud
"There were a few, " Lessing began. "So very few among you
garbage who did mighty in their fight for everything, but some of you
will die bastards who still look for others to help you live." The pig
squealed at his heels, suffering great agony by the tautness of the
rope around its neck. "You all fight in the end, fight for your
schooling, fight for your parent's affection, fight for the air you
breath, it's all a fight, this challenge called life. Now you fight for
others and I must say this is much better than self-righteousness. I
spit on self-righteousness, it's good only for the dogs. To live, you
must live for others, and not think of yourself."
I wanted him to stop talking. His speech only lengthened the
anguish of knowing what physical hells awaited us in the chase for the
pig. Besides, whatever speeches the Oberscharf?hrer said were deaf to
my ears, and I only listened when he gave orders.
"The ones who refuse to throw any team effort, well," Lessing said
affably. "Let's just say they're as good as the Jews."
He blew the whistle to get us started up. Once again, the
wild chorus began, our voices breaking the pristine stillness that hung
over the clearing. We screamed as if ready to charge into a pack of
lions and give them a good fight.
Lessing knelt near the pig, gripped its rope collar and took
it off. He then gave the animal a strong kick in the hams. The pig, in
answer to this aggression, made a high pitch squeal, kicked up dirt
with its back legs, and ran for the forest.
"Angriff!" the Oberscharf?hrer commanded.
We went on the hunt. There was little distance between the
pig and us. If we had cut in front of it before the order, a swift
runner could have thrown himself on the beast, ended the chase, and
assured an evening meal, but we started late and the pig made quick
bounds over the gravel paths, gaining great progress in losing us
amongst the confines of the camp. I spun around at the utter of
Lessing's command and ran to get in with the pack of sprinting boys.
Steel helmets in front of me bobbed as the wearers took fast leaps over
furrows in the gravel. Others to the left gave screams; confident they
would win the prize. I had hardly crossed the last row of tents when
pain surged up from my feet. The feet scrapped against knots in the
inside leather. I wanted to stop, to tie the shoelaces, but after a
quick glance over my shoulder, and seeing the officers and sergeant
staring at me,
I knew the pain had to be endured.
"I'll get in front of the brush line. We'll grab it there!"
Heinrich said, who ran at the head of the pack, throwing his legs out
in front of him with fantastic strides.
The beast split through the fields of grass and I could see
its black form cutting a path into the brush like a rapid scythe. I was
frightened of the prospects that this one might get away. Many of our
previous catches were clumsy animals that stopped to sniff at the earth
or would tire too quickly, giving us enough time to sneak up from all
sides and send a deathblow. But this pig was a bullet, helped by its
robust hindquarters, and did not halt for anything. I put my faith in
the smart movements of Heinrich's band of hunters, forerunners in the
charge, who had proven before the Kompanie their expertise in
delivering miraculous kills.
The line of gray uniforms in front of me broke into groups. Heinrich's
clan remained on the left, rushing far ahead of the others who probably
could only wonder how they kept such a lead without losing their
breath. The slower pursuers struggled to keep step in the center. I ran
behind the cream of the center force, a position responsible for
smashing the beast under the weight of numbers. To quicken the pace I
swung my arms against the air and took wider strides. These movements
made me feel as if leaping over clouds. I quickly drove through the
front-runners and came out into the open. My lungs scooped up breaths
in short mouthfuls. The strain of the muscles pushing to their limits
welcomed an end to the pain in my feet. The pig was not far off and I
could smell it. Ahead stood the pines in the distance and I gazed up at
the blue sky, filled with the sensation a lion feels when stalking its
prey in the fields. I could picture myself as this stout lion, afraid
of nothing, the master of the hunt. I strove to run quicker.
Boys from behind followed my example. They came close, legs
dashing over the grass in flashes, faces a beet red, and a smirk of
confidence across their sweaty lips. I tried in vain to keep ahead but
they passed without notice of my presence and kept at a ferocious pace.
One runner lost his footing and fell on his stomach. He got up in a
daze and watched as others swooped by poking him with their gray
Heinrich's boys had reached the brush line, a stretch of brown soil
bordering the forest, yet discovered they had come up too late. The pig
was already beyond their grasp, just now leaping over a ditch and into
the safety of the shadowy pines. A weight sunk into my stomach. I
slowed to a walk, hungry, defeated, and aware there would be no hope of
retrieving our lost meal. To the likes of any other, I had never seen
such a devil breed of pig. I could only guess it blew fire out of its
arse to fuel its brisk retreat.
There came a squeal in the forest and loud thumps as if fists were
beating into tree stumps.
"I've got him!" resounded a shout not far away.
I took up the chase again. I was eager to discover if my
predictions were correct, that the prize had not been lost, but how
could it have been otherwise, I thought. We had all seen the beast
defeat even the finest runners attempts with its resilient speed.
Where the grass ended, the ground fell into a thin furrow of
mud then rose into the brown pine needled floor. I leaped over the
ditch and found Schroeder wrestling with the beast before a copse. It
was hard to believe that the boy who minutes ago left our formation to
relieve his bladder had now shown up here to become our salvation. He
managed to put himself atop the pig's dark backside and lock his arms
around the massive neck. There was still a lot of fight in the pig, it
threw out its forward hoofs in a struggle to get free, sent out
ear-piercing squeals, and started shoveling with hindquarters into the
Heinrich was the first to come to Schroeder's aid. He lifted
the pig's rear legs and held them tight together. He told others who
were meandering about to lie over the chest. Gray mobs swarmed the
beast, some sat on its stomach to catch their breath, others walked
around or bent low with hands on knees to watch. They asked me to help,
so I went in and swung my arm over the place of the neck shown to me by
Schroeder. As I lay near the pig, the firm skin on its side shook and I
heard the vicious breathing within its recesses. How close our prey
came to freedom, I thought, so near to running away, and now all hope
of it seeing another day had been shattered in an instant.
"It stinks," a boy said who sat on the pig's
""What stinks, you?" Heinrich asked.
"No this swine smells. Smells like dirty drawers."
"Well, it's not that bad," said Wernoe. "The smell of dirty
drawers. One could get used to the smell of such things when there's no
"You're a sick bastard, shut your mouth," Heinrich
"Now we know who digs in our shit and comes not hungry for
breakfast," said another boy.
"Ja, Wernoe you're the sickest dog in camp. Why don't you
come wipe our arses when we go sit at the latrines?"
"Shut up," Wernoe said. "Get the hell off it."
All of a sudden, the pig went crazy. I almost let go after a
violent jolt sent my legs flying. It rose to its haunches, dragging us
over to the bark of a tree. We managed to pin it against the pine.
"Get a hold of it!" Heinrich cried. "Don't let it
I dug my fingernails into its rough skin. They went so deep
I thought they would draw blood. The pig squealed in terror and pain.
"With everyone's permission I think we should kill it now,"
"Who's going to kill it?" another boy asked.
"Don't let Heinrich do it again, he's always done it. Let's
get one of the weaker ones," said Wernoe.
It was not hard to guess who would be chosen as the
"Hermann," Heinrich proclaimed.
I caught sight of my innocent companion among the crowd of
gray tunics. He was solemn and standing in a way that seemed to say, "I
am here, but I don't want to be." When Heinrich called to him, he
hesitated. He sent a circling gaze at all the faces around him. They
looked back with malicious grins.
"Come on Hermann, pick up that rock over there and take its
life," Heinrich said.
They made savage jerks at his tunic. Some called him an Ivan. One boy
did all the initial work for him by lifting up a sizable boulder at the
base of a trunk and putting it into the youth's hands. I knew he would
not do it. He had too much heart to hurt a defenseless animal.
"What are you a coward?" asked Heinrich. "Come
And to my amazement, Hermann did come up to the large pigs
head with his boulder. He let out a few animal-like proclamations as if
to surprise those who doubted his ferocity and looked ready to smash
the helpless thing without further encouragement.
"Take its life!" the mob chanted. "Kill it before it sees
I wanted to turn away and run, something the pig would have
done without a second thought, but the others kept staring at me. From
their malicious glances, I figured they knew we were the two anchors
holding the Kompanie back from meeting Lessing's standards. It would
have been silly to go against their expectations.
The pig's head flipped over and stared at me with bloodshot
eyes. Just seeing the beast made my soul cripple under the weight of a
passion to spare its life. Soon the suffering this animal felt would be
gone with the arrival of death, but the wait for the end to come, the
last minutes and seconds before the stroke, were terrifying to my
afflicted mind. Why do living things have to die, I thought. I saw my
father in the beast's black face. There was the blond scruff under his
chin and mothers fair hair upon his scalp. I could not remember what he
had told my mother before he left, but it was evident from his battle
dress, and the steel helmet he had put on his head with so much care,
that father had left to go into a hellish battle. He gave me the same
stare of suffering as the pig gave now, the eyes crying for an escape
from an inevitable future. Words were spoken through his powerful look.
They said, "run away, run away," in repetitive slurs. He knew after
stepping outside the door he would never return.
"Could you hurry it up," Heinrich said, and stabbed Hermann
with a stick to quicken him.
"Lessing won't let us stay here longer than a few
"I will," Hermann said. He waited for a moment, and then
swung his rock over his helmet with a grunt. The weight of it almost
sent him falling backwards.
A flap of wings broke branches in a tree above me. I thought
nothing of it until the bird cawed. I looked up and it cawed again. A
raven with night feathers clung to a limb, yet I could of have sworn my
father sat there, for I heard the same words of entreaty in its chirp.
"Run away, run away," the hidden voice said, but running away was
impossible, it could not be done, and I felt hopeless.
The rock fell in one mighty swing from Hermann's arms. It
cracked the pig's skull, spraying blood at the onlookers. The hind legs
shot up for one last kick and then sunk dead to the earth. Hermann
stood over the beast, wiping off blood that had splashed onto his neck.
It was his first kill. He gave me a questioning gaze that seemed to ask
forgiveness for what he had done and then a false grin came over his
lips as the others began to laugh.
"Good job, Hermann," Heinrich said. "Now you got to drink
this." Heinrich went to him with hands cupped around a pool of blood,
and put it to his mouth.
"Open wide," he said. Hermann complied and Heinrich let the
black grossness spill down his throat.
"Hah, hah," Heinrich jeered. "There might be a soldier in him
after all." He gave his friend a pat on the shoulder. "Let's get this
swine out of here!"
Heinrich took up the corpse's rear and nodded commands to the
others to help raise the head and torso. Many of the boys who held the
bloodiest parts kept the flesh in the air so as not to let it rest on
their biceps where it could soil the uniform.
We carried the pig into camp. It weighed upon us. Not only
was it heavy, but smelly, and the black hairs were prickly against my
hand. The face of the swine was still in memory: a pudgy nose, father's
eyes, ears that sprung like a devil's. I saw in the corpse my father's
last moments in life. Ivan ran at him in numbers, too countless to lock
in a pin, a herd of swine taught to carry machine guns and fire at
anything that wore steel helmets. He fought them knowing he would die.
Death to him was the pig and we were the pig.
The officers seemed almost too delightful with our success
in the hunt and grinned as we went by them with our kill. When I saw
our Hauptsturmf?hrer, his cheeks were crimson. Rather than answer a
question brought to his attention by Lessing he came over to us, arms
akimbo, and shook his head in disbelief.
"I told you, sir," I heard Lessing say behind him. "These
The officer smirked in reply.
"Why carry it?" I thought to myself. Let the officer have
the swine. We held the limbs of a creature that understood my father's
suffering, a secret he could never realize. Its death came as an answer
to my own doubts toward his passing: bravery and valiance were nothing
under the unforeseen powers of nature. If the officer's conception of
life was so misconstrued by self-righteousness that he forgot about
mortality, I decided it would be better to leave him with the offer to
bite into the flesh.
With a military solemnity, our Oberscharf?hrer went in front
of our pack, guiding us to the washbasin where we were to drop the
carcass. He marched backwards without regard to what lay behind him and
kept a serious demeanor until we reached our destination where with an
all too reminiscent voice of ruthlessness he yelled,
We flung the beast to the ground and its dead mass thumped
against the earth. It felt better not having the weight to bear on my
frame and I shrugged my left arm to relieve the soreness. The thought
of the upcoming feast as a reward for our travails made me shudder with
revulsion. To eat away at my father's memory would be disgraceful upon
my love for him. The pig's meat was tainted with his presence and would
corrupt my insides with every swallow.
"Aufsammeln," Lessing commanded.
We scattered about to restore a formation. I stepped in place
next to Schroeder, got my distance, and then came to parade rest. After
all the soldiers stood in ranks, the officers appeared again in front
of us, my ears waiting in eager anticipation for what they would have
"Stillgastanden!" Lessing yelled.
I snapped to attention. Flies buzzed by, probably hoping to
alight on our fallen prize.
"I see no further training is needed," began the
Hauptsturmf?hrer, standing between his second officer and Lessing. The
grin he had shone us only minutes before broke from his lips. It
expressed pleasure in our brutality. "For your reward, all of you will
tomorrow go home to your families on leave. Be proud for proving
yourself as soldiers. Our Fuhrer will be proud of you."
Joy sprang from my heart. I wanted to leap into the air and
scream with gladness. This was it! I had waited a month to hear those
words. My original conceptions of him fell away with this final
proclamation and I wanted to hug him for his graciousness. Though it
was difficult, I hid my feelings behind a serious expression, which
betrayed nothing, but the militaristic demeanor expected from all of
us. In two or three days mother would see me in my uniform, a grown
man, and her loneliness on the farm would come to an
"Who killed the swine?" Lessing asked.
"I, Oberscharf?hrer!" Hermann shouted from behind me.
"You?" the Oberscharf?hrer replied in a sarcastic voice and
he muttered something under his breath. "Come forward our "little"
warrior," and he empathized the word "little" with a disdainful high
pitch in his voice.
Hermann ran to the front of the formation showing nervousness
in his quick movements. A hungry rat scrambling for a piece of cheese
could not have run faster as he did to stand at attention before our
Lessing took from the sheath on his belt the knife he had
used to threaten my life and held it, the handle end pointing forward
"Take it," he said.
For a moment, Lessing was not reluctant in giving the knife,
and kept a firm grasp around the blade. Probably mindful of the eyes
peering at him, he soon gave way to the force tugging at the opposite
side, slice marks left on his palm from holding the steel, and our
little warrior became possessor of the weapon.
"Sch?tze," Lessing said to him. "You have proven yourself
worthy as a brave fighter amongst all of us. For your brave action, I
bestow on you the honor of skinning the swine. Your comrades will help
with the gutting. Do you accept this responsibility?"
"Ja Oberscharf?hrer," Hermann said.
"Good. Then the matter is settled," he stepped back, gave a
curt nod to the Hauptsturmf?hrer, and then made a turn on his heels to
look at us. "You have thirty minutes to make this swine hairless and
ready for the fire. Any slackers will be punished, don't worry. Just
remember, it must be hairless, no junk left in the belly. Those who I
feel did not put their all in this childish choir, will be left over
with guts and intestines, and you will eat everything up or be chosen
as participants for my new exercise."
The inception of this exercise devised by Lessing sprung horrible
possibilities in my mind. I remembered one of his previous creations to
enforce discipline that had left one boy with gashes on his hands and
knees. This punishment, probably not new, but a concoction Lessing put
all the glory to its creation on his mind alone, involved running for
two minutes in place then falling to the earth chest first, using only
the arms to brace the impact. During one of my repetitions, I had
thrown myself too quick and hit my chin against the dirt, almost losing
a tooth. The possibility of having to go through this hell again made
me boil with eagerness to begin the task of gutting the pig, a job that
was to many a foul occupation, but for a farm boy like I, just another
duty out of many needed to be done in a workday.
With a shout of "hurrah", the soldiers broke ranks and ran
for the pig. Before leaving my place, Lessing gave me a disgruntled
look. He let the officers disappear into the tent and he stepped close,
scratching at his chin while staring at me with cold eyes. As if ready
to say something, his lips made a motion, but nothing came out. He spun
around and went for the door of his tent, but as he held onto the
cover, showing only the back of his steel helmet he shouted,
"Ja Oberscharf?hrer," I said, afraid to breath.
"It's your turn for night duty. Report to me after
This order from the sergeant filled me with disappointment.
The exciting prospect of having a full nights rest before leaving the
camp had become an unreality. Now I had to look forward to standing
hours under a moon lit sky, rifle at my side, straining to keep eyes
open in search for unwarranted movements outside camp, the mind wanting
to fall asleep but kept awake through frequent shaking of the limbs,
and all these tortures came with the possibility that Lessing, the
dreadful overseer, might come outside the tent to punish a soldier for
an infraction found in the performance of this duty. I went over to
Hermann, wishing he had a rifle so he could shoot me, but he stood
there with a smile, presumably glad for being noticed in a good way by
"He'll take that knife if you don't start," I said to him and
knew Hermann understood that
I meant Lessing would take it if he were not quick to fulfill his
"I know," he answered and ran to the swine. The boys were
holding the beast from the sides, keeping its back in the gravel and
the belly up. I kept behind Hermann as he came over to shave the hair
off its breast with the blade.
"Hurry, hurry!" the soldiers said, as the steel flashed
across the chest, leaving bloody punctures in its skin from the rapid
"You're going too slow!" Heinrich said. "Let me do it, you're
not doing it right. Here," and he stole the knife from Hermann and went
to work on the swine's under sides, meriting giggles amongst soldiers
when he sliced off the genitals. While snipping at the hairs on its
back, his hands and knife were dripping with blood. His progress was
sloppy but swift.
"It's ready, it's ready," Heinrich said, and we lifted the
swine off the ground, now hairless in the sun, and threw it into the
washbasin. Water rose from the tub and splashed on us as the body sunk
and we gave the beast a few dunks in the liquid, blood swirling up to
the surface with every push until it became a red bath.
"Get it out," said Wittor, a blonde-haired youth, who was
first to admit most of the fuzz had been washed away, and we pulled the
corpse out and took it to a place behind the basin where the earth was
still moist from a previous rain. As I brought the swine down, water
fell from it onto my face and shoulders, soaking my uniform.
With the skinning done, Heinrich thrust the blade into the
swine's neck cavity and split through the bodies' midsection. A sour
smell arose from the flesh as the steel cut a seam in the skin, slicing
further down to the belly and the lower abdomen, where stringy
intestines fell out in a red slime. I stooped over this wound and began
shoveling out the innards. It was the worst job in the whole process,
but the others knew I could rip through it without any abhorrence, and
so they stood by to watch as my hands tore into the flesh and threw out
organs. As I dug my hands further into its recesses, they emerged
After removing the last of the refuse in the belly, I backed
away from the beast, my mind in a swirl. Something peculiar had arisen
in my thoughts about this swine that had not affected me in gutting
previous catches. I felt as if I were disemboweling my father. With
every tug at the entrails, I saw him crying in pain, his legs smashed
by shell fragments. It was horrific. I wanted to stop, but my hands had
kept working, controlled by a mindless urge to get things done, and
there came the shrieks from father with each pull, breaking my
concentration, forcing me to succumb to his pain. When finished, this
mental anguish had risen to such fervor that tears came to my eyes. I
had to turn around and hide my sobs, so others would not see the
weakness plaguing my soul.
"Otto," Hermann said, and I felt him press upon my back. I
tried to choke back the tears, but their sudden onrush made it
impossible, and as he sought to get my attention, I turned away from
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing. Just go help them," I said. For a second, the
gumption arose within me to tell my comrade about my affliction, but
this desire was dismissed for knowing the soldiers near would overhear
and think it wrong to utter such things.
"Don't forget, you have to clean this mess," Hermann said,
pointing to the guts lying
about and then he ran to catch up with the others who were carrying the
corpse to the fire pit. The cooking area was about fifty yards behind
Lessing's tent and in the center of this clearing were a pile of rocks
flanked by two wooden poles supporting a spit. It was impossible to see
it from where I stood, but I knew its every detail from memory.
With head bent, I went toward my tent to retrieve a mess pot for
holding the digestive organs. Flies followed, landing on my hands, and
tickled the skin. In the distance was heard the shuffling of feet as
the soldiers neared their objective.
"Hear this, hear this," Lessing said from inside his tent,
and his voice died away under a howling wind that flew against the
corridor of shelters, then was heard again much louder saying, "Ivan
will be surprised. They won't know how to deal with these
The words sounded so false as he said them.
"Deal with these fighters," I muttered to myself. They knew
how to deal with my father, I thought. They shot him to death and went
on to kill others.
The pot lay under the door of the tent, half hidden under a
wall cloth. I took hold of it and went over to the mess leftover from
the gutting. The organs were gritty with dirt and while tossing them
into the pail; flies flew off the films of grime, and clung to my
A simple job, now under the threat of these trenchant thoughts upon my
father, had transformed into a repugnant duty. I began to reflect on my
father's last moments before he left for the battlefield. He knew his
place amongst the ranks of an army outnumbered by an invading horde and
he did have doubts of a successful return home from the front. Many
times when I had sat down to dinner with him, he would start a
discussion on the probability of his survival in a battle against
"Otto," he had told me. "Never find yourself alone on the
field. A soldier has greater chances in getting out if he's with
comrades. I've seen too many dead, who were careless. Who thought they
could beat Ivan all by themselves, and guess what they got? A bullet in
the back. Always stick with comrades, or you'll be running with death."
When he had spoken those words, I knew it was the truth. My
father had seen war's ugliness and never, even under my entreaties,
told me about its glories.
"Your instructors say you are superior to the enemy," he
chuckled after a brief talk I had with him on lessons learned during my
day in a Hitlerjugend institution. "They say, whatever you do, only
victory can result, for our race is superior. Your teachers tell you
only the lies. Soldiers live by chance and chance alone. The moment
you're thrown into the fire, it's only you and a rifle, no superhuman
strength will keep you alive. It's like jumping into the ocean, with
the waves crushing, and if you go too far out, you might be caught in a
rip. The rip doesn't care who it pulls, Ivan, Tommy, or Jew, it kills
all. And that's what you can expect from war."
To him, war was clear, yet under the pervasive ideologies
running counter to his beliefs, others who I thought would be open to
hearing these truths, would make themselves impenetrable through their
practice of false ideals. "Heil Hitler!" was their answer to anything
and if asked what religion they professed, since Christianity was
looked down upon, the response was, "blood and soil." Jesus remained a
living presence in my heart, even through the years of indoctrination
into the countries principles, the Holy Spirit kept my soul from
sinking into an abyss where everything held only material significance.
I had father to thank for keeping my faith intact. He prayed during the
nights he was home at the farm on leave and told me never to give Him
up, for from Him came the strength to live under the uncertainties of
the future. Amongst my circumstances as a soldier, I hid my religious
beliefs, conveying my faith only to Hermann, but if the time came to
stand for my convictions, it would take more than torture to sway me
"Blood and soil," I muttered under my breath and sent a
mocking look at the organs in the pail. Bloody and dark with grime
these intestines revealed a horrid side to what we were taught to
worship. If I believe only in guts, I thought, why exist?
From behind came footsteps. I turned to see Lessing, striding towards
me, his trousers so tight around his legs that the bottom seams rose
above his boots. It was apparent from the tense look on his face, with
the eyes bulging and the brows in a wry upturn that a sudden worry had
arisen to disturb him.
"Achtung!" I shouted, and came to customary attention.
"Where's the Kompanie?" he barked.
"Oberscharf?hrer, they are trussing the swine."
"And you, are you done with this!" and he pointed at wet
impressions left on the gravel.
"Ja Oberscharf?hrer!" I said.
"Then go to your comrades. We must get the fire kindled, or
it'll be too late to eat."
I broke into a sprint toward the other soldiers, swinging the
pail at my side, and when getting amongst them, I saw the swine was
already stretched on the spit over a pile of logs.
"Did you bring a match?" Heinrich asked, alighting from one
of the rocks around the pit. He gave a sneer when looking at the gore
within my bucket.
"No," I said. "But the Oberscharf?hrer, is coming this way
too. He will have one."
Soon as I said this, Lessing trudged up to our gathering and we went to
"Men, ready to go?" he asked in a calm voice.
"Ja Oberscharf?hrer," we answered.
The sergeant took out a match from his shirt pocket, struck
it against a rock, and put his palm around it when a fire sprung.
Before approaching the pit, he grinned at us.
"I know what you're thinking," he said. "You wish there were
cigarettes for the end of this match. I see the hunger. Don't deny it,
Wernoe was staring with a pitiable expression at the sergeant
and I was astonished Lessing knew him so well as to guess right at his
"Only a day, can you wait a day, sch?tze?"
"Ja Oberscharf?hrer," he said, but with no fervor in the
words, so that the others could guess he was lying.
"Let us hope so," he said, and it was the first time I had
seen our sergeant in a congenial mood when in our presence. He bent
over the logs, let the match fall from his fingers onto a dry twig, and
stood there in wait for a spark to arise. Nothing resulted from this
"Heinrich get me a dead branch from the forest," he said,
still leaning over the pit.
It took a minute for the boy to return with a bundle of
twigs, gray and dry, brown needles sticking from a few of the arms. He
went to Lessing and kept them under another lit match taken from what
seemed to be an unlimited supply from his shirt. As the sergeant stuck
the match in between the twigs, the needles were set ablaze, and
Heinrich threw the pile onto the logs. The flames spread to the larger
lengths of wood, crawling along the bark in orange waves, which snapped
at the air.
"That's more like it. Good," Lessing said.
The fire swallowed the surrounding wood, its appetite
unquenchable, its arcing peaks grew higher until they fluttered only a
hairs breath below the pig.
"That's how quick a tank burns once you hit it with a
panzerfaust," the sergeant remarked. "But it's wise not to be near one
when that happens."
A few soldiers giggled at this jest from Lessing, but others
were mindful of the sergeant's disrepute toward jovial reflection and
"Mmm," he said. "You can already smell it. I believe we will
have some fine meat tonight, do you not think so, Hermann?"
"Good meat, Oberscharf?hrer. Good meat," and the childish
tone in which these words were spoken from Hermann's mouth, made us all
"You hear that soldiers. Only a warrior can give such an
honest opinion. Grand!" Then with a mocking look at Hermann, he gave
him a slap on the back, and laughed. "Good meat, good meat," he said,
imitating the low pitch but with failing grace.
This new change in Lessing was very unusual. After being brutish in
previous weeks, his formal conversation with us now seemed out of
keeping to his military ideals, yet it gave me a firmer respect for
him. He, like us, knew how to giggle at things that were comical.
"Hermann, what did you do before joining the ranks?" Lessing
"I was a Hitlerjugend? Oberscharf?hrer."
"And what did you do there?" Mindful of our standing around
at attention he said, "Sit down everyone."
We sat on the gravel staring up at this changed man, who held
none of the animosity seen in previous days, and who seemed ready to
"I drove motorcycles, Oberscharf?hrer."
"Ah, motorcycles," Lessing answered. "Are you a mechanic? Did
they teach you all the ins and outs of mechanical
"To me and five others around you,
Lessing began pointing at random soldiers and said, "Who has
working knowledge of motorcycles? Do not stand up, but show me hands to
the mechanics around here."
I raised my hand, being one of the boys who had gone through the same
schools as Hermann.
"It's always helpful to understand mechanics," Lessing said.
"I'm proud of our panzer crews, fighting bravely out there against
Ivan. There have been times where I have owed my life to them. Machines
make an army strong, without them, it makes very difficult the
usefulness of foot soldiers."
"My father drives a panzer, Oberscharf?hrer," mentioned a
soldier sitting on a rock, Hulf, whose long white face was peaked in
the center with a sharp nose. He was the sharpshooter of our Kompanie,
having made perfect scores on all our visits to the rifle range. "He
drives the new Tiger tanks."
"Oh the monsters," Lessing said. "Not even Ivan knows how to
stop one. When I saw one in Poland, painted over with camouflage, I was
surprised how large it was. The gun on the turret was humungous, long
as a boxcar. Amazing. Well," and Lessing brushed hands against his
trousers. "You know what to do, men. I must get back to my tent. Keep
watch on the pig. Turn the spit, whatever it takes to get it prepared.
When the swine is cooked, and you feel its ready to be eaten, I expect
a soldier of the Kompanie to stop by my quarters and notify me of its
"Ja Oberscharf?hrer," we answered and got to our feet.
"I warn you all, if the pigs overcooked, there will be
reprisals waiting for the Kompanie, and I know how all of you like my
"We will not fail you, Oberscharf?hrer," hollered
The Oberscharf?hrer went back to his tent. We stared at him
"What happened to him?" asked Wernoe, his facial expression
distorted with shock.
"I must be dreaming," said Schroeder, the dark brows rising
high above his eyes. "This is too much for me to handle. Did Lessing
just say those things? Did they hit him with a hammer?"
My personal reflections upon this matter were that the
officers had something to do with the sudden change in Lessing. When he
disappeared into the tent, the feeling of awe still hung in my brain,
and I wondered if his transformation would last. Only the span of an
evening could tell if the change was permanent. What worried me, was
the possibility his good mood would vanish with the arrival of night
guard duty, when the absence of protection provided by being amongst
the swelling ranks might have an affect on his persona, and urge him to
direct his pent up wrath at my mishaps.
Night came. The trees outside camp appeared as dark pillars
gating a primeval hell, where behind lay only an abyss, hiding the
forms of carrion crying from its depths to break the stillness. Pine
tops stabbed into the starry sky forming a corrugated backdrop for the
flames. Our fire was burning full, its energy growing more powerful
with the loads of wood thrown on it, and sparks flew into the air. We
sat round the fire, tearing at the last of the pig meat with our teeth,
and conversing on what good things might await us with our arrival
"I don't know what my mother will think of me when I walk
through the door," Schroeder said. "She'll probably cry. I don't really
know. It seems so strange when you think of home here. It's different,
almost like an imaginary place. I will have a better answer once I
return from leave."
The casting gleam from the fire shone on him and his eyes sparkled. A
cool wind blew at us from the trees, slanting the sheets of flame so
their tongues lashed out at the camp. I felt warm in my corner near the
pit, standing on the gravel with Schroeder, drafts of hot air from the
fire buffeting the winds attempt to creep in and chill our skin.
"My mother will probably take me to a pub," I said to him.
"She used to always go with father and get drunk after his coming home
from the front. She will do the same with me," and I stopped to chew at
meat on a rib. Hunger had won over my indecent thoughts toward its
consumption. My belly was full and with every swallow, it seemed to be
vying to spit up its burden, but I ate on, knowing the food would be
put to use in the evening watch.
"You pig," he remarked.
"What?" I said in offence to his harsh words.
"That's the fifth serving you have eaten today. How do you do
"I just don't eat so much of the morning's
"What a pig. What if Lessing decides it's time for a run,
what will you do then?"
"Throw it up, I guess," I laughed.
"And Lessing will kick you in a ditch," he said.
"So what if he kicks me in a ditch, it's better than a mess
kit spanked against my arse," I said reminding Schroeder of the time he
was slapped in the buttocks by Lessing with his own mess kit for
talking in ranks. "Besides, this is the final day. He wouldn't be cruel
to throw in any such torture."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that. You still have to see him
"See him I will," I shouted to him as a rebuff. "And I will
make sure to tell him you wish to be awoken before dawn to clean your
shirts for tomorrow."
"I will," I said, laughing at my daunting attitude.
"If you do, I will no longer be your
"You are so gullible," and I tossed the clean rib into the
pit. "Ratters are all swine. They're only good for the fire. I would
never do such a thing. I'm not dirt."
"Here," Schroeder said and he bent down low, took a towel
from his trouser pocket, and swiped at fallen particles of dust that
threatened to diminish the mirror shine on my boots. This unsuspecting
gesture filled me with kindness toward his generosity. For the span of
a half an hour, I had toiled at my footgear with the cotton of a wet
sleeve on a tunic, as the others were cooking the meal. "You don't want
to start your duty with a wrong footing, if you know what I mean," he
rose to look at me again, a smile breaking from his thin lips, "Lessing
can see a smudge on a pair of boots blind folded."
"Dunken," I said to him.
"That's for not meaning what you said," he chuckled.
Heinrich, appearing from around the fire without a helmet on
his head, approached me.
"Time to report for guard duty or get the punishment," he
"I know," I told him.
"Are you ready?"
"I have to go back and get my rifle."
"Then what are you standing around for?" he
As soon as I trudged away from the fire, a cool wind lashed
at me, causing a chill to crawl up under my shirt and into my skin. I
gritted my teeth, hoping the pain would abate after my body grew
accustomed to the sudden temperature change. Evenings in the forests
were always bitter, even in the summer time, and now, in the autumn,
the winds were blowing in preparation for winter. The ground, muddy in
the day, was hard and frosty at night. This freezing made it easy to
walk without having to worry about stepping on soft soil that might
tarnish boots. With a quick pace, I ran to the tent, images of Lessing
with whip a malicious grin on his face, terrified my mind.
"One more night," I said to myself. "Then there will only be
mother and the pub and maybe the taste of Schnapps rolling down my
throat." I wanted so much to leave my circumstances, to climb over the
white fence around father's farm with its wooden sign designed with
letters that read our family name: Krueger. Then rush into the barn,
forgetting my knapsack, to see how Mola, the white calf of our stead
was doing with only mother to milk her. Everything will be just like I
dreamed it to be. Mother will be the same as when I left her those long
forgotten months ago and her love will embrace me and it will make me
feel as if I had never left the barn to lose myself in this place. A
soldier I may be, but home, an abode of tranquility, where no one is
there to punish a man for dereliction of his duty, is heaven.
The wind howled in my ears under the steel helmet and I
shivered against the chill.
"Why did we not get the autumn parkas the soldiers were
getting on the front, I thought to myself, maybe Lessing thinks our
health is expendable."
The flap door of my tent was open. Its cloth, rippling in the
breeze, looked like a sail torn off a ships mast, and when a roll of
material a faint gray in the fire's gleam filled with air, I took hold
and pushed it to the side. Inside the tent, there was pitch darkness.
When I came in, something putrid filled my nostrils. It smelt of
decaying flesh and when I went about the tent aided only by smell, the
stench brought me to a corner where my boots hit against a metallic
obstruction. I bent for this hindrance, felt its shape in the darkness,
and found to my amazement that it was the pail holding the innards left
over from the swine.
"Verdammt," I cussed.
There remained only a few minutes before reporting to duty.
In earnest, my hands found the pail handle and with a careful
dexterity, raised the container from the earth. I went outside, my mind
going over thoughts of places that would be ideal for the waste to be
thrown into without the threat of later detection. With time running
short, I thought it best to bury the garbage.
The pail was put to the side as I dug into the earth with
bare hands, mindful of not dirtying my boots. Mounds of dirt smudged
against my palms as a hole began to form in the ground. When the recess
was large enough for the organs to fit, I got up, and spilled the
buckets smelly contents. The odor rising from the rot made it
unbearable to breath and after all the slop had fallen into the hole, I
ran back into the tent, gasping for fresh air amongst its shut in
"What else do I need?" I muttered to myself. "Yes, my
At the far corner of the room, rifles were stacked in such a
way so soldiers knew by memory their exact position. I put my hands on
the first steel barrel, remembering mine lay third from the left, felt
the second, then, without regard to toppling the pyramid, I took my
rifle and ran outside, a loud clatter trailing my footsteps.
The cold breeze bit at me again with my departure from the
tent and after passing over the smelly hole, I saw to my disappointment
that the mess had yet to be filled in with earth. I went about picking
up mounds of dirt to drop into the pit, and my hands, already dirty
with muck, became benumbed under the frigid air. To counter this pain,
I stood for a moment when the job was done, hands in trouser pockets,
and began rubbing them against the inside lining. The relief was only
temporary and the palms went red and almost lifeless soon as they were
After passing a few tents at a trot, a rifle slung over my
right shoulder, I came to Lessing's quarters, where a lamp was burning
from within. The glow threw an orange triangle on the space of ground
in front of the door and its appearance seemed almost unpleasant amidst
the dark expanse. Hesitation kept me from making a step onto this
platform of light.
"What will Lessing think of me?" I thought to myself. "He
will find something wrong, he will cast me into my tent and order me to
get ready for a run. I can't make this step. I must make this step,"
and my foot crossed the darkness into the orange shade.
Through the seep in the tent door, I could see three men. One of them,
Lessing, stood talking to the two officers who sat on stools. They were
eating pig meat and their backs were hidden from view behind the wall
cloth so that all I saw was the forward portion of their torsos. The
light from the hidden lamp made their expressions and movements less
hostile and the good-hearted look on their faces as they spoke to
Lessing, the Hauptsturmf?hrer, squinting his eyes after a jest from his
second in command caused him to slap his left pant leg in deference,
made me feel not afraid to enter this world of superior men.
"Oberscharf?hrer, Sch?tze Krueger requests permission to
enter," I said. Fear rose within my heart when these same people who
laughed with such grand happiness before the coming of my voice, now
got up from their stools with serious demeanors, and gazed at me
through the door.
"Sch?tze Krueger?" Lessing said in confusion, as if he had
forgotten I was to arrive here for guard duty. "Yes," he said.
I stepped inside, timid of all the eyes fastened on me. Their
formidable presence, clad in gray uniforms with epaulettes and badges,
and the silence pervading their stares, shattered a comfort barrier
that held my mind in check and kept others from noticing a sign of
personal distress. Now that this wall was broken, I screwed up my eyes
to see them only in a blur. This reaction allowed me to bear many
difficult situations where it was impossible to stare into one's face
without showing surprise.
"Oberscharf?hrer, Sch?tze Krueger reporting for duty," I
said, snapping to attention.
In the haze arisen from my sight distortion, a hazy form, recognized as
the body of the Hauptsturmf?hrer by his tallness, came up to Lessing,
and then looked at me.
"Is this the soldier you've been telling me about?" he
"Yes," Lessing said. "He can speak Russian like any dirty
Ivan. He know's a little bit of English, too."
"Sch?tze, where did you learn to speak the enemies tongue?"
"My mother, Oberscharf?hrer," I said, thinking back to my
youth when she would sing Russian lullabies to put me to sleep. "But
she is half Russian," I went on again, trying to clear my name. "My
grandfather, a peasant folk, poorer than a beggar, came to Germany to
find a good life. My mother, she was born here, in
"And your father," put in the smart looking officer, an
Untersturmf?hrer. "What is his nationality?"
"Of pure Aryan blood, sir," I stammered out.
"That assures he's not a dissident," the second officer
continued. He too could not be seen with clarity under the
self-imposing mist thrown in front of my eyes and he appeared in two
"The country needs soldiers like you who can speak Ivans
tongue," the Hauptsturmf?hrer said. "Have you heard of partisan warfare
"Jawohl," I answered.
"He knows where his duty lies," he said, grinning probably at
the serious tone in which the answer came from my mouth. "You just
wait," he added, turning to the sergeant.
"It's self-evident through the work they have displayed in
training, that Ivan will be at a loss. Especially this young fellow,
who just by looking at him," and the Hauptsturmf?hrer stepped in front
of me, observing my stern complexion as I stood at attention. "He's got
the heart of a warrior and the build too."
"I agree, sir," Lessing said. I unscrewed my eyes while
gazing at the sergeant and saw he was growing agitated with the
conversation. "He is more thin than muscular, though, but that's what
is needed in the east, a schutze who can run where his duty calls.
Should I dismiss him to take on his duties?"
"Certainly, Oberscharf?hrer," the commander replied.
"Give me your rifle, sch?tze," Lessing ordered. I let the
strap fall from my shoulder, he took the firearm, rubbing the barrel,
and stock with his hands, then thumbing the chamber with a quick look
inside, he gave the rifle back. "Your rifle is satisfactory."
With a deft movement, I slung the rifle into its rightful
"You know where to patrol," he said. " Make a circle around
the camp, walk by the tents, make sure no lights are on. I don't have
to remind you again do I?"
"No, Oberscharfuhrer," I said, feeling the want of slumber at
this inopportune moment, the start of a nightlong ordeal. I believed
the sergeant had given me guard duty as a form of torture. Maybe he
knew my thoughts just by staring into my soul with those impenetrable
blue eyes. There had to have been some demon taking residence within
him, who, during periods like after our skinning of the swine, it
prompted good action with evil hidden behind its motives. Now the demon
smiled through his glassy stare and I knew this did not reflect
appeasement, but the desire to inflict horrible acts of viciousness
against a boy he held as much respect to as a wild dog.
"Then leave us," he said.
I made a swift turn on my heels and went out into the cold.
The fire shone itself in the distance, a flickering monster of light.
Around the flames, shadows shot in front of its breadth, casting darker
imprints on ground already made black under the night sky. These
obscurations were soldiers who had hung around the pit to clear the
mess leftover from the evening meal. I noticed Heinrich, the only boy
of them without a helmet, shoveling dirt onto the fire to snuff it out.
Others joined him in this task and being curious, I went up to them.
The fire made hisses under the thrown earth. It still hung on
in its struggle for life as piles fell into its breathing mass. With a
brief look at this free spirit spawned from nature, a hungry animal
that devoured without remorse, nor hated the things it could kill, I
looked up at the stars. The moon sat above the pines, a brilliant coin
with a distraught expression. It had just begun a voyage across the
heavens that would take an entire evening to complete, and from seeing
its perceptible remorse for my travails through its crater eyes and
mouth, twisted into a look of horror, I knew it was going to be a long
night. Guard duty had always been a march to fend off an enemy more
powerful than Ivan or the sergeant, a predator that could sneak up on
any victim and cause chaos: sleep.
After the moon had crossed halfway through the sky, making the
landscape a pale blue under its radiance, activity in the camp fell to
a standstill. There could be heard around me the gentle snoring of
soldiers within their tents sometimes cut by the howl of a bypassing
wind from the forest. To keep myself alert under these conditions, the
tramping of my feet were timed, so they landed in smooth strides for
two minutes, and then in the other two, fell in a stomp upon the ground
with harder strikes. I went about the entire circumference of the camp
in this fashion and would stop at a place to ponder about home and its
joyous qualities. I thought of Hermann too and his unfortunate family
The woman waiting for him would not be as grateful as mine
with his return. It evidently was true Hermann had a horrible mother.
He would tell me on occasions about how she invited other men into the
house while his father was away fighting, and sometimes I, too, would
see these men walking half-naked around her place, searching for their
clothes. I stayed quiet about it, but wondered why Hermann never told
his father that his mother cheated on him everyday he was away
Hermann never forgave his mother for being unfaithful, and
hated her soul more than anything living on the earth. I would say to
him, "You must forget your mother, you are not hers anymore." But he
could not forget, for he still loved her through his deep hatred, and
when the nights were cool and I could hear the wind breathing through
the trees outside the camp, Hermann sat on his bedspread crying,
telling the Lord he missed his mother and wanted her to be faithful to
him. It was so very hopeless. How cruel for someone to abandon such a
wonderful boy. How cruel to make a boy think of his mother in such a
way as he did, to loath her but still find love for a flea-bitten bitch
always being mounted by stray dogs.
A tent cloth made a rustle in the distance. My thoughts were
broken by this sudden intrusion, and I turned around to see a dark form
approaching in the distance. The mold of the body was too large to be
recognizable as one of the other soldiers, and as it came close, I
could discern the uniform and steel helmet of Lessing.
"A shitty morning," he said, as he came over to me, a
cigarette hanging from his mouth.
"I think it's a very good one, Oberscharfuhrer," I said,
hoping not to incite his temper.
"Don't lie, it's a shitty cold bog. But I've been through
worse. Much worse, and you will too."
These words seemed to awaken nerves that had not adapted to
the freeze and I felt my body tingle against new hurts. Lessing saw me
shiver and grinned.
"You better get use to it. In the steppes, it's far
different. None of these small chills that hit and are gone, no, over
there, the pain is continuous."
"Ja Oberscharfuhrer," I said, and smelling the smoke from
his cigarette, I savored a puff from it. This was one of his games, I
thought to myself, coming to me with this object of contraband in his
mouth, so he could torture me with its nearness.
"You know something, schutze? You remind me a lot of myself
years ago, when I was just a boy like yourself, joining the Waffen SS.
I was a doubter."
His comments were unusual and I waited in suspense for what
he would have to say about his past. This was the first time he
compared events in his life to those of lower soldiers and I wondered
if through this conversation he was trying to reveal his complete
awareness of my inner struggle. I feared for the harsh consequences
that could result if such a realization arose in him.
"Doubting is natural in a soldier. It keeps him on his toes,"
he went on. "But against Ivan, doubting only spreads bad morale, makes
a Kompanie ineffective. It's bad and it kills. Would you like to see
your favorite comrade, "Hermann", for instance," and as if mocking the
soldier, he said the name with a higher tone of voice. "Would you like
to see this "Hermann" with a bullet in his gut?"
"Nein, Oberscharfuhrer," and it made me infuriated to hear
such a repulsive remark.
"Good, then end the doubting. I look at it this way. When
you're in battle, the goal is not to stay alive but to charge into the
enemy with every chance you get. If you think this way, nothing can
stop you from proving yourself worthy."
"I will not doubt, Oberscharfuhrer."
"You can doubt, just don't show it to others. What made you
join the Waffen SS in the first place?"
"My skills and to serve the Fuehrer," and then I was
speechless. There was a greater reason that had decided my entrance
into this elite force. "And my father, Oberscharfuhrer. He made me
"How did your father come into it?"
His question brought me back to a recent memory. Three months
ago, while back at the homestead, my father had shut me into a barn, a
shovel in his right hand and a rifle in the other. A breeze had blown
through the loft, screaming against the wallboards and amongst the
rafters. These sounds only made my father's silence more terrifying as
he stood there in his gray uniform.
"You know why you're here?" he had asked.
"No." I said and gazed leery at the shovel and rifle he held
ready to be used in some chore.
"It's time to make a choice," he said. "You're seventeen
years old. Look at you. You're old enough to do any man's work. The
Hitlerjugend did great things, but I can't have you staying here no
The words were spoken with finality. I remembered feeling a
surge of fear rise in me, a sudden burst of shock. It was the last day
of my childhood, yet the little boy within felt unready to
"Why?" I asked.
He struck me in the chest with a rifle butt. Its movement
was swift and cut my breath. I fell to the ground with a burning
stomach, hurt not so much by pain but by his brute answer.
"You know I love you son," he had said, his face broken in
contours of desperation. Father's voice rang with self-reproof and I
knew he felt sorry for what he had done.
"Father!" I cried, bursting into sobs.
"Stand up!" he shouted.
I struggled to my feet and stared at him through the wetness
"Stop your crying. Only ladies cry," he said, and thrust out
the shovel and rifle he held in opposite hands. "These two things build
dreams, Otto. They're both an honest man's living. I worked them hard
to get where I'm at today. I'll be proud for whatever you decide on
pursuing. But you must choose."
I had thought in those brief moments if escape was an
alternative. How glad I would have been if in his possession were keys
to an imaginary place far away from the ordinary consequences burdened
to young men who turn seventeen. The Hitlerjugend had taught me to love
war and in picking the rifle over the shovel, the choice meant fighting
for the Fuhrer and a reunion with old comrades. I took the rifle and
when my hands closed around the barrel, father frowned. It was not a
frown of disappointment. I had seen this grimace only once at the death
of my sister to pneumonia. Grief had taken him.
"Now it's done," he said and left the barn and my life
forever. Two weeks later, he was shot dead in Poland.
I glanced at the sergeant. He stood in frustration, awaiting
an answer. The night air was still with the presence of dread. It hung
around like a plague and kept my thoughts dwelling on forbidden doubts.
It would be hard to clear them from my mind, for they stuck with a
"Well speak up, schutze," Lessing commanded.
I had to say something. In not giving a response, I was
setting myself up for reprimand.
"My father gave me a choice," I said, and then hoping to hide
the whole story from him, I
gave a short reply. "He gave me the choice between hard labor or being
a soldier and I chose fighting, Oberscharfuhrer."
"You fool, there's hard labor in fighting," he chuckled.
Then, as if I couldn't have made more a fool of myself, I
yawned at this remark.
"How dare you! I'll teach you not to yawn on duty!" he
So stunned was I by this vicious remark that senseless words
fell from my lips, "Yes, it will not be, Oberscharfuhrer," I had
uttered in a fruitless attempt to end his frustration.
"Shut it! On the ground now!" and with this command, I fell
to hugging the earth. I got a mouthful of frosty dirt and shivered
against its chilliness. Here comes the hell fury, I thought, and I
cursed my lack of physical control. Alertness was the key to a
successful mingling with Lessing and when a sign of weakness, like
fatigue, crept out in noticeable form, it was answered with
"Get up," Lessing commanded. "I'll teach you! Run strides
from the pit and back. Schnell!"
I shot to my feet and sprinted into the darkness, trying to
reach the pit that lay a hundred yards away. My breath came out in
smoky puffs. When I reached an ashen lot, discerning a circle of
boulders as the barrier around the pit, I stopped only for a moment,
time enough to turn in the opposite direction and run back at Lessing.
In eagerness to end the exercise, my movements toward the
standing black form, seen in the distance by the light of a cigarette,
were hastened. Awakened from an imminent slumber by this jolt of energy
gave me some reconciliation that the fatigue was over.
When reaching him, he pointed back in the direction in whence I came,
"You're too, slow, faster."
I took up the sprint again. The running was easier this turn.
I reached the pit with a swift promptitude and charged back with even
quicker speed. The return was greeted with a snarl from Lessing and a
spray of dirt kicked up by his boots.
"Too slow! Again!" he screamed.
Now exasperation swelled in my mind and cruel thoughts upon
the sergeant and his form of reprimand fueled me to run faster than the
last two trials. Up ahead, it was not the familiar pit marking a
halfway point in the sprint, but a blazing fire, created by an angry
impress left on my conscious.
The arrival at this fiery crossroads gave me a loss of
breath in want for rest and an end to the madness begun by a cruel man
whose temper rose as easy as the orange glow from coals raked atop a
flame. Eager to find consolation in this suffering, my imagination tore
at the image of Lessing the sadist, and his square shoulders and
wrinkled face shrunk to an innocent bulldog's stature, and in place of
the lifeless eyes, there sprouted two black marbles above a massive jaw
of droopy skin. That's what you are, you heartless swine, I thought,
just a pile of good for nothing skin, who knows he's worthless, but
thinks it better to make others feel worse.
With no regard to my current surroundings, my mind caught in
a jumble of hateful reflections, I almost ran into the sergeant on the
return passage. Although he gave no expression of amazement over the
immediate finishing of this circuit, he pointed to the ground, and
knowing what he wanted, I gave him my rifle, fell to my hands and
knees, and then rose to a pushup position. With swift promptitude and
while maintaining a straight curvature of the spine, my chest fell, and
then rose until Lessing's voice called down with a count. The movement
was repeated for another thirty counts when, too weak to lift myself
off the ground, a harsh retort from Lessing sent me back onto my
"Now run in place!" he commanded.
It was as if I were being used as a steam engine, with only
two pistons to push the gears into motion, and during these exercises
it forced me to sympathize for all the toils machinery went through in
daily operation. If a locomotive had feelings, I wondered, would it not
protest against the engineer, and instead of pushing forward on the
tracks, shoot out flames from the boiler to kill its tormentor? Strange
ideas sometimes hold vital interest to those who suffer a similar fate,
and in my dire circumstances, this thought helped ease my physical
suffering and made it less difficult to keep at a satisfactory pace. In
the beginning, soldiers who were reprimanded by Lessing's harsh
punishments would show signs of weakness in hopes of vanquishing his
malice. They broke down in tears, wheezed air out of their lungs, or
faked a fainting spell, but none of these methods elicited his
sympathy, but only further angered his temper. After two weeks of brute
training, we discovered hard work and resilience earned the sergeant's
affection. I looked at him amidst my attempts to keep the legs chopping
in a continuous motion, breathing through the nose rather than the
mouth to feign weariness, and he gave an abrupt smile. I knew he was
impressed by my tough versatility throughout the exercise, never
revealing to him my desire to end the torture, but showing only my
personal capability in exacting his commands.
"Halt!" he shouted.
I sprung to attention. He spit out his cigarette.
"You know what you are, schutze?" he said in a fluster. "An
old gramps, a good for nothing, and too lazy for work. If I see you
again trying to snitch out a nap while on guard duty, I'll cancel your
leave so quick," and he waved his finger a hairsbreadth from my eyes,
"Is that clear?"
I hollered out the answer in a quick gasp, astonished by his
words. How frightful it would have been if he had gone through with
"Good," he answered, putting his hand onto his forehead in
"Take your rifle."
I snatched the firearm from his grasp, mindful not to touch
him, and let the strap bear upon my shoulder. When this had been done,
he turned away from me, and went to his tent. As he walked away, a
surge of relief shot through my body, and I could feel my toes again.
An unmistakable joy, almost greater than that found in the reunion of a
loved one, radiated within me after his departure. In this sensation,
it was not so much what was given as a material reward that counted,
but rather the period of loneliness under the stars, with only the wind
in the trees as a companion, which gave in its natural splendor, a
reward akin to bliss.
From the country road, there came a rumbling. I
stood about the smoldered remains of the fireplace, wondering upon the
origin of this mechanical drudgery in route to our camp. It was not a
vehicle reserved for the return passage of the officers in our training
grounds, for they had suitable transportation by Kubelwagon. The sun
was above the pine tops, shedding the skyline in a golden hue, and on
the tents, it left streaks of faded white amongst shadows still present
on the cloth in hopes to outlive the night. The engine sounds broke
through the morning tranquility, its growl echoing against the pines,
growing more distinct under the chirps of birds flying in the expanse
of blue above me. Can it be, I thought, this sound coming from the
forest is our passage home? The haze clouding a mind spent by wakeful
activity in an overnight watch blew away with the arrival of this new
hope. I felt giddy as a child who sees his father come home with a
satchel full of toys. The growl went louder, a grinding chorus arose as
wheels hit gravel, and on the instant, a gray truck appeared from
behind a pine, lusterless, its headlights shot out, and the driver
inside almost unseen behind a windshield wet in mud, stretched his hand
out in greeting.
My God it had come, I thought in glee, we are to really
leave this hell.
The truck went forward, a chariot of relief, its canvas
roofed tailgate and wooden sides grimy and rent with wear were
signatures of experience from the front lines. No matter its condition,
if the vehicle was intended for our speedy removal from the camp, its
appearance was regarded as a godsend.
The driver looked out from his window with sleepy eyes, his
forehead marked with stress lines, and the cap on his head, a wooly
gray under shadow of his compartment, had the skull and crossbones in
the center. The urge to come up to him and shake his hand was alive in
my mind, but in haste to bestow military courtesies which required
above all things abstinence from gleeful reaction, I ran to him and
stood at attention in reaching distance of his driver side door. The
engine of his large vehicle clanked into idle and the tires came to a
"Is this 14th Kompanie, 12th Panzerdivision?" the driver
asked in a husky voice, made more haggard probably from a long ride to
our camp. There was no evident surprise on his countenance and it kept
a constant dumbfounded look, as if his mind grew weary of finding
answers to useless questions.
Doubtful on how to address this stranger, who might as well
have been an officer filling in for an enlistee, I made a quick glance
at the rank tabs on his collar, found recognition on his clothing to
his rank as a corporal in the motor service, and answered, "Ja,
He opened his door and came out. The corporal stood short
and muscular on his feet and it made me wonder why he was driving
trucks instead of tanks, where men of his diminutive height were needed
most. The driver door was slammed shut with a rusty squeak, and after
he had made a pull on his cap to center it upon his forehead, the
corporal went over to the front bumper, grabbed a fistful of dry mud
lying upon the metal, and began breaking it in his hands. Sand fell
through his fingers as he continued kneading and crushing the clumps
into smaller pieces. As he performed this nervous action, he kept his
gaze on the camp.
"Where's your Kommandant?" he asked.
"In the tent, Rottenfuhrer," I answered, then knowing he
would have to be shown the way through the campgrounds for his
unfamiliarity, my finger pointed at the tent closest to us. "If you
need someone to lead, I'll be willing to take you."
"That would be all right," he said, then smacking at his
pants, he began walking for Lessing's tent. I followed behind, keeping
my distance in hope of not pestering him with an unwelcome attendance.
The military had taught one important lesson when it came to personal
interaction: never form too friendly relations with superiors, but love
fellow soldiers of the same rank like your brother. It was a rule that
had never been broken in our Kompanie, since Lessing, being
uncrouchable, never allowed a soldier to form a close friendship with
him or any of the officers that frequented our camp. So as we walked
together, I regarded the corporal, even though he was of humble rank,
and only two stripes my superior, as a man of appointed honor.
With an energetic burst born from the gratitude found in the
presence of this long awaited hope, I felt free and unburdened in my
efforts to reach our destination. When we arrived at Lessing's tent,
the driver stood by, conveying by his steadfastness a desire that I
should go in first.
I waited right outside the flap door for a passing moment,
examining my acquaintances gray shirt with cotton trousers held up by a
leather belt around the waist that was locked in the center by a shiny
buckle. The steel on the eagles wings of the buckle shone with such
brilliance that my whole visage with its red skin and steel helmet was
seen in reflection upon its glassy surface. Curiosity pressed me to ask
what cloth and water he had used to maintain its lack luster finish,
but before I could utter the words, Lessing barged out from his tent,
with a sleepy countenance.
"I thought I heard a truck outside," he said, then looking
at the corporal he managed to bring out a smile. "So you're ready to
take my soldiers away are you?"
"It was your orders, Oberscharfuhrer?" the corporal replied.
"Not mine," and he nodded inside the tent. "But the orders
of my superiors. I'll get them rousted out of their flee bags."
Lessing seemed half-awake, for his speech drawled out in low
monotones, as if he were whispering from a dream. It amazed me to see
this iron-willed drill sergeant, who was always at the peak of his
powers, act now like a man taken by a night's overindulging in alcohol.
"Otto, get them formed up in caps and rucksacks. I'll be out
He said it in a caring voice, so opposite from the one heard
only hours before amidst torturous physical punishment. My comrades
were right to suppose he was a madman. He did not exude any of the
consistent moods I had seen in normal people while growing up.
"Why just stand there? Eh?" Lessing barked. "Do your duty or
get my boot between your legs!"
"Ja Oberscharfuhrer," I answered in curt reply and turned on
my heels to fulfill his request.
"Can you believe them?" Lessing remarked behind my back to
the corporal. "They put me in charge of idiots, what you think of it,
The corporal snickered in reply.
I ran to the first tent, thrust my head inside, and found
soldiers bustling about, already awake and waiting for departure.
"Otto," Schroeder whispered, sweating with worry. He rose to
his feet from his knapsack, a sensation of wild bewilderment present on
his facial expression. He looked ready to cry if the news I had to
offer was not satisfactory. "Is it?" He could not finish.
"Shut up, don't get excited," I said. "Get outside. We have
"We're saved!" Schroeder shouted. "Saved!"
"Rucksacks, and your caps on," I answered. "Our ride is
Schroeder, his thick eyebrows twitching in joyful elation,
threw his arms around my waist, and giggled. "Can it be true? Has it
really come? We are now soldiers! Soldiers! Can you believe it
"Yes, but we must go. We have to keep our wits," I said, and
feeling Schroeder's form rocking against mine from the sensation of his
inner bliss, it almost prompted tears to fall from my
"No, I must compose myself. I can't go out like this," he
said, and he stepped back, gave a shrug from his shoulders, and then
strapped his steel helmet to a suspender. The other boys too, laden
with only light accommodations upon their battle packs, a silver field
flask atop a bed roll, left with their helmets hung from a suspender
strap, and atop their heads, were sleek wool caps with skull and
crossbones patched in their centers. They went out in quick order,
leaving Schroeder and I alone to contemplate upon our favorable
"Take your helmet off," my comrade said to me.
I took the bowl off my head and felt the cool air seep into
my wet scalp. Before digging into my trouser pockets for a cap, I made
a few rapid swipes at my hair to get rid of the dampness.
"Let's get out," he said.
"Yes," and I followed him outside.
From every tent, soldiers ran to a location center of the
two rows of tents, their gasps of merriment resounding over the pound
of their boots. From each face, I perceived a gladness spawned by the
end of a month's pain, a month that made many thirsty to quench parched
throats too long dry from lack of sweets, made others miss their
mothers, and for Wernoe, made him yearn to get through training for the
chance to smoke a cigarette. Wernoe was the first to emerge from a tent
on the far right reaches of the encampment, still fumbling to button up
trousers opened by an erect morning surprise. When he had got to his
place and gave a look around to see if anybody had noticed, he tried
slamming it down further into his pants in between periods of glancing
about to find other opportune moments to continue his efforts. Lucky
for him no one but I, seemed to notice.
I stepped forth toward the expanse of gravel where soldiers
were lining up, a stretch of earth that had once swallowed my days in
misery, and now took me in with kindness and relief. As we got into our
positions amongst the formation, Lessing strode in front of us, talking
with the driver and two officers who followed by. Their expressions
were despondent, yet when the Hauptsturmfuhrer turned to glance at us,
his face shone serious and hard. I hoped bad news what not soon to
"Augen rechts!" Lessing shouted.
We came to attention. Our breathing fell still. Only the
wind made a noise against the tent cloths, as we waited, almost in
dread, for what would be said from our commanders.
"I say this in earnest my men," the Haupssturmfuhrer
started, his candid tone catching my interest. "As a brave soul who has
seen four years of war, you are all soldiers of Germany and have earned
the right to call each other comrades in arms. May you serve proudly in
this time of need. I hope the lessons you have learned here, will aid
in your fight against the perpetrators who try only to fail to pierce
our ranks and get a foothold into our country. Remember the ones who
have fought and died to defend this land and our flag. Men who
gloriously died to maintain us, to insure a better future for our
brethren, and to give growth to another generation of honor bound
Germans. It is to their memory we continue our great cause," and his
voice was true and powerful. With one hand raised in front of us, palm
downward, he held the resemblance of a young Moses beckoning the Red
Sea to part. From this hand came the final hope, a powerful signature
to our undying allegiance, and the guidance from a father whose
strength would bring us ultimate glory. "Heil Hitler!"
"Heil Hitler!" we replied in unison, hands extended to
worship our ruler.
"Ten day passes will be distributed, at the calling of your
name," he continued.
"When you have received a pass from your Oberscharfuhrer,
proceed to the truck, and then, my men, my soldiers," and he emphasized
our title with an affectionate tone. "You will be taken to a train
station, not far from these current lodgings, to be out processed. Look
around you. Look at the comrade next to you. Two weeks into the future,
that schutze might save your life. Keep sharp. Know your enemy. I will
be there when the fighting is fierce. I will be the first to charge
into fire to fight Ivan, to give the initiative to us., but I also need
you to fight gloriously for our Fuhrer and for the glory of yourselves.
There is a real enemy out there, but we are stronger than them if we
fight to our utmost potential, we will win together. That is all, my
Then, with a nod to our sergeant, Lessing began calling out
names, and soldiers dropped out of ranks, some nearly in a faint, when
the word to come forward rang in their ears. As he continued to read
off names on passes, each soldier in turn relieving their place,
leaving behind an empty void made wider with the withdrawal of others,
a sensation of excitement had begun to churn within my insides.
Not long after, the air was rent with a sudden stillness, and
in the static atmosphere surrounding me, I thought everyone had their
eyes pinned in my direction, and the attention of the forest, even the
birds unseen in the branches of the pines, had all of a sudden, turned
to look at my rigid form.
"Schutze Krueger!" Lessing called, and in my ears, his voice
sounded like a warden's keys jingling into a dusty lock to set a
prisoner free. At last it had come!
I ran from my place to the appointed spot in front of the
sergeant. He seemed too busy to mind my presence. Our eyes met once,
but in his stare, there was only a hurried look. He jabbed a stamped
slip of paper into my hands. As soon as its pointy edges pushed into
the skin, the sergeant shouted another name, and I went away, without
regrets, to the awaiting vehicle that would take me
I was coming up to the truck when Hermann, walking fast at
my side, decided he wanted to tag along as my companion for the ride.
He gave a mock salute and in a whisper said, "I don't care so much to
see my mother, anymore. Can I come along with you? Maybe we can ride
our bicycles again into town, just like in the old
He had spoken dreadful words, but I thought him brave for
saying them. He knew I had seen first hand her failing graces and we
both had wonderful times just playing amongst ourselves in the absence
"Sure," I said. "How does it feel to be independent
"Huh," he asked.
"Independent. You don't need your mother
He gazed down at the ground, scuttling his feet against the
gravel, and through his actions I could see he was perturbed by the
"Lost," he said.