This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
by Mateusz Buczko
The rain poured and poured and poured from the dark, overcast sky. It had been pouring like this all day, saturating the long road on which hundreds of weary feet now trudged towards Berlin. They had been trudging like this for five days without food and water, and had now almost reached the city, its broken spires and domes clearly visible despite the gloom. Already, one could make out the Nazi propaganda blaring out all over the city. Even in the abyss of defeat, the Nazi machine poured out its poison like noxious Zyklon-B gas. Towards this the Jews trudged on. By now, after months of hardship and degradation, they looked like the living dead – ghastly, cadaverous bodies covered in dirty, rain-soaked rags. Many were on the brink of exhaustion; stumbling, limping or hobbling along with their last reserves of strength. Some fell, only to be picked up hastily by a relative lest one of the officers storm over and beat them. Some, already weak and frozen beyond help, were dragged along by others. Alongside this herd of people walked several SS officers, smartly dressed in black uniforms complete with leather gloves and helmets. One of these young men was Hans Guderian. With intelligent blue eyes he surveyed the Jewish prisoners, and in the evernearing distance, the loudspeakers spoke his mind: “We shall fight this Jewish war to the bitter end…” His eyes focused on a middle-aged woman, dressed in a shabby grey overcoat,
walking determinedly towards the city. She held hands with a little girl, too young to be her own – chances are the girl’s parents had died along the way. The girl complained of something, and for a moment the woman stopped to say something and rub her hands. Almost out of habit, Guderian opened his mouth to yell at them to keep moving, but something stuck in his throat.
Outside it was bitterly cold, and the rain tapped endlessly on the bedroom window. “Goodnight Hans,” his mother whispered, tucking him into bed. He shivered. “Brrr, it’s so cold!” She smiled, and rubbed his hands to make them warmer. “Just think of warm things – pretend you’re in Egypt in the middle of summer.” He smiled back, and she leaned over to kiss him on the forehead. As she did so, the necklace that was always around her neck caught the lamplight, and for a moment flashed gold like the sun.
It was a warm afternoon, and the Hitlerjugend boys sat around the campfire, having had a vigorous day of marching, singing songs and playing war games. Hans was sitting next to his best friend Otto, a chubby boy with bright blonde hair. They were talking about their parents, after Hans described how ardent his father had been that he join the
Hitlerjugend. “What about your mother?” Otto inquired. “You’ve never mentioned her.” Hans fell silent for a moment, and averted his eyes to the fire. “She died four years ago,” he mumbled. “Of cancer.” He paused and looked down at the ground. “I don’t remember her dying. My father kept it a secret from me until she passed away… When she was on her deathbed, he told me that she was visiting my oma in Berlin.” Suddenly the silence was broken by Friedrich, the head cadet. “Come on boys!” he shouted. “Let’s sing some more songs! ‘Fly High The Fuhrer’s Flag’!”
“HANS!!!” The furious roar of Sturmbannfuhrer Gosser boomed in his ear. Startled, Hans jerked and looked towards the source of the noise. “What the hell are you doing?” Gosser screamed. “They’re getting away!” Frantically Hans looked around. Five Jews, seeing their opportunity, had broken off from the left corner of the mass and were running for their lives. Some of the other officers had already reacted, and began firing at the escapees. One, two, finally three Jews fell, but two made it into the woods. Gosser stormed over to Hans and shook him. “What the hell are you doing,
Guderian! No more of these Jews are to get away, do you understand?” “Yes, sir!” “Not a single one! Now catch up this instant!” Guderian trotted up the wet road until he caught up with the wretched mass. ‘Bloody Juden,’ he thought. ‘Causing trouble as usual, running away like rats.’ Angry and humiliated, he began shouting at them. “Faster! Come on you cursed Jews, faster!” A few at the back hurried up, but that was all. The rest were too exhausted to walk any faster; they were on the verge of collapsing as it was. Some of those being dragged were already dead, their bodies white and stiff from the cold. Almost everyone was carrying something – sometimes a child or body, but usually some kind of suitcase; black or brown, big or small.
It was late at night, but hoarse shouts and shrill exclamations reverberated around the kitchen. The whole house shook with the din of slammed drawers and raised voices. The voices were mostly ma and grandad, furiously yelling at each other while the other relatives sat at the table, grimly observing the exchange. “Hans! Come on, let’s read your new book.” Auntie Ewa grabbed Heinz and led him into his bedroom, shutting the door. She was mama’s best friend, and was babysitting him for the evening. Outside, the rain was tapping at the window again.
“I have to go to the toilet.” Hans stepped out and walked down the corridor to the toilet. All along the corridor there were suitcases; black and brown, big and small. “We have to leave! It’s not safe here anymore!” he heard his grandad yell. Someone – probably grandma – started crying. Something was definitely wrong. He went to the toilet, and when he came back, he asked Aunt Ewa what was going on. “It’s nothing, Hans – nothing. Don’t worry about it.” But the look in her eyes said otherwise.
Hans slipped, stumbled and recovered his balance. He’d been daydreaming again, he realized. Suddenly he remembered that he was supposed to be manning that corner, lest any more Jews try to escape. And it was just then that he spotted two men scuttling off an embankment beside the road. Immediately he remembered Gosser’s orders. Without hesitation he ran down towards the embankment, pistol in hand, and began firing. He could see the two fugitives sprinting through the long wet grass, heading straight for the woods. Bang! Bang! One swerved violently and crashed to the ground, having been shot in the leg. Bang! Bang! Bang! Three more shots, and the other one fell too, having been shot right through the
back. Hearing the gunshots, the other officers had come running. They saw the second escapee fall, and patted Hans on the back. “Good work,” one of them muttered. Hans took a deep breath and wiped the rain from his face. He replaced his pistol and walked back up to the road.
The group trudged on, and roughly an hour later they were on Berlin’s streets. Hans was careful not to get lost in his thoughts again, though he felt impossibly tired and cold. Again he noticed that woman, but now the child was missing. Despite her straggly hair and dirty, war-torn clothes, she somehow radiated life. She had not yet become like the others; more dead than alive. “Hans!” From one of the buildings he heard a woman’s voice. He looked up, and there, from a third floor window, was an oldish woman, her hazelnut hair wrapped in a bun. He squinted, partly because of the rain, partly to observe her more closely. And suddenly it dawned on him who it was – “Ewa?” He entered the building as the woman came down the stairs, so that they met on the first floor. He smiled, ready for a sly hug, but instead got an indignant “Hans! What on earth are you doing to these people?” He stepped back. “What do you mean? They’re Jews.” Silence.
“What?” he demanded. “You’re telling me you care about these wretched creatures?” Ewa stared at him. There was a long, strange silence. “Hans, there is something you need to know.”
1945 – Later
“No! That can’t possibly be true!” “It is the truth, Hans.” “Never! How dare you suggest such rubbish!” Indignantly he moved to get up, but the woman held him down by the shoulder and croaked “Why do you think you never saw your mother ill? You think she wanted to die without seeing you again?” He gulped. Trembling with emotion, he let himself slump; unresisting. “She did not die from cancer, Hans,” Ewa continued quietly. “Your father lied to you; he did it for your own safety. But the truth is, your mother was a Jew. She had to flee Germany.” Hans said nothing this time, so Ewa continued. “Her relatives had already fled two years before. I still remember the night they left. They came over and tried to convince your mother to join them. There was a terrible row. She was a strong woman, your mother, and she refused to go, could not bear the thought of being separated from you. But after Kristallnacht, she realized that if you were to have a future in this country, no-one could know you had Jewish blood.
So she left, and your father made every effort to turn you into a good little Nazi, enlisting you in the Jugend, then encouraging you to join the SS…” She looked up at his helmet, with its insidious skull and crossbones. She shook her head and sighed. “To save you from the Nazi demons, he turned you into one of them.” There was silence as Hans took all of this in. “So when did she leave?” he finally asked, barely able to speak. “After Kristallnacht. She never sent anything, because you were told of course that she died. She took nothing except for some clothes, and that gold necklace she always wore…” The gold necklace. It was the one thing he really remembered about her. “It was given to me by my mother,” she used to say. “She was called Anna too.” In the centre, Hans remembered, was the name ‘Anna’, written so that the letters formed a tiny circle. Hans was speechless. He stared down at the ground, trying to comprehend what Ewa had told him. Blue eyes. Dark brown hair. “People had always commented on how much you looked like your mother,” Ewa said. “Luckily she could pass for a German.” She sighed sadly, and looked out into the rain. “Hitler made you a traitor without you even knowing it. He destroyed you. In fact he has destroyed us all.” Everywhere, the rain fell on blackened walls and collapsed rooves. The streets were caked with rubble, and almost every building in sight was in ruins, some still smouldering from the bombing raid a few hours earlier. With tasteless irony, the
loudspeakers still blared out their propaganda – “we fight on, confident that victory is imminent…” Suddenly, Hans realized that the officers and Jews had been led away. How long had it been? Where did they go? Suddenly he felt sick. He knew how these ‘marches’ were meant to end… And then, faintly in the distance, he could hear screams. He shot up and immediately felt his guts twist – the Jews! Anna reached out to grab him again but he was off, bolting like a madman towards the source of the screams. The rain, the pain in his feet; it no longer registered. He had to get to the prisoners. Suddenly he slipped, and smashed his chin on the cobbles. Dementedly he scrambled up, wiped his chin, wiped the blood off on his uniform. Like a wild animal he kept hurtling himself towards the blood-curdling noise; his eyes blurred with rain, his throat choking. Then his leg smashed into a chunk of rubble and in an instant he knocked himself out.
1945 – Later
By the time he got there, more than an hour later, it was far too late. The aftermath of the massacre was exposed for all to see, laid out in the centre of the square. Everywhere were strewn corpses, the bodies of people which, earlier that day, had been walking, whispering, thinking. Now, as darkness descended over the city, they lay lifeless on the cobbles, the rain still pouring down on them. Hans felt sick. But he couldn’t resist walking among them, looking down at the
ghoulish white faces. So many people, young and old, male and female, shot to death like dogs. As he scoured these faces, seeing their precious humanity for the first time, his eyes affixed on a now somewhat familiar face. That woman. That gentle, middle-aged face, framed by wet brown hair. Even in death she looked remotely pretty. Suddenly he caught sight of something. Almost immediately, its foundations laid by his earlier daydreaming and Ewa’s revelation, an unspeakably nightmarish thought began to take shape in his mind. No. It can’t be. Against his will, he stepped closer. It can’t be. He knelt down. With glistening eyes and trembling hands, he began to pull the thing out from under the woman’s clothes, pulling it gently, ignoring the terrible, clammy texture of the motionless body. A feeling of utter dread and disbelief filled his being. Finally, the whole thing dangled out. And what he saw made him violently, harrowingly sick. There, in the centre of a golden necklace, arranged in a tiny circle:
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