Posted by: Nazausgraben | July 18, 2010

ALTE KAMERADEN


A number of our neighbors are of an age that memory is starting to become as a deepening evening mist; sights and sounds…..lives and loves…. faces… voices…all are slowly becoming distorted, lost puzzle pieces, jumbled with those from other times and events. Widening gaps are filled with dreams and embellished with the passage of years. 

Yet, there are dear friends, now well into their eighth decade, who have begun to wax nostalgic over those days of their distant youth, when life was at times hard and rewards were few. Still, when you ask them about the past, the history through which they have lived…when you show an interest in their lives before today, they seem to harken back with crystal clarity; eyes turned away or glazed as if peering inward, seeking the faint strands of memory’s light. For so many of these neighbors, their thoughts go to the period during the last century when Austria was, for a short time, geopolitically not a country at all.

The years of the Second World War, from the Anschluss in 1938 until the cessation of hostilities in 1945…the feel of the time, when all believed that their way of life was in peril, and that they had the duty and obligation to fight for their country. Yes, for many, their Austria, although subsumed by an expanding Germany, was still their home, their blood, roots and soil.  So the men donned uniforms and went to war.  The women stayed at home or helped with the war effort…just as did those in all of the other nations at war. Yet, it is not the large stories that come rolling from their minds eyes and lips; rather, it is the small, seemingly inconsequential, yet revealing vignettes that bring those terrible times back.

For example, Oma tells us of the time toward the end of the war, when American forces had crossed the nearby border from Germany (at Pfronten, near Vils) into Austria, and were fighting their way toward Reutte. They had to pass through Pinswang, where few yet determined Waffen Schutzstaffel (SS) forces continued to mount a strong defense.

All who remained in Pinswang were ensconced in their farmhouses, barricaded behind aged thick walls, hoping for some protection against the volleys of arms that seemed at times to come from all sides.

The Ulrichskirche, sitting as it does atop a slight hill, offered a strategic yet vulnerable vantage point, and was abandoned as the Americans drew closer. It is said that Pinswang’s Priest was forced to leave the rectory (Vidum) so quickly during the fighting that he was unable to retrieve the consecrated host from the Tabernacle in the church to take it away with him. As Oma tells the story, the Priest then sought shelter in her family’s house. However, realizing the gravity of what had occured and assuming that a young fleet-footed child could somehow get through the bombardment outside unscathed, the Father asked Oma (then herself but a girl) to run back to the Church and fetch the Host.

In the meantime, American lines had strengthened and moved forward through Vils to the Lech River. The exchange of small arms fire had become more intense and the ground shook on occasion from American mortar shells being lobbed toward the center of Unterpinswang. The side door and outer walls on the east side of the Ulrichskirche had already been struck by flying almost molten metal shards from the explosions of mortar rounds hitting nearby. Amidst this chaos, fleet-footed not,  Oma refused to budge from the relative safety of the house; it was, after all, Father’s responsibility to go back through the deadly hail for the Host. In the end, mustering every bit of courage and praying for speed and stealth, this he did indeed. Both Father and The Sacred Host returned to safety.

Then, there is our Oberpinswang friend Heinz, who, as an Unterseeboot sailor (U-Boot Matrose), was one of the few from that arm of the German Navy who actually survived the war. Indeed, by the close of the six-year conflict, many of his comrades had already perished. The once feared deadly wolfpacks that dominated the Atlantic during the early years of the war were no more; the time of the U-Boats had gone and their location and sinking had become more the rule than exception (as it had been earlier during the war).

Heinz, like almost every combat veteran today and of centuries past, clings with nostalgia to those times when he was in uniform. On his wall, Heinz has a set of small black and white fading photos of his shipmates….so many…so very young…. smiling… waving to the time trodden eyes gazing on them more than 60 years later.  Within one frame, Heinz has proudly mounted some of the medals he had been awarded during his tour of duty. Their glint has dulled abit over the years, yet they still impress in their own form of bold martial beauty. On some, the swastika (Hackenkreuz…literally, hooked cross) has been removed, for even today so very long after the war, it remains illegal to display a Hackenkreuz for any reasons other than for educational or historical perspective.

Now, as we sit in his Stueben, next to the dormant Kachelofen, Heinz tells me of harrowing events through which he and his comrades lived…and died. They are tales that I have heard many times during my career as a Navy officer…from old sailors, soldiers and airmen, who fought for ‘Allied’ or ‘Axis’ nations…enemies all, sworn to defend their respective countries and peoples against an enemy that promised naught other than death… destruction…subjugation. 

Brooklyn or Berlin….Monterey or Munich…. Peoria or Pinswang…the languages are different, but the stories are always the same. They are stories of bravery and boredom, moments of sheer terror cradled between long endless marches, flying in formations so large so as to cover all lines of sight in otherwise clear blue Italian summer skies, pitching wildly in gales midst wind-swept Atlantic seas, sunning in the Champaign region or freezing on patrol near Newfoundland. Yet, there are few stern flooks amongst these tattered old photos; rather, these young faces are covered in smiles. There is laughter amidst great adversity.

These old and older veterans, past enemies…Austrian, American, German, French, British…looking now at the photos and telling the stories…they smile faintly and shake their heads from side to side. You can see that in a moment, there is something else that only they can see and hear; something different has come back to them…something that has wrenched away the moment of fond rememberance. You can see it. I see it  in Heinz’s eyes and am struck by the suddenness of change. Like Heinz, the old warriors clench their trembling lips, furrow their foreheads and then, ever so silently, begin to cry. Their voices tremble and crack…yet it is not hidden away. There is no pretense…no shame…For Heinz, at this moment, I am not there. He is alone within, amidst events that have already come to pass. I cannot know them all, for they are the deep, hidden, bittersweet chapters that, only in the latest years of life, are being revisited.

Most have been surpressed; not even the closest beloveds have known of them. Yet, for some like Heinz, whose futures are reckoned in but a handful of years, the seal is broken, the door swings ever so slightly open, and the ever-alive memories cascade to the willing ear. These stories from an old Kamerad, however inconsequential or mundane, are to be listened to with patience and grace. As a career officer of another generation, I can still identifyand understand. I believe that is why Heinz trusts me with his most cherished memories. That is why Heinz and I sit in his Stueben; he talks…I listen.

For now, with the moments of almost visceral joy from the mercifully cleansed memories of the brotherhood of men at arms, comes forth the many heart-wrenching tales of great loss. Friends, some very dear…fallen… lost…. Another yellowing photo is slid across the wooden table for me to see. Young smiling faces, proudly uniformed during better days….all that remains are the stilled small voices that once cried out in youthful laughter and boasted bravado, that told a whincingly bad joke and later in a quiet moment bespoke a melancholy homesickness. That yearned zealously for quick victory and a ticket home wher the sieger would be feted, fed, cleaned and bedded. To be able to close ones eyes in the blissful truly deep sleep that he or she had not had in many years. You see all of this in the worn faces of these old men, who for the most fleeting of moments are back there, and then, just as quickly in the next, are back here.

I saw this some years ago, as Susi and I sat with a member of her family in a small cafe in Vienna. He had been through the war, a Wehrmacht  Flag Officer, an Austrian General in charge of Kossak troops that were fighting with the German Army against the Bolsheviks. Yet, for so many decades, he spoke not an utterance about his experiences of that painful time.

We sat, sipping strong dark coffee and I mentioned that I was a senior Officer as well. There was that change…the Generals eyes seemed to open, his visage softened, his shoulders appeared to become even more erect. In me, he saw a fellow officer; someone with whom he could finally tell his story…someone who he believed might understand. The factual foundation for his story remains to be researched, but even as it stands in his mind’s eye, it is a harrowing tale.

The General had fought closely with his Kossak troops…their families…wives and children in tow as was the custom…for months against lines of fierce determined unyielding red troops. As the months went by and the situation for the Kossaks became increasingly untenable, the General knew that he, his troops and their families would have to surrender. Yet, he knew that if they surrendered to the Soviets, the Kossaks and their families would be viciously slaughtered. Thus, he and his troops sought out and arranged to surrender to nearby British troops.

In doing so, the General did not realize that he had consigned his troops to certain death. Unbeknownst to so many of these soldiers fighting on the eastern front was that Roosevelt and Churchill had already signed a pact with Stalin whereby, despite being promised that they would be safe and secure in British hands,  all Kossak prisoners would never-the-less be handed over by the British without objection to Soviet troops. When the General and his Kossaks eventually surrendered to British troops, this, then, is what transpired. All German commanders were shipped to Gulags in the Soviet Union and not released until 1955, a full 10 years after the end of the war. It is said that most of the Kossaks…soldiers, their families…their children…were outright executed by Soviet troops or died whilst being held in Gulags.  This incident was later described in a harrowing read with the title, The Betrayal of Yalta (Die Verratenen von Jalta) by Nikolai Tolstoy. This was the first time that the General had spoken of this in very many years. He looked deeply into my eyes as he spoke…but he did not see me. He was back there and then, old wounds reopened, humiliation, defeat..the same types of young battle hardened smiling faces…all gone…all gone.

I did not see the General again after that one meeting. He died some years not long thereafter. I am glad I was there to listen.

I leave Heinz and make my way back to the Ulrichskirche. I look at the scarred old wooden side doors as if for the first time. Yes…the mortar shell holes are there, the 18th and 20th centuries meeting as deeply incised wounds. The doors and their scars will soon be replaced by new freshly carved and painted doors that will come with the ongoing restoration of the church.

What will happen to the old doors…the still solid parts of memories transcendent…permanently scarred by violent encounter, and for decades thereafter opened and closed each day with the most tender reverence? Will they be chopped for firewood, cast away to rot in the forest, preserved in the village museum? Whatever their fate, these doors….like these old young men and women who have entered and departed the ancient portal they protected for the past three centuries will soon be but beloved whisps of times not so very long ago.

And what of our old friends and neighbors, who have lived through such times that we younger folk can neither imagine nor begin to understand. Some of us will listen continue to listen intently to this living history…..record as much of it as possible, and then to watch as the tired voices become still, the glisten fade from their eyes, and eventually, we will bid our alte Kameraden a sad final farewell. Then, in the years to come, we will take out and gaze at our own fading photos…and  smile… and cry.

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