- Historic Sites
“The So-called Charge Was Murder”
A young GI making the journey from war to peace, and from enmity to friendship, finds amid the most tremendous change smoldering embers of an old tyranny
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
In the spring of 1952, I, like many college graduates that year, received an official government letter whose contents we knew before the envelope was opened. Army basic training followed, with daily, almost hourly, assurances that in a matter of months we would be holding Korean hilltop positions, where Old Joe Chink, as the Army then liked to term the enemy, was momentarily expected.
There followed, in my case, some advanced training, during which time the Korean armistice was signed. Old Joe Chink vanished from all our minds, and I got orders for Bremerhaven, Germany. The troopship came in at night, and I remember my shock at noting that along the pier were lights indistinguishable from those at home. A moronic reaction, of course, but I, like all the other draftees, had been brought up in an atmosphere dominated by certain concepts about this place. Our childhoods had been lived with Germany always in the background, on the radio, in the movie newsreels, in the newspapers, Life magazine, Look magazine, Collier’s, Liberty , comic books. We had gone to grammar school and high school during the war, collected tin cans and scrap paper, seen our mothers shop with ration stamps, gotten war bonds for our birthdays, seen service stars in windows and uniforms everywhere, known a thousand war movies, remembered V-E Day and pictures of wrecked cities. Germany was a sinister, menacing place. It had severely wounded the boy my older sister would marry, killed one of her high school classmates, killed millions of others. Germany was Hitler, the Nuremberg trials. I had never heard of one single thing that seemed normal about the place. Hence my reaction to the lights.
We disembarked, were taken to a replacement depot, and then put on a train wending its way through the American zone toward Augsburg, Bavaria, and the 5th Infantry Division. All along the right of way there were bombed-out buildings or walls with no houses behind them. When we were distributed to our new units, I saw a familiar face from basic and advanced training. We hadn’t run into each other on the ship or in the train. George was from Chicago, a Northwestern graduate.
George, a fine physical specimen, big and a terrific athlete, had been raised a Christian Scientist. He told me that in some manner his mother had gotten a list of every Christian Science establishment in Germany and had made him promise that at the first opportunity he would go to church. Would I accompany him when our first passes were issued, that Sunday? Afterward we could look around Augsburg together.
With the aid of a map we fumbled our way to the church. The service had begun. We found two seats midway down the aisle. We didn’t understand a word of the service. When everybody rose and started putting on coats, we made for the door. George, a dutiful boy, had made good on his promise to Mom.
We were out in the street and walking away when a member of the congregation came hurrying after us to say in pretty good English that he welcomed us and wanted to introduce two other church members. They were interested in improving their English, he said, and wished to invite us to their home for tea the following Sunday. He produced a man and wife and three children, two little girls who curtsied to us and a little boy of eight, the eldest. The mother was a stand-in for Briinnhilde: tall, blonde, blue-eyed. The husband was an inch or so shorter than she, with a broadish face more Slavic-looking than German, wearing glasses. Her English was better than his.
There was quite some to-do about their explaining which trolley we took to get to their house. They showed us on our map. We parted, agreeing to come at four the next Sunday.
The rest of the day we walked around Augsburg, and on the following Saturday night we went back and ate dinner at a restaurant. By the end of that evening we had an impression of Germany. It appeared to be a supernaturally polite place. Wherever we went, people got out of our way, and many touched their hats as we passed. The very few private cars in the streets were little Volkswagen Beetles. There were thousands of people on bicycles and many trolleys. Often men asked for, or offered to buy, cigarettes. Whenever we purchased anything, postcards or a guidebook, we were thanked several times for our patronage and had the door held open for us when we left. We did not see a single girl who appealed to us in the slightest. The clothing people wore was unattractive in the extreme, bulky and illfitting. The women’s hats—and every woman wore one— were simply frightful. We saw almost no other soldiers.
Our hostess smiled her pretty smile in a nervous way and said, “Are you"—reaching for a dictionary—"broad-minded?”
Both of us had been brought up not to go empty-handed to people’s houses, so I asked a fellow in my section who’d been in Germany for about a year what we should take to our Sunday rendezvous. He told me pleasantly that there was hardly a girl in Augsburg who wouldn’t give you a piece of tail for a pound of American coffee. With our PX cards entitling us each to a monthly pound of coffee, we bought two and presented ourselves at the home of the church couple.
Their apartment, in a four-story stucco building, was tiny. There was no living room or parlor as such, just a chamber with a dining table almost filling it. Both little girls wore freshly pressed dresses, and the boy had on a tie. His father wore a suit. We took seats at the table. Our hosts placed a large German-English dictionary before them. Tea and cake were served.
Conversation was not easy, but it was pleasant. Our host was a solemn and shy man who seemed embarrassed when he couldn’t understand something we said and smiled in a inquiring way. Our hostess was bolder, laughing when she grabbed the dictionary, which she did every minute or so. I offered what German I had, and they kindly said I had excellent pronunciation. “ Prima! ” We went through some German vocabulary drill about things I pointed at. What’s the word for book? How do you say window?
About an hour and a half passed. I have never been one to carry pictures around, but George had a walletful and showed them his house, parents, sister, family car, dog, and himself with his buddies. He got onto his devotion to the Chicago White Sox, and we worked it out that they were the Weisse Socken . God knows what the couple got out of that.
When he ran out of pictures, they asked if we’d like to see their pictures. We said yes, and they produced a large album with themselves as children, their parents, their sisters and brothers, houses. Then there were school photos. Next our hostess made as if to turn over several pages at one time. I thought that perhaps she thought we were bored, which we were not, and said we wanted to see everything. She smiled her pretty smile in a slightly nervous way and said, “Are you"—and reached for the dictionary—"broad-minded?”
“Sure we are,” George said.
I believed that I understood what was coming. A fellow in the section had told me about Fasching , the pre-Lenten carnival season, very big in Bavaria. Beer flowed like water, he said, all the Germans got dressed up in costumes and wore funny masks, and things were really wild. Our very proper host and hostess, I reasoned, were embarrassed to have us see pictures of them in crazy outfits. “We are definitely broad-minded,” I said.
Wife and husband were sitting side by side across the table from George and me, with the album facing us. She turned a page. A formal portrait completely filled it. The elegance of the uniform proclaimed it at once as that of an officer. On the peaked cap there was a skull and crossbones. On the tunic collar were two figured slashes, each a stylized S.
I looked up into my host’s eyes. He had hardly changed. Perhaps there were a few slight wrinkles, and the glasses.
I don’t recall much more of the visit. We left soon after. They saw us to the door and out of the house to the sidewalk. I knew almost no German, but somehow I knew how to give a piece of information to this former SS officer in his own language. I think I got it from a movie. “ Ich bin ein Jude ,” I said. I am a Jew.
There are few people who visit Germany, even today, who do not at one time or another wonder precisely what the people they meet did in the war. Today those thoughts are centered on people with gray hak In 1953 they concerned Germans aged 35 or so. I used to ask such people. The answer was almost inevitable. They had never been Nazis I but had fought against the Russians. Any of our soldiers who asked got that reply. We used to wonder what the devil had slowed up the advance of our predecessors, the Americans who fought the war.
Our work, if you could call it that, involved riding around in a large truck whose rear compartment was lined with radio gear, a corporal commanding our team of five. We would be directed to some isolated spot where we would set up an antenna, hook it into the gear powered by a gasoline generator, and then do nothing, save for adding gas. Sometimes this went on for four or five days. Through our radios flowed a portion of the communications of our infantry regiment, which was usually four or five miles in front of us. We never listened in. We didn’t give a damn about observations exchanged between the upfront and rear-area commanders. In fact, we didn’t give a damn about our mission in Germany. The only time I can ever recall the matter coming under consideration was when a jeep driven by a corporal happened upon our remote outpost. We invited him into the back of the truck to warm up and learned he was attached to 7th Army headquarters, had delivered a colonel somewhere, and was on his way back. That he dealt with demigods put him in a different category from anyone we knew. He talked of how if the Russians in their millions moved against our 250,000 or so troops, it was hoped we could maintain a fighting retreat for perhaps 10 days before being completely annihilated. This happy depiction of our fate, while entirely logical, did not recommend itself for later discussion. None of us thought the Russians were really coming anyway, despite our spending 10 or 12 days a month in the field preparing for just that possibility. It was not the next war but the last one that dominated our thinking. That, weekend passes, keeping as far as possible from our horrible sergeant, and gossip about the section. We lived a very sequestered, incestuous existence, un“cquainted with anyone who wasn’t in our platoon, never knowing any of the other members of our company. For the regiment we cared not a whit, and the division commander I saw once in my life, when we marched past him in a big review.
I pointed to the word Nazi in the text and asked what that meant. Max said he didn’t know. “Come on, come on,” I said.
The Germans all around us we generally looked on with good-humored contempt. What kind of people was it, soldiers asked, who began a war and lost it; who produced children appearing to have no other aim in life but to scream, “ Kaugummi, bitte! "—chewing gum, please!—as our truck rumbled through a town; whose women were purchasable for a couple of beers and a couple of packs of cigarettes and maybe five marks, $1.25 at the then rate of exchange; and whose men were uniformly so pathetic, so obsequious? The dvi!i?n employees who performed KP and groundskeeping operations at the post sometimes actually bowed when a soldier passed.
Yet this was Germany, which had dominated the world’s thinking for years, mythic and monstrous. I began to read. Never a good student at college, a nonstudent, really, my four years showing not a single “A,” I devoured the modern history section of the post library. In my previous life I had almost never read anything but fiction; now I never opened a novel (?.nd in fact never much would again) but went through book after book on Nazism, the First and Second World Wars, and biographies and autobiographies of the leading players.
I suppose a compulsive ingestion of the memoirs of Franz von Papen or the history of the Weimar Republic might have struck my fellow soldiers as odd when it went on night after night in the Day Room, as they played pool and Ping-Pong, and in our truck all day long when we were in the field. I came in handy, however, I think they thought, when there were linguistically involved negotiations to be carried out relative to the trading of C rations or cigarettes for wurst and cheese or the ordering of gasthaus meals. And I could more or less translate when kids came around to our truck, as they always did. I remember one boy, Max, very sweet and always smiling, who attached himself to us during one exercise, faithfully showing up afternoons after school to perform his self-appointed duties of sweeping up and emptying ashtrays and carefully washing mess gear and the shovels we used for digging holes in the woods when nature called. We loaded him down with gum and chocolate and gave him cigarettes for his father, and he in turn brought almost black beer from the brewery whose delivery vehicle, he explained, his father drove, the bottles with ceramic caps and rubber stoppers secured by a metal snap. Once I was reading a biography of Hermann Goering when he looked over my shoulder. “Who’s that, Max?” I asked, showing a picture of the Reichsmarschall and Luftwaffe chief. He said he didn’t know.
“ Nein ?” I asked. “ Wirklich ?” No? Really? I pointed to the word Nazi in the text and asked what that meant. Max said he didn’t know. “Come on, come on,” I said. He repeated that he didn’t know. I insisted that he did, and my voice must have turned rough, for I became aware that the other soldiers were regarding me strangely. Max’s perpetual smile had faded away. I told him to forget about it. I remember thinking, Hell, he’s only a kid. But he’s a German also. Some- one grabbed Max and held him upside down by the ankles, and then, screaming with laughter, he was slung back and forth from soldier to soldier around the truck. I did not join in.
In time I came to realize that it was very likely, in fact, that the boy didn’t know the name of Adolf Hitler. It was almost never mentioned by Germans. When they referred to their former leader, it was as he . Once in Berlin on leave they had seen him . Just before the war he had driven through their town. So Max of course knew nothing. But the former SS officer at whose table I had taken tea? Is there, after all, has there ever been, a movie about a Nazi Germany that didn’t feature a murderously bloody-handed SS officer? Can any book on Germany’s atrocities of 1933 to 1945 fail to mention Heinrich Himmler’s elite guard, the Schutzstaffel , SS?
To George, the couple we had visited were pleasant people, fellow Christian Scientists who had been very nice to us. He was after me to go back. I declined to do so. Of what I suppose might be called a privileged background, which in the 1930s meant an extremely protected childhood, from a completely nonreligious family, and never bar mitzvahed, I still could not possibly be unaware of what Germany, and SS officers in particular, had done to Jews. But one Saturday I told George I’d join him in another visit. I don’t know why I changed my mind.
We stopped at the PX, got coffee and some gum for the kids, and went to the house. We walked up and found the two little daughters playing on the sidewalk. They dropped us curtsies and dashed inside. Their parents came rushing out. It was hard to believe they weren’t genuinely happy to see us. They said they and the children were just preparing to go visit relatives who lived a short distance off. We must join them.
We demurred. They insisted. We accompanied them to the home of the lady’s brother, who lived with his wife and two kids 10 minutes away. When we entered, the brother’s wife looked as if she was ready to faint at the sight of our uniforms. Her sister-in-law handed her a pound of our coffee. She took it, and years later she told me that it was such coffee as she had not tasted since 1943 or 1944, when things started going against Germany.
The brother, speaking in German, for neither he nor his wife had a word of English, asked me to join them in a glass of schnapps. Otherwise, he indicated in humorous fashion, he would have to drink alone, for his wife didn’t drink and everyone else was a Christian Scientist, and drinking alone was the sign of a bum, a Halunke . We learned that both men were managers at a nearby textile mill, that each came home for lunch each day on a bicycle, and that they worked Saturdays until midafternoon. I asked if the brother had been in the war. Yes. He had been an army first lieutenant. He got out pictures of himself, including one large one showing him at the head of a detachment marching through a city street. Familiar German architecture filled the background. The buildings were draped with swastikas, and people in the street watching the parade held swastikas in their hands.
At one point George left the room for a moment, and the brother spoke to me earnestly. Whatever he was saying was too complicated for me to grasp. I looked over to his sister. “He says,” she translated, “that this is amazing, that here you sit in American uniform drinking schnapps with him, while a few years ago he immediately kills you.”
My reply did not seem hilarious to me, but it flung them all into paroxysms of laughter: “Not if I see him first.”
After that George and I regularly dropped in on Karl and Luise, with whom we got on a first-name basis although I never heard them address anyone else but the brother and sister-in-law that way. We listened to music on their radio, played with the children, went with them to little fairs and carnivals, played chess with Karl, who was very good, and had Luise sew on our stripes when we got promoted. One evening I dropped in alone. All our units had been out on a big-time field operation, 10 days in the worst kind of weather, and for some unfathomable reason my truck had gotten orders to go back to base and stand down.
I grabbed a boiling hot shower, the joy of which after 10 days of washlessness I can scarcely describe, and took myself off to Augsburg’s best restaurant, the Fuggerkeller, located in what had been one of the palaces of the Fuggers, the great merchant prince family of southern Germany during the Late Middle Ages. I need hardly describe the pronunciation our troops gave to their name. The palace, a city block long, had been severely damaged during the war and was uninhabitable, but in the old whitewashed arching wine cellars great meals were now offered. The waiters wore white tie and tails and white gloves. With a Steinh‰ger to begin, wine with, and schnapps after, the meal cost about what today would buy a drink of premium Scotch at a good New York City bar.
Afterward I went to Karl and Luise’s to report happily that here I was while George was sleeping in the snow, where he belonged. It would be well if the whole regiment stayed out another week or so, I remarked. It would help build their character. Karl and Luise praised such kindly concern for my fellow soldiers, and Luise said that actually there was some truth in what I had said. All experiences build character. Karl said he agreed. In his own case, he said, his three years in prison were valuable to him. Three years in prison? This was news to me. Yes, he went on, after the war he had been in prison.
“As he has been an SS Obersturmfüfuhrer ,” Luise explained. “It was"—she took up her dictionary—"it was automatic.”
“When I was told I must be three years in prison,” Karl said, “I told myself, ‘Yes, this is right. For three years I was a guard at a prison; now it is right that I am a prisoner.'”
I was fresh from a meal liberally accompanied by alcohol and slow on the uptake. “Guard at a prison?” I asked.
“Yes. When I entered the SS, in 1936,1 was a simple soldier. Only later did I become an officer. I served as a guard. I was very happy when the war came, in 1939, and I could transfer from the prison into the Waffen SS.” That meant the fighting SS, not the home SS, which would have manned what he called a prison.
“Do you mean a concentration camp?” I asked.
“What concentration camp?”
Three years at Buchenwald.
“Terrible things happened there,” I said.
“Yes. Most of the time I worked in the office. But sometimes we of the office did terrible things.”
“Most of the prisoners were Jews?”
“Women and children, men?”
“I suppose most of them died then, or in the war?”
“I am sure.”
It was very quiet in the room. The children were in bed. I said what came into my mind in English. Karl did not understand and looked over to Luise, and she translated: “If they came back to life, they might spit in my face.”
A month or so later George tried out for a tennis tournament to be held at the Army’s recreation center in southern Bavaria. A former Northwestern varsity player, he did well, and he was given orders for four days’ temporary duty, detached service, playing tennis. We had together visited Karl and Luise a few times since the Buchenwald discussion, but the matter hadn’t been referred to. Now again I went over by myself. I found the three children alone in the care of a young woman who spoke not a word of English and who I gathered was a remote relative. Where were Karl and Luise? Karl had met with an accident. He had fainted the day before while riding his bicycle and fallen off. He had been taken unconscious to a hospital. Luise was there with him now.
Was this, I asked, connected with his war wound? He had an indentation below his hairline, and he had mentioned he sometimes suffered dizzy spells. The young woman said the wound was re- sponsible. I asked where the hospital was. Her description of how to get there was unending. I asked if the son of the family, Karl-Ludwig, could guide me there on the trolleys. The boy said he could. The boy—today he is a Herr Doktor sociology professor, and his sisters are a therapist and a musician and music teacher—got me to the hospital.
The nurses seemed stunned to see an American soldier. I was led through long high-ceilinged wards and deposited at Karl’s bedside. Luise had a tense look. Her husband’s face was partially bandaged and discolored on one side. He had been going around a corner when all went blank and he hit the curbstone face forward. Unshaven, without his glasses, staring-eyed, he suddenly looked to me like the SS officers of Hollywood’s movies and Europe’s nightmares.
We talked for a while, and then I said I’d be off. Luise saw me to the end of the ward’s hall. I had no idea if textile mills continued injured employees’ salaries, or what the situation was concerning hospital bills, and she had three children to feed. I took out my wallet. To offer money meant no sacrifice. I could always borrow enough in the barracks to get me through to payday. “No, no, we are quite all right,” Luise quickly said, and she hastily turned and went back through the ward. A few days later, when I visited their apartment with George, back from his tennis—Karl was recuperating at home by then—she took me aside and told me that when she had gone back to his hospital bed and told him, he had cried.
On my next to last day Luise asked, “Would you like to meet an SS officer who has not changed at all since 1945?”
In late 1954, my term of service, and George’s, came to an end. We went home, he to enter his father’s business and eventually take over and expand it. I became a newspaper reporter. In the summer of 1960 I went to Europe as a tourist. I had written to Augsburg that I would take a cab from the railroad station upon arrival from Paris and would be at the house at such and such a time. But when the train pulled into the familiar Bahnhof , I saw the family lined up waiting.
I spent a week at the house, sleeping in Karl-Ludwig’s room while he stayed with a neighbor. I rented a car for two days and we took trips, once to the grave of Luise’s father, which she had never had a chance to see before. She had always spoken of him with reverence. He had been a teacher. In the last months of the war he had been taken into the army, where, old and not well, he had contracted a disease and died. By his grave she spoke of him to his grandchildren he had never known and then sank to her knees. It had been pitiful to take him into the army, she said. “Why did they do it?” she asked brokenly.
Four years later, in 1964,1 was back again. I had quit newspapering and written a book the great good fortune of which commenced a career that would never again see me take a regular job. My time in Europe could be as long as I wished, and there was a new Jaguar to pick up in London. I had a raft of writing assignments, including one for this magazine on the haunted and graveyard-strewn Western Front of the First World War 50 years after troops began to march and guns began to fire. Through late summer and into the fall I tramped the former lines, did research on other stories. Then I made for Augsburg and the family’s new house in the city’s suburbs, where I took residence in the basement, occasionally going off on research trips.
We went out to bountiful meals each Sunday and took a four-day drive through Switzerland, the first time the girls were out of their country and the first time they ever stayed in a hotel. Three months passed. It was very pleasant.
Winter was upon us. The children and their friends and I had great mass snowball fights. I had been in Europe more than half a year when I announced I’d be sailing off to the French Riviera to spend some time there before sailing with the car from Cannes. On my next to last day Luise asked, “Would you like to meet an SS officer who has not changed at all since 1945?”
“SS officer not changed since 1945? Yes.”
“We can go tonight.”
After our light dinner—in the German manner the main meal was at midday—Karl and Luise and I drove to the man’s house, which was similar to theirs, brick with a little rear garden. I was introduced to Herr und Frau Schubert. “I am very glad to meet you, Mr. Smith!” our host said, in almost accentless English. His wife, I soon saw, did not speak a word of the language. We sat down and chatted. Slightly overweight but with quick gestures and physical vivacity, Mr. Schubert was an enthusiastic speaker who ended many of his sentences with an exclamation point. His wife poured coffee into lovely old cups. The days were gone when the PX’s Chase & Sanborn, or Maxwell House or whatever it was, con- stituted a great treasure. Mrs. Schubert produced an unending flow of really magnificent, vastly caloric pastries. Ten years earlier, when Luise served the evening meal, there had been nothing like that.
“Your English is the best I’ve ever heard in Germany, Mr. Schubert,” I remarked with complete truth. Even his slang was perfect.
“Well, thank you. But then, for seven years I had absolutely nothing to do but study it.”
“Nothing but study English for seven years?”
“Yes. I was imprisoned by the Americans. I wore the red jacket. Do you know what that means?”
“Mr. Smith!” he said. “Germany was at war! You are a historian. You will be interested in these matters and understand.”
I did not.
“Ah, well. Prisoners condemned to die wear a red jacket.”
He was looking at me expectantly. I asked the obvious question.
“Ah!” he cried. “For nothing! I was condemned for nothing!”
“But what was the charge?”
“The so-called charge was murder.”
“The murder of whom?”
“Some Jews, Gypsies, partisans, and so forth.” His wife urged me to take some more pastries. They were wonderful, I told her.
“So you didn’t murder anyone then?” I asked.
“Murder!” He laughed derisively. “Never. They were killed, but not murdered.”
“How were they killed?”
“This was where?”
“In Russia. We had the job of guarding supply lines. Jews, Gypsies, partisans, and so forth used to harass us, and we had to deal with them, you see.”
I was thinking of the trial procedures I had seen as a reporter. “There must have been one specific, indictable incident,” I said.
“Oh, yes. It took place at—” He named a place I had never heard of and that I have forgotten.
“How many were shot?”
“Oh, around 20, 22. Around that.”
“Well, how were they shot, these 20 or 22?”
“They dug a trench, and we used two light machine guns.”
“Did you handle one of the weapons?”
“No. I was an officer, Hauptsturmführer . Captain.”
“You gave the order?”
“No, that was for my Scharführer . Sergeant. He got the Jews, Gypsies, partisans, and so forth, had them dig a trench, and came and told me everything was ready. I had my office in some sort of little place that had been a municipal building of some type, and I went out, stood next to him, and told him to go ahead. He then ordered the men to fire.”
“Was he condemned to wear the red jacket also?”
“No, he was later killed. But that’s beside the point. I was the officer. It was my order and my responsibility. The Jews, Gypsies, partisans, and so forth—”
For the only time in the course of the evening I displayed emotion. “Mr. Schubert,” I said, “why keep repeating the phrase? Can’t you just say ‘the people'?”
“Yes, yes, of course! The people,” he said eagerly. “Well, the people had been collected, we had about 40 or 45, and our supply lines had been interfered with, so I told him to take half, the 20 or so, and shoot them.”
“If you had them collected, how could they have interfered with the supply lines?”
Apart from the two of us, no one else did any talking. Karl and Luise were entirely silent. “Do you mean,” I said, “that these 20 or 22 were shot for something they didn’t do?”
“But where did you get these people? Just picked them up off the street and kept them ready until something happened to the supply lines?”
He laughed. “You’ve never been to Russia. One doesn’t find many streets there. But yes, that’s the general idea. They were hostages, you understand. Examples.”
I was more than a decade away from being the ex-college boy who had arrived in Germany on a troopship. I had read a lot about precisely the subject we were discussing. But I felt a little dazed, almost dizzy.
“Did they face you, or did you have them turn their backs?”
“My men aimed for the back of their heads.”
“Did you take their names?”
“No, never did that.”
“Did you talk with them?”
“Talk? What about?”
We were interrupted when a boy of around 15 came into the room. Introduced to me as the Schubert son, he said in schoolboy English that he had seen the Jaguar and had hoped to be offered a ride. He helped himself to a plate of pastries and went upstairs.
We recommenced our talk. “I thought it was usually cold in Russia,” I said. “Wasn’t it difficult for them to dig the trench?”
“It wasn’t always cold. Sometimes it was very warm. But when the ground was frozen, we simply stacked them up somewhere and waited till spring.”
“So this sort of thing, then, it went on year-round?” Something must have sounded in my tone, for it became his turn to show emotion.
“Mr. Smith!” he said. “Germany was at war! You are a historian. You will be interested in these matters and understand. Have you ever seen young girls, Mr. Smith, young German girls, nurses, 20 years old, have you ever seen such girls crucified up against the side of a barn, hammered on?”
“No, Mr. Schubert, you know I never have.”
“No. Of course you have not. But this is what we saw! Jews, Gypsies, partisans, and so forth had done this, you understand, and it was our duty to stop them!”
It came into my mind that he could not realize I was Jewish. But it seemed inconceivable that Karl and Luise would have neglected to tell him. “You know I’m Jewish, Mr. Schubert?”
“Did you ever know any Jews, except for the ones you ordered shot?”
“Certainly. My first boss, Dr. Wolf, the attorney, in Berlin. I was the office boy. ”
“What happened to Dr. Wolf?”
“He left Germany around 1938. Dr. Wolf was a fine man. A very fine man. I was glad he got out.”
“Do you think he would believe you were unjustly condemned to wear the red jacket?”
“Certainly he would.”
“But people who had done nothing were killed! If you were innocent, who was guilty? Your Standartenführer ?” That was the SS term for colonel.
“My Standartenführer ? Of course not. How could he be guilty?”
“Field Marshal von Manstein?”
“Field Marshal von Manstein!”
“Well, who? Hitler?”
He considered the matter. “Hitler—maybe,” he said.
We had been talking for around two hours. I had not asked how it came about that he was tried on the specific act he had described, or why he was now free. I suppose I just didn’t think to do so. I looked over at Karl and Luise, and they said it was time we got going.
We all stood up. I offered my thanks to Mrs. Schubert for the lovely pastries and understood her to say that I resembled her brother. Would I like to see his picture? I said I would, and she left the room. I became aware of how silent and unmoving Karl and Luise and Mr. Schubert suddenly became. Mrs. Schubert returned in a moment and handed me a silver-framed portrait. I was expecting to see a photograph of someone of my own age but found myself looking at a boy who appeared to be around 17. He was in a German army enlisted man’s uniform. Across the upper corner of the picture was a wide black silk ribbon. I looked up and into her eyes.
“Eastern Front, 1944,” she said simply.
I looked down again. I supposed there was some slight similarity to my features as they had been when I was in high school. “Poor boy,” I said.
Her face immediately became very red, and her eyes filled up. She put out her hand and I took it, and awkwardly we moved toward the door, the picture in my other hand. It came into my mind that if I continued in this manner, I would be able to avoid shaking hands with her husband.
The car was at the curb. I held Mrs. Schubert’s hand while Karl and Luise shook hands with her husband, and then I occupied myself with opening the car doors. I relinquished the picture to Mrs. Schubert, said to her husband that I thanked him for his time, and got behind the wheel.
In the morning during breakfast the doorbell rang, and one of the girls admitted the Schuberts’ son. He greeted everybody and said to me, “My father hopes you can come to him again. There are more stories he wants to tell you.”
“Thank you, but I am going home,” I said.