Triumph and Tragedy


“I speak English,” he responded in a heavy accent and with a sharp edge in his voice that took me by surprise. It was unmistakably contempt. He stood up slowly and arrogantly, looking at me with a mixture of derision and condescension. Startled, I took a closer look at our prisoner, and I was rather unnerved by what I saw. His features were ordinary, except for a thin face and sharp nose. He was a couple of inches shorter than I was, and behind those studious-looking glasses were the coldest eyes I had ever seen in my life. As disconcerting as the eyes was the strange, faint smile on his lips. It was not a friendly smile. It was a smile that seemed to say that its owner had a secret, a secret that he had no intention of divulging but that was a source of great amusement to him. The sergeant told us to take him to a room on the second floor.

“Upstairs!” I said, indicating with my carbine that he should follow Dick up the narrow steps. Again, as he had done outside, he waited a moment, obviously to let me know he wasn’t going to jump at my command. As we started up the steps, he gave me another contemptuous glance with those cold eyes and that unpleasant little smile. It seemed to irritate him to be ordered about, and yet, in a perverse sort of way, it also seemed to amuse him. This was a puzzling situation. No other prisoner I had dealt with had acted this way. I was beginning to believe we had a rather unusual person on our hands. And I was beginning to regret having felt a moment of empathy with that person.

As we went up the stairs, one possible reason for his odd demeanor suddenly occurred to me. “This guy acts as if he once had a lot of authority,” I thought.

The upstairs room was big and cluttered with furniture. Other members of the section were already there, sprawled in chairs or on the floor. We took the German to one end of the room, and Dick, pointing to a chair, said, “Sitten Sie!” As he sat down, the man gave Dick the same hostile, arrogant look he had been giving me, but my friend didn’t seem to notice.

I asked a couple of the others to watch the prisoner for a few minutes and took Dick aside. I felt I had to share my suspicion with someone. “Dick,” I said, “there’s something odd about this guy! He acts very haughty, very superior. He acts more like an officer than an enlisted man. I have a feeling he isn’t what he seems to be.”

Dick shrugged. “Kraut noncoms have a lot of authority. Privates have to salute them and call them ‘sir,’ I think. He doesn’t like being ordered about by privates—that’s all it is. He’s just obnoxious. That’s not so unusual.”

I was unconvinced, but no one seemed concerned by the fact that the German prisoner had no identity papers. What more could be done? If I had gone to anyone of higher rank with my doubts, the answer surely would have been “Let the MPs worry about it!”

So we went back and sat down near our charge. For some reason, one of the more suspicious things about him seemed to have escaped our attention. That was the fact that his uniform didn’t fit very well. I suppose we didn’t wonder about it because, in the last weeks of the war, we were used to seeing people in all kinds of unusual and ragged apparel, both refugees and members of the Wehrmacht. But our prisoner’s clothes weren’t unusual or ragged; they just didn’t fit. Somehow it never occurred to us that he might be wearing someone else’s clothes.

Another odd circumstance did occur to me, but I didn’t attach much importance to it. That was the fact that he had surrendered by himself. This was unusual. The enemy almost always surrendered in groups—squads, platoons, companies at the beginning of the offensive and, near the end, battalions, divisions, armies—but almost never a single soldier.

Outside a light rain had begun falling. Our prisoner sat in a chair at one side of a desk, one arm resting on the desk, the sly, enigmatic smile still on his face. I noticed that his hands were clean, delicate, and manicured, like the hands of a woman.

We sat there in silence for a while, glancing at each other occasionally, and then, since this person spoke English, I asked if he thought the German army might make a last-ditch stand somewhere. He said he was certain that wouldn’t happen; the war would probably end in a few days. Dick joined in, remarking on the scenic beauty of both Germany and Austria, an observation with which the prisoner naturally concurred. He then asked us what our ethnic backgrounds were, and when told both of us had British and German ancestors, he seemed pleased.

The conversation turned to the postwar period. I asked what he thought should happen after the war. He suggested that what he termed the Aryan countries—Germany, Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, and the United States—form an alliance against the rest of the world, the non-Aryan world. Such an alliance could and should rule the world, he insisted. We thought this idea was preposterous and told him so. He was extremely displeased by our reaction, and the conversation died away.

After many minutes of silence he suddenly asked, “Are there any Jews in your company?”