A personal essay in which the ancestor of a German soldier during World War II yearns to come to terms with, and move beyond, atrocities long since past…
by: Jurgen Stahl
Mother had told me about old photos stored in her attic. “I never want to see them again,” she had said as she stared at the label on a shoe box, grimacing as if she had bitten on moldy cheese. “It’s all your grandfather’s rubbish that should be left alone.”
I could have thrown them all out after she died, unseen, together with the other junk of lives once lived. But here I was, surrounded by spider webs, breathing musty air. The only one in our family expected to clean up what remained in “The Fatherland.”
A yellowish, brittle document, folded into the size of a small envelope, was first. It fell apart when I opened it. A map of Eastern Europe. Crosses and circles in faded black ink marked places with strange names: Bialystok, Smolensk, Roslavl, Leningrad.
Granddad had been a soldier in the German army on the Russian front. One of millions ordered to invade yet another country like the locust plague they were. Curiously, as a little boy, nothing was more exciting than listening to his adventures in a strange cold place, told before bedtime in my grandparent’s garden on balmy summer nights. Granddad was a crafty storyteller, my old man and I hung onto every one of his words. Tales of bravery, camaraderie, and standing up to nasty superiors, as dramatic as my favorite television shows.
”They surrounded us in the cauldron of Bialystok, and nobody thought we could escape alive, he had started one such tale that I remember to this day. It had sounded like Native Americans circling brave settlers in their wagon trains, pushed against the frontier.
Later, the stories darkened, and he spoke of actions that woke him up at night. The squealing of thousands of horses shredded by shells when the Polish cavalry charged German tanks. Comrades falling next to him in a country far away from their home. Soldiers stumbling over contorted corpses, arms frozen in the air, eyes congealed, faces left behind in the Russian Winter.
Years after I learned about what happened in the “East,” I asked him questions, and he answered with tears.
“What could I do? What could I do?” he mumbled.
I didn’t understand then. After all, he was just a brave soldier, doing what he had to do. Doing what he was told to do. Obeying orders, nothing else.
Soon, the stories came to an abrupt halt, and we did not speak of them anymore until after he died.
Now I held the map in my hand and remembered some names. Smolensk…Roslavl…
I opened a thick yellowed envelope, torn at its corners, as if someone had tried to rip it apart but changed their mind. It held faded photographs of days yore.
In the first photo men and women, young and old, were they lined up in a queue. Mothers carried their children in their arms. All were dressed in jackets and coats, some hefted large bags and suitcases. They stood as though queuing up for a train trip, but with no track or station anywhere. The faces appeared empty, void of smiles and yet barren of fear too, nothing. The second photo showed the same women and men, shot from further away. Trees filled the background burdened with patches of grey snow.
I sifted through more and more photos of the men, women, and children, stumbling into a gaping hole, one by one. Images that I had seen before in books and old black and white newsreels. Out-of-focus as they were, the blank faces were always the same. More photographs slipped through my fingers, a few sharp and clear.
“Leica lens technology at its best,” I whispered, swallowing the bitter tang in my mouth.
Why did Opa keep memories of these times? I wondered. To show me things that he was too afraid to tell me when he was still alive?
I continued to stare at the frozen past, resisting the urge to toss these lives back in the box and forget.
To tear them to pieces as someone else had thought to do before.
The last photograph displayed a Wehrmacht officer in his grey uniform, standing with his arms crossed over his chest at the edge of the pit. He appeared to be studying the people below him like anatomy specimens. I recognized his youthful face at once and turned it over.
“Smolensk Nov 1943.”
Much of my mother’s belongings landed in the rubbish bins that day, but the photos I burned in the kitchen sink and watched each one of them turn to ash, edges wrinkling first, then folding inwards as if embarrassed of what they revealed, then crumbling into black dust. A short, sharp chemical smell lingered for a moment.
I held my hands under the tap, rubbing and kneading, letting relief wash over me. But the images remained.
“There is another one, Dad,” my son said, coming up from behind me.
A crumpled picture with frizzled edges, half torn.
The same officer again, the same men and women below him, but there were other soldiers next to him, rifles in their hands, who appeared to be waiting.
“I found it in Grandma’s bedroom cabinet, among happier ones. What’s written on the back?” I never taught him enough German, never told him those stories.
I flicked on the lighter. What more was there to say? I now knew who he was. All this should just burn with the rest of them. My boy did not have to be burdened with this.
But I turned the photo over before the flame devoured it.
“No one will forget the shame we brought over those who come after us. Forgive us. Forgive me.” I whispered, struggling to decipher the pale letters.
We watched as the image turned to ash.
How could we?
Jurgen is German-Australian from Adelaide, South Australia. He is a medical specialist in anatomical pathology and writes about the people who spend their lifetimes in the medical world. His work has been published in the Flash Fiction Magazine (March, September 2021) and three micro-fiction stories will appear in The Centifictionist later in September 2021. He currently works on a novel that tells a story in the world of mortuaries, drug trials and human failure in modern medicine.