By: Ruth Deming
My name is Hans Ulbrecht. At age eighty-nine I cry myself to sleep every night. I have never married. How could I? My kin would have the DNA of a once-despised Nazi assassin. When I was twenty-two, our family was ordered to maintain our farm, but also take possession of the house of a family of Jews after they were deported to Dachau. I have tried, after the war, to become worthy to live in their beautiful home. And pray they will forgive me.
We were mandated to hate. Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, the mentally infirm.
Brainwashed at the age of seventeen, I dutifully believed every word The Fuhrer said. I will not blemish these pages by stating the former paperhanger’s full name.
What a lark of a life we led before the National Socialist Party came into power. Mama, Papa, Anneke, Hedwig, and me, little Hans, lived on a small dairy farm on the outskirts of Dresden, famous for its opera house. On weekends, the five of us, plus our black terrier, Fritzi, sat in the parlor listening to our glistening new Blaupunkt radio. Mama would serve her apple strudel with caramel sauce and we’d all have a warm glass of fresh milk in big blue cups. I still remember licking the froth off the top. Such milk as this you have never tasted. Papa’s cows grazed on grass as green and soft as a velvet cushion.
As a boy of six, I fell in love with Wagnerian opera, and you might hear me humming “Beglückt Darf Nun Dich” from the Pilgrim’s Chorus of Tannhauser. “Hallelujah” cries the chorus towards the end. As I write, memories engulf me, as if they were hidden away in a vault and have suddenly sprung free.
Mama and Papa were strict. Bedtime was at eight o’clock. Anneke, with her golden braids, and Hedwig, who, although two years younger, could have been her twin, and I, also a tow-head, all slept in one large bedroom. If our parents heard a peep from us, they’d scream from the living room. It wasn’t unusual for father to come in and say, “Do I have to take off my belt?” Then he’d order us to turn over onto our bellies, and whip our legs a few times. The girls always howled, but I kept the stiff upper lip, though, in truth, I always bit the inside of my mouth till it bled.
I suppose you can guess what happened next. The Blaupunkt, which Mama dusted every day until it shone like glass, soon began broadcasting the nervous staccato bellowing of the Fuhrer. Words can’t describe how much we hated him in the beginning. The comical-looking man with the tiny mustache like the bristles on a toothbrush, always clad in a well-pressed soldier’s uniform, entered our living room like a despised rat with a long tail but somehow he wormed his way into our lives. From extreme hatred to admiration. That’s the effect he had on nearly everyone.
We discussed the man and his politics at Saint Paul’s Catholic Church we attended every Sunday. Practically to a man, we all began to agree with him. The Von Iden Family were the exception and voiced loud disapproval.
“The man is power-hungry,” they said, as we stood outside the white-painted church with thick columns, “and he won’t be content until he’s killed off all his enemies. You watch and see.”
We muttered that Von Iden was an ignoramus and just waiting to say, “I told you so.”
This was months before the famous “Night of the Long Knives” where the Fuhrer effectively massacred all his enemies, even the ones he’d feigned were his friends. A sort of fratricide. As if I took it into my head to kill my darling older sisters, my playful Anneke and more serious Hedwig, who loved nothing more than to read us all a good book like “Emil the Detective.”
The overwhelming pugilism of the Fuhrer spread like spilled ink and he had the ridiculous idea that like, Alexander the Great, he would conquer the world, starting by uniting Germany and Austria, where he’d been born in Braunau Am Inn, in small apartments above a tavern.
How we wept when Papa was drafted into the military. Mama helped him pack a huge green duffel bag and we all waited, one rainy morning, for a large black government sedan that finally whisked him away to be trained and then fight for the Rhineland.
Would we ever see dear Papa again?
Eagerly, we tore open his letters, which assured us he was still among the living. He wrote at least once a week and when we hadn’t heard from him for seventeen days we were wild with panic, until the letter came, reading, “I’ve been in hospital, with some kind of dreadful fever and cough. Truly, I thought God would take me, but he had mercy on me and I am full better now and back into the fields again, Lord have mercy.”
When I turned sixteen, a telegram arrived for me. I, too, was conscripted into the German army. If Mama howled when Papa was taken away, her cries were thrice as loud when her baby Hans was about to leave.
Promising to write, I kissed her rouged cheek and kissed my sisters. How would they run the farm? “We can do it, Hans,” said Anneke, with sad tearful eyes. “We will be fine and will see you and Papa, too, in a year or so, after the war is over. We’ll be a family again. You will see.”
Sixteen years old. No more strolling about the farm, looking out at the vast expanse of the green grass and the lazy cows grazing with their long rough pink tongues, and staring up at the winking stars in the night, where lived the real truth of the universe. Did the stars hate? Did they bleed from battle wounds? Were they as frightened as a sixteen-year-old boy who loved to play chess and soon would have to play-act he was a soldier?
Quickly I forgot about home and morphed, like Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis we had read in upper school, into a soldier. I must confess I loved the rough training, crawling in the mud, getting filthy dirty, running for miles with my rifle above my head, smelling of manhood, and then standing at attention while Captain Muller evaluated each one of us. I rose up the ladder of promotion, young Hans, all of seventeen now, and I was a proud soldier of the Third Reich.
I even found myself thinking I might rise to the rank of general. General Ultrecht, with medals strapped across his chest. Little Hans, I laughed to myself, as I imagined joining the legends Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte and our own Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox.”
Captain Muller liked me, I could tell, as he often patted me on the shoulder and once said, “You’ll go far, my boy. You have the instincts of a fine soldier.”
Smart in his black beret, khaki jodhpurs and tall black boots, he gave each one of us a newly minted copy of Mein Kampf, written by our Fuhrer, when he was imprisoned for nine months for the Beer Hall Putsch. Eagerly, we read the thick book, written in two volumes, during spare hours in our bunks.
“Listen to this, Ernie,” I said from my lower bunk, then jumped off to read the Fuhrer’s words. “’If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.’” I paused. “And this, ‘What luck for rulers that men do not think.’”
I’d marked off the words with the same blue fountain pen with which I wrote my family back home.
Ernie sat up in his bunk. “Hitler is a genius. That’s why we follow him. The man is a thinker, a philosopher.”
“An evil genius,” I said to myself, not daring to say it aloud. I might be shot like Waltzer, a small pimply youth with thin legs who couldn’t keep up with the rest of us.
Captain Muller said to him one day, “You’re one of the undesirables Hitler talks about. You don’t deserve to live.”
He lifted up his rifle, aimed it at Waltzer’s gray face, let him tremble a few moments as he put his skinny arms up in front of himself, and then Boom-boom-boom, three shots to the chest and Zuckerman crumpled like a dead insect to the ground.
“Let that be a lesson to you,” said the captain, angrily. “Get rid of him.”
“What shall we do with his body,” we asked.
“Figure it out,” snapped the colonel. “I don’t give a damn. Salvage everything he’s wearing including the dog tags and watch.”
After training, we practiced our maneuvers every day while awaiting orders for our first engagement in battle. When I looked into the mirror, I saw a handsome man with short-cropped light brown hair, and a body that rippled with muscle like the former weakling, Charles Atlas, from America.
Early in the morning of the first of September, I arose just before sunrise and gazed out the barracks door. What a beautiful day this would be – the sunrise lay tickling the horizon in pinks and oranges – I’d write letters to the family, play chess with friends, and read a bit.
It was not to be.
I had fallen back asleep when the piercing sound of a bugle woke up the sleeping men, far earlier than usual. Major Schleisel strolled up and down the barracks with a megaphone announcing the plans.
“You will get dressed, but quickly. Breakfast will be brought in and you will eat as much as you can. Dress for battle.”
A huge cheer went up.
“I cannot tell you where we’re going, only that it is up north.”
“Poland!” cried out a few voices.
After stuffing myself with lukewarm oatmeal, two chocolate bars, and tasteless coffee, I joined the others in the chilly outdoors. What had been a quiet and contemplative morning when I went out alone earlier, was now humming with activity: the barking of orders from the officers, huge green armored tanks caked with mud which were slowly crawling across the ground like giant turtles, and trucks, sedans and roof-less cars which would carry the soldiers to the battle ground.
We piled into a huge vehicle. Nervous energy and wild cackling laughter spun through our car. Which ones of the wonderful friends I’d gotten to know during infantry training would distinguish themselves in battle today, or join mother earth.
“How ya feeling, Farmboy?” they asked me. We all had nicknames that stuck.
“I’m feeling like I wanna drill holes in as many bad-ass Polackes as I can and send them home to their fat greasy mamas,” I laughed.
The mood was cheerful as we traveled toward what we believed was the border between Germany and Poland.
We talked about Polish women. None of us but “The Saint” had any experience with them. “Oh, I tell you, boys,” she was a beautiful woman. “A cousin who came to visit us on our farm. Walked with her breasts in front of her like she was steering a boat.”
We all laughed. “Maybe we’ll pay her a visit,” said my friend Ernie, who we called “The Stomach,” not because his was big, but because if anyone hadn’t finished their grub, we’d hand it over to Ernie, who thanked us as he swallowed the burnt bacon, lumpy oatmeal, half-cooked potatoes and raw onions. We knew, of course, that food would become scarce once we were on the battle fields. We knew the concept, that is, but had no idea how it would finally play out.
I cannot help but remember when we came home from school at our farm. The three girls and myself would throw our books down on the dining room table and cry, “Mama! Mama! We are starving.”
I laughed now at the memory and the new knowledge I’d gained through Anneke’s letters that our family, The Utrechts of Rathen, were ordered to grow food for the German Army. Old men and old women, not fit to serve, were ordered at gunpoint to rise early and till the fields. They were given onions and potatoes to plant, and carrots and beets.
“Oh, Hansi,” Anneke would write in her letters, “I wish you were here to point your rifle at the terrible taskmasters who demand so much from poor tired Mama, Hedwig and me. Only Fritzi gets off easy.”
It was through her letters that I knew Papa was all right. She had no idea where he was.
We were on the offensive. The best of all situations. We would not be surprised by our enemy. Instead, we were surprised by combat. Real combat. It was as different as playing toy soldiers back at the farm – pow! pow! you’re dead! – we could stop when we wanted – and now, hearing the fast and powerful brrrip – brrriip – brrip – of machine guns all around us, we ran with our heavy backpacks across uneven land. Sirens whined and thick black smoke spiraled into the air.
I watched the Polish soldiers fall. We had surprised them and it was almost as if they hadn’t brushed the sleep out of their eyes and must now fight for their lives. All emotion vanished, my training took care of that, and I fired at all these early morning risers, while feeling the comfort of my fellow soldiers doing the same thing.
The first man I ever killed had been running, or should I say stumbling, out of a doorway. I could almost see his young face. He was an easy target. His mouth opened in shock and pain as he fell, first onto his side, and then turning over and lying with his face turned up to the smoke-filled air.
This was the job of the warrior, though now, sixty years later, I ask the Polacke’s forgiveness. This man whose future had been eradicated by Little Hans. If it had not been me, it would have been by someone else.
When the battle was finally over, Captain Muller gathered us together in one of the bombed-out buildings. “We will sleep here tonight,” he said. “You performed like real soldiers.” He turned around and looked at us all, sixty-strong. “Not a single casualty. Most unusual. I deem you “My Daring Young Men.”
We lit a bonfire just outside the door to help light up the high-ceilinged rooms in what used to be a theatre, apparently. We began tearing open our food rations we took from our backpacks. Never had a tin of lousy mackerel tasted more delicious. My stomach began to rumble. When I finished eating, I prepared my sleeping bag, but wanted to take a little walk first, while a weak light still shone.
The air glowed from the residue of gunfire and explosions. Have I told you about the Luftwaffe? As our Daring Boys were parceling out death without mercy dozens of airplanes were doing the same thing. They swooped as low as crows and we could see the looks on the airman’s faces as they unloaded their shells onto the hapless soldiers and civilians.
We were not the ones to carry off the dead, but I had a need to see them. Soldiers, who had done nothing wrong except to be born on the other side, lay as if they were asleep, in the middle of a dream, but for the caked blood on their uniforms and the still-wet blood that leaked out from their young bodies.
It was the civilians, the citizens, of this Polish town whose name I did not know, that brought out a dreadful feeling of sadness. I walked around entire families, old grandfathers and grandmothers, mothers, their children, boys, girls and even infants. Lying with the last thoughts they would ever think. A few survivors sat huddled in one of the buildings. I walked over and peeked inside. A lovely young Polish woman who wore a bright green scarf on her head sat alone on the dirty floor. I stepped into the building and walked over to her.
“Freulein,” I said, for I knew not a word of Polish. “I wish you well.” From her place on the floor, littered with crumbled plaster and the remnants of wallpaper, and pipes that had crashed down in the artillery fire, she looked up at me. Never have I seen such hatred in a person’s eyes. She spat upon the floor. I looked down at her, the woman in the green scarf, and I nodded my head and slowly walked away. Yes, we had ruined her life and that of her family. What may have been her sweet disposition was changed in the course of one brutal morning on the first of September.
The Freulein had squeezed pity out of my Charles Atlas body for the last time. I was not interested in stealing anyone’s goods or raping and torturing ordinary citizens, but from that moment on, my emotions froze like a glacier. Never to be heard of again until many years after the war.
I must tell you I saw The Fuhrer one time and one time only. It was only a brief glance but it was enough. Enough to remember him until the end of my days. When our unit swept fast and brutal into Poland, the Fuhrer and his men stood on a little rise watching the battalions pour in. His right arm was outstretched, his brow furrowed as his head turned, watching the endless procession of the thousands of men he’d conned into doing his bidding. Back then, I admired the man, though the word “man” doesn’t seem to apply to him. He was unmarried, I knew, and spent every hour planning war maneuvers, the way a child plays with wood blocks or reads until it’s time to go to bed. Monster, aberrant being, sociopath, the devil incarnate are what we call him today.
This was 1939 and the war lasted until 1945. I rose to become Major Hans Utrecht. Ribbons were pinned upon my chest, though I never became a Bonaparte or a Caesar.
When I was transferred to another unit, I fought with our allies in Italy. My luck held firm, though comrades fell beside me. We stayed nearly a month in a city in Italy by the sea. There was plenty of free time. I wrote my letters, played chess, and ate good food that we appropriated from civilians in this warm climate. I swooned over such a simple thing as a slice of thick white bread with plum jelly or calamari smothered in olive oil.
Our prisoners of war stayed in buildings that used to be hotels and restaurants. Guards stood at attention at the door. Suddenly, three men escaped and attempted to swim across the sea.
What folly! It was absolutely impossible. Not even one of their many saints could intervene for them. I was assigned to the firing squad. We lined up the three men inside a court yard of a once luxurious hotel. Ten of us prepared to shoot the men, who were bound hand and foot and tied to thin wooden stakes. Black hoods were put over their heads. A sign of mercy, perhaps. As custom dictated, one of the shooters had blank bullets in his rifle. It didn’t matter to me if I was the one who had no bullets in my MP44 or not.
The volley of bullets quickly and efficiently killed this trio of men. It was interesting to see the order in which they dropped.
How would I have faced death if I were the one to die? I knew for certain. I was dead inside.
This hollow man cared about nothing when it was time to go home. Somehow I made it home. Rather to the home of the deported Jews, where our family had lived in unaccustomed undeserved splendor. Now the house was in ruins. The Americans, who flew in planes decorated with the five-point star, delighted in destroying all things of beauty and ceding misery across the land. Mama and the girls had restored some of it, so it was habitable.
Papa never came home. He had been captured, we learned, by the Russians, and killed in a Siberian prison camp by a firing squad for attempting to escape. Would I have felt anything had it been me who had been ordered to shoot my own father?
It took years for the emptiness to go away. I took to eating huge meals in order to fill myself up. It did no good. Sitting with Mama – the girls had married and left home – at the dining room table on the tattered red Oriental rug, I stuffed myself with bratwurst and sauerkraut, huge meatballs smothered in sweet and sour sauce, and drinking pints of stout and port, I grew fat with a big belly that made me look foolish.
Did I care? A priest I went to see, Father Albert, told me I was punishing myself for the “terrible things” I was “forced to do in the war.”
I found work in a small public library in town. Enjoyable work, which I did until I retired at age seventy. Mama had passed away years earlier. I was able to cry at her funeral, which I was glad about.
How many years shall I remain on this dreary earth which cannot comfort or heal me? I know not. The best thing I can do for myself, is sit out on the front porch in the evening. In my lap I hold the black and white photos of The Weinsteins, the people who owned my house. I shuffle them as if they’re a deck of cards and smoke my cigarettes, careful not to spill ashes on the family.
One evening in August I sat outside smoking and looking up at the stars. What a beautiful night it was. I blew a blast of smoke up toward Mars, the glistening red planet. I felt like a child again. Craning my head backward so I had an unimpeded view of the heavens, I found myself enjoying watching the stars and constellations just as I did as a boy. I was tired, damn tired, but refused to go inside. It was as if something or someone was enjoining me to look upward.
And there it was! A white shooting star that arced across the black sky. I cupped my hand as if I could catch it. I don’t know how long I sat out there. I must have fallen asleep, for when I awoke, dawn was breaking across the ancient fields. When I went inside the house, I felt joy – yes, joy – and peace that I hadn’t known since I was little Hans drinking fresh milk out of a blue cup. Or maybe it was a green cup. It all happened such a long time ago. The Lord of the Jews and the Christians, I believe, has forgiven me. Never had I dreamt it would happen. And when children come up to me, I tell them the truth about the war. We were all caught in a giant fisherman’s net and ached for escape. It finally happened after what seemed to be an eternity. I fall asleep now with a good book on my chest and no longer obsess on my past life. For that I say a thousand Hail Marys, as slumber closes my eyes.