Nobody knew where we were heading, but rumors spread like fire in dry straw. “They will assemble us in one place, then exchange the whole lot for German prisoners held by the Allies,” some maintained. “Yes, they will get us together”— said the pessimists—“but use us as hostages. Hitler will ask in exchange that the Russians withdraw from Berlin.” “Hostages?” exclaimed Pierre. “You fools. They want us all to be in one spot so they can machine gun the whole bunch. I am telling you, if we had guts, we would escape.” “Why don't you?” someone asked. But Pierre was never one to answer embarrassing questions.
It was April 20, the Fuehrer's birthday (the last), and we were lying around in the sun, exhausted from the long night-march during which we had lost ten or twelve of our men. Above, in the clear blue sky, Allied and German planes were playing cat and mouse, but we were in relative safety, although in the middle of a hilly meadow. The planes were fighters; the bombers had already departed toward the south. The Bavarian morning was sharply cool, and we huddled together because our emaciated bodies offered no resistance to the penetrating wind.
“Mon Dieu, regarde!” Jean-Michel pointed excitedly to one of the big fighter birds coming down in flames. The others did not even turn their heads. Only Pierre asked: “Is it ours or theirs?”—but showed no real curiosity in finding out, for other problems filled our minds; why this sudden directive from H.Q. (wherever they were, at present) to all slave-work camps to converge on the nearest large concentration camp? Were the Germans really considering some last big deal? Were we pawns in their bargaining with the Allies? Or did they intend to liquidate us, just one minute before freedom?
Nobody knew, not even our guards. They were anxious too, and at least the older ones, the members of the Volksturm, wanted nothing more than to return home. Some of them could hardly carry the rifle on their stooped shoulders, and under the military garb they were, perhaps, just as fearful as we. But they still ate, their rations were still regularly issued, while we literally feasted on the fruits of the earth. A potato, some radishes, and occasionally some ugly brownish water, labeled coffee. No bread, no margarine, no marmalade.
It is true that the previous day I had a piece of luck. After the usual all-night promenade across the rain-drenched countryside, we were lying in a grange, unable even to make the effort to dry our poor rags. Suddenly I sat up. “Pierre,” I began. A groan interrupted me: “Shut up,” cried Pierre, “can't you lie still? Shut up and let me sleep.” But great things were stirring my repose. Suppose, I said to myself, that I go over to the farmhouse and ask for a bucket of hot water. I could scrape off at least two layers of dirt from my body, and who knows, some fleas might drown in the process. I knew that a group of American prisoners had been working around the farm, and the Americans were notoriously clean people. Perhaps the farmer was accustomed to seeing them wash, and would not refuse my request.
There was no use bothering with Pierre; once he turned in, not even the twenty-one gun salute that we had promised each other for liberation would wake him up. I went alone.
Twenty minutes later I came back. I would have run, had I not spent all my strength in the intricate movements of washing. I was beyond myself, exalted. I lay down next to Pierre and began shaking him. “Qu'est ce qu’il y a encore?” he growled. Instead of answering, I pushed before his blinking eyes the piece of bacon I just received from the farmer's wife. “Bacon,” I said. “Bacon,” he repeated, hypnotized by the size and smell of the prey.
We lived for three days on that piece of bacon. The term fat would have applied better, but for our fat-hungry (and dairy-hungry and sugar-hungry) organism it was like manna. We divided it up into microscopically small pieces and consumed it according to a carefully established plan.
The days were tolerable because the Germans had orders not to move and offer easy target for Allied planes. The latter were constantly overhead, as if the air-space over the Vaterland had been already occupied. Nobody dared so much as show his face before nightfall, but then everybody became active and excited. Our guards emerged from the farmhouse and began shouting orders, then counted and re-counted us, making sure that none would be left behind, hidden in the straw with the rats.
And so we marched on. Undorf, Regensburg, Altdoff, etc., followed like a slow-motion picture, peasants staring at us from their houses, guards excited and shouting “Schnell, schnell,” officers driving by in cars and on motorcycles.
On the second night, as we dragged our gaunt frames along, talking with great gusto of all the food, mainly pastry, on which we would revel after liberation, we noticed Franz, the Oberkapo (prisoner foreman), dressed in a strange assortment of civilian clothes. At first we hardly recognized him with his felt hat and necktie, but then it became clear that he was going to disappear, with the captain's tacit approval. Franz, a former German Socialist, had fought in the ranks of the International Brigade in Spain, escaped to France after Franco's victory, and was extradited in 1940. We feared and detested him, for in spite of his repeated assurances that he wanted our good, his hand fell heavily on those who, allegedly, upset his morning and evening roll calls.
Now he was on his way to freedom, and we bitterly envied him. But he was a German, and could easily disappear among his countrymen. Also, since the day before, he possessed a wrist watch that he had taken by force from Karl, a Czech boy from our team. For eight months Karl had managed to hide this precious object from guards and overseers, and used to tell the time to the weary inquirers as the work-day seemed to progress all too slowly. Now the “company watch” was gone, to help Franz appear like a genuine civilian. With hat and tie and all...
As we were getting nearer our still-unknown destination, covering mile after painful mile in the darkness of the cold rain, with anxiety gripping our exhausted souls, it often happened that we would forget our present plight, walk in a monotonous, dream-like half-awareness, and try to imagine what lay ahead. The expectation of freedom was so intense that we would see ourselves in the midst of our family, at the dinner table, engaged in small talk, and the well-known objects of the room would stand out with a vividness that bordered on hallucination. Plans were being made, feverish and grandiose plans, and, of course, vows of righting one's life, or, on the contrary, of living dangerously. Never before had I realized so dearly that the mind is made of a different stuff from that of the body, and that it could carry on a separate existence.
In the rare moments when the train stopped, one could hear the distant rumblings of artillery. Or was it thunder? We were hoping it was artillery, although we, too, risked being engulfed in its fire. But somehow it seemed that we could die no accidental death, and that the Nazis were the only source of mortal danger. Artillery, French or American, must have a soul of its own: it would avoid us, knowing that we were friends and compatriots.
Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.