It was a crisp cold night in Bavaria on December 2nd 1948. Snow blanketed the cobble stoned streets of Neuburg. Smoke from wood burning stoves rise silently out of stone chimneys and into the evening air. It was quiet save for a few military trucks travelling the streets here and there. The hum of a VW engine echoes off the walls of the stone houses and diminishes. . Off down a narrow alley way in the distance, the sound of a bicycle being negotiated through the doorway of a guesthouse could be heard. While the heavy wooden door was open, one could hear the robust chatter and clatter of folks enjoying a beer and schnitzel. One could see the haze of German cigarettes cast between light and dark as the smoke drafts into the alley way. A deep hardy laugh erupts with several individuals cheering the joyous evening. . Once the door was closed, all was quiet again. The stench of cigarettes would rise and dissipate. This night, there was not a cloud in the sky and one could see beautiful stars shining brightly. Breathing in the cool brisk air was both refreshing and comforting. Peace was at hand.
Gone were the days of stifling 120 degree heat at the “Battle of El Alemain”. Gone were the days when one could cook an egg on the steel of a Panzer 3. The smoke filled shacks and frozen streets of Stalingrad gave way to the smoked filled German gasthuas. Tins of grotesque gelatin filled military meat rations gave way to fresh fare. Gone were the days of the SS, Gestapo, and train cars headed to the gas chambers of Dachau, or Auschwitz Berkenau. The German war machine was replaced by the Marshal plan. Germany would rise once again, but not as a military power but an economic powerhouse.
Germany had lost 4 million German soldiers. Millions more were wounded and scarred for life. Dozens of cities were reduced to rubble. The German economy all but destroyed. Many families would lose all of their sons. In Dresden, for example, entire families were slaughtered by American bombers as they sought refuge in the city’s central park while the rest of the city burned. Dresden would see the loss of 400,000 people. This would not be a repeat of the “Treaty of Versailles” or the seeds of it’s aftermath. Germany was beaten. The Nazi party was dead and no amount of propaganda could revive centuries of the Germany’s Teutonic war mentality.
No family in Germany was untouched by the war. A generation of German men were killed off. One would notice this during the day when all one saw were single woman going to work on bicycles.
At the bread store, Maria was dishing out her prized blaukraut to her family around the large wooden table. Maria’s father Helmut was chewing on a piece of blaukraut juice soaked bread and demanding another heaping spoonful. Maria’s mother Renate was content with just a ladle full, as she cut up a slice of boiled dumpling for the babies. Just then, the back door of the living quarters swung open and Franz enters with an arm load of wood for the 500 pound steel stove. “Danke”, Maria declares.
In the corner, Herbert sits on a wooden bench and reads to Maria’s boys. His good leg resting firmly on the floor while his other leg is just a horizontal stub. A fake leg sits idle at his side. The left side of his face and earlobe show the healed and scarred remains of burns. Herbert turns the pages with scarred hands. He utters a few lines and then breaks out into laughter. His nephews adore and love Herbert and follow suit with their own laughter. Maria orders the boys and her brother to the table.
The room smells of Maria’s schnitzel. Tonight, they are cooking fresh swine from a local farm. The breading is made from Maria’s special recipe. The meat has been beaten and tenderized with a kitchen mallet and then soaked in fresh eggs from the hens out back. She rolls the meat into the egg batter and then covers the meat with seasoned bread crumbs. On the stove, sets a large cast iron pan with fresh melted butter. It is hot enough now and Maria fills the pan with the prepared schnitzel. On the side, she has paprika gravy, and brown mushroom gravy with the hint of vinegar. In another pan, she is cooking a dozen potatoes that have been in the cellar since August. The potatoes will get a mixture of bacon, bacon fat, distilled vinegar and onion. In a large pot, she has made two dozen breaded dumplings.
Maria’s boys sit between Franz and Herbert as Maria serves them dinner. Soon their plates are full of really good cooking. Their stainless steel cups full of cold fresh milk. The first order of business is to cut up the dumplings . Then Maria comes along with a ladle full of brown mushroom gravy and dumps a gob on the tasty boiled bread balls. Herbert prefers the hot paprika. The young boys like the brown mushroom gravy. Franz prefers simply lemon of which they have none.
Herbert cannot help but think about the war and his time as a German POW. He had barely survived his time at a British hospital in Cairo. The pain associated with his burns was excruciating. Many times he had succumbed to infection only to come out of it by shear will power. In the POW camps, he was forced to eat the worst food imaginable next to comrades who had not changed their underwear for a month. The stench of human body odor masked the smell of the POW rations. By the fall of 1945, he was back at the family store. Now he was sitting in his warm family home and having a good dinner with loved ones. He was sleeping on his own bed with the luxury of a homemade down comforter. Defecating in a trench was replaced with the trusty two-holer out back. After a few years, he was fitted with a fake leg. He still wore his Wehrmacht boots. A freshly pressed German uniform hung in the hall closet. herbert was not a Nazi. he was a German soldier.
Maria sits down and utters, ” gutten appetite!” The rest of the family responds in kind and they dig in.
They are together as a family again. Maria’s daughter Beate is just over 3 years old and sits between Renate and Maria. Her head barely has high as the table. .Franz junior is 6 months old. he is sitting in a high chair with a food smeard bib on his chest. he is a healthy and stout Bavarian boy. They all have each other. Out of the ruins of war, they have each other and a new Germany to believe in. A picture of all three boys in German uniforms sets on the fireplace mantle.
The family talks about the business and buying a farm as they finish up their dinner.
All of a sudden, the family hears a knock on the back door and are startled. No one comes to the back door save the family. Perplexed and uncertain, Franz opens the door slightly and looks out. In the darkness there is a man. Franz sensing danger angrily asks the dark figure what he wants and that they are closed for the evening. The dark figure states’ ” I am sorry, but this used to be my home. My name is Max and I used to live here. Do you know where my family is? “Max Is that you”, Franz asks. My name is Franz and I am married to Maria. I have never met you. Franz turns to the family and says” it is Max, your brother!
Franz swings the door wide and Max enters the room. He is older and quite thin with a beard. He removes an old Soviet made hat. His gloves have holes in them. He is wearing a heavy wool jacket and wool pants. His boots are Soviet military and taken from a dead inmate at POW work camp. They are several sizes too big, but several layers of socks keep them snug. They would fit better if he had toes. The family is speechless as they watch Max remove his gloves. Several fingers are missing from frost bite. Max’s face is scarred above the lip, his smile reveals several missing teeth on one side of his mouth. Compliments from the but of a Russian made carbine. He smells to high heaven. A years worth of body smells inundates his clothes and he looks and smells like a dirty beggar from the streets of Frankfurt.
Max gazes into his mothers eyes and she starts to cry. Max’s eyes have lost the luster of his mother’s boy. Once a sparkling blue eyed German boy in leather shorts, Max now had the eyes of an old man far beyond his years. Over 90,000 German troops marched out of Stalingrad and into Russia. Max was one of only 6,000 that returned. For 5 years, Max lived in disgusting Soviet gulags and slept on wooden boards. He had witnessed the death of hundreds of German POWs at the hands of Soviet guards, disease and malnutrition.
Max survived because he could cook for hundreds and the guards liked his bread. After 5 years in the Soviet Union, Max was transported by a cattle car to Berlin and dumped off. The Berlin airlift was in full swing, but he was allowed to cross into West Berlin.
Helmut rises. He cries, “My son!” and then embraces his boy. Next, the entire family is hugging and kissing Max . They pull the old coat from his body and throw it out the back door. Maria retrieves a several large galvanized tubs. A few are filled with water and placed on the stove. Franz heads out side and retrieves another arm load of wood. He fills the stove and they begin to heat several gallons of water. Max goes to the wash room. He is very familiar with the large oval galvanized tub. he cherishes the smell of stone tile and the cleanliness of the room. A room that he had washed himself in since he was a boy. Soon the tub is full of hot steaming water. Max lowers himself into the tub and begins to wash and shave himself.
A half hour later, max emerges from the wash room with clean clothes, and nice shave. The clothes hang loose on his body. They are the clothes he wore before entering the Wehrmacht and being carted off to Stalingrad.
His old clothes now burning in the fireplace. The vision reminds him of the large fires that the Stalingrad POWs would build on there march. He winced at the thought of dead POWs being thrown into these fires after they had froze to death. He remembered the smell.
Max sits at the table. Maria and Renate have set a plate of food for him. They have also brought out some canned cucumbers from the garden. Helmet goes to the cellar and grabs a case of local beer.
Max, grabs the fork and knife. The index finger and thumb of his right hand are still intact, but his three remaining fingers are of varied lengths. His pinky finger just a nub. His left hand is pretty much the same as he slowly cuts the schnitzel. He takes a bite and slowly chews the food. The wonderful taste and memories flood his senses. He swallows and then pauses silently as the family watches intently. . He then begins to break down and cry. He is home!!!
To be continued.