1 May 1945
My Dear Heinrich:
I know you have been dead for many years, but I need to tell you in writing what happened today. I am 60 years old, and have witnessed something for the first time in my life.
Soldiers are everywhere today. Not our Swastika – wearing thugs, but American, British and maybe Danish soldiers. They walk down our streets with their rifles cradled in their arms, like I used to cradle dear Gretchen and Heinrich, Jr. when they were babies, long dead now too I suppose. These soldiers’ eyes are searching everywhere for German troops, but they do not know they left Dachau many days ago now. Left us here in this bombed-out horror of a town that was once so beautiful and filled with life and flowers. Miraculously, the only house still standing on our street is ours. How I have managed to stay alive in this huge home these past few years is nothing short of miraculous also. I have burned almost every stick of furniture and loose wood I could manage with these arthritic hands and swollen arms and legs.
I am no longer the petite, sturdy, blond Lisle you married 35 years ago. Ah, we were so young then, weren’t we? But I am still strong enough to break apart your mother’s oak dining table for firewood.
But, I digress…..
This morning, the American soldiers walked out of the mist and into our part of town. I peeked out at them through the lace curtains still hanging at the dining room window. What fascinated me most was not the fact that this was the first time I had seen ‘the enemy’, but it was the haggard, haunted looks on their faces. One young man in particular turned his head towards the house and our eyes locked. He cannot be older than 28, our dear son’s age when I last saw him alive. The sadness etched in his face was so deep I could almost feel it and a shudder went through my body. What had he done or seen to make him look this way?
He turned his head back and kept walking along with the other troops. I thought I had seen the last of them, but later in the day they were back. This time the same young man came up and knocked at the front door. I was terrified and also curious as to what he wanted.
I believed that an old, crippled woman posed no threat to this well-armed soldier. So, Heinrich, I opened the door. To my surprise the young man smiled, touched the rim of his helmet and greeted me in American – accented German. I am sure my face showed my surprise that the enemy would bother to learn our language. Another young soldier came up to the door and between the two of them and some sign language, I understood that they wanted to come inside and have a look around. Their rifles were slung casually over their shoulders so this was not a threat, but a request.
I nodded ‘Yes’ and stepped back to let them in.
I know, I know. You are annoyed that I complied so easily, but you were not here when the SS troops stormed through our streets shouting orders and rounding up our Jewish neighbors. They took some others also: teachers, the priest, the retarded boy next door. I watched all of this through the lace curtains and never said a word. I did not act like a Christian as Christ taught us to be. I was not brave as you taught me to be. When I heard the gossip at the marketplace about our Jews being sent to a special camp out in the forest I kept silent. I bore witness to this and other things I will not speak of right now. I decided to finally be brave and let the soldiers in.
The two young men walked through the entire house, upstairs, into the attic, down to the root cellar, across the back yard to our empty wood shed. They kept nodding, speaking low to one another and seemed satisfied about something. I was to find out very soon why they had chosen our house.
About an hour later open trucks and a few horse carts drew up to the door with what I can only describe as stick figures from a kindergartener’s picture. If these were human beings I don’t know how they were alive. All of them had to be lifted and carried into the house where they were laid carefully down on my bare floors. The soldiers used their own blankets for bedding and their duffle bags for pillows. Many of the soldiers were crying as they cradled these skeletons in their arms.
My soldier – yes I already thought of the first young man as ‘my soldier’ – carried two children, one in each arm, upstairs to my bedroom. He laid them on my mattress that was on the floor, the wooden frame having been burnt for fuel last winter. Then he kissed them gently on their foreheads and turned away so they would not see the tears on his sunken cheeks. I know this, Heinrich, because I followed him everywhere he went. I could not stay away from the blue-eyed soldier with lines cut so deeply in his thin face he looked like an old man.
I didn’t know what was expected of me. I had no food, no blankets, very little water. But the soldiers took care of everything. They started fires on small burners they brought with them on the big trucks. They used old helmets for heating water and pooled their field rations to make soup.
Later, as I sat on my window ledge for a little rest, I finally took a good look at these skeleton people. Who were they? Where had they come from? How long would they be in my house? So many questions swirling in my brain. The old woman sitting up against my living room wall looked vaguely familiar. When she shifted her weight to turn towards me I suddenly realized I knew her. She was not an old woman, but the young school teacher who had lived around the corner. She did not show up for school one day 4 years ago and everyone said she ran away to get married to the young Jewish fellow down the block. He had disappeared the same day.
Heinrich, I have not spoken with anyone in so long I don’t know how to make sense of what is happening here. You and I would talk things over in the evenings and you could make me understand confusing things like politics and why we were in a war with the rest of the world. You did not approve of what Hitler was doing and you told me to never tell anyone about our conversations. Not our close friends and neighbors, not even family members. We didn’t know who might be a spy for the SS.
When you died of a heart attack 3 ½ years ago I was left alone, totally alone. Gretchen was already, hopefully, in Paris. I know you really died of a broken heart after Gretchen went underground with that bunch of radicals from her college. What did she think she was going to change by hiding in the forest with an old radio and no food? Did she think Hitler cared what she thought? I do not know if she ever escaped from Germany. How will I ever know such a thing?
Then, Heinrich, Jr. was called up to serve in the German army and I have not heard from him in 3 years. He does not know you are dead and Gretchen gone and I am all alone in the only house left standing on our street.
So, yes Heinrich, I decided to be brave once more and ask the American soldiers where these stick people came from and when they are leaving. I wanted to know why they are so thin and why their heads are shaved and why they all wear striped pajamas.
I get up from the window ledge, walk around my house and out the back door towards the wood shed. There, I find my soldier sitting on a tree stump, all alone, his hands clasped and swinging between his bent knees. His head hanging down. I approach silently and gently touch his shoulder. I do not trust my voice. He looks up and those blue eyes pierce right through me. I point at my house, shrug and put my hands, palms up, by my shoulders indicating that I don’t know what is going on here.
He gets up slowly and shouts to someone I can’t see who comes striding over and salutes my soldier. This young man greets me in German and I smile weakly and ask haltingly about the people in my house.
My soldier looks surprised when he hears my question. He asks his compatriot to tell me they are from the concentration camp a couple of miles away.
‘What concentration camp?’ I reply. ‘What are you talking about?’
They seem shocked that I know nothing about the camp practically in my backyard. Didn’t I know where my neighbors were taken? Didn’t I see the smoke above the trees? Didn’t I smell the burning flesh?
I shrug and shake my head ‘no.’
But, oh Heinrich, I am telling a lie. Of course I wondered where my neighbors went when they disappeared in the night. Of course I saw the smoke, blacker on some days than others rising above the forest. Of course I smelled the horrible stench wafting into my town. I chose not to think about it. There was no one to talk about it with.
In the early days of the Dachau concentration camp it was used for political prisoners only, for those who spoke publically against the Third Reich. We did not know many of the people who were taken prisoner in those days. It was not until much later, in the early 1940s that our neighbors began disappearing. That was when Gretchen left University and talked of going into hiding. She and Heinrich, Jr. argued all the time until he joined the Army. When they left you became so despondent, you died.
Later when I was all alone, the trains came through Dachau station day and night loaded with people. We were told they were prisoners, enemies of Germany and I believed this official statement until one evening when I walked to the train station and looked into a boxcar and saw who was in there, packed like sardines in a tin can.
These people are prisoners? They are women and children and old men and cripples. They pose a threat to the government?
They were wearing their coats and hats and held onto suitcases and one another’s hands. The mother’s cradling their babies on shoulders and hips saying, ‘Shush, shush, now. We will be there soon.’
An SS officer came along shouting into the boxcar and hitting people at random with the butt of his rifle. I saw him wrench a baby from its mother’s arms and crush it under his black boot. Horrified and confused, I jumped back into the shadow of the station, crept home, slid through my back door, turned the key in the lock and pulled the lace curtains closed.
So, yes and no. Yes I knew something very wrong was going on beyond the trees and no I did not want to know what the wrong thing was.
I shrug again as tears leak from my eyes and down my cheeks that must look as ravaged by hunger and loss as my soldier’s do. He gently takes my hand and sits me down on the stump next to him. He waves the interpreter away and we sit there together in silence. I like a person who knows how to sit in silence and I am pleasantly surprised that one so young can do this. My Gretchen and Heinrich, Jr. talked and argued all the time.
After a few minutes, someone whistles and my soldier helps me stand up and we walk into the house together to have some coffee that is not coffee but at least it is hot from their camp stove fire.
We walk from person to ravaged person and help many of them sip a little warm water. There are 20 people in my rooms and even though they are the oddest assortment of guests I have ever had, I am a little bit happy to have people in the house again.
My dear Heinrich, I am taking a rest from writing to you as my fingers are cramped up and I have a headache from eyestrain. My glasses were broken months ago and there is no one to fix them as our eye doctor was Jewish.
7 May, 1945
My Dear Heinrich,
I cannot believe almost a week has gone by since I first started this letter to you. I have been so busy every day that by the time I lie down on the hard wood floor of our old dining room, I am too exhausted to put pen or coherent thoughts to paper. Every day more and more of the skeleton people come to our house. A doctor from the US Army has arrived from Munich and is tending to the liberated prisoners. The strongest, which is not the correct word for their deplorable condition, are moved along to somewhere else to make room for the new weaker ones.
Now there are German soldiers, prisoners, in our backyard. They look at me with contempt as though I were a collaborator with the enemy. I shrug my shoulders at them and say not one word. Even though I am free to move about my property I pretend to be a prisoner like them. Who knows how this war will end and who will be the victors? I want to placate both sides.
When the German prisoners are not looking I search for my American soldier. I can usually find him in the room set aside for the children. He makes them smile with his funny pronunciations of German words. I notice that not all of them understand German so they must have been brought to Dachau from other countries. This puzzles me. There weren’t enough people in Germany to imprison? They had to go to other countries too?
I have not heard any news from outside of Dachau in 3 years, so I do not know what is happening in the rest of Europe. Oh, I heard whispers at the marketplace when there was food to look at and try to purchase. Whispers about all Jews being rounded up around Europe and how our German soldiers were being sent to Russia to take over that country too. I hope Heinrich, Jr. did not have to go to Russia where the winters are frigid and the snow deep and he catches a cold so easily.
Wait just a moment, Heinrich, there is much shouting and rifles shooting. I must put my pen down and find out what is happening.
7 May, 1945
My dear, dear Heinrich, you will not believe what I am about to tell you. The war is over! The American soldiers heard about it on their little radio an hour ago. The German Generals have surrendered. Hitler is dead. His body, along with that of his wife Eva Braun and his dogs, were found several days ago but not positively identified until today. Burned and discarded just like that. This horrible, senseless war over just like that, too.
I do not know what to think. I do not know what will happen to me now. Will the German prisoners in my backyard be killed? Set free? Marched to a prison camp like the one they created and guarded down the road?
What about all these sick and dying people in my house?
Will the American and British soldiers go home and leave all these people for me to take care of?
Oh, Heinrich, I am cautiously happy and also frightened by this news.
The American soldiers are shooting off their rifles into the air and dancing around and singing. I do not recognize the tunes and words, but they are songs that make them happy so I smile a little, too.
Only my soldier looks sad. His mouth is smiling that dazzling white-toothed smile of his, but his blue eyes are marked by the same sorrow he has shown all week. He picks up one of the children and swings her, or is it him, atop his thin shoulders. I saw my soldier once with his shirt off and he looks as emaciated as the child.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I see one of the German prisoners break away from the corral made for them in my yard and run towards the street. He races past me and grabs me by the waist, roughly turning me around with one hand choking my throat with his other hand wrenching my arm up behind my back. The pain in both places is excruciating. It takes all my strength to breathe shallow breaths. He is spitting into my ear as he talks, calling me filthy names and a collaborator with the enemy. The soldier who can speak fairly good German comes forward and tries to reason with him, pleading with him to let me go. What good is it to take me away or kill me? If he lets me go and surrenders to them, he will be treated as a prisoner of war with all the rights and reasonable treatment expected.
I know this soldier will not listen to reason. He will not believe he will be fairly treated by his American captors. I recognize him from the morning I was at the train station. I will never forget the face of the man who crushed a baby under his boot. I know I am as good as dead.
But Heinrich, another miracle happens. An American soldier I have seen only one other time this week is in a low crouch, sneaking up on my left side. He makes no sound in his bare feet and is moving so slowly I am not sure he is coming towards us at all. In his hand he is carrying the knife he was throwing at a tree stump with exquisite accuracy one afternoon in plain sight of the German prisoners. His slightly slanted eyes and bronze skin made me wonder if he were part Japanese. When he is right next to us he coughs once which startles my captor so he lets go his grip on my throat and whips his head around in surprise. At that precise moment a shot rings out and a hole appears in the forehead of my German captor and he crumples to the ground pulling me with him. My blue-eyed soldier is there in an instant catching me up as I slide downward. He cradles me in his strong arms, as I have seen him do with the children and I feel safe. I can smell the smoke from the rifle still slung over his shoulder and know he is the one who shot the German as the strange, slant-eyed teenager diverted his attention. I am carried into our house and carefully laid upon the mattress in our old bedroom, the emaciated children having moved aside for me. My soldier takes off his helmet, unslings his rifle and sits by my side in silence until I fall into a restless sleep.
The next morning when I awake he is gone. I look frantically around for him and see through the bedroom window that he and the others are getting their gear together and putting it into the jeeps that have arrived during the night. Trucks are also arriving to take the remaining camp survivors somewhere else and the German prisoners elsewhere also. In a few minutes I will be all alone once more.
I run into the broken down building that used to be our barn and dig with my fingers in the hard earth at a spot I marked with stones 6 years ago when the SS troops first came to our town. I hope against hope that what I am seeking is still here, unharmed.
I hit something solid. Yes, here it is. I carefully bring up a wooden box, lift the lid and take out the fine dark blue china cup and saucer with the real gold rim my grandmother gave us for a wedding gift all those years ago when we were so young and the world was bright and our life together rolled before us on a wave of promise.
I run to find my soldier and hand him this gift, the only thing left from my former life. A small exchange for the gift of life he gave me not only yesterday, but over the 9 previous days as well. He showed respect for me although I was the enemy, compassion for the suffering camp survivors, pain as the little children died in his arms, and the courage to kill one German to save another one. Me.
So, my dear Heinrich, this letter must end now. My fingers and arms are so painful and my throat still aches from the choking I received.
As the truck with the camp survivors starts to pull away I motion to the young school teacher who used to live around the corner to jump down and come with me. I will take her in and together we will begin to rebuild our shattered lives.
The American soldiers are in their jeeps and, pointing to myself, I yell to my handsome, blue-eyed soldier: ‘Lisle!’
He smiles while holding up the precious tea cup, touches his hand to his helmet and yells back: ‘Rudolph!’
Ah, a good German name. No wonder I liked him so much.
Your loving wife,