OTTO'S LAST RUN
by Joerg Liesegang
In the spring of 1945, the war in Germany
was coming to an end. The fire was out, little flames flaring up here
and there. And above all, a lot of smoke and burnt ash. People were
moving across the continent, marching this way, hurrying that way. The
lines of defence melted with the lines of advance. German troops were
fleeing in all directions. Some retreating very orderly, heeding the
few orders that still got through from the Generalstab in Berlin. The
British were coming from the north, the Americans from the west and
south. What was left of the French patrolled the streets of the Saarland.
The Russians were making a thunderstorm in the east, the burnt smell
of Stalingrad still in their noses. Soldiers were caught and interned;
the injured were shared around like rotten meat nobody wanted to eat,
but one couldnt just throw away.
Otto Schäfer, aged twenty-two, was just eighteen when he got drafted
into the German Wehrmacht back in the beginning of 1940. Every boy out
of his class was drafted, and so there wasnt any question of going
or not. Otto could still remember the train ride from the station near
Bismarckplatz in Heidelberg to the Hauptbahnhof in Mannheim, where the
new soldiers were trained and drilled, before Berlin sent them to wherever
Berlin wanted them to be. Otto ended up in Belgium first, almost made
it over the French border, when he was put on one of those trains going
east. He saw Warsaw and Smolensk, and after that he forgot all the names
and places, the faces and villages he tore apart. Late in 1943 he was
captured, which saved him from going into the Feuerkessels that the
Russian army were finally drawing up around the freezing German troops.
Otto was quite a good cook, thats why the Soviets kept him in
their camps in the west; day for day he saw the loads of his comrades
being shipped to Siberia.
In the beginning of February 1944, after half a year of camp life, Otto
managed to escape from the Soviets. Nothing spectacular, just a hop
off a driving truck and a scramble into the never-ending thick woods.
He was somewhere in the mountains, in the Ukraine, close to Slovakia
at that time. He was caught again close to Breno, this time by the Germans,
they put him back into his Wehrmacht uniform, and as a soldier he retreated
from there over Chesky Krumlov, Prague, and Pilsn to Regensburg. There,
this was in the end of 1944, when Hitler told his men to defend every
shrub and stone of German land, Otto finally had enough. He escaped
again, fled, deserted; slowly tried to make his way back to Heidelberg,
still some 350 kilometres to walk through the now dangerous land. Otto
Schäfer advanced at night, trying to follow the sunset, hiding
and sleeping during the day. In the fields somewhere around Nurnberg
he found the debris of a forgotten old farmer that had gotten shot in
the back somewhere along the war not too long ago. He switched clothes.
Dressed the body with his uniform, careful not to rip any arms or legs
off. He kept the passes of the comrades that had died in his arms. He
had promised to deliver their last words to their loved ones, written
on the backsides with addresses and still eligible.
Otto slowly made his way forward, chewing on bark and melting the snow
in his mouth. Keeping the setting sun ahead of him. And then, one early
morning, barely visible in the first light, the forest was clearing
up before him, the hills rolling down into a great plain, he saw vineyards
and a river far below, the Rhine, and a city off to the right. Otto
decided that he had come out too far north, that the city below him
must be Darmstadt or Bensheim. He didnt know whether he was right.
He just hoped that Heidelberg lay somewhere to his left, in the south.
He went on for three more days. Hiding in the day, running at night.
Home, he could smell it, these forests were leading to his home. Each
morning he made his way to the edge of the forest, looked down the hills,
seeing the Rhine flowing together with the faint line of the horizon.
And each time the surroundings seemed to become more familiar. Greeting
him. Singing one soft and deep welcoming tune. On the morning of the
second night he thought to recognise Weinheim, and he went to sleep
thinking of his parents, the little house in the vineyard close to Dossenheim,
on the outskirts of Heidelberg, the beautiful orchard his family had
owned for two hundred years. Maybe some of the apple trees would already
be in bloom, he thought. The next night he carried on, ran as far as
his feet could hold him at that speed, by morning he could see a village
to his left. After four years of war, after countless nights of stumbling
through the woods of southern Germany, Otto was finally home. Dossenheim.
It had to be his Dossenheim, lying there in the morning fog. He scrambled
on, his legs torturing themselves under him, on and on he went. This
was his forest now, his trees. The few birds that had stayed, they had
stayed for him, they were singing for him. Then he could see his parents
orchard, the branches he had sat on with his sister, the leaves he had
slept under in the summers. He could see his parents house at
the end of the acres of land and a yell was forming in his throat, a
final gasp, "Vater! Mutter! Ich bin zu Hause! Ich bin es, Vater!
The Germans got him before that. A small division of the Wehrmacht,
retreating from the oncoming Americans. They took notice of this suspicious
young male person running next to the road they were marching on. They
caught him. Found his papers. Courtmartialled him. They had to be quick.
The noise of the American tanks coming was somewhere in the quiet morning
air. They hung him on the next apple tree branch that was strong and
high enough. They left him hanging. As a warning. A piece of paper tagged
onto him saying, "Verräter, Deserteur."
In the afternoon, when things had quieted down a bit, Ottos father,
Karl-Heinz Schäfer dared to walk out of his house. Troops had been
moving all morning, but now Karl-Heinz Schäfer just felt imprisoned
in his own walls, he had to go fetch some air. His apple trees had started
to bloom; they were soft white sparkles in the gray-brown scenery. Some
fresh green was starting anew in the grass, vibrating. Karl-Heinz saw
something hanging in his trees, it wasnt so uncommon in those
days. He went back to his house, fetched an axe to cut whatever poor
souls body it was down. He didnt look up to the man hanging
until he was so close that he had to. His heart stopped, his eyes died,
his voice collapsed. His beloved son had come back. Had turned his face
towards him with the wind. His son had come back just like Otto had
always said he would. Like his father had always prayed he would. His
son Otto, and the pigs had got him a few metres away from his own doorstep.
Carefully he cut his son down, getting the rope off his neck, trying
to close his eyes, but they wouldnt, he was stiff and blue, his
head bent back in that awkward position, there was his son, lying dead
under the apple tree. Karl-Heinz went back to his house, got two clean
white sheets, one below, lay Otto on it, one to cover his body, leaving
his face out, trying to make him look as peaceful as he could. With
his mouth and eyes wide open. Then Karl-Heinz called his wife. The mother
should not see her son hanging from a tree. No. The mother should see
her son like he always was, beautiful even when he died. He called his
wife and told her that their son was dead. And he held her when she
came running out. Held her hard as she came tumbling in his arms, tumbling
into his body, lacking the strength to keep the earth from pulling her
under. And then the mother cried, she could cry. She could grieve. She
could wane her sorrow onto the earth, this mother earth that let her
children die one after another by their own hands. The father stood
back, stood back silently like a stone, like a lava stone once full
of fire and now perished into the cooling breath of time. He stood back,
he was there. He was there still holding onto mother.
The next day Karl-Heinz Schäfer got up early. Without breakfast
he got his axe and saw out of the shed and went out to the orchard.
The orchard that had nourished the family for two hundred years. The
orchard in which he had played himself with his father, where he, Karl-Heinz,
had seen his son Otto grow up in. The orchard that had given one of
his branches for Otto to hang on, this orchard would die today. He started
with the tree nearest to the house. The huge swing saw cut through the
soft wood as smoothly as a knife through bread. A few minutes and the
first tree fell, almost without a noise, the branches softening the
crash. Mother stood up in the house, she looked out of the bedroom window.
She understood. They couldnt keep the trees now, sad as it was.
Sad and useless as it was. But her man was mourning and she would help
Tom Andrews, aged twenty-two, was marching in the front left part of
an American patrol. About ten soldiers on foot, and three Jeeps driving
slowly. In the morning they had taken the city of Heidelberg. Now, ten
hours later, they were checking the countryside. By the town of Dossenheim,
the patrol came across the orchard. About a hundred trees lay slaughtered
to the ground, their branches partly in bloom. An old man was still
working on a tree when the sergeant jumped out of the first Jeep and
rushed over to him. Karl-Heinz was destroying war property, the apples
would be needed as supply, the Americans had to stop him. They wouldnt
let them Germans starve them out of the country. So there was the sergeant,
telling Karl-Heinz to quit. But the German didnt listen, didnt
even seem to take notice of the sergeant, neither the old woman standing
a little off and working on yet another tree. So the sergeant took Karl-Heinz
by the arm, persuading him to stop. But Karl-Heinz just went on and
shouted, "Die Schweine haben meinen Sohn getötet! In diesem
Baum! Verstehen Sie das? Meinen einzigen Sohn Otto!" But, of course,
the sergeant didnt understand and insisted again, the apple trees
were war property as of this morning, and nobody had the right to cut
them down. Karl-Heinz didnt understand either, he didnt
care to understand, the pigs had killed his son, in this very tree,
his only son Otto, and if these people didnt understand
he lifted his axe to work on the tree, and Tom Andrews, the young soldier
Tom Andrews, saw the menacing, lifted axe and raised his rifle and shot
Karl-Heinz Schäfer straight through the heart, who went down dead
immediately, before all their eyes. And the sergeant was surprised,
and the young soldier Tom Andrews was surprised, and the mother, the
woman of Karl-Heinz threw herself onto the sergeant and shouted with
her beaten and broken voice, "Warum haben Sie das getan? Warum?
Warum tun Sie soetwas?" And two other soldiers quietly walked up
to her and got the crying hump off their sergeants breast. Tom
Andrews still standing there bedazzled, his rifle pointing down again.
And nobody turned to him to ask him what he had done? And why? Nobody.
They all looked to the ground. Because they all knew the answer.
© Joerg Liesegang 2001
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