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Archive 2

Archive 1


TwelveTimes Mathew

Police Talk

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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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, that’s 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 didn’t 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 parent’s orchard, the branches he had sat on with his sister, the leaves he had slept under in the summers. He could see his parent’s 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! Der Otto!"

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, Otto’s 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 wasn’t so uncommon in those days. He went back to his house, fetched an axe to cut whatever poor soul’s body it was down. He didn’t 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 wouldn’t, 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 couldn’t keep the trees now, sad as it was. Sad and useless as it was. But her man was mourning and she would help him.

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 wouldn’t let them Germans starve them out of the country. So there was the sergeant, telling Karl-Heinz to quit. But the German didn’t listen, didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t understand either, he didn’t care to understand, the pigs had killed his son, in this very tree, his only son Otto, and if these people didn’t 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 sergeant’s 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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