So, I left off last time with my grandfather taking Tamara across the river in the Fall of 1942. I am going to pick it back up a year later in fall of 1943, but before continuing the story, I thought it might be necessary to give a bit of a history update to kind of guide everyone with what was going on with the rest of the war… So here it is.
By September 1942 the Germans were at an all time power high. They controlled France, Italy, North Africa, Greece, and the Balkans. They reached as far north as Norway and Denmark and were bombing London every night. They were deep into the Soviet Union and laying siege around Moscow. They were pushing towards the Volga River, which was a huge waterway for transportation of goods. In essence they controlled all of Europe.
In January of 1943, however all that was about to change. It is known as the turning point; the Battle of Stalingrad. The Germans were heading to both the caucuses oil fields and Stalingrad. Hitler and his forces were in desperate need of oil, their armies were running low and their aggressive blitzkrieg tactics that were so infamous in Western Europe were leaving supply lines dangerously thin. Hitler, however, along the way got side tracked with the city. Instead of listening to his military commanders, (who told him to rest up for the winter and return in spring) Hitler sacked his advisors and took complete control over the Army. He sent all of his resources to Stalingrad and the ‘heroic’ 6th army became encircled by the Russian soldiers. If Hitler had listened to his commanders and diverted south past the Caucus Mountain range and resupplied, he would have returned in the spring and leveled not only Stalingrad, but Moscow and the rest of the Soviet Union.
Hitler was stubborn and impatient and thought that if he could take the city named after Stalin, what an insult it would be. When winter arrived it was brutal, most of the German soldiers were not equipped for the conditions and Stalingrad became a city of rubble, blood and snow. Over a million people died in the battle for the city. The Germans became cut off from their supply lines and everything just froze up. The city was divided into little pockets of German and Russian snipers fighting it out meter by meter for the city. A good movie to watch, if you can get past english actors with english accents playing Russians, is ‘Enemy at the Gates’. It is a good visual of what Stalingrad was like. Another one, that I haven’t seen, but came out this year called Stalingrad, looks like it portrays the destruction quite well. It also stars Thomas Kretschmann, who is usually a trustworthy actor for accurate historical movies.
Anyway, after a year of fighting, in January of 1943, the Germans surrender in Stalingrad. For the first time in the war the Germans began to retreat. They began to get pushed back, which brings us back to Nikopol and my Grandfather’s story. By September of 1943, the Russians had reached Nikopol and the Germans who now lived in Ukraine began to retreat. My grandfather and his family would retreat with the German forces.
The thought that the Germans would lose the war and the thought that they would have to retreat is so shocking and unexpected, it catches the soldiers and my grandfather’s family by surprise. This is evident in how close my grandfather came to missing the departure.
My Opa was riding a horse he had borrowed from his wealthier friend Shura. He was riding out to visit his sister Anna, who had taken a job managing a collective farm just outside the city of Nikopol. This conversation takes place between my grandfather and I…
Carts, Geese, Crickets and Golf Balls
“You know Mike if I had been five minutes late I would have missed them.” My Opa says as he sits back in the passenger seat of our golf cart. I don’t reply to his statement. The engine putters to life and we set off down the crushed limestone path. The sun has fallen below the tree line of Breezy Bend golf course. The design of the golf course is unobtrusive as it carves itself into the riverside forest. Quite the opposite can be said for the monstrous and elaborate show homes that have popped up on its borders. The trees give way as we drive across the eighteenth fairway. We pass a family of geese trying to sun themselves with the last few rays of this clear summer’s night. Once they have drawn every last ounce of heat from the sun, they will retire to the reeds and bury their long necks into their feathers.
Our golf game ended hours ago, and we have finished dinner, but my Opa continued to talk, so we decided to commandeer this golf cart and go for a drive through the relatively empty fairways. There are only a couple of stragglers left driving the greens and tipping the flag sticks. We stop along the furthest west portion of the course along the eighteenth fairway near a duck pond.
“How did you know to turn around and head home?” I ask suddenly interrupting the continuous conversation between the frogs and crickets.
“A German officer on horseback was heading back to Nikopol, following his trips to various villages, rounding up German settlers and warning them of the impending arrival of Russian fighters.” He responds. “He told me that Russian troops were massing up the river and would be along the outskirts by nightfall. I told him I was going to visit my sister and if this was the case then I needed to warn her’. The officer replied that ‘if she was smart she would have left hours ago.’”
It is interesting that sometimes when I talk with my Grandfather he remembers events as clear as this summer night and other times he is all mixed up. I have stopped asking questions. I have said it before, but I know that when I get to this point in our conversations I have to just let him talk because in essence we are watching his life being replayed right in front of us. Lately he has been saying that ‘everything feels like a dream’, that it is a ‘tease to his mind’ and these stories he shares with me, good or terrifying, wake him up constantly. He continues to say that maybe the reason for these dreams and vivid memories is that his ‘life is coming to a close.’ When I am at home, and reviewing our visits, I always return to these statements. It bothers me for some reason, like he is trying to tell me something, something that he is afraid to reveal. I always return to these same stories over and over again, because this feeling in my gut tells me that the more I hear them the more I will learn. And maybe, just maybe we can get through to the stories he is afraid to tell me. The idea that I would be afraid to hear them doesn’t come into my mind.
A golf ball lands about fifteen feet to our left as a final member hits into the closing hole. Opa breaks the silence, “When I pulled up to our house, my sisters and mother were quite literally getting into a wagon and heading down the street. I remember hopping off the horse and chasing after the wagon. My mother heard me shouting and turned around. ‘Harry’, she yelled. She said, ‘we couldn’t wait any longer.’” My Opa pauses, and shifts his weight in the cart. “It is funny, if I would have left one minute later, or stopped to go to the washroom or God forbid missed the German officer, I don’t think we would be here having this discussion.” He pats my leg with his hand. I smile, still remaining quiet. The golfer approaches his ball and waves at us,
“Howdy!” My Grandfather yells waving his hand.
I don’t know if I would call the scenario ‘funny’. What is ‘funny’ is how I never dwell on how thick my Grandfather’s accent is. I wonder if I had never met him, would I understand every word he said. His voice is steady and confident, but muddied in the traditional Eastern European tendencies to over pronounce his e’s and a’s. It doesn’t matter for most of our conversations are in German anyways, but it is something I only notice when we speak to people outside our family.
“We took the wagon to the Lictenau train station, where the Germans’ had set up a headquarters to organize the departure,” Says my Opa.
It’s interesting to think of the mindset of the German soldiers and settlers, they must have never thought this day would come that they would be retreating, that they would be beat by the ‘slavs’ of all people. To Hitler and the Nazis’ ‘racial’ organization table, the Slavic people were seen as inferior, just above the common street rat that inhabits the sewers of any large metropolitan city. The only thing lower than a ‘Slav’, was a Jew or a Roma. Hitler’s future Third Reich was to be built on the backs of the Slavic peoples. But their process, reasoning and explanations contradicted themselves. My Opa was truly a Slavic person, but yet because he had a Mennonite name and could speak German he was seen as having ‘potential.’
My Opa continues, “My mother was frightened when we arrived at the station because Anna was nowhere to be found. Do you remember when we visited the Lictenau train station?” Opa asks, momentarily changing the subject. I nod in recognition. “My uncle designed and built it. Do you remember you took a picture of his picture inside the main station office?” I nod again.
“When was this?” I ask finally breaking my silence.
“Around September, or October.” He responds.
“Who was all with you from the family?” I ask.
“Well let’s see, my mother, father, Lisa, her husband Vacilli, their daughter Wanda, Hans’s wife Maria, Elfrieda, and me.” He says. This is one of the questions I tend to ask every time I hear this story. The names tend to change from time to time, so I always find it necessary to repeat the question.
Without asking him a question my Opa continues, “We stayed there for a few days, while the officers gathered and put the final touches on the retreat. One morning, while waiting to board a train car, a German officer approached me. He was in full dress uniform. I have to say he looked quite sharp.” Says my Opa.
I can see this officer in my mind. His hat tilted to the side, the skull and cross bones in its center, wearing knee high black leather boots, his overcoat open and the Nazi cross hanging at the break of his collar. The white SS insignia’s then stitched into the collar.
My Opa continues, “He asked me my age and informed me that I was being ‘summoned to do my duty for the good of the Reich’; the protection of the retreating German army. He took me and introduced me to a sergeant.”
I interrupt my Opa, “My father’s father right?”
“Yes,” my Opa responds, “Sergeant Wilms”.
I am still amazed by this fact no matter how many times I hear it. My Opa’s platoon leader during the German retreat was non-other than my future Grandfather on my father’s side. It reminds me of how small this world in fact is.
“What was he like?” I ask. This is another question that I love to repeat, no matter how many times I hear its answer. The mystery that surrounds my father’s father is enthralling, the questions that I have of who he was and what he was like are endless. The problem is that the answers are always short in supply. I have a suspicion that when I finish my Opa’s story I will be coming after this one.
“He was a proud man, very quiet, honest, obeyed and followed orders; he was a real soldier’s soldier. Everyone in our platoon respected and liked him. I always marveled at his attention to detail. When I was around him he always gave me a certain feeling of reassurance.” My Opa responds.
I am itching to ask him more questions about my grandfather, with the off chance something new will enter into his memory, but I also don’t want to take him away from the mental connection he has with the current vision we are on. The sun has fallen out of sight and the last few remaining seconds of light linger in the sky. “So you left soon after being drafted?” I ask.
“Oh yes if that’s what you call it, it might have even been the next day. Your grandfather handed me a rifle, showed me how to load and aim it and slapped me on the back and led me to the train car.” My Opa smiles at the end of this statement. “Each car had a soldier, sometimes two. We watched over the settlers in the cars and peered through its slats looking out for any potential threats to the train.”
“Did you enjoy this expedition?” I ask, knowing that this is a loaded question.
“Yes and no, part of it was exciting and adventurous, you were given a level of responsibility, you were given a gun, you wore the armband, and there was a lot of pride that this gave me.” He pauses, “but the conditions were horrible, Mike. We were corralled into cattle cars, it was awful, quite a tight fit, and there was almost no room to sit. There was a pail of water and a bucket for the washroom. It became so very cold and we didn’t have enough warm clothing. The clothing we did have became stricken with lice and your skin would just crawl.” Opa once again pauses, “that’s why I volunteered for night duty the lice would be active in the dark and I couldn’t sleep. It’s funny Mike, some nights when I am in my bed, I can still see my breath as if I was back in that train car.” My Opa pauses for a minute. “And the stench in between stops was horrible. To think that we endured two months of that is… I don’t know how we did it.”
“Your destination was German occupied Poland, yes?” I ask, changing the tune.
“Yes, a small sub district of Lodz called Pobeneizta, in the Wartigau province.” He replies. These names like all the rest of the information took numerous conversations to recover.
“Why did it take so long?” I ask again knowing the answer.
“We were evading advancing Russian forces. We would pick a route that would take us through Romania, and then we would run into a battalion of Russian troops or tanks and have to back track and go somewhere else. This process dragged out our trip, putting a strain on our confidence and resources. We went through various villages in Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.”
I am about to ask another question, but my Opa continues,
“It was also quite frightening at times?” My Opa says.
“How so?” I ask. This is a statement I have never heard before.
“Well, sometimes our train would stop in the middle of the tracks, and word would pass through the cars to remain quiet. As we lay huddled in our cabin car we could hear the squeaking and turning of Russian tank tracks, either beyond in an upcoming forest or on the other side of a hill. Everyone in the car looked at each other in those moments, not blinking. I remember my heart beat slowed and I could hear the collective breathing. We stayed quiet until the tank tracks could no longer be heard and then the train would start back up and head in the direction we came from…” There is a long pause. With the darkness upon us the sound of the crickets has become accentuated. “Well, your grandmother is going to start to worry about us.” Opa says, referring to the darkness.
I don’t respond to his statement, I am still relishing in the new pieces of information that I have just received. My Opa never ceases to amaze me, he has sucked me in. A story I have heard over and over again. Just like that he draws me in and in a few sentences he will have me reworking our conversation in my head for the next couple of hours.
Acknowledging his most recent statement I turn the golf cart around and follow the white limestone path back to the clubhouse. I walk him to his car and turn around in the direction of my truck, my head still going over this new confessed emotion. From behind me, I hear him shout,
“Same time next week Mike?”
I turn around, “of course Opa. Guten Nacht.” I yell.