This week in my grandfather’s story, I continue by moving to his military training. Last week like I mentioned, I talked about how once he and his family moved to Germany from Poland he was conscripted into the German Army and then transferred to the SS. In March of 1944, he was sent to the former Czechoslovakia for his basic training.
The following is a conversation between my grandfather and I in his backyard.
“How are you feeling Opa?” I ask as I sit next to him on the patio chair.
“Good, my big guy, but you have to tell your Oma to stop worrying about me… I’m sick, I am not dead,” He says smiling. He pats my knee. The sun is almost at the end of its day and my Opa tucks his blanket tighter around his legs. It was a rare day; perfect, there was not a cloud in the sky; the wind had been light, but strong enough to keep away the pesky mosquitoes. The temperature did not rise above twenty-five degrees. And because of the day I think my Grandfather does look better, some color has returned to his cheeks and he doesn’t look so ghostly anymore. He is wearing his gold Rolex today, which is another good sign and he has combed his grey hair, shaved his wrinkled and weathered face, while also having trimmed his curling ear hair.
Together we sit on the concrete patio of his once glorious home. He has told me many times that this house was the first on its block. The roadway stopped right after his property stakes and there was only forest. The thick wooded areas are long gone and in its place elaborate homes and estates. I guess that is what forty years will do to a neighborhood.
The monstrous oak that centers the yard has finally died. Every five years or so another limb would die until finally last spring the final arm did not wake from the winter. Now three wood duck houses are nestled in the trees branches, welcoming the migratory birds every spring. This year two families of ducks hatched little ones; they parachuted from the nest and waddled their way to the clay river bed of the Assiniboine. The flowerbeds are still in order; there are still sun daisies, daffodils, hostas, lilies and even a lady slipper. There might not be as many as there used to be, and there might be weeds choking the blossoms, but the yard still catches one’s attention.
My Oma will still walk me through it, showcasing her plans and ‘little’ additions; she will still pick flowers to brighten her kitchen, peppermint for teas and onions for salads. But like my Grandparent’s health, the house and yard are aging. The once vibrant red colored patio at the back of the yard is weathered and rotted through. Paint flakes off and blows away with the wind, and weeds and ivy have overtaken its wooden planks. The little red wagon that held rosemary and sage, wheels squeaking when pulled, was brought into the garage for repairs, but hasn’t returned to its place next to the flower beds. The summer patio gatherings have become too much work and the barbecue sits dormant. It’s difficult to admit that things are not as they used to be.
He called me early this morning, stating he had remembered the name of the city where he had his boot camp. We have made it to the spring of 1944 in our timeline of his life. What is interesting to note is that I have heard most of the stories before, but I have grown up since and I can see the stories finally will as well.
“I think it is almost time to cut the grass again Mike.” My Opa says, air slow in his chest as he exhales.
“Yup, I will get to it tomorrow.” I reply.
“Anytime Mike, whenever you have time.” He says which is followed by a body shaking cough.
A couple of sparrows sing as they dart around the centering oak tree. Chasing each other, they rest on a bird house in the back right corner of the yard.
“So Opa, you were saying that you remembered the name of the town in which your training took place?” I ask.
“Yup, my big guy! Bystrica was what it was called. It was such a gorgeous place, located on a very fast-moving river… the Hor River, I think. It was in the middle of a long and narrow valley encircled by the three different mountain peaks. Amongst one of these mountain ranges, amid rivers, creeks, and wonderful hiking trails we were stationed. The area was called Amolholstein, or ‘Holy Mountain’. Mike it was heaven on earth.” He replies.
“Did you enjoy the training?” I ask.
“Oh yes, it was great Mike, it was so adventurous. For the first time in my life I felt like I belonged to something, I felt very patriotic,” my Opa says. He repositions his blanket and then continues, “We were barracked in this castle located near the peak of this rather large hill that overlooked the valley and every morning we would wake up to the sound of singing. We would march out of the castle and run around its borders as part of our physical exercise. In the afternoon we would have instructional classes and target practice.” He pauses again. “Oh but Mike, we never went anywhere without singing, that was my favorite part and these songs were beautiful. If they didn’t get you going in the morning nothing would. Instantly the lyrics and melodies would cause your chest to puff out, you would stand straight and feel noble in saluting your commanding officer, the flag and the fuhr.” The sun has fallen to the point in its decent where its orangey glow has blurred out my Grandfather’s face.
“What division were you apart of?” I ask, raising my hand, trying to shield the sun from my Opa’s eyes.
“We were part of the Waffen-SS, the Hohenstaufen, second division; ‘The Fighting Zweite’s” he says with a chuckle. “Actually, by fluke it was part of the same division that occupied Nikopol two years earlier.”
This is one of the things I find difficult to hear, the same division that was in his hometown – was the same division that plucked his schoolmate Lisa from her family and shot her alongside a ditch. It was also the same division that caught Tamara, and then arrested him and almost beat him to death. But still he wore the uniform and fought for them. It is another thing that is difficult to process.
“What was your role in the platoon?” I ask.
“I was the third gunner; I was in charge of carrying the machine gun and ammo and then retrieving more ammo when it was needed.” He says.
A chipmunk disembarks from the Oak tree and scampers across the yard in the direction of the bird bath, located in the nearest flowerbed. Disappearing temporarily amongst the tall flowers it emerges atop the saucepan like pool of water, dipping its little paws into the water it begins to bathe itself. Without saying anything to each other the small ‘backyard dweller’ has caught our attention. As the chipmunk disembarks from the basin I return to my questions.
“Did you think about Tamara, Nikopol and the Dnieper while you were training?” I ask.
My Opa pauses, his breath shallow as he thinks over his words. Leaning forward, his shoulders hunched, he answers almost in a whisper,
“Of course I did Mike, I thought about Tamara all the time, I wondered if she was ok, if she was still in Nikopol or if she had moved on somewhere else. And yes I thought about the river. I missed everything about it, the walk through the tall grasses, the tiny beads of grain moistening my hands as I brushed by,” my Opa mimics the motion with his hand and continues, “the smell of the morning dew, I missed the swimming, I missed chasing the floating watermelons, lying on the beaches and the radiating warmth of the sun on my skin after a long day by the river.”
My Opa leans back and the sun returns to block his face. I smile merely for an instant, with the ability to see the humanness of my grandfather’s response.
“While you were in training did you receive the infamous SS tattoo?” I ask returning to my ‘holy mountain’ questioning.
“Nope, I didn’t, I was preoccupied with something else that day,” again he chuckles.
“What’s so funny?” I ask.
“Well, it all started with this ‘Comrade’s Evening’, it was part of our graduation party. We drank beer, recited poetry and sang various songs. All of us were supposed to recite a poem and then drink a beer, and when it came time for my turn, I recited the first thing that came to mind. You should also know that we had a real hard-nosed commander named … Badenweiler…
All day we sing, march and are merry
But it is too bad that our commander is such a fairy.
Needless to say, Badeweiler was not impressed. He asked me, ‘Harry I thought you were one of the only intellectuals in my company, how could you read and write something like that? I thought you had some intellect?’ I said to him that ‘it was part of my intellect’.” My Opa laughs aloud, his voice carrying to the back of the yard
I marvel at my Opa’s ability to recite word for word this 65-year-old poem.
“After running sprints around the castle into the early morning hours, I was left to handle breakfast detail and it was that morning when our platoon was getting its tattoos. So I missed it.” My grandfather says.
My Oma appears from the house holding glasses of her iced tea and after placing them on the table next to us and smiling she returns to the house.
Sipping the tea my Opa continues, “But Mike, a lot of my unit didn’t get their tattoos that day, for it was interrupted with the announcement that the Allies had landed at Normandy.” My Opa stirs in his seat and his voice becomes hoarse. “We were told that it was estimated that over 8000 fellow comrades were lost. It was an extremely sad day, and I felt guilty for having made fun of my commanding officer. Later we held three minutes of silence for our lost brothers in arms.”
This was a tough one for me to hear. I am not entirely sure why, but perhaps it was from seeing a sign of remorse for 8000 people, who during the war had carried out the same level of bloodshed years earlier if not worse. What about the people they had killed in combat, what about the innocent civilians that had died and what about the extermination of the Jews. For some reason I let this bother me. Usually I would be elated in seeing this new emotion that my grandfather is displaying as well as the fact that he has provided me such a dated fact in history like the Normandy invasions with his graduation ceremony from the SS, but his response struck a chord within me.
“Looking back now Opa, do you feel weird about all of that?” I ask.
“What do you mean, weird?” He asks.
“What about the people who you and your fellow soldiers would later kill in combat? Didn’t you feel guilty for that, for being a part of something when knowingly so many innocent people had been killed? Surely that number far exceeds the 8000?” I say. I can’t believe how suddenly and fervidly the words come to fruition, but I guess my questions like the stories are growing up too.
My Grandfather is silent for a few minutes.
“They were still lives lost Mike, but believe it or not, not everyone knew what was going on, and even if I had known, I wouldn’t tell you about it.”
With this last statement and through all my inner thoughts the yard has become silent, even the sparrows that darted around earlier have ceased their joyful song…