So this week, I return to my grandfather’s story. I left off before my history lesson, with my grandfather in what is now Slovakia. It was there that he had his SS boot camp. His training was held at a Castle a top a hill that the Germans revered as sacred. They called it ‘Holy Mountain.’
He and his division would then be sent to Prague in August of 1944 to squash an uprising by the Resistance.
In September he would get a day pass to Austria’s Vienna. My grandfather remembers the sheer size and western feel of the city. It was a place of complete wonderment for him. It was a far cry from the grain fields surrounding Nikopol or even the modern city of Lodz.
Following this, he was allowed to visit his family back in Aschaffenburg, Germany. When he was sent to Slovakia for his bootcamp his family stayed in Germany. During his training they had to move. The reason for this I am still unsure of and during my research and conversations with my grandfather, he could not remember why they moved.
When he returned from training to Aschaffenburg he was unable to find them.
My grandfather remembers sitting down on train tracks just outside of the city’s train station and crying.
“Michael, I had lost my family.” he told me once during our talks.
A woman approached him and asked why he was crying. He remembers for some reason she spoke to him in Polish. My grandfather was able to communicate with her because during his time in Lodz he learnt Polish.
He responded by saying he could not find his family. Whenever I hear this story, I for some reason think of this woman as an old grandmother type, wearing a babushka and pushing a cart.
Anyways, my grandfather told her that he could not find his family.
She responded that he should travel just down the road to Amerbach. Just a few days earlier many people had moved there.
My grandfather remembers kissing the woman and running to the next town. It was here that he was reunited with his family.
He would stay there until he was recalled for an ‘important mission.’
Today we know it as the battle of Bastogne.
So here it is…
“So my big guy, very early in the morning on December 16 we loaded in hundreds of trucks supplied with ammo, guns and an entourage of tanks and broke through enemy lines.” My grandfather says as leans his weight on mine.
We continue to walk the short distance from the outdoor patio table that was placed underneath the overgrown draping willow tree of my mom’s backyard to the concrete deck that rolls out from the house. The sun has finally risen to a place in the sky where it can break through the numerous branches and leaves and unleash some of its strength. The family breakfast was pleasant and simple celebrating my 21st birthday.
There was a light breeze that brought with it fresh fragrances of the night’s previous rain and basil and rosemary from my mother’s herb garden. Once the table was set and everyone was seated, in addition to the spices, the aromas of my Oma’s fresh biscuits and muffins as well as my mother’s homemade cinnamon buns and chicken spinach keish wafted in and around our noses.
After feasting, and after the dishes were cleared and everyone had parted ways and my mother had gone into the house to clean the kitchen, my Opa lingered and began with his stories.
“Was it an eerie feeling?” I ask returning to his previous statement.
“No, not so much, with thousands of troops surrounding you, there was no sense of fear, there was so much to do, you didn’t have time to dwell on that. You had a mission and objectives to complete, which made it feel noble and exciting.” He says, as I sit him in a cushioned lounger type lawn chair. “And on the first day we made such advancements the Americans didn’t know what hit them. It was only when one was alone that one had time to reflect on the day’s events.”
“Where did you leave from?” I ask, again knowing some of the answers. I was trying to get in a groove asking set out questions.
“We were stationed in Bonn, eventually advancing into the forests surrounding Bastogne.” He sighs finally getting comfortable in the summer chair.
“It must have been cold?” I ask, kicking some loose gravel from the patio floor to the grass.
“Oh, yes it was very cold, especially for me.”
“How do you mean?” I ask, curious as to where he is going with this thought.
“Well, my boots were too small, and I had a high instep so I could not double my socks. My feet were so cold and at one point my commanding officer thought I was going to lose some of my toes.” He replies coughing. It was that type of cough where you can hear phloem dislodging from inside the throat.
I tried to speak, but he interrupted me continuing the anecdote.
“You know sometimes on a very cold night I will wake up with pain in my toes, turn over to your Grandmother and say ‘at least I am not in Belgium.”
“Was there not any bigger boots for you?” I ask returning to my interrupted question.
“There was, but I was so stubborn and too proud to have bigger boots. If I wore bigger boots they would stick out from the rest of my uniform and it wouldn’t look right and I needed to look in tip top shape.” he says chuckling.
“Were you always in trenches and foxholes?”
“No not all the time, we went through both open fields and forests and villages and little towns. We always were moving, always repositioning our artillery and V- rockets so their planes couldn’t find us. I think this is what kept the Americans on their toes. We used to attack them with everything we had. See Mike we surrounded them in the forests of Bastogne and cut off their supply lines. Our commanding officers always told us that this would be the attack that would avenge our lost brothers and put us into folklore and push the Tommie’s back to the Atlantic.”
He pauses; his previous statement was told with such bravado and energy like he was reenacting the very words his officers had told him that he needed to catch his breath.
“Our artillery was set to explode just before impact. It would shake the forest and deafen the ears and in between the bursts and amongst the ringing one could hear the shouts from our commanding officers.”
I found it odd that he was telling me this, a violent wintery event, amidst perfect summer weather. The sun was now almost at mid point, everything was green and full of colour and the things my grandfather were telling me seemed bluish, dark and cold.
“Did you and your fellow soldiers think the war could be still won?” I ask returning myself to the cold.
“Of course we did, but it was a mixed feeling. At times of advancement we were full of excitement and hope, and our Commanding officer, Hauptsturmfurher Postma, my commanding officer from the East, always told us that Hitler would be getting us a new weapon that would help win the war and this was repeated to us in the broadcasts that we heard.”
My ears perk up with recognition of his Captain from the East.
“But when the radios fell silent and it was just us enlisted men in our foxholes, reality set in, we knew the war was lost.” He continues.
My mother opens the patio sliding door and heads to the table still under the tree and removes the table cloth, preventing it from flying away with the light breeze that was blowing across the yard. She shakes it and then heads back into the house through the same sliding door. She smiles and hums a quiet melody while doing so.
“Were you always at the front?” I ask continuing on the conversation.
“No, we spent two weeks at the front and then went back to Bonn for a few days and rested up. That was quite enjoyable, there were lots of German people still there and we were treated like heroes; free drinks, meals and everyone wanted to be in pictures with us when we were in full uniform, it was quite a great feeling.” He responds running his hands over his knees.
A Blue Jay flutters around the large willow tree before landing on the main trunk where it pecks at a piece of peeling bark.
“Once we went back for a second tour was when things started to get bad.” He says bringing my attention away from the crowned blue bird.
“What do you mean?”
“Well Mike, you should know this, around the time of our return to the front, Patton and his third army arrived to Bastogne and if it weren’t for him we would have won.” He replies flicking his fingers as if to toss something away.
“Were you fearful of his tanks and attacks?”
“Oh yes, the shaking of the forest had now been reversed and our tactic of moving about was not at all successful. It became very frightening.”
“Did you have faith that you were going to get out alive? Did you think about Tamara, maybe having a family, returning to the river, the sand dunes and the fields?” I ask.
My Opa hesitates, “Faith? No. Hope? … yes we all had hope, but we never looked so far ahead, everything was a day by day thing, life was not so philosophical Mike- it was war, we saw everything as black and white, life was regulated. It was something that we adopted very early on in our training. But again with all that said, after the artillery guns were turned on us we began lose that feeling of hope. Without hope none of us volunteered for anything anymore.”
“What do you mean volunteer?”
“Freiwilling,” he replies in German. “Often it was asked for volunteers to take on dangerous missions, and we began to leave that to the younger inexperienced soldiers who wanted to have their shot at winning medals.”
“Younger?” I say aloud, raising my eyebrows.
“Yes there were many who hadn’t fought much yet and we gladly let them volunteer. A lot of good boys died.” He replies quietly, before another throat clearing cough.
“How were you injured?”
“Well, a few days before New Years, we were in our foxholes on one end of a forest. There were these ditches or anti tank dikes that were in a clearing, only about twenty feet from the other side of the forest. These ditches were wide at least ten feet and were sloped down another seven feet. My foxhole was at the top of one of these ditches, so we could look out over the clearing and the rest of the forest. It was in the middle of the night that everything happened. It was just me and Alex, the gunner and Petr the second gunner in our trench. About ten minutes earlier we had sent a barrage of artillery at them from behind our trench line and I remember looking into the sky at the stars, watching clouds move about, when suddenly there was a flash of light from a flare being shot into the air. The flare and the sound of Alex putting the gun into battery startled me. The flare had burnt out and I remember all three of us huddled together in the darkness. I remember we could hear whispering below and the next few seconds still feel like they lasted a lifetime.”
My Grandfather’s words become quiet and the wind that fluttered earlier through the leaves and branches of the willow tree has now died and I creep closer to my Grandfather’s chair.
“It was a black spec that rose up into the sky and fell on top of us. Petr yelled and jumped back, and there was another flash of light and I was thrown into the air.” He pauses again, re positioning his glasses. “After everything was over, I remember Alex wasn’t moving, just crumpled on one side of the trench and I was watching Petr trying to stand up and then he was walking around in circles until he found what he was looking for.”
“What was it?” I ask, having been pulled into his story.
Again my Opa hesitates, and suddenly I feel foolish for not having realized what it was. “It was his arm.” My Grandfather says coughing again. He clears his throat and continues his speech, but now much clearer, “Anyways I was taken to a field hospital in Wurzburg and the rest you know.” He says.
I can tell by my grandfather’s mannerisms that he has had enough of talking for today. The story of his time in Bastogne and the loss of his fellow comrades has sparked an emotion.
I run my hand along his back trying to comfort him. For an instant I smile, once again having the ability to see my grandfather’s heart on his sleeve.
That is enough for today i think to myself. My Opa sits up and together we watch the blue jay flutter from tree limb to tree limb.