So after two weeks of some CreComm adventures I return this week to my grandfather’s story.
I left off last time with his participation in the Battle for Bastogne. In early January my Opa was injured and taken back to a military hospital in Wurzburg. There he spent three weeks recovering from the shrapnel he took to the leg in the Ardennes Forest.
Following his stay, the Battle for Bastogne was over and the Germans were on the retreat. The Americans were in hot pursuit and looking for the first time in the war to cross the Rhine River and enter Germany.
In February of 1945, my Opa became a guard at the Würzburg prisoner of war camp. This would be his post until the end of the war.
The following scene is a conversation in Salzburg between Cait and myself.
After taking Cait through Bastogne and northern Germany we decided to take it easy for a while. Both of us hadn’t been to Austria in years and decided that Salzburg was the best place to relax.
Salzburg is one of my favorite cities. Its classical elegance and ‘baroquian’ characteristics are felt throughout the city. There are rolling arches, lavish gardens, fountains and buildings painted in soft colors. Walking through Mirabel Palace I finally understood what my professors’ from way back were saying about the era’s artistic exploration of form, light, shadows and dramatic intensity.
Outside the Palaces and churches into the tightly woven streets, restaurants and shops are jam-packed into every nook and cranny. The Salzach River which runs through the city and heads north to the German foothills and Alps add to its enchantment. I took Cait one afternoon to one of the many little shops; a store dedicated to Easter eggs. The shop was overrun with thousands of hand painted eggs and various decorations. I couldn’t resist and like my Opa did for my Oma, I purchased a couple of pink and baby blue eggs wrapped in ‘raincoat yellow’ ribbon. She smiled and standing on her tip toes kissed my chin.
Two doors down from the Easter egg shop Cait wandered into a shoe store and purchased a new pair of birkenstalks for me. She cited “that it was time to let these ones go,” referring to my ‘well traveled’ leather sandals. The leather strap on my right was torn, the soft fabric cushion was nonexistent and the rubber heals were worn razor-thin. At the end of the street, after slipping on my new apparel, we shared a piece of Mozart Kugel cheese cake accompanied with espresso. “This is my Opa’s favorite.” I told her.
After two nights in Salzburg we headed to a small town just outside its limits called St Gilgen. It was a place I had never been to before; pure tranquility. It was a resort town nestled along the Wolfgangsee and then wedged in a valley of the Austrian foothills. We stayed in a Zimmer Frei, which was more like a cottage then a hotel and on our deck in the early morning after our run, sipped coffee, ate black bread with marmalade and watched the fog descend from the peaks that surrounded the town. The fog was thick and hovered above the water. Geese and ducks flapped their wings along the shores preparing for the day. Doves cooed in the juniper bushes along the narrow gravel roadways that circled the lake. Their song echoing across the rippled waters, I felt as if I was back in the Whiteshell at our family cottage-waiting for the smallmouth bass to bite…
On our second morning in St Gilgen, while we waited for the fog to dissipate, I began once again with my grandfather’s story…
“What did he do after Bastogne?” She asks, curled up with her coffee.
“He became a guard at a prisoner of war camp. He watched over the captured Americans. It was the first time he was exposed to English.”
“Was it evident that war was lost?”
“Oh yes, at that point everyone knew it was just a matter of time. At the prison, my grandfather became pretty friendly with the Americans.”
“How so?” She asks.
“The American GIs just loved him. Of course they couldn’t understand him, but
they respected him… There was only one soldier who my grandfather was able to speak to, a Polish man from New York. Back home he was a taxicab driver and together my Opa and him would talk in Polish. Quite often, my grandfather would give a group of them work detail of unloading rations from train cars and then let them stuff their pockets full of as much chocolate and cigarettes as they could.”
Cait smiles and turns her attention to the lake and the dozens of geese on the tiny rocks along the shore. A lone goose flies over our deck and lands with the others. As it lands Cait returns to her questions,
“What happened when it got close to the end?”
“Well one things for sure is that the Allied air raids increased. My grandfather remembers vividly how the bombs shook everything. As the Americans got closer the raids became more and more frequent. Until one night, the night that turned out to be the last before the arrival of the American troops, the bombs literally fell on to top of them. My grandfather along with his comrade Johann, was ordered to destroy ‘important documents’.”
“What kind of documents?” Cait asks.
“All sorts of things; maps, incriminating orders, shipping records – anything that the allies could use against them later. See the Germans were now trying, in part, to cover up what had been going on all over Europe. In the east, they destroyed the gas chambers, crematoriums, barracks- anything that tied them to war crimes. Of course there were so many communications and so much paper work that covering it up was pretty much impossible. The Germans were too organized and logistical- everything had a paper trail. The stereotype that Germans are always on time and everything always works is true… the day after the Germans surrendered the trains ran on time.”
Cait refills her cup with fresh coffee and returns to her seat, tucking her feet underneath her.
“Anyways, the night before the Americans reached Würzburg, the bombs were dropping everywhere. My Opa remembers the thunderous roar of the planes, the whirling air-raid sirens and how everything in the city glowed bright orange. The Nazi headquarters in Würzburg was an old nunnery and it was my Opa and his comrades job to empty out all the files and burn them.” I pause for a moment to also fill up my coffee cup. “They filled up this truck with files and while they drove down the road, they had to dodge the exploding shells. Johann was driving the truck and on one explosion, he nearly rolled the truck. My Opa tells me that they then lost one of the file cabinets and had to stop to pick it back up. My Opa got out of the truck ran to the files and as he turned around to run back to Johann and the truck, the truck exploded and sent him flying against a wall.”
“The truck was hit?” asks Cait.
“Ya, my Opa remembers just sitting against the wall for a minute, not sure where he was. He would eventually make it back to the prison, where the next day he was taken into custody by the Americans.”
Cait shifts her weight in the chair, “How long was he held for?”
“He would stay imprisoned for about a month until one day, as he was leaning against the prison fence, who does he see, but his taxicab friend. They chat for a while and the New Yorker goes and talks to his commanding officer and tells him about how my grandfather snuck them extra rations and so on. So they release my grandfather into the custody of this New Yorker’s commanding officer.”
Cait laughs, “Did your Opa remember this guy’s name?”
“No, that was one thing over all my conversations that I was never able to find out.”
“Oh, that’s too bad, because wouldn’t that be something to find out and research.”
I smile at Cait and her enthusiasm for the story.
“He would then work in an American Army kitchen for a couple of months; scrubbing dishes and learning bits of English here and there… At the end of his time there, my Opa remembers this big fat American cook coming up to him and saying, “Harry, you’re a good german, you’ve done your time. Now I can’t pay you, but here is something for your hard work.’ This cook led him out of the kitchen and displayed an army regulation motorcycle.”
Cait laughs once again, “They gave him a motorcycle?”
“Yup, and because you couldn’t buy gas anywhere, they even gave him a military issued gas card that he could use to fill up at any depot. My Opa vividly remembers travelling the open road through Germany all the way back to Ammerbach to his family.”
“He was free?” Cait asks.
“Yes they released him in August of 1945, the official wording on his discharge paperwork was that he was being released as a ‘young follower,” I say.
Geese once again fly above our deck as I take a sip of coffee…
A young follower; a person who grew up in Nazi Germany or Occupied Nazi Germany and knew a life of nothing else.