Liberation

The men lined up and Harold stood among a crowd of cold and frightened souls as he prepared to walk forward out of the open gates of Stalag XVII-B. It all felt like a trap. He spent so many months dreaming of the day where he’d never return to that horrendous place and as it was happening before him, he couldn’t help but feel it was still a dream. He held close whatever he could carry and kept craning his neck to make sure there were other men following in the same direction. They all looked unsure, but they knew they had no other choice. The cold lingered while the fog began to lift over XVII-B, and the prisoners breathed through in heavy huffs as the hell they endured grew smaller; the faces of the sick hung in between the barbed wire fencing like old portraits until Harold could no longer discern them.
There were whispers that the prisoners were destined for Braunau, to get as far away from Russian forces as possible. They followed the Danube River, unable to stop unless it was to sleep for an hour or two. 4,000 or so men split off into groups of up to 300 men, and within those groups they delegated themselves to parties of three or four – one to gather wood, one to gather food, one to guard the food, and so on. As they passed through fields and private farm lands, food gatherers such as Harold would pull root vegetables straight from the ground, wipe the dirt off, and eat them raw. Turnips, potatoes, carrots – whatever they could find was more of a delicacy than the slop that was served by the Jerry’s back in Stalag XVII-B. Harold bit hard into a carrot, his teeth aching from two years of no toothbrush, and thought how grateful he was to never have just hot water for breakfast – or boiled cabbage for dinner, or muddied black coffee – again. He continued onward, marching through mud and fields; he imagined he was marching home to Loretta. He envisioned the cottage on the water, the smell of salt carried on a warm breeze. The thoughts took him back to his early days at Keesler Air Force Base and the muddy Mississippi. It seemed like forever ago to him. He wouldn’t have to write her letters telling her everything was fine before going to bed with hunger pains. He wouldn’t have to tell her that he was in good spirits after seeing innocent men shot dead before him. He’d never have to kill – or watch someone be killed – again. Even with the freezing nights in German territory beating down on his head and face each night, Harold continued to think of her. He would pull into Jamaica Station and this time she’d be there, waiting for him. Her hair would be curled and her lipstick would be a bright shade of pink. She’d have her tea length dress on that he liked, and she’d be so excited to see him that she would consider running onto the train herself, because she just couldn’t wait any longer. Then, that night, he’d lay next to her in bed, and he would do that every night for the rest of his life. He never wanted to be away from her again.

Keep your eye on the Doughnut

I rang the doorbell three times before a nurse let me in the building, only to meet me in the hallway and tell me I was the first to know, and that my grandfather just died. What immediately followed was something I experienced when I watched my mother – his daughter – die seven years ago: tunnel vision, loss of breath, silent and uncontrolled sobs. My aunt arrived not two minutes after. We said our goodbyes to Harold in his bed, finally at rest and home with Nan, with my mom, with my family dog who died only four months ago in September. He was reunited with his identical twin, Arthur, who died in 1943 on a PT while Harold sat in prison camp in Krems, Austria.

I feel like I’ve become a professional at death and grief; the state of being dead is not what scares me, though. I am not afraid to kiss a recently-departed loved one on the hand or forehead one last time. The process of dying – the suffering, the pain, the uncertainty of whether or not that person will be around for three more days, or two – is what eats at me. Since January 9th my soul has felt heavy while my life has felt emptier. I will miss Thursday morning physical therapy appointments, grocery shopping, holding hands in the car, and singing old songs. I will miss him there in my life. It is something that I know I will get through, but I am not quite sure how yet.

I don’t even really know how to explain my grandpa when people ask. After newspaper interviews and his eulogy I still conclude that that he was – simply put – a good guy, because if I spent the amount of time I wanted to talking about him a whole year would pass before I was done. He died just a week shy of his 99th birthday, born before sliced bread and lived long enough to build the World Trade Centers, watch them fall on television, and watch Tower One be rebuilt. Harold lived long, but he lived. He lived enough for three lifetimes, and I was lucky enough to hear his stories and to commit them to memory – those moments of invaluable tales of war and love and sayings that I will write down and give life to until the day I myself am dead.

He always told my brother, cousin, and me, “As you ramble through life, Brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.” As silly of a quote as it sounds, I finally understood what he meant. Harold wanted us to keep our eyes on the good, not the bad; on love and forgiveness, not hate and grudges; on the sweet stuff, not the void. He was infectiously positive and kind until the day he died, and I always found it difficult to understand especially when our visits were peppered with war stories that – when told – would take him far away, back to 1943 and prison camp. His liberation from camp seemed like his only victory, but even in his stories, there was something positive to shed light on.

One tale in particular – and the one I shared at his wake when delivering his eulogy – has become affectionately known as the “egg story.” In March of 1945, as the war was coming to a foreseeable end, and Russian troops were closing in on Stalag XVII-B in Austria, Harold, along with about a thousand other soldiers, were forced to march along the Danube River with Berlin as the goal, in one of the harshest winters on record in Europe. He spent two years with meals that included hot water, black coffee, boiled cabbage, and sometimes nothing at all. He watched bunk mates’ faces and bodies ravaged by malnutrition, bed bugs, sores, and disease. And still, he along with many others were seen “fit enough” to march, maybe to Berlin, most likely to their deaths. The end of the war was certainly near, but the end of their lives was also looming overhead.

Harold told me one day in June of 2018 that as the men marched through fields and farmland they would pull vegetables out of the ground and eat them without washing them, simply for nutrition. They operated mostly in groups of three – one man to collect firewood, one to guard the food, one to find the food. Harold was the food finder. He would pull carrots, potatoes – anything he could find – to share with his two companions. He told me of older German women who would hide bread in the bosoms of their aprons and break off small pieces to throw at the feet of the soldiers, who scrounged and ate quickly as to not anger the SS that flanked them with guns and vicious dogs. Even in that time of horror and uncertainty, he still encountered kindness and humanity of strangers; he had hope to continue on marching. He had the belief that he would hold his wife again, his childhood sweetheart who he married on June 1, 1943, only to be captured July 30th that same year.

In his search for food, Harold came across what he described to me as “a German-speaking, Polish slave-girl.” She was on a patch of farmland that had animals as well as vegetables. He approached her and put a hand in his pocket, producing a sewing needle that he held onto from a British Red Cross care package he received earlier during his imprisonment when he had scurvy. He extended to her the needle, and told her in broken German, “Ich habe eine nadel,” which translates to, “I have a needle.” The young girl accepted the needle and handed him an egg, the first egg he held in over two years. Harold joyously returned with the egg to his two companions and split it between the three of them, a meal he described to me as “the best meal I had in two years.”

Pain and suffering is relative to each person and situation, this is a given. But tears poured down my face to see how such a simple act, and such a simple meal could bring out hope and humanity in a man who otherwise was stripped of everything. He lost his bomber jacket, teeth, weight, and yet he was so grateful and rejoiced in the tiniest of victories – the egg. He could have easily kept it to himself, but chose to share it with two men he might never see again. He ate that egg as if he knew it wouldn’t be the last time he’d taste one, and I can personally vouch that Harold had an egg almost everyday for the duration of my 28 years. The war and the suffering bore a giant hole in Harold’s future, yet he kept his eye on my grandmother, on freedom, on the doughnut.