Un-Liberating

Following on the coattails of what was one of the coldest winters in Europe, the devastation of the second World War was drawing to an inevitable close unbeknownst to the prisoners of XVII-B. The warming afternoons led Harold to think maybe he would finally be able to go home and see his wife. He’d have a decent meal, he thought. He’d get his teeth fixed, and put on some much needed weight. And he’d never have to deal with a goddamn bed bug again in his life. But, Harold wondered who would come save the men from this prison? 

Food seemed to be running out, or at least unbelievably sparse. Almost a thousand men were too ill to participate in mustering on the parade fields – no less leave – their barracks; Some prisoners voluntarily gave up their beds to accommodate the sick, and bunked up more bodies to the remaining beds, like Harold experienced the previous summer. He missed the summer months. He thought of the lake houses, of water skiing and fishing in Seaford with Artie. When Harold got back home – whenever that would be – they’d have to go straight to the summer house. 

The men were roused early one morning in April. The SS were yelling at them to put on whatever shoes or gear they had available – they were leaving the barbed wire walls. The men were, at first, skeptical, especially after Commandant Kuhn stole their gear and food only a year earlier. Some hesitated. It was cold and dark, and they were frightened. However, the Germans had a plan to follow the death marches of the northern prison camps. What started in January and February, Allied prisoners were evacuated to avoid liberation and forced to march to their deaths in the bitter German winter. Even in early April, some nights found themselves at freezing temperatures; these soldiers before Harold and those imprisoned at XVII-B were already walking through temperatures that reached 13 below. 

After learning of Russian forces steadily making their way west, the only leverage these SS had – the prisoners – were at a risk. The guards used the dogs to put the soldiers in line, left those who were too weak or ill to carry themselves, and they filed out of Stalag XVII-B for the last time. Harold grabbed what he could and found some familiar faces to walk with. This was the beginning of the end – end of what? He didn’t know. He simply walked – marched – out of XVII-B, and it was uncertain if he or any of the men were in fact marching to their deaths. They were all malnourished, improperly dressed, tired. They were tired of hurting, of war, and of prison. Harold knew, though, that he wasn’t tired of living. 

“Leave them.” A guard motioned to sick men in the infirmary barrack. The medic was ordered to leave. “We don’t need them coming with us; they’ll die soon anyway.” 

The medic protested at the inhumane treatment of the ill. That winter left about 1,000 men too sick to function and now they were ordered to be abandoned in the camp without medical attention. The guard could not be swayed. He ordered the medic to abandon his post and march on with the rest of the soldiers. 

“They’re grown men, they can look after each other. Your attention will be required on the journey, anyway.” 

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. 

Setting up for the Long Winter

A prisoner died in his sleep that night. Whether he was taken due to starvation, cold, or if he just gave up – Harold didn’t care to know – it didn’t matter. Another life was gone. Another solemn ceremony was held and a man was given a memorial. A stone was placed on an ever-growing pile to symbolize his presence in the camp, to show where the world cracked open and seemingly swallowed up these thousands of men and obscured them from the rest of the world like some kind of alternate universe. Harold shed a tear of remembrance, a pledge that he – along with other prisoners – wouldn’t let the truths of XVII-B die. A chaplain said words in the name of God, and for the first time, those words felt powerless and small; Broken glass against the wall of winter that presided over the camp.  

The men piled in for dinner to find potatoes in hot water with cabbage again.

“Ah, spud soup. How generous.”

“Is there any Jerry butter around for these chunks of bread? This is bread right? Or are these rocks?” One of the prisoners held a piece of what looked like bread. His elbow on the table, he delicately balanced the morsel in his palm. Then, he turned his hand over and knocked the bread three times against the table. It was rock hard. 

“Come in,” he said. Those within earshot chuckled. 

“You got spud soup? I got beetle soup,” another said. He lifted his bowl to the others and tilted it downward. They could all see, floating around on top, a beetle. 

“Boiled down, at least,” another said. 

Harold chuckled along with the men and forgot for a moment that he was also eating the same spud and beetle soup, and that his bread was also like a rock, and that the Jerry butter had the same awful taste it did when he arrived in July of 1943. He forgot for a moment there was no parchment to write home to Loretta, and that the Red Cross hadn’t delivered in weeks. He was not yet broken, and he was amazed at how many of the men around him were also holding on to something – whether it was hope, comradery, vengeance – it didn’t matter. They took their licks together,and they ate their awful soup together. They kept each other warm; they died, they suffered, but they shared it all the same. If he were able to write to Queens, that is what he would talk about. 

The night drew on and the prisoners settled into their familiar bunks. The scratchy straw beds felt a little harder in the winter – but, in exchange for the cold, they at least experienced less insects. Harold drew in a deep breath and exhaled mist that illuminated the darkness above him as he stared up at the bottom of another bunk. An occasional crack was heard where a fire burned, but not for much longer. Bundled and ready for another evening encased in the chill of Austria, the prisoners dozed slowly at first, then all of a sudden, taken by the night.   

Making the Most of it

The cold stirred around the barracks and it forced the men to stay close, bundle more, and pray harder. It truly was the winters where they were grateful for overcrowding. Harold lay awake and wondered how he managed to pass over a second winter behind the wires of XVII-B – how the war seemed endless. 

Harold had not sent a note home to Loretta in weeks – nor had he received one back. He was unable to find parchment to write on; he didn’t know if the camps ran out of paper to send, or if the war was preparing to come to an unforeseeable halt. Or, in the far reaches of Harold’s mind, he feared he might not live much longer. The barracks, although filled, felt skeletal. The men were the bones, rattling and somewhat hollow, left behind after the decay of their imprisonment. After the sun set each day, hollow coughs and mist from mouths cracked through the bunks like the gunshots that no longer fazed Harold. When the sun did shine, it felt medical – prodding, invading the forsaken places of thousands of prisoners who wanted nothing more than to be home. 

Along with missing parchment, Harold noticed his own food rations dwindling. The Red Cross had not made a delivery in a suspicious amount of time. As he observed the rest of the men, Harold noticed everyone’s rations were scant. They were trading – not just more frequently – but frantically, almost. 

“You got some canned hash?” One man dug through his bunk for something to offer just in case he found himself lucky. He would have given up a pair of socks, maybe some smokes. But he was unlucky. They all seemed unlucky. 

“I sure miss my gal. I wonder what she’s doing right now.”

 Harold lay in his bunk, talking to whoever was sprawled out near him. It was much too cold to venture outside unless completely necessary. He had finished the two books Loretta sent, and eyed them next to his bed, debating whether or not to pick one up and give it a second chance. Anything to take him away from the barracks once more, even if he was visiting a familiar scene.

“I miss my mama’s cooking,” another chimed in and interrupted his daydream. “Some pork and beans. Maybe a nice fried egg. I’d love a fried egg.” 

Harold felt his stomach growl and agreed. “It’s certainly been too long for an egg.” He thought back to Sunday breakfasts at home with all his siblings. Pop would make breakfast on Sunday so Mama could have a day off. More important than the food, he tried his best to remember the warmth of twelve people all around a table – Harold and Arthur always next to one another. Arms overlapping for eggs or bacon or bread – everyone in a hurry to eat but no one in a rush to finish. Harold held onto the warm thoughts and wiggled his toes, just to make sure he could still feel them in their socks. His big toe poked out of a hole. Mama could fix that, he thought. 

The afternoon bled into the evening and the sun went down without so much as a notice from Harold. The men ate their rations – ever-smaller – and returned to the almost warmth of their barracks. It was apparent the guards knew something the prisoners did not, and whatever that was might mean either the end of the war or the end of the men. The Red Cross seemed to disappear almost completely, the guards seemed more on edge, and the suspicions of the enlisted men became palpable. There was an increase in manpower focused to the east, and Harold dared to think that maybe Allied troops were somewhere beyond his line of vision, coming closer. 

An Hour with my Grandpa

“No, no. That was bullshit. See? I wrote there, bullshit.” And there it was, in all its glory, the shaky handwriting of my 97-year old grandpa populating the margins of a World War II story he was given.

Bull

Bullshit

Not true

He handed me a stack of paper in a plastic folio, color printed and donning the emblem of his old bombardier group he was with for the duration of the War up to, and following, his capture in Germany. The initial bullshit in question was a paragraph referring to the prisoners of Stalag 17B – a notorious prisoner of war camp located in Austria (watch the show) – and how they were rationed roughly 54 pounds of coal per day in order to warm their barracks. He and I sat side by side on the couch, while i frantically scribbled in pen his story of the barracks; Anyone who is close to a veteran of the war – any war at that –  knows the value and importance of these stories. And not just, “I was in the war (insert place and time)” but rather the experience stories, the ones that merit a thousand-yard stare and suddenly you as the listener are beside them in their own personal hell. Living with my grandpa for three years helped me to understand his night terrors, and how the war affected him almost 70 years later. It made me more motivated to listen to him, and value his stories and document them.

I saw his eyes drift into another plane, like an out of body experience, grabbed my pen, and prepared. He would systematically look down and acknowledge and make sure I was writing, smile at me, and keep going.

“54 pounds of coal. I can’t believe it. Where did he come up with that number? Hell, I was lucky to get two – a couple of lumps to warm me in the damn winter. And that part about the Red Cross….” He pointed to the next line marked bull and paused while I watched him relive cold Austrian nights in prison camp.

“We had an outhouse….we’d call it the shitter. 150 of our guys – English, American – all crammed in this barrack, and the shitter was in the middle. It was overcrowded, and it smelled, and I didn’t shower for two years. I didn’t brush my teeth for two years. I lost teeth.” He looked at me, flashed his dentures, and stuck his pointer finger in his mouth, mimicking a tooth brush.

“Anyway, the shitter was covered in wood like an outhouse would be, but you know, we’d get cold. We didn’t have anything to keep us warm; they took so much from us. A guy here, a guy there, one by one would take a piece of wood off the shitter. Next thing you know, we’re all shittin’ in front of each other. Who cared? We had to survive…we had to survive.”

I put myself there. I placed myself in this overcrowded camp, full of filth and disease and downtrodden men, and goosebumps covered my neck. Two years. Two years of hell and back for this man.

“The Red Cross would give the English their care packages, and the Americans theirs. It was never much, and it would only usually go to one guy at a time, last you a week maybe. We all shared our care packages….cigarettes, vitamins, whatever they could give us. When I was in there, I got the jaundice real bad. I didn’t know, because I never really looked in a mirror – but all the guys were asking me, ‘Harry, why’s your eyes so yellow? What’s wrong with your skin?’ The English men gave me an English care package, full of vitamins and vitamin C. I got better, I was real grateful.”

Through the squalor these men took care of each other, and this was the first time ever that my grandpa opened up about the prison camp. He remembered the layout of the barracks, the rations, the food, and the liberation. He remembered the Long March, and the pain in his eyes said so much more than his words.

“I wish I wrote down more of those days, it would be important for people to know about the march. It was so cold, we walked and walked for…I think…maybe 28 days. We didn’t have barracks anymore, we barely had shoes. I slept under a horse carriage some nights, and we stole vegetables from people’s gardens to survive until we got to where we needed. I really thought that was the end for me – out there marching – I didn’t think I was going to make it home to my girl.”