An Easter interlude …
This story has two connections … The first is the idea for the setting which came from a contribution in a WW2 official government publication; “As You Were” … one of many such publications put out during and after the second world war from the Australian military … The writer was T.G.Hungerford … the article was “Last Entry in Red” (As You Were; 1950). I have shifted the setting for the tale to the retreating German army and the Russian front.
The second connection is from a story told to me by an acquaintance many years ago about her father and his best friend, who signed onto the Czechoslovakian resistance in the 2nd WW as sixteen year old boys … the incident described in the story below about the young boys happened to the father.
It went like this …
Kapitan Kemp’s Diary
My name is David Groetz, I am a teacher of German at the college. A week ago my neighbour at the units where I live stopped me outside my door as I came home from work.
“Ah, Mr Groetz!” He touched my sleeve.
“Yes?”, I didn’t remember his name.
“Mr Groetz … excuse me … I have a little problem … a bit of translating I would ask you to do … seeing as it’s in your line of work, so to speak.”
He was an old man so I obliged him to look at the “bit of translating”.
“You see,” he commenced as he handed me a slim note-book, very old and rather damaged. “It is from the war … yes … I took it from the hand of a soldier that I had shot … yes … in an attack of course.” he hastened to reassure me “I was with the advancing Russian army chasing the Nazi retreat.” he explained.
I eyed him wearily. I wasn’t keen to get caught up in another war epic, so I sighed and placed the slim note-pad on the table while I prepared a coffee in my unit to which we had both adjourned.
“Why do you wish to translate it?” I asked.
“Curiosity” … the old man shrugged, “that is all … curiosity and … I am growing old and a small thing puzzles me about the soldier I took that note-book from.”
“You are puzzled by a dead man after all these years” I gazed at him quizzically.
“Yes … I tell you … ”
He sat and clasped his hands together in front of him on the table.
“I was a corporal with the Soviet army and we were chasing the German retreat out of Russia. Myself and my platoon advanced upon this post, an old foresters hut within a clearing in the forest. As we crept up to it, one of the sentries gave a cry and we attacked with grenades … I came in from the left flank and took up a position behind a thick stump of a tree Just as I did so, this soldier, the Kapitan, ran out of the door close to me and turned away from me.
“Stoi !” I yelled … “Halt!” but he just looked at me, turned away and ran … now this is the queer thing … he ran not to cover, but rather to the centre of the clearing, out in the open!”
“Halt” I shouted again but he kept running toward the centre of the clearing, so I opened fire and he stumbled but kept on going forward the most … most sad, hopeless expression on his face and finally he fell, almost relieved, I couldn’t help but think, into this sward of … of “fialki” we call them … white violets … and as I ran up to him I saw that he, with his last strength, sort of embrace an armful of these violets and as I stood over him I heard him murmur with his dying breath, “Liebling … mien liebling.” I took this note-book from his hand there and then … I have always wondered if that captain was mad or if there is a clue in the note-pad, for he had no gun on him, only that book … and he looked so very determined when he ran toward those violets.”
I raised my eyebrows appropriately at my neighbour’s story and said very well, I will look at it and translate that which is readable.
“I know it seems a trivial thing … yes … but … I am an old man now,” he sighed as he passed through the door “and I feel I must know about that captain and the answer, maybe is in that book.”
The writing in the note-pad was very faded, in most places illegible. But I thumbed through it just to satisfy my neighbour. It was toward the last few pages of transcript that I found a reference to the flowers that the captain had died in. I translated those last few pages for the old man so:
From Kapitan Kemp’s Diary
Violets!, violets! can you imagine that mein liebling, violets as pure as the snow they break through! who would have thought this cursed Russian countryside could produce something so beautiful. They reminded me immediately of you my dear, after all, you share their name: “Viola” – violets. I say your name to myself so as to relish your memory and hope for the time when I will see you again … perhaps now that the flowers have bloomed maybe spring is here enough for us to get out of this place. The men are of high morale considering the circumstances … I have my orders to hold the ground at all costs and to remain until further orders come through. It is not Berlin here … but …
Things must be moving fast at the front which is god knows where by now. At night the sky is a veritable bonfire. The men are jumpy, but on the whole, disciplined, although Sergeant Richter reported some rations missing, he suspects one of the two young boys (Klaus and Dieter) of taking them. He wants them disciplined, but I have my doubts it is they at all. I will look into it, I tell him and he grudgingly dismissed himself. I worry about Richter, he always seems to find trouble among the men.
We have four peasant soldiers in the unit and they are a very morose lot, they say they can feel death approaching … fools … they call death: HE. “He’s around about”, one of them would say mysteriously nodding his woolly head or, “He’s coming for sure”, when we’d get a barrage of artillery. I had to command them to “shut-up” that kind of talk. Just then some artillery howled away over-head toward the distance:
“Those’ll be ours” I lied to boost their morale, but the sergeant just looked at me strangely so I said, “eh, sergeant?”
“Yes”, he replied quietly, “ours … yes sir,” but I don’t think the men really believed me.
The violets are springing up in a big patch in the middle of the clearing … they look truly wonderful … like the terrace garden in that little park at the end of our street … Ach! that I could be there with you now. Dieter and Klaus couldn’t have stolen the rations, they are too simple, too honest both with me and with each other, like twins, mere boys … maybe sixteen, no more than …
Enemy snipers have moved forward, one of our peasant soldiers shot dead yesterday, means their front is approaching, still no word from H.Q. The men are nervous, it’s the waiting, waiting that gets at them, at me too, not sleeping much at all. A message from Post 12 on my left flank half a kilometer away they are getting short of supplies, could I afford to send a few? Am getting low ourselves, can’t get to the bottom of this thieving business … have secretly assigned corporal Schmidt to observe the store surreptitiously night and day! Sent what food I could spare back with the messenger … shouldn’t weigh him down in the snow!
Every evening I am going over to the patch of violets … “the Kapitans’ flowers”, I have heard the men giggle behind my back, but I don’t mind, indeed it is just that … my violets … my Viola! I go there and kneel next to them on one knee and slowly sweep my hand through … they are so soft and yielding … tonight as I was there thinking of you my darling, one of the young boys … Klaus … came and stood behind me and addressed me so that I almost got a fright, but I kept my balance.
“Sir,” he called softly (I think he respects my solitude … he is a good boy).
“Yes”, I replied without turning.
“The men were wondering if they … we, could have permission to tune in to a home broadcast tonight … Sir.”
He stood rigid to attention there … those others must have sent him as they know I have a soft spot for the “children” as I call them sometimes. Ordinarily I would never permit such a thing, the ordeal would be too upsetting, hearing songs and talk from back home while stuck here at the front. but tonight for some reason I acquiesced.
Tonight I feel for the first time I will never see you again … forgive me this cowardice.
What a cursed day! That bloody radio program last night did just as I suspected it would; it upset the whole camp, it was all I could do to call the men to order this morning. It started out alright, with a bit of news and a few “bar room” songs that had the men stomping their feet and singing along, I even wished I had a few steins of beer to give out … and a few buxom barmaids to serve them!! But then after a pause in the music for a bit of talk, a new song came over. The woman singing, I have to admit had, if not a wonderful voice, a voice very coaxing, very gentle, almost caressing tone about her, and the words and music crept deep into my mind, my heart, and the men quieted down with that song and no-one looked to each other anymore, they all gazed down at the little fire we have in the middle of the floor.
Oh! her voice, it was like yours my love, like yours, like my mothers, like … like … all the women I have heard … like home … ya, like home … maybe soon eh?.
Corporal Schmidt reported on who is stealing the supplies. He noticed the soldier creep quietly out from the sing-along with the radio and go outside … he followed him and saw him take a portion of the rations to a hiding place just away a bit in the woods. The thief is Sergeant Richter! Yes, surprise, surprise, although he has the eyes for it. And he would have seen the young boys punished for it! A cruel man. I shall have to deal with him soon.
More Violets! Yes even more. I think of that song the woman sung last night: “My legs grow strong, My pack is light!” Yes, my heart too is light at the mere thought of you, Viola, are you waiting for me like Lili Marlene? .
Things go from bad to worse. No sleep at all last night. Although same could be said for most of this week. I am at my wit’s end, and the men feel it. Still no orders from HQ. … is there still a HQ.? … are we forgotten here? … But must stay … only cowards and the stupid desert their posts. And seeing as I’m not about to become a fool, and I pray God for courage, I shall stay, but feel now there is little hope. The war seems all around us, the night is forever ablaze! Shall I ever touch your soft skin again as I touch the violets Will you ever yield to my love as do the violets to my hand? I day-dream often of my family, but then wince away the memory, for I have my duty here although my heart has already fled away.
Sadness, waste. Dieter is dead. Sent a patrol out to scout for the enemy front and they were ambushed. Dieter was shot in the stomach and fell screaming at Klaus’s feet. Sergeant Richter tried to get Klaus to take cover but he would not leave Dieters side. They returned in an awful state with a few others minor wounded.
“I told him Captain,” Richter explained. “We must go … we have to leave him, we are under fire! But he would not leave his side, bloody fool could’ve got us all killed … ya … ya. I know Dieter wasn’t dead, but we couldn’t carry him in his condition and we couldn’t stay.”
“Well, what did you do?” I asked
“Me? … Nothing … not I, sir.” Richter shrugged, and then turned his gaze slowly to the boy … god, only a boy. “He did it” Richter said softly.
“Did what?” I demanded fiercely.
Richter just put his index finger slowly to his, temple and made a gesture with his thumb. Klaus just stood there in shock … only a god-damned boy …
“With his rifle?” I asked.
“Nien … Sir … ” Richter wet his lips “I gave him my Luger.”
I looked at Klaus just standing there, a boy, they send us mere boys to be brutalised so … I lost my temper at the futility of it all and grabbed Richter by the throat and thrust him against the wall.
“You … you made the boy do what you … a grown man … an experienced soldier and commander should have done” I was speechless with rage … “You made him kill his friend while you looked on … lent him your Luger … lent – him – your – bloody – Luger! … his best friend for gods sake! … ” and I shook him and shook him and I think I might have throttled him if I had not heard a sobbing sound coming from Klaus that caught my anger and brought me around. I let go of the sergeant slowly and turned to look at Klaus who was standing loosely to attention and his shoulders shaking and trying his hardest not to cry … The boys had signed up together … just a boy …
“We had to go, Captain … ” the sergeant continued, still fallen against the boxes where I had pushed him. “We had to go … and besides,Sir … besides .. he too is … is now … a soldier … Sir.”
I turned quickly to address this thief, but words would not come to my mouth. I dismissed him to get him out of my sight. Klaus I kept a while longer.
I did not go tonight to the violets.
All is over, I can hear small arms fire out at the enemy front and to my left flank, presumably the other post I sent the food to. Speaking of which, I finally dealt with Sergeant Richter. I discover from one of the men that he was going to desert us and also that he had been selling our scarce rations for money for this adventure. I could have shot him myself, but this would have unnerved the men so I wrote a dispatch to the commander of the post on my left flank:
“Commander, the man who delivers this dispatch to you is named Sergeant Richter. He is a liar, a thief and a coward. Execute him immediately” … I signed it; “Captain Kemp.” and I put my official seal on the envelope. I called Sergeant Richter.
“Here, sergeant.” I kept my face stony, but it was giving me pleasure, though I hate to admit it.
“Take this dispatch to the commander of post 12. See that he receives it personally.”
“But, sir.” He shifted his feet anxiously. “It is getting toward evening” he cowered. I raised my eyebrow.
“What I mean Sir.” he shifted ground. “Seeing as it’s getting dark and it will be night by the time I turn around to come back … would it be alright for me to stay there the night?” I laughed to myself cruelly … I laughed;
“Why, yes … yes sergeant … you will stay there the night.” and I saluted him off.
As I write this I am becoming more and more sure we have been forgotten by H.Q. and I am almost of the opinion that we should pull back toward our own lines. Yes! I feel certain of it as I write this. Indeed, I will finish this entry then give the order to abandon post! Yes mein liebling, soon now I will come home to you, I promise. I will be there in time for the spring and together we will touch the violets, and maybe also then you will yield to my love … All I now ask is to have the chance to see you again, just for the joy, please God, please, plea … ”
End of diary.
(translator – Groetz)
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