The afternoon sun felt warm on our uniforms, and the air was filled with the smell of pines. I had hitched my backpack onto a log and leaned against it. Cradling my rifle in my arms I dozed. It was early in May of 1945, my last day as a “soldier of the Third Reich.” We were about fifty in the field gray of the German Wehrmacht who sprawled wearily in a grove of tall pines.
We, an assortment of soldiers from different services, had been brought south from the Baltic sea to help in the defense of Berlin. Our last formal stand had been at the western edge of the town of Oranienburg, north of Berlin. There we had dug in and were supposed to stop the Red Army’s advance with our Italian rifles, vintage World War I, and fifty rounds of ammunition per man. Our entire company had one of the remarkable 1942 machine guns. Though capable of firing two thousand rounds per minute, its barrel got so hot after a few bursts that it required changing. We had one spare barrel. From our foxholes we had heard the thunder of the artillery and the whine of the rocket launchers in the distance.
Just at the eastern edge of Oranienburg was one of the Nazi concentration camps, Sachsenhausen. Its inmates had been removed before our arrival. Marching toward town we had passed the still figure of one of its dead inmates by the edge of the road. Our first encounter with death. We had motioned to each other and had marched on. There was no stopping or falling out for a burial.
One evening our platoon was called to clear the concentration camp of anything useful: food, shovels, picks, whatever. We marched through town in a loose formation. Night was falling. But for the rumble of the advancing front in the distance and an occasional flare illuminating the sky, the deserted town was clothed in an eerie silence. Suddenly we were ordered to halt and fall into ranks. Our company commander stepped forward and announced: “Today the Fuehrer has died in the front-line defending Berlin.” [This was the official version announcing Hitler’s death to the German people.] Did we react? Comment? I don’t remember. We continued our march. Only after the war did most of us find out about the existence of Eva Braun and about their joint suicide.
It was fully dark when we reached the concentration camp and entered it through a gap in the fence. Flashes of artillery fire lit up the cluster of barracks almost uninterruptedly. I was standing near the door of a shed. Someone handed shovels to me which I passed back to my comrades behind me. Opposite the shed, and not far away, was a high earthen wall. Suddenly a window in the shed shattered. I heard small arms fire. The whine of bullets and mortar fire were coming closer. Holding a shovel I stood paralyzed. With the suddenness and clarity of a revelation I felt that this was the end of a world as I knew it. I understood that the war had truly been lost by Germany. Like that window, the ideals of my young life, the belief in and all the devotion to the German nation, the Reich, and its leaders, were shattered in an instant. They fell off me as one flings a cloak off one’s shoulders. I suddenly saw what had been so clear for so long to so many, that all the talk of a final miracle, the final wonder weapon, had been a blindfold to keep us in our naiveté, to maintain our blindness built on years of indoctrination and fired by our youthful enthusiasm. Immobilized by my grief, grief over the loss of a world as I knew it, I remained standing in the open without attempting to take cover. Though I was aware that something could hit me, I was thinking: “So be it.” How long did this paralysis last? Minutes? An eternity? With the command: “Leave all equipment! Withdraw!” I came to my senses.
On the hurried march back to our position, reason and a sense of self-preservation took over. How stupid of me just to stand there! I could have been shot! And for what? I began to understand why we never had come into any close contact with the enemy. Already way back in February, we had withdrawn after our first and ever so brief contact with the Red Army. And that had yet been east of the Oder River. What were we but a motley group of soldiers: green cadets without any combat training, sailors without a ship, thrown together with a few seasoned officers and non-coms from the remnants of an infantry division, inadequately equipped and even less adequately trained. Those in charge had managed to survive years on the eastern front where the mortality for infantry was forty percent per year and who now were determined to get west as fast and with as few losses as possible. Hopefully one could reach the Elbe River and surrender to one of the advancing Western Allies. To become a POW of the Soviets raised the ominous specter of years of exhausting labor and perhaps death in the frozen vastness of Siberia.
Just before we arrived in the pine grove we had contact with Red Army soldiers, apparently just a small group of them. We had seen some brown-uniformed figures moving among a stand of birches. There had been a brief exchange of rifle fire. I had taken cover behind one of the larger trees, very deliberately aimed at a moving brown figure and fired. It was the only shot I ever fired in combat. I am sure I missed. We had some casualties, however, and four or five of us had to be carried on roughly made litters, stout branches with a tarpaulin slung between them. One of us, a cadet like me who had been in the same squad since boot camp, was lying on the ground. His name was Bayreuther, from Fuerth in northern Bavaria. He was an only child and his mother lived alone. Widowed? He pointed to his groin and said: “They shot my leg off. I am bleeding to death.” He spoke so calmly, nor could I see any torn clothing or blood; it seemed unreal. I had just begun to put pressure on his groin when his eyes glazed over and he quit breathing. After I returned home I sent a long letter to his mother, care of the main post office in Fuerth, with as detailed a description of him as possible. I told her of our time since boot camp and of his death. I never had a reply, but I hope the post office was efficient enough to find her. We were ordered to go on and I had to leave him as he was. Another cadet, a tall, lanky fellow from Berlin, who also had been part of our group since boot camp said: “Bayreuther never smoked. He had at least four hundred cigarettes in his pack. At least we should have taken those along.” We were fatigued, hungry, and dulled indeed.
Now we rested in that pine grove, unaware yet that our life as soldiers of the German Wehrmacht was about to end. The grove was in what seemed to be a military installation. A partly completed wire mesh fence surrounded it and through the trees we saw the outlines of a shed. Suddenly a Soviet truck appeared. It screeched to a stop, reversed, and backed off as fast as the driver could. We were too tired to react. Not a shot was fired.
“To your feet! Attention!” our commanding officer ordered. He was a first lieutenant of infantry, decorated with the Iron Cross in gold. Since this morning’s skirmish his left arm was in a sling. He gave the military salute, not the Nazi salute as had been the order since the attempted assassination of Hitler on July 20th, 1944. [I had been in boot camp at that time. We were on a field exercise when we were ordered to draw up in formation. Our master sergeant called us to attention, then gave the Nazi salute. We were puzzled: for him to make such a faux-pas! He was wearing his cap. Until then it was military etiquette to give the military salute when wearing a cap or helmet and the Nazi salute only when bare headed. He told us of the assassination attempt and of Hitler’s order that from now on the Nazi salute was the only salute to be given.] Seeing now the military salute given again, startled me, but it struck me as the right thing to do.
“The Soviets will soon be here in force,” he said. “I am going to remain with the wounded.” He said that all who can should try to make it to the West as the Americans were on that side of the Elbe River. “You are hereby discharged from the German Wehrmacht, and you are hereby absolved from your oath of allegiance to the Fuehrer and the German Reich. Dismissed.”
Without looking back we gathered our gear and ran into a nearby pine thicket. There we stopped and threw away anything that may hinder us; the gas masks, our backpacks, most of our ammunition. We kept the cigarettes, what little food we had, and our rifles. Someone pointed the way west. Suddenly the chainlink fence barred our way. Here it was at least eight feet high and topped by a double strand of barbed wire, its stakes bent toward us. Somehow the fence failed to be an obstacle. First my rifle, then I went over the top and dropped to the ground on the other side. Several of my comrades followed. Afterwards I marveled at the ease with which I had climbed that fence without even a scratch or a tear in my clothes. We raced across an open meadow toward a pine thicket on the far side and took cover in its protection. A few shots were fired in our direction, then all went quiet. Panting we fell to the ground and took stock. We were five — two navy cadets like myself who knew each other since boot camp. They were both from Berlin and also school friends. The fourth, a small, young man, was a mechanics mate from a mine sweeper and at home in a village in Mecklenburg which eventually became a part of communist East Germany. The fifth was a staff sergeant, also from the navy, whom I had met earlier. He came from Bad Rastenberg, a small spa town about twenty miles from Weimar. My father had practiced there as a general physician before taking his specialty training in pediatrics and settling in Weimar. This staff sergeant remembered my father; he had been his patient as a child. Out of an army of millions he and I had been brought together again on that fateful day. By this time it was late afternoon.
Fortunately the days of May in 1945 were consistently sunny and warm. Did nature feel she should not impose any additional burden on a time of turmoil and suffering? Or did the sun want to greet the new era in our lives with all its splendor? The nights, though, were still cold with brilliant stars. Like the moss on the north side of the trees and the height of the sun by day, at night the stars served as bright beacons to point the way west.
Toward evening a stream too wide to jump and too deep to wade stopped us. One of us could not swim. We intertwined fallen timber with young branches as a makeshift raft, stripped, and ferried our comrade and our gear safely across. It took three trips, and the water was cold.
Colder, however, were the nights. Like deer we moved mainly at night and stuck to dense cover during the day, but there were times when we absolutely had to rest. We had only the bare ground to lay on. Scraping together what fallen leaves and pine needles there were for insulation we laid down, one close alongside the other. We dozed. We shivered. When the ones on the outside could no longer stand the cold we traded places. In this fashion we managed to get about two hours sleep each night.
The closer we came to the Elbe River the more populated the country became. Once, at night, we stopped at a lonely farmhouse, and the people gave us some bread. They urged us to move on, however, as they feared Soviet patrols. Slowly, but steadily we worked our way west. Along the way we encountered a civilian couple hiding among one of the many pine plantations. They were from Berlin trying to flee from the Red Army. He was a physician, and his rucksack held the scientific papers of his life’s work. They traveled with us for a couple of days. One night we had to cross a meadow with a creek running through its center. Crossing it someone fell. The splash alarmed a Soviet guard and machine gun fire erupted in our direction. While we ran for cover on the other side of the meadow the civilian couple were scared. “Nicht schiessen,” —don’t shoot!— they called out and remained at the ditch. We had been taking turns carrying his backpack, and I was carrying it at that time. I quickly threw it off my shoulders and called out to him where I was dropping it. Later one of our group said: “You should have held on to his backpack. He had half a ham in it.” I was appalled. After all, it had contained all his scientific work. Did he ever find his pack? What happened to the contents?
One morning, the last of our days in uniform, we approached another isolated farmhouse. The mechanics mate knocked at the door and was promised a pot of potatoes. We were told to go up a hill and hide in a hayloft. They would bring us the potatoes. We found the loft. It looked inviting. We yearned to fill our stomachs, cuddle into the hay, and sleep. But our comrade who had knocked at the door was leery. Somehow the people’s behavior made him suspect that they may let the Soviets know about these German soldiers hiding in the hayloft. He urged us to go on. It was now full day, but we had no choice.
In the early afternoon we crossed a major road. We were just about to disappear into the woods on the opposite side when we heard shouts behind us: “Stop, drop your weapons!” We obeyed and raised our hands. When we turned around we were facing two civilians pointing their rifles at us. They were not Russians, but Poles, probably former Polish laborers brought to Germany by the Nazis to work on farms or in factories. They now had been armed and were helping the Soviets round up German stragglers.
Tired and hungry I stood in a stupor while they searched me. It never occurred to me, nor obviously to any of the others, to resist. I had a knife with a fixed blade on my belt and a small camera in my pocket. They took both, as well as any ammunition. They had no interest in the more than one thousand marks I was carrying on me. Way back in February at our last position east of the Oder River, two of my cadet friends, in fact the two with us, and I had rummaged through an abandoned military truck. We had found what seemed to be the regimental purse and, expecting the truck soon to fall into Soviet hands, had split its contents three ways. The money was going to pay for my first semester at the university.
Our captors were quick and efficient in their search and rather matter of fact. Though they spoke fluent German they made no slurs, never called us names, or otherwise gave abuse. The one taking my camera even took out the exposed film and gave it back to me. “I don’t need that,” he said handing me the roll. They told us to go south along the highway to the nearest town where the Russians had a collecting camp for German soldiers. We started down that road.
On the way we passed overturned army vehicles, deserted houses, and gardens. Here and there a few people stood along the roadside, watching us silently, without greetings, comments, without words. A horse-drawn wagon driven by a Soviet soldier passed us. Staring straight ahead he sat stiffly holding the reigns. On the back sat another one, facing backwards, his legs dangling. His face was full of wrinkles and his cap pushed back over his graying hair. In one hand he held a chunk of bread, in the other a large piece of cheese. He looked at me for a while, then motioned me to come up to him. He broke off a piece each of bread and of cheese and handed them to me. In broken German he said: “Boy; you home! Home to mother!” With my steel rimmed glasses and my beardless chin —though my comrades all wore several days of stubble— I probably looked to him not any older than perhaps fifteen years of age. He waved to me as the wagon rolled on. I shared the food with my comrades. This had been my first personal encounter with a Soviet soldier.
To our surprise one of the houses along the road was full of people. It was getting dusk and the sergeant said we should stay there for the night and go on in the morning. Was I too naive? Or was that old drill to obey orders still with me? “But we are supposed to go to the next town to that camp,” I said. I was told to shut up. We were going to stay. “Yes, sir,” I must have thought and stayed. My two other cadet comrades could not be convinced, they insisted on going on. Berlin, their hometown was not far away. Would I not also have insisted on going on if my hometown had been that close? One at least did not succeed. In 1952, just before I left for the United States, I heard that in 1951, six years after the war had ended, one of the two, the physically stronger one, had finally come home from Siberia. I do not know what happened to the other one. Chances are he also was taken prisoner. Did he survive? He was physically not very fit.
All the people in the house were women, most fugitives from the eastern provinces overtaken by the advance of the Red Army. On the steps sat a Soviet officer, handing out cigarettes and chatting with the people as if he had come for a visit. His German was fluent. I stood in front of him in my field gray uniform. He sat a few risers up. Our eyes were level. I noticed his polished black boots, his brown uniform with the hammer and sickle embossed on the gold colored buttons of his tunic, and his stiff, visored cap with gold braid. He inquired where we were at home and did not the least appear concerned that these three former German soldiers who were supposed to go to a camp in the next town were getting ready to spend the night at that house. When I mentioned Weimar, he told me he had read Goethe in school. I was impressed. After a while he left and we went inside. Every room was full of people. It was impossible to tell who were the owners, if they were around at all. We went upstairs. The mechanics mate rummaged around in the attic and came back with some old clothes. He gave me a pair of dark brown trousers and a partly torn, once-white shirt. He told me to change. Then he disappeared with our uniforms. When he came back he said that he had buried them deep in the manure pile. “We are not going to that camp,” the sergeant said. “Yes, sir,” I said to myself.
By now it had gotten dark. We laid down on the bare floor in a large room upstairs. Around us were several woman also trying to get some sleep.
During the night a young Soviet soldier came and shone a flashlight into the room. “German soldier, come,” he said. “No, no,” said one of my comrades, “we are not German soldiers. They left long ago to go to a camp.” I still had not caught on and was about to say something when my comrade brought me to my senses with a swift poke of his elbow. Obviously the Russian soldier was satisfied with our answer and seeing the women in the room had other thoughts. He turned to one of the women: “You, Frau, come.” “No,” she said, “this is my man,” and tried to huddle against the mechanics mate. The Russian did not take “no” for an answer. He pulled her by the arm: “You come.” She shrugged her shoulders and left with him. After a while she came back. “He took me into the barn,” she said, then laid down. We all knew, what had happened.
We left at dawn. Someone gave us directions toward the Elbe River. We should try to get to the town of Wittenberge, perhaps the bridge across the Elbe was still intact. Steering clear of the town with the collecting camp we made our way along field paths and side roads. The Soviet military was hardly in sight. Whenever a vehicle of theirs approached we just stepped off to the side of the road but made no attempt to hide. The towns and villages along our way were half deserted. People who had stayed, tried their best to appease the conquerors. All sorts of “red flags” were hanging out the windows, even if it was only a red and pink striped bed sheet or pillow case pinned to a window sill or the door casing. Some even used the former Nazi flag. One could still see where the white center with the black swastika had been and how with the help of a pair of scissors the emblem of the anti-Communist Nazis had been converted into the red flag of the victorious communists. It did not take much to switch from one dictatorship to another. Already the first banners with their slogans also stretched across the streets. As during the Nazi times they became a standard fixture of political propaganda. Golden letters on a red field proclaimed: “Comrade Stalin is the greatest friend of the German people.” Others had quotes by Lenin.
Nothing betrayed us as former German soldiers as we marched along in our threadbare clothing. Not even our shoes. We had been issued ankle high laced shoes instead of the previously common “Kommiss” boots, hobnailed, and with wide tops for the trousers to be tucked into. I still had my thousand marks. The weather was sunny and warm. We only lacked food, and still being in Soviet occupied territory left us with a constant unease.
In one town we were in luck. An attempt to establish some civil government was being made, and in one office we could obtain a certificate stating our names, and that we were on our way home. With this certificate we qualified for a food ration card. It was a large pink sheet, subdivided into many little squares. Each square was good for a few grams of bread, of flour, or of sugar, and a few even for meat. Within a couple of days these ration cards would be buying two of us more than food. To our surprise we found a bakery which had started to bake bread. Money was no problem. We had plenty of it, and the prices had been fixed at pre-war levels. On the outskirts of that town we passed a destroyed cigarette factory. People were rummaging in the ruins which were littered with yellow leaf tobacco from Bulgaria. I found an old burlap sack and scooped up as much as I could. Eventually the supply would last me into Fall, more than six months. We had neither pipes nor cigarette paper, so any paper had to do. We smoked cigarettes rolled from news print, even toilet paper, the hard kind in use at that time in Germany.
One night on this journey we stopped at a village where the staff sergeant had acquaintances. How? I do not recall. But he and the mechanics mate had known the two women in the house from before. Soon there appeared a bottle of liquor and I was taken to an outbuilding, a small hut which contained a single bedroom. I was told that there was no room in the house for me. The bed was comfortable, though smelly. I crawled in my clothes under the feathertick. It was the first bed I had slept in for months. During the night I was awakened by a Soviet soldier coming into the room.
He completely ignored me, and I pretended to be fast asleep. He rummaged through the dresser drawers for anything useful, but soon left with empty hands. Others had been here before him and taken anything worthwhile.
Finally we came to the town of Wittenberge. Four days had passed since our “capture.” We entered the town along a main road plastered with cobblestones. Red flags, red and pink bedding, or former Nazi flags hung from every window, and banner after banner spanned the street. The city fathers had gone all out to show their new allegiance.
At a turn in the road we saw our goal: the Elbe River, broad and glistening gray in the sunshine. The railroad bridge upstream had been demolished, and its twisted girders had fallen into the current. Years later a class mate of mine would be directing the team to rebuild it.
We walked along the dike looking across the water. There, on its west bank, were the Americans. There was safety. Once across, we could never be sent to Siberia.
“Don’t think about swimming across,” the locals told us. “They won’t let you ashore. Somebody tried to swim the river and drowned. The current is very strong. They may even shoot at you.”
“I shall swim across during the night,” I said to myself. “I always was a good swimmer,” and I thought of the time when in school I swam in fifty degree water for more that fifteen minutes. My decision was made.
We walked on. Looking longingly across the river we followed the dike to the north end of town. There, at a bend of the river, was our opportunity, though at first we did not recognize it as such. We had come to a small park, a widening of the dike with a few trees. A few benches stood facing the river. Further downstream the dike curved away from the river leaving a large grassy area in the flood plain.
Cossacks on horseback wearing round fur caps patrolled the area. Two of them rode toward a group of former German soldiers, so obvious in their field gray. The Cossacks had drawn their swords and waved them in the air shouting: “Nix Deutsch! Raus!” —No Germans. Get out.— We stayed away as far as we could but in our civilian clothes the Cossacks ignored us. On the meadow men were milling around two American soldiers. The Americans wore black arm bands with the white letters “MP.” In the crowd most were civilians, but there were also some allied soldiers in worn uniforms, liberated POWs. Some wore the earth-brown of the British, others the bluish gray of the French. Everyone, soldiers and civilians alike, were waving scraps of paper in the air while shouting the names of their home country. We heard “France, Netherlands, Great Britain, Belgium!”
A makeshift ferry came across the river toward our shore. Pontoons had been lashed together and a platform of rough boards had been placed on top of them. Guided by an American soldier an outboard motor in the stern of one of the pontoons powered the ferry. It was bringing Soviet soldiers in their olive brown uniforms, former POWs. On the far shore two American soldiers sat in a Jeep.
“Look, this is an exchange of former prisoners.” I nudged my comrades.
“Yes, but don’t you see, they won’t let Germans across.” They pointed to the group of former German soldiers who were still being driven back by the Cossacks.
In the meanwhile the ferry had moored on our side. The Soviet soldiers coming from the west began to clamber off. More Cossacks appeared over the dike and with rough shouts herded their liberated countrymen away across the dike. We remarked to each other how roughly they were treating their own.
The ferry was now empty and the crowd on our side of the river started to move toward it. As they passed the MPs they continued to wave their many colored pieces of paper and shout the names of their home country. It was time for a quick decision. Here was our way to get to the other side, to get away from the Russians. The shouts of the Cossacks “Nix Deutsch!” still rang in my ears. If not German, what else could we pretend to be? My school English or the little French I knew would never let me pass for a native of these countries. Where else was German being spoken? Austria! But that had become a part of Germany and the Austrians had been in the German Wehrmacht, had been German soldiers. But there was Switzerland. One third of them spoke German. If needs be I could even say I was from Bern. I could tell a little about that city. I had been there when I was six years old, and I still remembered the old town and a plaza surrounded by a wall on top of a high rocky area in the bend of a river, and I remembered the cages with the bears, the symbol of the city. I quickly pushed my comrades: “Come on, we are from Switzerland. Wave your ration card and yell Switzerland!” We said a hasty good-by to the mechanics mate. He wanted to stay on the east side of the river and make his way home to Mecklenburg. The staff sergeant and I hurried down the dike, waving our pink ration cards and shouting “Switzerland.” We passed the MPs unchallenged.
The boards swayed under my feet as I stepped on the ferry. I walked to its far end, my eyes downcast, then stepped into the pontoon and huddled myself as deep and as far into the bow as possible. I fixed my eyes on the turbid water as it swirled and gurgled about the pontoon. Every second I expected a hand to grab me by the collar, to jerk me to my feet and off the ferry with the words: “Nix Deutsch!”
After what seemed to be an eternity the outboard motor kicked in, sputtered a second, then caught, and we started slowly across the river.
The ferry ground to a stop on the western shore. Trying to appear nonchalant I got up and mingled with the men climbing off. We passed the Jeep we had noticed before. The two American soldiers in it were smoking, one slouched behind the steering wheel, the other sitting on the back of the passenger seat, his feet resting on the hood across the turned down windshield. They pointed to the crown of the dike with the words: “Red Cross.” A man in the crowd spoke to me in English. I understood that there was a railroad siding beyond the dike with a Red Cross car. Everyone was supposed to go there. Food would be waiting.
Having just gotten safely away from the Soviets and the threat of Siberia the Red Cross car was the last thing either of us wanted to go to. Two hours ago we would have gladly become POWs of any of the western allies, but now home was not only beckoning, getting there seemed to be a distinct possibility.
We lingered to get to the end of the crowd. When we reached the top of the dike I sat down. In full view of the American soldiers by the river I slowly and very deliberately removed my shoes, shook them as if to get rid of stones, probed around in them with my hand, then slowly put them back on. By this time the others had all disappeared. The American soldiers in the jeep paid us no heed. They collected the driver of the outboard and the two MPs who had come with the ferry from the other side and drove off. It had been the last ferry of the day.
The former master sergeant and I were alone on the dike, on the west side of the Elbe River, in the American occupied territory, and nobody cared who we were and what we were going to do.
We stood up and looked around. On the eastern shore the Cossacks were riding away. Between them and us flowed the wide river, smooth, silent, and now brownish-gray. About two kilometers south we saw a village. We started to walk toward its houses, hoping to find food and shelter for the night.
[ I returned to that meadow at Wittenberge fifty years later with my wife Sabra. We had taken an exit from the Hamburg-Berlin Autobahn and driven the small roads toward Wittenberge, seeing in the towns and villages the efforts of restoration and the new buildings which had come within the first years after the German unification in 1990. In Wittenberge I recognized little along the streets, but after we arrived at the dike and parked the car, most was as it had been: The dike at first close to the river, the clump of trees, though fewer than I recalled, with the benches beneath them, then the dike curving away from the river to make space for a large rolling meadow. Upstream was the rebuilt railroad bridge, downstream a new road bridge. At the upstream end of the meadow was now a marina. Small sail boats and motor boats were moored there, and a restaurant stood on a rise overlooking it. The far shore, however, had changed from what I remembered. Where I recalled a firm, grassy area extending toward the dike and where the American jeep had been parked, there was now an expanse of marsh with rather high brush. Fifty years are a long time and the natural forces of the river may well have changed the shore line. An older couple was coming toward us on the dike, the man pushing a bike. I asked him if he was from town and if he remembered the prisoner exchange. Yes, he confirmed my recall. He had grown up in Wittenberge and remembered that on this meadow he had seen groups of men collecting and being transported across the river in the last days of the war. I had the right place.]
The week which followed our crossing of the Elbe River is etched into my memory as one of the most unforgettable and beautiful; it became my most cherished and unblemished experience in life. I vividly recall most every detail, envisioning my walking, my encounters, even at the time of writing this fifty years later. Was it because this was the first time in my life with absolute freedom of action, free of any supervision, commands, obligations, and being accountable to no one? I felt liberated, freed from any allegiance, and freed from fear. I had only one aim: To get back to Weimar. Everything else would sort itself out in time. How to get there was up to me. On the map Weimar was just about straight south of Wittenberge, about 250 km distant. I needed no further directions.
Awakening in the early morning on a farm — the cock has greeted the day for some time already — I hear sounds of restlessness and of subdued mooing coming from the stalls in the barn. “Wo-ah!” I hear a voice over the stomping of hoofs and the crunching sounds of harness and wagon. A gate squeaks in its hinges; a dove coos. Through an overhead window I see the sunlit outline of a roof and a portion of blue sky. I throw off the feathertick.
Still in half-sleep, the events of the day before creep into my consciousness. I see the three of us walking along the cobblestoned road, past the houses all draped with red and pink, the banners in red with their golden lettering above us. Then the first view of the river, the longing and the apparent impossibility to get across. I see the Cossacks with their drawn swords and hear their shouts “Nix Deutsch!” and all these men on the meadow waving pieces of paper and calling out the names of their home country. I see the ferry arrive and I experience again the relief I felt hearing the outboard motor kick in, the ferry beginning to move away from the eastern shore of the river. I look again at the swirling water about the bow and how it changed, very subtly to begin with, then curling up the port side and leaving a wake to starboard —starboard pointing east— How clever of me to think about shouting “Switzerland,” and how fortunate we had been to obtain those pink ration cards. I was proud of myself. How we had separated ourselves from the others with the trick of the stone in the shoe, so blatantly, right in front of these American soldiers! How lucky! Yes, I was going to make it, I was going to get home.
Last evening we had walked along the dike into the village. It was a small village, a few houses and one intersection of streets. We had split up thinking it would be easier to find someone to put us up for the night if we were alone. In the morning we were going to meet again at that intersection.
After we separated and I walked down the street I became aware that I was by myself for the first time since I had entered the service more than ten months before. The farmhouses along the street seemed to present a solid wall. Though each was a separate farm, and each was a complex of house, barnyard, barn, and stables, they adjoined each other. Their yards opened onto the street through a large wooden gate, large enough to allow a wagon fully loaded with hay to enter. A smaller door was inserted into each of these gates, like the door leading into a house or home. I entered one farm though its small door. A woman stood in the yard — tall, blond, her hair in a bun. I told her I was on my way home to Weimar and asked if I could wash up, get something to eat, and sleep in the barn. She was very kind and led me into the kitchen. I had some bread and a bowl of soup. Who was I? Who were my parents? Where did I come from? When did I write to them last, and would they know where I had been? I had already decided not to admit I had been in the armed forces. No, I had been a telegraphist in the merchant marine, and I had been walking from the Baltic Sea. After all I had had some training in transmitting Morse code and knew something about the equipment and procedures. Also — I thought this most important — my hands were not callused which was proof that I had not been on deck as a sailor. [Years ago someone had told me that the telegraph personnel on board were never given heavy work so that they would not get stiff fingers and callused hands and thereby impair the fine touch needed to operate the Morse code keys.] I thought it was a good story. It was obvious, however, that the woman did not believe me, though she did not press her questions any further. I washed under the pump in the yard and then was shown a bed; not crumpled, not soiled as the one during our walk in the east, but with clean linen. It stood on a landing and I had to climb some stairs to get to it. Soon I had fallen asleep.
I awoke early in the morning. My hosts had an atlas and I saw that Weimar was straight south, about two hundred and fifty kilometers, one hundred and sixty miles. It should take me about seven days. I hurried to get on the road, but my right shoe would not fit. It had not been the smartest thing to take my shoes off on the dike after all. I had developed a large blister, it had broken, and now my heel was inflamed, swollen, and red. Yet I was determined to go on. The farmer’s wife found an old wooden slipper with a leather strap. I was welcome to it. I gave them my thanks, said good-by, picked up my burlap bag with the money, the tobacco, and now also my right shoe, and soon was on my way; step-cluck, step-cluck, with my wooden slipper across the cobblestones.
The staff sergeant was waiting for me at the intersection. I told him of my dilemma: I did not know how far and how fast I could march. We agreed to go our separate ways. He started down the road, and I soon lost sight of him. Several months later, after the postal service had begun to function again, I wrote him a postcard. I had no reply.
Unburdened from any care I started my journey in the rising sun of a May morning. It was Monday. The coming Sunday would find me knocking at the door of a friend’s house in the outskirts of Weimar. I started on the road leading out of the village, heading south, step-cluck with my wooden slipper on the pavement. As soon as I could I left the hard surface and walked on the softer grassy strip on its side. Step-swish, step-swish sounded my footsteps in the dewy grass.
I soon came to the end of the village. The dike curved away from the road in an easterly direction. I followed the main road which pointed south and west, my direction. I hobbled along in the dewy grass and soon found a rhythm. This day also promised to be sunny and warm as the entire week was going to be. Not a cloud was in the sky, and the cool morning air felt invigorating. The trees along the road were clad in youthful green. What better day to walk along the fields and meadows. I was determined to leave the main road as soon as possible and walk along the two-tracks and the paths separating the farmer’s fields. Should there be any patrols I hoped that in my worn clothes and with my burlap bag over my arm I would pass for a farm laborer going to or from work. I would skirt the towns and villages as much as possible. Come evening I would try to find an isolated farmhouse and ask for food and shelter. These were readily given, except once, at a small farm on the south slope of the Harz mountains, where they were granted only grudgingly. When I got to the barn, I found out why: Already more than twenty of us wanderers had been trying to find cover for the night there. Later in the evening the farmer brought a huge kettle of boiled potatoes for everyone to share.
The “Mittellandkanal,” —the mid country canal— is a canal for barges connecting the Ruhr valley with the Elbe River, Berlin, and points east. It allows one to traverse Germany by boat from the Rhine in the west to the Oder River in the east. I expected it to be one of the major obstacles on my journey.
Approaching the canal I could see its elevated bridges from afar. I was sure they were guarded. As I was coming near one of the bridges, a farmer with a horse-drawn wagon started to pull out of a nearby field. His wagon was piled high with tools and seed bags. [Farmers working their fields became my main sources of information along the way as to directions, guards to watch out for, and what else might be important.] I went up to him and asked if he was going across the canal, and if there were any guards.
“Hop up,” he said, “There was no guard this morning. But if there is one: here, hold this fork. You are working for me.” We crossed without problems. No guard was in sight.
In the evening of the third day I passed through the edge of a small town. Plain houses, quite look-alike, and each with a small front yard, an iron garden gate, and a stoop, lined the road. An older man was sitting on one of the stoops. I asked him for directions, planning to continue on. He inquired where I was from, then invited me in. He was surprised how far I had walked with my shoe-slipper arrangement. He urged me to stay. His wife made me take a bath and washed my shirt. As dusk fell I sat with the old man on the stoop and talked. In the morning the swelling of my heel had gone down and my shoe fit again. I kept the slipper, however, just in case. The old couple wished me well and gave me a sandwich to take on my way.
This day or the next I crossed the edge of the Harz mountains, a series of rocky hills in the center of Germany. They rise rather sharply, and its main peak, the “Broken” tops three thousand feet. It is the legendary site of the witches dance on Walpurgis night —mid summer’s night— I had stood on its summit of bare and windswept rock as a small child, and I remembered the winding roads, the cool air with the scent of firs, the rocks, and the gurgling creeks with splashing waterfalls. I first experienced them from the open rumble seat of our Opel car on our yearly vacation trek from Weimar via Hamburg to the seashore at Cuxhaven. By the end of the war the Harz mountains had been tunneled extensively. Whole factories had been installed underground. Fortunately my route went east of the main elevations and I had to traverse only the eastern rolling foothills.
In the later forenoon I began to climb. A dirt road wound gently through an immense beech forest. The woods seemed to go on forever. To walk this road was experiencing an almost unreal beauty of nature, as if taken from a fairy tale, in an aura of absolute serenity undisturbed by any other human being; the most beautiful part of the entire trek. The trees were just budding out, the sun was warm but not hot, and its light filtered through the budding tree branches as if falling through ancient Arabian filigree. Barely any undergrowth limited the view through the forest, and in the grassy edge of the road bloomed liverwort and anemones. Birdsong filled the air, at intervals a cuckoo called.
About noon I came to the southern edge of this forest. From a crest I looked down and across a rolling plain stretching from the Unstrut River almost uninterruptedly south, past Weimar, to the hills of the Thuringian forest. The next morning I crossed the Unstrut at a small village on one of its many stone bridges.
I was nearing the town of Eisleben. Here, I had been warned, the American commander arrested all stragglers, be they in uniform or not. He considered them former German soldiers and had them taken to a camp for POWs. I became doubly cautious and stuck to the smallest field paths possible. The area was patrolled by low flying aircraft. The American forces used a single wing spotter plane for this. It flew very slowly and its engine sounded like a sewing machine. Whenever I heard its tok-tok I stopped at the edge of a field and pretended to fill my burlap sack, or I began to pull weeds in a field, anything to make me appear to be a farm hand working.
During the later part of the day I was nearing an intersection of two field paths. It was marked by a giant old tree. Coming closer I saw an American soldier sitting under this tree. To turn around would have given me away, running away was even more impossible. I walked on. When I had come within calling distance I stopped, went into the adjacent field and filled my sack with weeds as full as it would hold. Then I slung the sack over my shoulder, walked up to the intersection, and staying on the side away from the tree, took a sharp right turn and steadily walked on. I did not even dare to glance at the American soldier as I passed him, and I had to control myself not to break into a run. The path led across a small rise, and as soon as I was out of sight of the soldier I dumped the weeds out of my sack.
In the evening I came to a small village. It would be my last stop before getting to Weimar. The next day should bring me all the way. Along the roadside an old woman was cutting grass with a sickle. She was filling a large wicker basket which had straps to carry it on one’s back. I asked her about the village, about guards, and where I might spend the night. “Yes,” she told me, “sometimes soldiers are posted at the entrance to the village.” I helped her fill her basket, shouldered it and carried her hoe. Now I really looked like a local field hand, but no one guarded the village road that evening.
The old woman offered to let me stay over night, but I would have to sleep in the hay over the pigpen, since they had only a kitchen and one bedroom. I slept well and had goat cheese and goat milk for breakfast. It was the smallest place I had even seen. The old woman lived there with her husband. The kitchen doubled as a living area and was so small one could barely turn around. The diminutive yard led to two narrow stables, one for their pig, the other for their goat. Above them was the loft for hay and straw. Two rabbit cages were squeezed into the yard also. As I left in the morning the old couple stood in the doorway and waved.
It was Sunday, seven days since I had crossed the Elbe River. By noon the country became familiar. I planned to keep to the eastern edge of Weimar. From the village of Schoendorf, north of Weimar and at the eastern edge of the Ettersberg forest, I had my first view of the roofs and steeples of Weimar and of the Ilm valley. I experienced a deep sense of relief. I descended toward the village of Tiefurt, about two km east of Weimar and with a bridge across the Ilm River. I had been there as a child quite often and had walked through its park or stopped with my grandmother and her ladies at a restaurant for “Kaffee und Kuchen” —coffee and cake. A road leads from there to Weimar along the east bank of the river. It passes through a small woods, the “Webicht,” before entering Weimar as the “Tiefurter Allee.” I stayed along the outer edge of the woods going south another kilometer toward the highway to Jena. This would bring me almost directly to the house of a school friend. I wanted to stop there first. The house was one of the last ones at the edge of town and just across the highway from the woods. It had not taken me long to develop a sense of caution and for cover.
On the way I met a group of boys and girls sitting in the grass. I inquired of them if they knew what had happened to some of the prominent people in town. They did not know, but it seemed quite safe to go into town.
It was now about two o’clock in the afternoon. I traversed the remainder of the woods, crossed the highway at my friend's house, rang, then stepped through the wooden garden gate. The father of my school friend appeared on the steps. He was a tall man, but standing on the steps he seemed to absolutely tower over me. Seeing me in my ragged clothes he frowned and said harshly: “What do you want?”
“I am Klaus Hergt,” I answered. He stared at me a moment, came down the steps and put both hands firmly on my shoulders. “Menschenskind!” —“By God, it is you,” he exclaimed.
I had a bath. My clothes were burned, and I was loaned a pair of my friend’s shorts and a shirt.
Then I went home.