By Karl-Heinz Radde, Dresden, 1996
Translated by Leslie Riggle, Wichita / Kansas, USA
Text mit mehr Illustrationen in Deutsch
"Then the Lord, thy God, will lead you to a place of safety." (from the Talmud)
I have never spoken about this event that happened in my childhood. I did not think it was important. What we did then, in the fall of 1944, is exactly what anyone else from our village would have done.
I remember it exactly, it was the 14th October. The radio broadcast had reported on the heaving fighting for Aachen, about attempts by the Russians to break through at Memel and Warsaw, but also about the V1, under whose fire London lay, and in the newspaper one could read reports on the state funeral for Field Marshal Rommel. All this was alarming, but on our isolated farmstead in eastern Pomerania in County Bütow near the border with West Prussia, we had entirely different problems. The potato crop had to be brought in. The entire family was pressed into field work to make the most of the last sunny days of fall.
I was only ten, not yet ready for heavy field work, and had, as usual, to look after the livestock and to take care of the cows. Suddenly there appeared a strange figure in the barn door. I was frightened by the sight of a man in a shabby and worn suit, unshaven and stooped. His right hand trembled mightily. I supposed he was an omen of the end of the world that my grandma spoke of if the war went on. We looked at each other in silence for awhile and then in a tired voice he asked for my father. I said that everyone was in the fields and very far away but that he could talk to my mother in the kitchen. He insisted on seeing my father and asked me to take him there. We made our way in silence. On the way I stole quick glances at the stranger at my side. He looked terrible, walking was obviously difficult for him and he had a bad cough. We had to stop often. It took a great effort to reach our goal. I pointed my father out to him. The stranger went to him quickly and spoke a few short sentences. My father shook his hand and took him aside. Driven by curiosity I crept nearer to our strange visitor and attempted to hear their conversation. To me it was impossible to understand. I could make nothing of the single words and sentences: "Special Camp, Stutthof, flight, Kapo, school friend, Rosen. . ." They spoke long and in whispers. My father, who was usually given to humor, became very serious. At last he said to the stranger: "For the time being you will stay with us, get some rest and we will see what to do next."
The stranger was accepted as an honored guest among us
In the evenings we all sat around the table in the living room, together with our eastern workers. That was the practice with us, even after a local Nazi leader appeared without warning and ordered us to change our arrangements. Eastern workers belonged in the barn. My father threw him out. I had never seen my father so angry. It was still up to him to decide on our farmstead who was an eastern worker and who was not. The stranger was offered the honored place at our table, as was the way a guest should be treated. My mother was overjoyed at the astounding appetite of our visitor and at his compliments on her cooking and she offered him more helpings. I could not imagine what should be so special about oatmeal soup and fried potatoes, which was what we usually had for our evening meal. My mother kept the conversation going, always asking questions of our guest and ignoring the fact that he spilled his soup trying to get it to his mouth. She asked why his hand trembled. My father interrupted her. This was not the place to talk of that. But the stranger told us readily that he was from Posen, had in the World War I been an onboard aircraft mechanic and had crashed and that was the origin of his affliction. Father looked on in silence. I now found the stranger terribly interesting and did not leave his side. After supper Warka, our house maid, a Ukrainian eastern worker, came suddenly and in panic into the living room. "I don't know what this man says", she cried in her limited German. We ran into the kitchen where a bed had been made for our guest in a corner near the warm stove, because he was completely frozen. He knelt in his place, raised his hands and spoke in a remarkable language, one that I had never heard. "He is praying" said our mother in a quiet voice, and to the Ukrainian who obviously did not know that word: "he speaks with God" and warned us all sternly not to disturb him. But I crept back quietly to the door and observed him in secret. This was repeated every evening. I had never heard anyone pray like that, not even my devout grandma.
I tried to find out what our guest felt was so important to tell God, but could not understand his language. Sometimes it sounded almost like German, or at least Low German. I realized that it was not in Polish or Russian or Ukrainian that our guest used to speak to God, because these languages were familiar to me and I would have recognized them. The stranger tried to make himself as useful as possible. He helped me in the barn, went with us to the potato field and worked everywhere with us, even though it was hard for him. I heard my father tell him more than once that he should take it easy and regain his strength. There would be time enough for work later.
The visit lasted for a week. Then my father called me suddenly and gave me an assignment, which made me very proud because I had only recently entered the "Young Folk", the lower level of the Hitler Youth and was finally being taken seriously. I was to take our guest that evening to a certain forest house that was rather far into West Prussia. But I knew it well and the way to get there, too. My father had often taken me there through the forest on his Sunday drives and in the summer we boys had been there on our adventurous marches, because nearby was a fabulous lake. And it was in this area that our school had recently conducted a search. Supposedly an English airplane had dropped weapons in this forest area because it was whispered that Polish partisans lurked there.
We took our secret departure early in the evening. My father accompanied us for a little way. Then he shook the stranger's hand and said: "The boy will take you the rest of the way. You will be safe in two or three hours. There you will be in a safe area and nothing can happen to you." The handshake lasted a long time. "May God protect you from all the evil in this world" said our guest and he embraced my father. "May peace be with you. You will live. God will spare you from death."
We walked quickly as darkness fell, past small farm houses with thatched roofs and always deeper into the forest. The guest was no longer as quiet as he had been on our first time a week earlier, and he no longer coughed and it was easier for him to walk. He spoke often about God, in remarkable sentences the like of which I had never heard. "The Holy One, may He be praised", he said when he meant God. And he praised my parents above all for helping him when was in need. He explained to me that the world was ruled by three things: Right, Truth and Peace, and that my parents had shown true love for another and would be rewarded by God. "Because good deeds can rescue even from death", he taught me. I found this all extremely interesting, but a little exaggerated when it concerned my parents, but at the same time was pleased by his words and looked forward to the promised rewards with anticipation. And then we parted.
At home my father and I had a long private talk and made me swear to forget everything that concerned our strange visitor. "That was a Jew", he said mysteriously! No one had said that word up until now. It had no meaning. It was a term that meant nothing in our isolated pocket in eastern Pomerania. My mother had said that in our village there was only one Jew, the innkeeper Rosen, who simply left in 1938 without saying goodbye. He had been a respected citizen, was friendly and helpful, and whenever a farmer was in financial difficulties and no one would help him, the Jewish tavernkeeper would always help and would find a way to offer credit even without any security. It was true that many of the villagers had seen Goebbel's propaganda film, "The Eternal Jew" in which all that was evil and unnatural was blamed on the Jews and they were impressed. But the film was a myth, something foreign, and the Jewish tavern keeper was reality, a villager. What farmer believed in myths? Only reality counted for them.
And all deplored it when unruly members of the Hitler Youth from other places had thrown stones at his windows. The pastor took that as a reason for another critical sermon and even the local farmers leader decided that the Hitler Youth had not committed a heroic deed and he saw to it that nothing like that ever happened in his village again. My father had by this time renounced his membership in the SA, something he had once been proud of when it had been their role to provide order in the area near the Polish border, to drain swamps and to provide work for all. He told us later that he had left because he had too much to do with his farm and children that he could no longer attend the regular meetings in the village. His reasons were generally accepted. Anyway, after the Röhm affair the SA was no longer important. It was only after the war that we learned his real reason was the Jewish persecution, which my father would have no part in.
The prophecies of our Jew were not fulfilled. Months later our peaceful forest area experienced the inferno of the end of the war.
.... Twelve years later
Twelve years had passed, before it was possible for me to finally again visit my old home. I visited the living and the dead. My special wish was to find the grave of my father, who was shot by the Russians in March 1945. With the help of Polish friends we really found his gravesite. The Poles had cared for it for years.
At that time I met an old Pole who had once been a partisan in the forests in our area. He told many stories of his partisan time, of how Russians, Poles and German deserters had joined. Once he had met a Jew who had escaped from the concentration camp at Stutthof and had injured his hand. The Poles were able to save him. He later went to England. I did not say it, but I knew at once that this was "our Jew" and that even I had a part in his rescue. I have never spoken of this incident from my childhood. To me it was not remarkable. What we did in the fall of 1944.