Authors: Tony Hernandez
As they made their way in, it felt as if they weren't inside anything at all. It was still snowing, and the usual shadows that accompany a closed home weren't there. Walls weren't supposed to look like that, exposed to the light. Even now, under the grey sky, it seemed far too bright. It felt as if they were on a film set that was yet to be finished.
"Here," she said, standing a few feet in front of them.
"Here, what?" Ingersleben said.
"Where Jens and I have been hiding."
"Here?" Wernher said, slowly taking a few steps forward, taking in the falling snow that was coming through the ceiling that wasn't there.
"No, not here," she said, motioning to the squander around her. "
" she said, pointing to the ground.
Upon closer inspection, they saw what she meant. There was a crack in the floor, barely noticeable, since it was in line with the wood planking. She quickly nodded to Otto to lift the panel, and he did. He hopped over and pulled on the wooden floor. The trapdoor was so well designed that not even the hinges could be seen from above.
"What in the devil's name is this?" Ingersleben said.
"Our home. Do you wish to come and see?" Without saying another word, she took Otto's hand to help her down the stairs, where she quickly disappeared. The men soon followed.
As the men went down the trapdoor, the trip became easier; Knef had lit a kerosene lamp. The difference was stark. They just came from a world where every corner was illuminated; now they were in a place covered in shadow, with only the flicker of the lamp giving life to the walls and their dancing shadows.
In a stupefied manner, all that Ingersleben could say through a slack jaw was, "Who? How?"
With the baby still in her arms, Knef motioned her head behind the men. As they turned around, she explained, "This house was built on an old grain mill. It had a deep basin to store extra wheat. When the Beltz's father bought this land, he tore down the mill and built a house over it. Then they used it to house all of
"Wine!" Ingersleben said, showing the group that he was able to smile as well. "All this is wine?" There was barrel after barrel of wine. Some bottles lined the walls but it seemed that Mr. Beltz bought his wine inside the larger wooden containers than the smaller glass variety. Most of the barrels were inaccessible as they were just shoved atop of each other, probably done in the panic of war.
"Yes. Georg Beltz has been buying wine for years and collecting it here. These barrels come from all around Europe."
"France?" Wernher asked.
She nodded. "Yes, although he preferred German and Austrian wine more. To each his own."
As all the men were standing there, astonished at what they had found, Otto asked something that most of the men were overlooking.
"Then why the food?" he asked. "In the other home. Why not take it and put it in here?" The question stopped the men from observing the wine, and they turned their attention back to Knef.
"A ploy," she said. "If Soviets were to come by, they would look there, and then leave. Something you should have done, but never did.”
"Well, next time, don't put it in a place that's so inviting," Ingersleben said. "That roof is way too tempting."
"No one would believe that food would last stored in the open. And still, no one in their right minds would want to stay here. Not with them coming."
"Who's them?" Ingersleben asked.
She looked confused. "The Soviets. The Red Army. The men who are on their way to kill us all."
They were now sitting on the floor, like children. She had some extra blankets for them to sit on, but even that wasn't enough to save them from the cold, hard floor.
The basement, if one could call it that, was just as freezing as the outside, if not more so. But in all, this was the price one had to pay for the exchange of living in a place that offered cover from the cruel world outside.
“What do you mean, ‘Soviets coming to kill us?’” Lafenz asked. "Have you seen them? Are they here?"
"No," she said, shaking her head as if annoyed with the question. She seemed frustrated that none of them knew and appreciated the severity of what was coming for them. It was doubly frustrating since these men were warriors who had faced battle. Surely they should have appreciated the incoming terror that awaited them all. "I have not seen any Soviets or anything like that."
"So, then?" Wernher asked.
"You've heard of Nemmersdorf, correct?"
This brought a contemplative silence to the men. Indeed, all the men had heard about the Massacre.
The Nemmersdorf Massacre was a story with plenty of conflicting versions that no one could decipher. Although the common belief was that the Red Army had killed a slew of civilians, there were stories that they had only held the town for a few hours—an impossible time to perform the atrocities that they were accused of. Some even claimed that it was the Germans, and not the Russians, who had actually committed the crimes against the populace. Nevertheless, the story that stuck in every German's mind was what the Nazi Propaganda Ministry had told them.
On October 21st, 1944, Soviet forces overtook the town of Nemmersdorf. It was said that as many seventy-two women, varying in age from eight to eighty-four, were brutally raped and then killed. Another fifty or so French and Belgian POWs were also said to have been killed as well.
The story had ballooned into one of women nailed against barn doors and crucified, their dead, raped bodies a welcome and warning to anyone who would find them. Whether or not this, or anything like this, had happened did not matter to those people inside that house. To them, it was as real as the cold that surrounded them.
"Of course we know what happened in Nemmersdorf," Ingersleben said, "and that's exactly why we will never let it happen again. Now that we know of the enemy's villainy, no one, not a single German woman or man, would allow that to happen. Not in Total War, and not with the
." The Volksstrum was Nazi Germany's volunteer army, made up of men who were not fit for service, but who were ready to fight and die until the last man rather than hand over Germany to foreign hands.
"What about Metgethen?" she asked. The men exchanged a confused look. None of them knew what she was talking about. She seemed pleased by the opportunity to enlighten them.
"Metgethen just happened. A few weeks or months ago, I'm not sure, but it happened.
"Red Army troops went into Königsberg and killed everyone.
"First, they gathered up all the men and boys, and took them to a tennis court. There, instead of mercifully shooting them, the monsters decided to save their bullets and kill them with grenades. After they were through with the men, that's when the real activities took place.
"They raped all the woman and maybe some of the children. I don't know, but knowing them, they probably did. Once the women's bodies were in such a bad state that they couldn’t be raped anymore, they killed them. All of them. But again, not with bullets. The used the butts of the guns or shovels to bash their heads in. The lucky ones were stabbed to death with bayonets."
The men waited for her to continue, but she just stopped. No one said a word. They all just took in what she had said. Shocked in the enemy’s ruthlessness that also reflected theirs. No one gave each other a look when she talked about grenades being used to execute by monsters, because they all secretly understood, and agreed.
"So what do you think?" Wernher asked Otto. The two men were now outside the basement and outside the house.
They stood on the side of the house, next to another home that was just as damaged. The weeds had grown up to their thighs, but they were easy to navigate, and it gave them the air they needed while still offering protection.
"I don't know," Otto said. “I mean, I think she's right. I mean, I
she's right. All the more reason for us to leave."
"I don't know," Wernher said, looking at the falling snow ahead of him. "Maybe this plan isn't the best. These stories of the Red Army could be just that—stories. Are we so sure that the British and Americans would be so kind? They might be monsters, even more so than the Russians, except that their stories haven't made it out. I don't know. Sometimes I think a bullet would be the best thing to happen to us."
This gave Otto pause. Perhaps Wernher was right. Maybe they were running from one horrible death to another that was even worse. Plus, Wernher hadn't even brought up the French. They had humiliated and tormented the Russian people, sure, but the French—they had that entire country under their control. They had had their way with all their women and wine; surely they were a more vengeful people. They had made up their minds, however, and Otto still felt that a life under Allied control was better than a Soviet one. But maybe Wernher was right. Maybe a bullet would be the best thing to happen to them. Better than all this unknown. That was the good thing about death. You at least knew what you were going to get.
Wernher took a few steps away from Otto. He had to relieve himself.
He was a little surprised that he didn't mind Otto’s company. It was no secret that he didn't think too much of the man; he thought him a coward, and everyone knew it, because he didn't keep it a secret. He practically wanted the world to know how much of a coward he was. He knew he wouldn't do anything about it. But now, for some reason, he felt a kinship with him. Maybe it was because they were now in the same precarious situation. Maybe he was just feeling a little--
Werhner heard the gunshot before he felt it. The bullet hit the right side of his body. He wasn't sure if that was where his liver was, or how far into his body it had hit. All this he thought as he looked up and realized that he was now on the ground, bleeding.
It was as if Wernher were sleeping in a forest and looking up to the sky, only instead of high trees, there were weeds and tall grass. It was a strangely calming moment within another one that was filling him with panic.
Then, a giant came over the forest. It was Otto.
"Come on!" Otto said, as he grabbed Wernher under the armpits, pulling on him. "Can you walk?"
"I..." Wernher paused,trying to get his footing. He could walk, but it felt as if the bullet had struck a part of his body that held his energy. He was ready to collapse, and his legs felt like a newborns, filled with a desire to walk but with no strength to do it. "Yes," he finally said, draping one arm over Otto. "Just need a little help."
The two men rushed over as fast as they could to the front door to the Beltz's house. Then that's when they heard it—a sound worse than the gunshot. Russian.
As Otto opened and closed the front door, they entered the house. For a moment, Otto's panic grew even larger, as he realized the trapdoor was all the way shut this time, making it invisible. Just as he was about to curse, the floor cracked open and a familiar feminine hand pushed it ajar.
Otto nearly threw Wernher down the stairs as Knef and Lafenz appeared to catch him. As Otto went down the stairs he quickly shut the trapdoor above him, and then he froze on the stairs.
The Russian voices were so close now, he feared his steps might alert them. They were about to die.
As they scrambled down the stairs, trying to make as little noise as possible, Ingersleben mouthed a
as they entered the downstairs chamber. Otto didn't say a thing. He and Knef just helped Wernher down the last flight of stairs and sat him down on the ground, bleeding. The Russians were making no secret that they were out there. There were voices, and they were growing in number and louder. Then they heard something that they never thought they’d ever hear again. Coughing. Not just any cough. It was the Cougher they had just released, only this time, there was a voice that interrupted his hacks. It was one that didn’t sound of a gracious friend searching to give out a thank you but the voice of an angry hunter ready to hurt his prey.
Then a gunshot rang out. Then another. Some more movement, and then some yelling. Someone had obviously shot at nothing and made the men all the more angry and annoyed in the world above.
All this was being guessed at by the men and one woman downstairs. The basement had once felt large; now it felt like a tiny room that was closing in on them. The lamp was left on, and no one seemed to have the courage to turn it off.
Although the gunfire was frightening, it did have a good consequence; the Russian voices became more distant.
Then, it happened. The baby started crying.
At first, it wasn't too bad. The mother shushed the boy, and that seemed to calm him for a bit, but then he persisted. The voices that were nearly overhead were now a distance away, or so it had sounded. But then, the child started to wail, a cry that was coming from the infant's throat. Guttural.
"Would you silence that child!" Wernher said, in as strong a voice as he felt would keep him from detection. But it was no use. No matter how much she rocked or how much she tried covering his mouth in a blanket, baby Jens persisted in wailing. The voices above them returned.
In a last ditch attempt to save their lives, Knef tried breast feeding the child, right there in front of them. Lafenz looked away, having never seen a woman's breasts before. Killing a man was something the young man could commit and look at and not even blink. Show him a women’s breast, and he became flushed with embarrassment, ready to run.
The other men just looked on. Their very lives depended on this last ditch effort.
Try and try as the mother might, the baby kept pulling away from his mother's breast, obviously not hungry. What was bothering the child, no one knew, and now wasn't the time to find out. They were moments away from being discovered and, in turn, being killed.
Otto couldn't believe it. After everything he had been through, they were all about to die,
was about to die. All over a crying child.
Couldn’t that child understand that it was signing its own death warrant, not just theirs?