Authors: Tony Hernandez
Otto heard about the plan while he was relieving himself by the island of trees. The plan being shared to the men, one by one, was simple: kill the Russians and await further orders.
The thinking was easy. If command got upset at them for disobeying orders, everyone knew that the penalty for killing Russians was likely a stern look more than anything.
The news was being filtered out, slowly and quietly, so as to not to startle the prisoners or make the Soviets aware. Otto understood this, but wondered why he hadn't been told of the plan earlier.
It appeared to him that there was no real rhyme or reason as to why some were being told while others were not. Some of the most trusted men were learning about the plan just like him, over whispers during their morning meals, always careful to keep a distance from the small prison camp.
That’s when it dawned on Otto. How long had it been since they'd last fed the prisoners? Days, at least. With all the commotion of the week, it was hard to remember everything that had happened and to keep stock of everything. Even when they'd tripled their efforts in maintaining the camp, one purposeful oversight had been in feeding the prisoners. No one wanted to seem kind to them, whether or not someone from command was there.
But the Russians seemed in brighter spirits.
There was now some movement and, even though Otto couldn’t hear a laugh, he saw what could only be described as small smiles on the prisoners behind the bars. He wasn’t sure if they were still giddy over the fact that the Germans were now killing one another, or that they felt the swing of the war was moving over towards them, but none of that mattered. They were going to get a cruel reminder shortly that all of their hope and happiness was false.
The digging began slowly and as quietly as possible. They were on the other side of the island of trees, out of view of the prisoners. There were nearly no shovels to spare, so the men took turns using the only two they had. Even under the grey, cloudless sky, some of the men were shirtless as they worked hard, trying to outdo one another.
It was an impressive sight. Nearly all the men were there at some time or another. Only a handful were actually digging, about a dozen or so, but the other men were there to see the fantastic show that was a few men digging out a mass grave.
It was also a contradictory sight. It seemed that the men continued to dig without making a single dent in the hole and then, the next moment, the hole was deeper and longer, with the mound of dirt slowly rising and getting wider, following the ever-growing trench.
That day’s show was one of excitement. The fact that they were about to kill the prisoners was a sense of giddy relief to the men. The diggers didn’t even seem to mind the lazy men like Otto that were enjoying watching them work. It was almost as if they were proud to show off to their comrades that they were the ones who were beginning an end to their dreaded Russian curse.
But appearances had to be kept, and a few men had to be stationed near the prisoners, or at least in sight of them. If the Russians saw that the Germans were away too long, they might suspect something. Not that they would run. Not a one had the strength to knock over the fence.
There was only one man that was missing from the show, and that was Unteroffizier Erich Ingersleben. Even his two dogs, Grenadier Josef Wernher and Hitler Youth Kurt Lafenz, had made their appearances from time to time. But finally, Ingersleben did make an appearance, and he brought the rest of the men in tow.
“Amazing!” Ingersleben said, with his hands proudly on his hips and his chest out like a rooster. “I’ve been told of your advancement, but even I can’t believe it. What progress!”
The men inside the elongated hole smiled as men outside of it kneeled down to light their cigarettes.
“Come now! Let us all commemorate this moment by—” He took his time reaching behind his back to produce a camera with all the pause and showmanship of a magician. “Taking a picture!”
The men let out an approving roar. Laughs and the sounds of men giving each other congratulatory slaps on the back could be heard. Even if the Russians could hear, it mattered little. They had hours, if not minutes, left of life.
“Let’s all get in to take a picture and remember this moment. Come now, you too, get closer.”
Some of the men started jumping into the hole to take a picture with their awaiting friends. Even those who hadn’t done a moment’s work were eager to jump in and get in on the photo. It seemed that those that were doing the heavy lifting didn’t mind it one bit. They welcomed their lazy brothers with open arms. Their Russian nightmare was almost over.
Not all the men were as eager to jump into the trench. Some just got as close to it as possible, trying to get into the picture.
As Otto was making his way to get into the photo, Ingersleben stopped him with a loud command. “No! Not you. Go and see to the prisoners.”
Even now Otto was being insulted. As he turned to leave, he saw an expression of joy from the men that Otto couldn’t share with them.
As Otto made his way through the small thicket of trees towards the makeshift camp, he came across the child, Kurt Lafenz, hiding in the trees. Otto paused to look at the boy, who was once again crying and shaking. He was holding onto something that looked like a submachine gun. That’s when Otto realized he hadn’t seen him, nor Wernher, moving down for the photo. Otto was about to ask Lafenz what he was doing there, where Wernher was.
But the look of the frightened young boy’s eyes gave Otto a feeling of terror.
Josef Wernher appeared from the trees that neighbored the newly dug trench. No one seemed to notice him, as everyone was too busy looking at Ingersleben’s camera. Wernher tossed a sack between two men; it landed on the back of one of the men inside the hole.
“What’s this?” the man who was hit said, laughing at the gift. He stared at it: it was nothing more than a tan sack.
“Just hold on to it,” Ingersleben said, with a smile of his own.
“Like this!” the young man said, holding the brown bag over his head to the laughter of the men inside.
“No, lower, you fool! Hold it lower!” Ingersleben said, as he turned and began to walk away.
The man did lower the bag, and shared one quizzical look with the other men before the explosion went off, tearing his body into huge pieces, killing him instantly.
The explosion was a strange one as pieces of arms, torsos and heads flew out like a fountain of limbs. Nearly everyone inside was killed instantly.
For the few that did survive the blast, they laid in the ground, stunned by the explosion. Those that could hear heard the muffled gunshots that came from Ingersleben’s Luger.
One man nearest Ingersleben crawled towards him with a hand reaching out to him for help, a piece of grenade in his throat, making it impossible for him to take a breath in as blood oozed out. Ingerslben quickly put that man out of his misery and put a bullet under his eye; half his skull flew towards his lower back.
Wernher was back, this time with his MP 40 machine gun, filling the hole with bullets. He was cool and calm as he killed his friends, making sure to focus the bullets more on those that were injured just outside the hole than those already dead inside.
After just a few moments, there was total quiet. Smoke seemed to be coming from everywhere.
The dead’s freshly opened wounds steamed in the cold air. It was like a small fog from hell had been let loose upon this small corner of earth. Even the smell of sulfur was in the air.
Then, one of the men who was thought to be dead rose from the ground and began to run. He was a bit further in the back with other bodies, but all those were blown to pieces so it was assumed that he was dead like the rest. He wasn’t.
Wernher pulled the trigger to his machine gun, but nothing came out; he was out of bullets. Ingerslben’s handgun was out of reach, so they looked upon the third and final man of their group, young Lafenz.
Wernher made a quick move for Lafenz’s weapon, only to have the child pull the gun away, back into his hands. For a moment Ingerslben and Wernher shared the dread that maybe the young man they had confided in would be the one who would kill them, too. But soon they realized that Lafenz wouldn’t give up the gun because, this time, he wanted to prove that he could handle the weapon, the responsibility that came with it. That he wouldn’t be scared, as he had been earlier at Haas's execution.
He walked slowly in the direction of the fleeing man, who was becoming smaller by the moment. There was nothing around them but clearing and as soon as the running man made the distant tree line, he would be gone.
The noise returned that morning as Lafenz unloaded his weapon’s magazine into the field in front of him. The man dropped as soon as he started firing, but that didn’t stop Lafenz from squeezing the trigger.
The man had disappeared into the tall, yellow, dying grass. Without having to be told, Lafenz began his slow walk towards the corpse.
As Ingersleben and Wernher looked on at each other, speaking to each other through eyes the size of boulders, Lafenz continued to walk through the field. He pulled out his used ammunition magazine and placed it in his belt. He calmly pulled out another one and placed it into his gun.
For a moment, Lafenz walked around, almost pacing, like a hound who had lost the scent of his game. But then, without a word, he stopped in his tracks, pointed the weapon downwards, and fired a shot. Although he was meters away, the sound and deed gave both Ingersleben and Wernher a small startle. It was followed by a second gunshot. Apparently, Lafenz wasn’t satisfied with his work.
Just as calmly as Lafenz had walked over to the man he shot, he now made his way back.
Wernher looked back towards Ingersleben. “What now?”
“Kunkel,” Ingersleben responded. “We deal with Gemeiner Otto Kunkel.”
Wernher nodded that he understood. They would deal with Otto as soon as Lafenz joined them. Until then, Wernher looked up into the sky, black now as the snow began to fall more in earnest. It was as if the devil himself had given his blessing to that day’s evil deed.
When Otto heard the explosion, his first inclination was to run back over. There must have been an accident, he thought, to disturb that morning’s cold.
But as soon as he started to run over, he heard the gunfire. Single gunshots followed by what could only be machine gunfire.
Otto stopped running when he heard the gunfire, feet sliding forward in the rocks. What was happening? Whatever it was, he knew he needed to be far from it.
He walked quickly back to the prisoners, huffing in the thinning cold air, both from his exhaustion and from his nerves.
Some more gunfire continued behind him, but he had to get back to his station, back to the captured Russians.
They were never out of eyesight, of course, but he still made a beeline over to them, trying to hold them in place with his stare. He had a gun, but more importantly, they had their lack of strength, and he knew would not be able to escape.
But what if escape was the right thing to do—for himself included? Otto had to shake that thought out of his mind as much as he could. He had a job to do; he just wasn’t sure what it was.
All the prisoners were now standing, a sight in itself. None seemed nervous or anxious, but they clearly knew that something was happening. But just like Otto, they weren’t sure what that something was.
Breathing heavily, Otto finally stopped within earshot of the prisoners. He searched each man’s eyes for answers. All he received in return was the same question he was asking.
Otto’s mind was racing at a million thoughts per second.
Should I run?
Am I next?
Who killed who?
I don’t want to die!
Before Otto knew it, three figures carrying weapons were nearly upon him.
They were Ingersleben, Wernher, and the young boy who had killed Haas the day before, Lafenz. Lafenz no longer seemed to have the sweet, artificial demeanor that he had brought with him weeks ago when he'd arrived. His eyes were filled with a bloodlust. He must’ve just killed, and it appeared to Otto that his thirst was not quenched. Men shouldn’t fear boys, but then again, this person was no longer a child.
“How are they?” Wernher demanded.
“How are who?” Otto asked in reply, not sure what Wernher meant.
“The prisoners, you idiot. Who else would I mean?”
“I, uh—” Otto looked back to see if they were all there. They were all there, weren’t they?
“Move, you fool! I’ll see for myself!” Wernher looked down towards Lafenz, then back up to Ingersleben, but they said nothing. Then he shoved past Otto.
“They are all here and all accounted for, Unteroffizer,” Wernher reported back.
Of course they were. Why wouldn’t they be? What was happening?
“Very good, Grenadier Wernher. Gemeiner Kunkel?”
Otto wasn’t sure why everything was so formal, but he decided to play along. He came up to Ingersleben in attention.
“Gemeiner Kunkel, release these men.”
“Do you not understand German? You know I hate to repeat myself.”
“Of course, sir, it’s just—”
Ingersleben’s mood became consoling as he put his hand on Otto’s shoulder. The gesture was meant to be comforting; it was anything but.
“Gemeiner, I understand you are shocked and stunned by recent developments. But I need you and the rest of the men to follow orders as quickly as possible so that we can all make it out alive.”
“Where are the other men?”
Ingersleben and Wernher exchanged a look, like a mother and father deciding how to break the news that they were getting a divorce. For Lafenz’s part, he just continued to stare at Otto, like a dog eager for his master to let him loose. It was Ingersleben who answered.
“The men are all dead.”
“They’re dead! What do you mean?” Otto hadn’t realized that he had stepped back from Ingersleben before it was too late. He hoped it wasn’t an insult. He didn’t want to die, either, but human reaction was so automatic.