Authors: Tony Hernandez
After much whispered deliberation, it was decided that they would walk around the east side of the village at about a hundred yards away. The thinking was that, since the town looked abandoned, their was little to no risk of it being controlled by German troops, but it still gave them enough space to run if something hostile was there.
As they made their way through, they realized that the town really was deserted. Not even the sounds of cattle or the clucking of birds could be heard. The only sound that came to them was a wind that would sometimes louden its voice to a small howl.
The town was nearly destroyed. There were few homes left with roofs, since most had been burned out. The tallest building that was left was a church, and even that looked like it was close to collapse. The houses that did exist were covered in bullet holes. Windows did not exist in that town, much less any fragments of life.
In one of the many craters they passed, the troop hunkered down as Lafenz ran over to the village to scout it. He was not only the smallest, and therefore able to hide the best, but he was also the fastest, something that youth carried over all men. For all the internal disagreement that may have been had about letting loose these child soldiers, there really was a strong argument as to their advantages.
It was strange for the men, to just sit there and wait. Lafenz ran into the town with an excited step. As much as they had crushed that little boy out of him, much of it still existed. Before he made a run for it, it looked as if he may have had a wry smile on his face. It was as if he was racing some other unseen child, and maybe he was—the child he had thought he had killed when he'd fired upon Haas and his own men.
The men waited for nearly two hours, and nothing came from the village. It was good to hear no sounds of screaming or gunshots, but it was also disheartening not to see young Gemeiner Kurt Lafenz.
Had he run away out towards the other side of the village? Unlikely. He may have wanted freedom from the group, but even he knew what they all did: going at it alone was a certain death.
As much as they hated walking in the trees over undulating piles of rock, their waiting inside the crater was also uncomfortable.
Their blood had become as cold as the falling snow, and their sweat, which had been welcome as they made their way, was now a frozen film upon their skin.
Should we go and find him?
Should we stay?
As these and other questions went through their minds, they finally saw a figure running towards them, and this time there was no hiding his smile. It infected the trio inside the crater.
Lafenz jumped into the crater, sliding down the hill.
He said, with a sense of excitement, “Wait till you guys see what I found!”
Even though Lafenz had told the men that there was nothing to worry about, the walk over to the small village was still a precarious one.
They were exposed to the world, and for the first time in a long time, the snow stopped and the sun was peeking through the grey sky. It was as if a spotlight was on their heads. Although they knew that they were alone, and were assured of as much by Lafenz, they still walked with a certain unease, looking back and forth in search of a charging enemy that never came.
The sight that became they approached was unnerving. As they got closer to the town, it seemed like any other small German city. It felt as if they were coming upon it during the morning hours, when the world was still asleep. As when the men had been children and war not even a thought, and boys would sneak out to drink their fathers' bottles in the woods. Times that no longer existed.
But it wasn't morning; this was late afternoon, and the world should have been a beehive of activity, but there was no one to be found. No fathers coming home from a day's fishing up at the lake. No smell of mothers hanging their laundry. No laughter as children ran home from school. Nothing but desolation. It was as if the cold were no longer coming from around them, but instead from the town itself.
Every step seemed to echo even though there were no walls nearby. It was a trick being played on their ears as their senses became heightened.
Much to their surprise, many of the homes still stood. There really was no rhyme or reason as to why some buildings stood and others were burned-out shells. No pattern as to which home had been hit with bullets and which hadn't. The randomness of war was always there in new ways nearly everyday.
"This way!" Lafenz said, with his new cheer still fully in him. Otto wanted to yell
to the boy, as if it was his child running away from him to somewhere unknown and unsafe, but Otto realized that he was being silly. That boy was certainly more of a man than him, and, Otto thought, maybe even more of man than the other two that were with him.
"Come in! Come in!" They heard the voice, but weren't sure were it came from. They were now in a line of houses, and nearly all the front doors were open to blackened homes. Finally, a pale shape formed from inside one of the dark rectangles. "In here! Hurry!"
The men finally made their way the small house that Lafenz was calling them from. When they walked in, there was nothing much to the home. It was like any small home, but covered in a strange layer of dust and the smell of stale air. "Look!" Lafenz said, as he opened a cupboard near the kitchen. Inside were jars of jelly and several cans of beans. There was also bread and cheese being kept in glass containers, long since spoiled.
"How did you find this?"Josef Wernher asked.
"I went to every house!" Lafenz said. "They were all empty. Every one. Except this one."
He stood proudly next to the cupboard like a man next to his prized horse.
"Very good," Ingersleben said. "Very good indeed." Ingersleben put a proud arm on Lafenz's shoulder. The child warrior blushed.
"What next?" Otto asked.
"What's next?" Ingersleben parroted. "We eat!"
They knew that they had to eat in small amounts to save what they could, but even that didn't need to be said. The men's stomachs had become used to the smaller portions that they had had to eat for the past few months; even if they had wanted to stuff their bellies, they probably couldn't.
More important than the new, sweet food they had found was the shelter that they now found themselves in. They had only one night, so Erich Ingersleben had told them, but it would be one night that they would cherish.
Knowing that they had to leave, the next day the men went about searching the village and what little was left in it. And as Lafenz had said, there was nothing left out there. It was as if someone else had already cleared out the houses before they had come. Maybe so, but if true, why was the one house they were staying at still stocked with food? They didn't know, and none of them wanted to find out.
There were other items to be found, however. They found things like blankets and even some small pieces of clothing. Socks, including women's stockings, were found in some of the houses. All precepts of formality went out the window. If women's leggings could one day provide them warmth, then no one was above them.
Slowly their day turned to night.
"Aren't we leaving?" It was Lafenz who ruined the silence inside the home. They were still not lighting fires, so as to not to bring attention to themselves. They were still huddled up inside the home after a day of scavenging.
"No," Ingersleben responded, much to the delight of everyone inside. "We'll stay here one more night and then leave first thing in the morning."
They hoped he was lying again.
The next morning Otto was awoken by a shove from Wernher.
"Get up," he said. "We've got company."
This brought Otto right up from his deep slumber. It was strange how Wernher had addressed him. It wasn't in his usual curt fashion, but it wasn't in a panic, either. Was it some fake demeanor, since the only visitors they were expecting were those that would kill them? Maybe it was another set of Germans on patrol.
As Otto made his way towards the living room, he saw something he never thought he'd see again. A mother and her child.
"What are you doing here? Why won't you just go?" she said, rocking the newborn in her arms. "You got your food, didn't you? Now go. Leave us!"
"She's been saying the same thing for the last five minutes since she appeared. Amazing no one shot her when she came," Wernher said.
"Please, Frau, have a seat," Ingersleben said, pointing to a hollowed-out couch.
"No. There is no need. You are leaving this town right this very instant."
Everyone seemed equally perplexed and amused. They were being asked to leave by this brave little woman, yet the question remained—where had she come from?
"Frau," Otto heard himself saying. He wasn't sure where his words were coming from, but they were in a softer and gentler manner than anyone else was using. He continued. "We will leave as soon as possible. We must know, though. Where did you come from?"
"I told him already!" she said, motioning to Ingersleben in as loud a hush as possible, so as to not wake up the baby, "That is not of your concern or his. Just gather your things and leave!"
For the first time, Otto had a moment to take in the small woman. She was young, probably less than nineteen years old, with black hair that made her fair skin that much paler. Her freckled skin made her look even younger, but for all her tininess, she had a fierceness in her eyes that was equal to the veracity of most soldiers. Otto was impressed.
"Frau, we know you want us to leave. And trust me, we want to leave too. Our orders demand it," Otto said, lying, just in case she went off to some other Germans. He received an overall look of agreement from the other men.
"We just want to know how you made it here, and, more importantly, if there's a way we can help you, and if you could possibly help us."
"There is nothing I need from you. Go away!"
"But you may be able to help us before we leave on our trail. And you wouldn't want to harm us, now, would you, Frau?”
She seemed taken aback by his kindness. He put out his hand.
"My name is Otto Kunkel," he said, purposefully leaving out his title so as to make things more personal. "What is your name?"
His hand hung out for what seemed like an eternity. She looked at his hand like it was something disgusting that she had never seen before, yet Otto persisted, keeping his hand out and, more importantly, keeping eye contact.
She finally scoffed and shook his hand as she put the baby over her shoulder. "Knef. Brigitte Knef."
"Nice to meet you, Brigitte. Would you like to have a cup of coffee with us?"
Her eyes grew. She would not give in so easily, however.
"Fine," she said as she pushed by the men. "But you're making it!”
And for the first time in serving with these men, Otto received an approving smile.
It was an odd scene inside the kitchen. They all gathered around the small table and made the customary small talk as the coffee was brewed. It was Wernher, and not Otto, who made the coffee. Wernher was a man who wanted things done his way and his alone. And if that meant he made the coffee, then none of the men would complain.
Some of the chairs were small sofas that were brought in from the living room. Lafenz sat on a crate, his feet dangling. He swung them gingerly. It was as if this town had brought the child back to him.
After the coffee was brewed and the cups poured, the talk went to the subject at hand.
"You can call me Brigitte," she said, interrupting Ingersleben. He smiled at her change of demeanor.
"Brigette. We are on our way to Berlin. They have ordered us back."
He gave a her small, quizzical look. "Come now," he said. "You know that I am not at liberty to say."
"Of course," she said, in an apologetic manner. "Please, continue."
Ingersleben adjusted his jacket, just to let her know he wasn't happy with the question, but he did go on.
"We are on our way to Berlin. We have no desire to share with command, or anyone else for that matter, that you are here in this town. We are just curious, for our own sake. Where did you come from? Have you been hiding? If so, where? You must understand, we ask this only for our own safety. If a woman and her child can hide from us so well, who's to say the enemy isn't doing the same?"
She paused and looked around, making eye contact with each man. Her eyes were a bright blue that matched the crumbling wallpaper inside the home. Just like the walls themselves, she carried a beauty that was now covered in sadness.
She finally relented.
"Jens and I are staying at that Beltz's. A few doors down."
Ingersleben gave her a confused look.
"Jens is my son," she said, slightly propping up the child, who miraculously was still asleep after all this time. "The Beltz's are—were—a family. That was before..."
"There is no need to go into the troubles of war, my dear Brigitte," Ingersleben said, trying to bring her back from a dark memory. "But if it is true that you are in house near here, just a few doors down, as you said, then why didn't we find you? We searched every home, at least twice, and saw no signs of you or your child."
"Come with me. I'll show you." And without even asking, she got up from the table and made her way to the door. After a bewildered exchange of looks, the men quickly got up and ran to keep up with her.
They scurried off in a brisk clip that made the going all that much harder, with the cold wind blowing against them. They didn't know where they were going, but they were following the woman who carried her child through the lightly falling snow.
It was hard to keep up with her. Even though every man except Lafenz towered over her, her stride was like that of someone who was making three steps in every one. She was like a schoolteacher who marched her kids around the town. She was on a mission.
The strange thing was, when she did finally stop, it was at a house with a roof that was nearly missing. Even the door she opened was already cracked, unable to close from some type of damage, be it bullets, bombs, fire, or a combination of the three.