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What Kind of German?


Harry Buschman

It was a poor excuse for a trial. They did not think it proper to give me a lawyer, and I know nothing of the law as it is practiced in Germany today. I was accused and found guilty even before the trial began. It was over before I knew what was happening to me. Guilty of harboring six Jews. Harboring! Did I harbor them? What would you have done, let them stand out there in the rain?

And now as the sergeant counts out "BEREIT," I must ask myself that question. It was the same question I asked Gestapo Hauptmann Ketzel at the trial. He said I should have called the police immediately. Perhaps I should have, but .... you see, if I did that, I knew what would happen to them -- it's different when you know. They were trucked in to sandbag the river which was running a meter above flood stage as it flowed through our little town of Arnsberg this spring. As Hauptman Ketzel saw it, there was no excuse for compassion at this stage of the war. Germany had patriots or it had enemies -- nothing in between.

The Jews are long dead now, all six of them. What did they do, these enemies of the state? They were born Jewish, and although they had been born German as well, they would forever bear the stain of their Jewishness. Their mothers and fathers were Jewish. No one could be of Jewish blood and live free in Arnsberg in 1943. No stroke of good fortune could come their way -- no helping hand from a stranger. Even though the guards left them alone on the dike and forgot to count them in the camp when day was done. Even then. It was my duty as a German to report them, even if no one knew they were missing.

It is strange to stand here so calmly at the shout of "BEREIT" to think of my shoe factory. At this time of day the shifts are changing, and before the next shift arrives I shall be gone. My factory! It was mine for a little while. Women's shoes. Shoes for gentlemen, and shoes for little boys and girls, but after the Reichstag fire it was boots. Boots for the Wehrmach. My factory .... "Well," Hilda said, "it is our country after all. Our country is bigger than your shoe factory. What can we do? Be patient, and when this war is over, you will have your factory back again."

Then, she became ill. Old Dr. Ewald said the growth must be cut out immediately. But he could do nothing! The hospital was filled with troops wounded in the Africa campaign. Oh! How I hated the Jews that day! Yes, and the encircling armies of the damnable English, Americans and Russians as well. Under different circumstances Hilda might have lived -- could you blame me? I don't know when my hate turned itself to the country of my birth and upon myself as well. It was long after Hilda died.

The factory was running 24 hours a day, anyone who could stand for ten hours could work there. It seemed to me the whole world was against Germany, our only allies were an Italian comic opera buffoon and an emperor dressed like a toy admiral of the Japanese navy. Our young men, our wealth, and the irreplaceable beauty of our land was slipping through our fingers like sand.

Slowly but methodically all my Jewish friends in the shoe business disappeared. One by one -- their wives and children vanished as well. There were stories, I couldn't believe the stories I heard in the street, but then there were facts too. The Jews could no longer own their factories and the shops they had saved and scrimped for. They could no longer live in their well cared for houses, and -- it had been said, they could not travel from place to place as free people do. We wondered what happened to them. The arm bands they wore? Yes .... I know. The scuffles in the street in the dead of night? Well .... there was a war, such things happen. We heard of the centers? Ah, yes .... well, who could tell. The stories were unbelievable. Such things could not happen in a Christian country. But when the spring flood of '43 came, we knew, we couldn't help but know.

Yes, the six of them stood there. One of them, a little boy, no more than fourteen; he spoke in a voice so low it seemed to come from a different place. He said, "We are Juden, we have been forgotten, the lorry left without us. We shall be killed if we are found." They were wet, cold and barely able to stand. Little more than skeletons at my doorstep.

At the time I thought it unbelievable they did not take the opportunity to escape, but as I stand here now in the warm spring sun I realize how stupid I was -- where could they go? Where could they have found the strength to go? Their only hope to live another day was to return to the detention camp at Arnsberg. I asked them in, I did not know what else to do.

I decided to feed them. I let them dry their clothes by my fire. Birgit my cook, eyed them with hatred, and with a slow intake of breath she looked at me with reproach.

"We have soup from yesterday, yes Birgit?"

"You would feed these Jews, Herr Nachtmann?" Birgit had lost her two sons in the debacle of Leningrad, and like so many of us she looked for someone to blame, a whipping boy. All she had were the Jews. It is useless to accuse your country. You cannot prosecute your country, even when it is guilty.

"Had it not been for these Jews we would not have undertaken this accursed war, Herr Nachtmann -- they are to blame! What kind of a German would feed a Jew?"

"Look at them, Birgit -- look at them! They are victims too. We shall feed them tonight, and tomorrow Luckner takes the lorry to Aachen for hides. Perhaps they can lose themselves in the city."

"ZIEL!" So soon? It must mean they intend to go through with my execution. So soon after "BEREIT," comes "Ziel." To be shot for a Christian gesture! Oh Lord how far we have come -- patriots or enemies -- nothing in between.

It was she, Birgit, who called the Arnsberg police and before the poor wretches' clothes were dry, the police and the Gestapo burst through the front door. Yes, it was Birgit who told them of my plans to help them. She was consumed with hate and venom, it seethed like a wild beast within her. She had been with Hilda and me so many years, and yet she stood like a witch in the corner pointing her finger at me .... "I shall bear witness. Herr Nachtmann took them in and he planned their escape. What kind of a German would do that?"

A very good question, Birgit. When this is over, you will be called to identify me. It should not be difficult, I am told the squad does not aim for the head. You will be avenged. Then what Birgit? Probably you will cook for the Gestapo and know that you have avenged the death of your two sons. Then you will see the kind of German I am, Birgit -- and the kind I could never be.

So quick it was between "BEREIT", and "ZIEL"! Now I wait for "FEUER." It seems it will never come. I stare at the twelve one-eyed men who stand between me and the sun -- dark impenetrable faces -- I recognize some of them. They are young boys from the town -- one whose father used to work for me. How can a country of Beethoven and Heine produce such children? The Hauptmann to the right has raised his hand, and as though he were a statue, he will not bring it down. In the fading sanity of this sorry country does he wonder too? How long can he hold it there? Why does he wait so long? Is this all a game of cards -- a bluff to frighten me?

"FEUER!!" .... The sergeant's voice is tentative -- with a measure of reservation and regret, like the voice of a man who cannot remember if he turned off the gas before leaving home.

I thought I might hear the rifles, but it is as they say -- you never hear them.

©Harry Buschman 1998

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