The New Yorker

Personal History

How I Spent the War

A recruit in the Waffen S.S.

by Günter Grass June 4, 2007

In 1943, when I was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy in Danzig, I volunteered for active duty. When? Why? Since I do not know the exact date and cannot recall the by then unstable climate of the war, or list its hot spots from the Arctic to the Caucasus, all I can do for now is string together the circumstances that probably triggered and nourished my decision to enlist. No mitigating epithets allowed. What I did cannot be put down to youthful folly. No pressure from above. Nor did I feel the need to assuage a sense of guilt, at, say, doubting the Führer’s infallibility, with my zeal to volunteer.

It happened while I was serving in the Luftwaffe auxiliary—a force made up of boys too young to be conscripts, who were deployed to defend Germany in its air war. The service was not voluntary but compulsory then for boys of my age, though we experienced it as a liberation from our school routine and accepted its not very taxing drills. Rabidly pubescent, we considered ourselves the mainstays of the home front. The Kaiserhafen battery became our second home. At first there were attempts to keep school going, but, as classes were too often interrupted by field exercises, the mostly frail, elderly teachers refused to travel the wearisome dirt road to our battery.

We got to use our 88-mm. guns only two or three times, when a few enemy bombers were sighted in our airspace in the beam of the searchlights. Massive raids—the kind that Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin, and the Ruhr Basin cities suffered—we did not experience. No damage worthy of the name, few casualties. We were proud to have shot down a four-engined Lancaster bomber; the “rather charred” crew members were said to have been Canadians. As a rule, however, service in the Luftwaffe auxiliary was dreary, though dreary in a different way from school. We were especially turned off by nightly guard duty and ballistics classes, which dragged on forever in the musty classroom barracks.

We had every other weekend off. We could, as they put it, “go home to Mama.” And, each time, my joy at the thought of the visit was tempered by my pain at the thought of our cramped quarters—a two-room flat adjoining the small grocery store that my parents ran, where the only space that I could call my own was a low niche under the sill of the right-hand living-room window.

At home, I kept bumping into things and into the lack of things: a bathroom and a toilet, for instance. All we had at the battery was a common shower room and, beyond it, a common latrine. There we would squat next to one another, shitting into a pit, and that didn’t bother me at all. But, at home, the toilet on the landing, shared by four flats, grew more and more distasteful to me: it was always filthy from the neighbors’ children, or occupied when you needed it. It stank, and its walls were smeared with fingerprints.

The two-room hole. The family trap. Everything there conspired to constrain the weekend visitor. Not even the mother’s hand could smooth away the son’s distress. True, he was no longer expected to sleep in his parents’ bedroom like his sister, but even on the couch made up for him in the living room he remained a witness to the married life that continued unbroken from Saturday to Sunday. That is, I could hear—or thought I could hear—sounds I had heard, muffled as they were, from childhood on, sounds that had lodged in my mind in the form of a monstrous ritual: the anticipatory whispers, the lip-smacking, the creaking bedsprings, the sighing horsehair mattress, the moaning, the groaning, the entire aural repertory of lovemaking, so potent, especially in the dark. I had a clear picture of all the variations on marital coupling, and in my cinematic version of the act the mother was always the victim: she yielded, she gave the go-ahead, she held out to the point of exhaustion.

The hatred of a mother’s boy for his father, the subliminal battleground that determined the course of Greek tragedies and has been so eloquently updated by Dr. Freud and his disciples, was thus, if not the primary cause, then at least one of the factors in my push to leave home.

I racked my brain for flight routes. They all ran in one direction: the front, or one of the many fronts, as quickly as possible.

I tried to pick a quarrel with my father. It wasn’t easy. It would have taken massive recriminations, and, peace-loving family man that he was, he was quick to give in. Anything to maintain harmony. The progenitor had a constant wish for the offspring on his lips: “I want your life to be better. . . . You will have a better life than ours.” Try as I might to turn him into a bugbear, he was not made for the role.

Yet the suddenly unbearable two-room flat and four-family toilet on the half-landing could not have been the sole cause of my urge to enlist. My schoolmates had grown up in five-room flats with their own bathrooms, supplied with rolls of toilet paper instead of the newsprint we tore into squares. Some of them even lived in fancy private houses and had rooms of their own, yet they, too, yearned to get away, to go to the front. Like me, they wanted to face danger without fear, to sink ship after ship, knock out tank after tank, or fly through the skies in the latest-model Messerschmitts, picking off enemy bombers.

After Stalingrad, however, the situation at the front went downhill. Anyone who, like my Uncle Friedel, was tracking it with colored thumbtacks on specially enlarged, cardboard-backed maps had trouble keeping up with developments in the East and in North Africa. At best, he could register the successes of our ally Japan at sea and in Burma, though our submarines occasionally padded the bulletins with the number and register tonnage of ships they had sunk. In the Atlantic and up near the Arctic, they’d attack convoys in packs.

No, it wasn’t the newspapers that fed my hero worship but the newsreels: I was a pushover for the prettified black-and-white “truth” they served up. Not one newsreel failed to show the submarines returning home victorious, and since I, when home on leave, would lie awake for hours on the living-room couch after seeing them on the screen, I had plenty of opportunity to picture myself as a ship’s mate during a stormy tower watch, swathed in oilskins, covered with spray, spyglass trained on the dancing horizon. . . .

It must have been possible for a Luftwaffe auxiliary to trade a weekend leave for a Wednesday or Thursday off. In any case, one thing is clear: after one long day’s march, I took the tram from Heubude to the Central Station, and from there the train via Langfuhr and Zoppot to Gotenhafen, where Navy recruits were trained to handle submarines. It took all of an hour to reach the goal of my dreams of heroism. I found the recruitment office in a low, Polish-period building where, behind a row of doors with signs, bureaucratic rigmarole was processed, passed on, filed. After signing in, I was told to wait for my name to be called. There were two or three older boys ahead of me. I did not have much to say to them.

The sergeant and the seaman first class I spoke to rejected me out of hand: I was too young; my age group hadn’t come up yet; it would soon enough; no reason for excessive haste.

They were smoking and drinking coffee with milk out of big, bulbous cups. One of these—from my perspective—elderly gentlemen (the sergeant?) was sharpening a supply of pencils while I spoke. Or did I pick up this dramatic detail from some movie or other?

I must have stood my ground even as I was told that there was no need for submarine volunteers at present: they had stopped accepting applications. And then they reminded me that the war was not being fought entirely underwater, and said that they would make a note of my name and pass it on to other branches of the military. Provisions were being made for new panzer divisions. “Patience, young man, patience. We’ll come and get you soon enough. ”

As I summon forth the boy I was then, making him stand at attention in laced-up, spit-shined shoes and striped socks topped by naked knees, I seem to hear those two men in uniform laughing sardonically, thinking perhaps of what the boy still in shorts has in store: the sergeant’s left sleeve was empty.

Time passed. Things at home ran their wartime course. I managed to keep the animosity that I felt toward my father within bounds for the length of my weekend leaves. I presumably enjoyed disdaining him: first, because he existed; next, because he would stand or sit in the living room in a suit and tie and felt slippers; next, because he was forever mixing pastry dough in the same stoneware bowl while wearing the same apron; next, because he was always the one who carefully tore the newspapers into toilet paper; and, finally, because, having been declared “exempt from military service,” he would never go to the front and therefore never get out of my hair. But my father did give me a Kienzle wristwatch for my birthday.

Mother’s take on the general situation boiled down to the following: “I have my doubts.” Though I once heard her say, “Too bad Hess is gone. I liked him better than our Führer.” She was also known to come out with “I can’t understand why they’ve got it in for the Jews. We used to have a haberdashery sales rep by the name of Zuckermann. As nice as could be, and always gave a discount.”

All winter long, the front moved closer to home. The Wehrmacht’s high command tried to tone down the retreat by dubbing it a front-straightening operation. Victory bulletins virtually ceased, and more and more bombardment victims were seeking refuge in our city and its environs. The urge to break away, to flee to any front that would have me, had lost its force. My desire was moving in another direction: I read Eichendorff and Lenau at their most romantic, pored over Kleist’s “Kohlhaas” and Hölderlin’s “Hyperion,” and stood guard by the ack-ack guns, lost in thought, my eyes wandering over the frozen sea.

This leisurely pace could have gone on all spring, which had finally come, and into the summer, but, shortly after I was called in for the physical given to all potential recruits, in the building of the local military command, I received official notification that I had been inducted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst, the Labor Service, another auxiliary force, intended to provide support for the war in civilian areas. I was not the only one who received that piece of certified mail. It all went like clockwork, according to age group. Length of service: three months. I was to report in late April or early May.

My knowledge of geography had been expanding again with reports of front movements in the east (Kiev evacuated), of battles for islands in the Pacific between the Japanese and the Americans, of developments in southern Europe. After our Italian allies broke with us, a move we saw as base treason, and our parachutists liberated Il Duce from his hideout in the Abruzzi Apennines—Skorzeny was the latest hero’s name—came the battle for the ruins of Monte Cassino Abbey. The British and the Americans had landed on the coast just south of Rome and were extending a beachhead that was still under fire when I had to give up my chic Luftwaffe auxiliary uniform for the less than flattering Labor Service garb. Shit-brown, it made us look shitty, we would say. The most ludicrous part of it was the headgear, a felt hat that looked like a big bump with a crease down the middle and seemed to have been made only to be torn off. We dubbed it “ass with a handle.”

From the outset, I had what was known in the Labor Service as a cushy job: I was good at drawing and had a way with colors, and was therefore considered privileged. The walls of the canteen in our stone mess hall were to be adorned with pictures inspired by the juniper bushes, the water hole complete with reflected clouds, and the birches of the half-flat, half-hilly heath. Desired but not essential: a frolicking water nymph.

After the usual morning drill—rifle practice, first with a spade, then with a 98 carbine—I was released to make sketches from nature: all afternoon I could absent myself from the camp with my watercolors, water bottle, and drawing pad. Beautiful clouds, shiny black ponds, birches in front of or behind gigantic erratic boulders made their way onto the paper in saturated colors. I soon had a pile of sketches to paint in distemper on the canteen’s white walls.

Day after day in the morning drill, we went through a ceremony conducted by the corporal in charge of weapons, a man who looked serious on principle. He handed them out, we grabbed them. It goes without saying: every member of the Labor Service was to feel honored by the touch of the wood and metal, the butt and barrel of the carbine in his hands.

And we boys did, in fact, inflate ourselves to men when we stood at attention with our guns by our sides or presented them or marched with them on our shoulders. You might say that we took the expression “A soldier’s gun is a soldier’s bride” literally. We thought of ourselves as engaged, if not quite married, to the 98 carbine.

Though I make a point of using “we” here, there was an exception to that rank-and-file, somewhat facile plural. This exception was a lanky boy who was so blond and blue-eyed, and whose profile revealed a skull so elongated that the likes of him could be found only in propaganda promoting the Nordic race. Chin, mouth, nose, forehead—each was the epitome of “racial purity.” He was untainted: no trace of a wart on neck or temple. He neither lisped nor stuttered when ordered to report. No one could beat him in long-distance running; no one could match his daring when leaping over musty ditches or his agility when clambering over a wall. He could do fifty knee bends without getting tired. There was nothing, no flaw, to sully the picture. But what made him an exception was that he—his name eludes my memory—was an insubordinate: he refused to take part in rifle drill; worse still, he refused to take butt or barrel in hand; and, worst of all, when our dead-earnest drill instructor pressed the carbine on him, he would drop it. Which made him or his fingers criminal.

With the spade, a basic utensil for everyone in the Labor Service, he did all that he was ordered to do. He would also have received top marks in camaraderie. He was the friendly, good-natured type, always ready to help, and he never complained. Upon request, he would give his comrades’ boots such a regulation shine that they would be a feast for sore eyes, even the eyes of the strictest N.C.O. during roll call. He had no trouble with brushes or dustcloths; it was only the firearm he refused to wield.

Every possible sort of punitive labor was imposed upon him, but nothing helped. He would work conscientiously for hours without a peep, emptying the latrine with a worm-infested bucket on a long stick—a punishment known as “honey-slinging” in soldiers’ slang—only to appear, freshly showered, at rifle drill shortly thereafter and refuse to wield the weapon once again. I can see it falling to the ground as if in slow motion.

At first we merely asked him questions and tried to talk him out of it. We actually liked the fellow, this oddball, this knucklehead: “Take it! Just hold it!” But when they took to punishing us on his account and tormented us in the hot sun until we collapsed, we all began to hate him. I, too, worked up my ire against him. We were expected to give him a hard time, and so we did. He had put us under pressure; we would return the favor. He was beaten in his barracks by the very boys whose boots he had polished mirror-bright. All against one. Through the boards that divided room from room, I could hear his whimper, the snap of the leather belt, the loud counting. These sounds are ingrained in my memory. But neither the hazing nor the beatings, nor anything else, could force him to carry arms.

Morning after morning, when we gathered for roll call and the drill instructor started passing out the weapons, the incorrigible insubordinate would let the one meant for him fall to the ground like the proverbial hot potato and immediately return to his ramrod position, hands pressed to trouser seams, eyes fixed on a distant point.

I cannot count the number of times he repeated his mantra, a catchphrase that has never left me: “We don’t do that.” He stuck to the plural. In a voice neither loud nor soft, he pronounced what he and his refused to do. Four words fusing into one: Wedontdothat.

When he was asked what he meant, he repeated the indefinite “that” and refused to call the object he would not take in his hands by its name.

His behavior transformed us. From day to day, what had seemed solid crumbled. Our hatred was mixed first with amazement, then with admiration expressed in questions like “How can that idiot keep it up?” “What makes him so hard-nosed?” “How come he doesn’t report sick? He’s been pale as a ghost lately.”

Then we let him be. No more beatings on the bare behind. The insubordinate stood above us, as if on a pedestal.

In the end, this morning ritual was cut off by his arrest. “Off to the cooler with him!” came the command.

From then on, discipline and order reigned. Every once in a while, the “convict” came up in our conversations. Someone—was it the drill instructor or one of us?—would say, “He must be a Jehovah’s Witness.” Or, “He’s a Bible nut. No doubt about it.” But the blond, blue-eyed boy with the racially pure profile had never referred to the Bible or Jehovah or any other Almighty; he had said simply, “Wedontdothat.”

One day his locker was cleared out: private things, including religious pamphlets. Then he was gone—“transferred,” it was called. We did not ask where to. I did not ask. But we all knew. He had not been discharged as unfit for service; no, we whispered, “he has long been ripe for the concentration camp.”

And since we knew of the camp, Stutthof, only by hearsay, we thought Wedontdothat—which was what we called him in secret—was in good hands. “They’ll bring old Wedontdothat down a peg or two.”

Was it all as simple as that?

Did no one shed a tear?

Did everything go on as it had before?

I must say that I was, if not glad, then at least relieved when the boy disappeared. The storm of doubts about everything in which I’d had rock-solid faith died down, and the resulting calm in my head prevented any further thought from taking wing: mindlessness had filled the space. I was pleased with myself and sated. A self-portrait from that period would have shown me well nourished.

When the bulletin of the Wehrmacht high command, which was tacked up daily on the notice board, announced the landing of the British and American forces on the Atlantic coast, the battle for the Atlantic Wall pushed everything that had preceded it into the background.

Increased vigilance was the order of the day. One of our duties was to fortify the camp: we dug trenches, set up mined wire barriers. We also had to install a complex alarm system, though nothing alarming ever happened, except that one Sunday we were ordered out onto the parade ground in full force, all two hundred and fifty of us, in our shit-brown garb plus ass-with-handle headgear on our closely cropped hair.

In the middle of the square, right next to the flagpole, a Reich Labor Service leader, who had arrived out of nowhere with a tightly knit retinue, was reeling off clipped pronouncements about shame and craven betrayal; that is, about the base and insidious plot on the part of a coterie of well-born officers—unsuccessful, thank heaven—to assassinate our dearly beloved Führer, and about merciless revenge, the “extermination of this vile clique.” And on and on about the Führer, who—“It was truly a miracle!”—had survived.

A shiver ran through us. Something akin to piety sent the sweat seeping out of our pores. The Führer saved! The heavens were once more, or still, on our side.

We sang both our national anthems. We shouted Sieg heil! three times. We were irate, we were incensed at the still nameless traitors.

We were dismissed from the Labor Service soon after the assassination attempt, our term served. Back in mufti, I was ashamed of my naked knees, my forever sagging kneesocks: I was beyond all that now, no longer a schoolboy.

It took less than two months for my induction letter to arrive, black and white on the kitchen table, signed, dated, and stamped. In September, 1944, my train pulled out of Danzig Central Station, headed for Berlin.

Mother had refused to accompany son to the station. She was smaller than I was, and when she hugged me in the living room she seemed to dissolve into tears between the piano and the grandfather clock. “All I ask is that you come back in one piece,” she said.

Father accompanied me. We didn’t say a word to each other on the tram. Then he had to buy a platform ticket. His velvet hat gave him a soigné, bourgeois look: a man in his mid-forties who had managed to stay a civilian and stay alive.

He insisted on carrying my cardboard suitcase. The man I had pushed away the moment I started growing, the man who, though he was my father, I had never got close to except when we quarrelled; this vivacious, easygoing, easily tempted man with a mania for good posture and, as he put it, “nice, neat handwriting,” who loved me after his fashion, the eternal husband; this man stood next to me as the train pulled in through a cloud of steam.

I didn’t cry; he did. He hugged me; I hugged him back. Or did we only do the manly handshake thing? Were we provident, even stinting, with our words—“Take care, my boy,” “See you, Papa”?

All I remember seeing clearly was the city with its towers against the evening sky in the distance. I also think I heard the bells of nearby St. Catherine’s: “Be ever true and forthright till to the grave thou comest.”

After a night’s journey broken by repeated stops, the train finally pulled in late to Berlin. It was going so slowly as to invite the passengers to write everything down, or at least fill in the potential memory gaps ahead of time.

Here is what I retained: there were houses, entire apartment houses, on fire on either side of the embankment; there were flames coming out of the windows of the upper stories, and glimpses of dark gorgelike streets and courtyards with trees. The only people I saw were isolated silhouettes. No crowds.

Fires were considered normal by then; Berlin was in the throes of dissolution, and the situation worsened by the day. The city had just been bombed and the all-clear signal sounded. That was why the train was moving so slowly, offering what seemed like a personal sightseeing tour.

People at the station appeared oblivious of the fires. It was business as usual: shoving crowds, curses, sudden salvos of laughter; soldiers on leave hurrying back to the front, soldiers on leave hurrying home; representatives from the female arm of the Hitler Youth, the League of German Girls, passing out hot drinks and giggling when the soldiers pawed them.

In the hall with the ticket windows, I joined a group of recent recruits my own age and, after a brief wait, was handed marching orders naming Dresden as my destination.

I can picture my fellow-recruits jabbering. We are curious, as if on an adventure. We’re in a good mood. I hear myself laughing too loudly, about what I don’t know.

Suddenly, an air-raid siren chased us all into the station’s voluminous basement, the nearest shelter. A motley crew was soon crammed together there, soldiers and civilians, and a lot of children. There were wounded soldiers lying on stretchers and leaning on crutches. There was also a troupe of music-hall performers. They were all in costume: the siren had sent them directly from stage to cellar.

While outside the gunfire hammered on and bombs dropped far and near, they continued their show: a dwarf juggler who kept ninepins, balls, and colored hoops all in the air at one time had us mesmerized; a dainty little lady tied herself gracefully in knots while blowing kisses to the wildly applauding crowd. The troupe, whose job it was to entertain front-line soldiers, was led by a tiny old man who performed as a clown. He also coaxed a sweet, melancholy music out of a row of empty to full glasses by stroking their rims with his fingers, the smile never leaving his rouged lips. An image that has stuck with me.

As soon as the all-clear sounded, I took a tram to another station. The train for Dresden waited for departure in the gray light of morning.

It was not until here, in a Dresden as yet untouched by the war, that I understood what division I had been attached to. My new marching orders made it clear where the recruit with my name was to undergo basic training: on a drill ground of the Waffen S.S., as a panzer gunner, somewhere far off in the Bohemian Woods.

The question is: Was I frightened by what was obvious then in the recruitment office, as I am terrified now by the double “S,” even as I write this more than sixty years later?

There is nothing carved into the onion skin of my memory that can be read as a sign of shock, let alone horror. I most likely viewed the Waffen S.S. as an élite unit that was sent into action whenever a breach in the front line had to be stopped up. I did not find the double rune on the uniform collar repellent. The boy, who saw himself as a man, was probably more concerned with the branch of the service: if he was not destined for the submarines, then he would be a tank gunner in a division that was named in honor of Jörg von Frundsberg, whom I knew as the leader of the Swabian League during the sixteenth-century Peasant Wars and the “father of the Landsknechts”—crack infantry mercenaries. Someone who stood for freedom, liberation. Besides, the Waffen S.S. had a European aura to it: it included separate volunteer divisions of French and Walloon, Dutch, and Belgian, and many Norwegian and Danish soldiers; there were even said to be neutral Swedes on the Eastern Front in the defensive battle, as the rhetoric went, to save the West from the Bolshevik flood.

So there were plenty of excuses. Yet for decades I refused to admit to the word, to the double letters. What I accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame. But the burden remained, and no one could alleviate it.

True, during the tank-gunner training, which kept me numb throughout the autumn and winter, there was no mention of the war crimes that later came to light. But the ignorance I claim cannot blind me to the fact that I had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organized, and carried out the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could not be accused of active complicity, there remains to this day a residue that is all too commonly called joint responsibility. I will have to live with it for the rest of my life.

We were trained on Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks, and we were driven like slaves. At first I thought that that was how it had to be, but my initial supply of enthusiasm soon dwindled. All of us—recruits my age and old-timers who had been transferred to the Waffen S.S. as part of what was ironically called the Hermann Göring Fund—were drilled hard from dawn to dusk and, as we had been warned from the outset, constantly raked over the coals.

I had read about it in books. I intentionally suppressed the names of the slave drivers, even the worst of them. All that I learned from the experience was mute compliance or clever tricks. I got out of drill once by feigning jaundice—I swallowed some heated oil from sardine cans—and once because of an outbreak of boils, but the infirmary, which was chronically packed, could offer only temporary refuge.

Our instructors, who were young in years but had been turned into hard-boiled cynics by their year or two at the front, were eager now to pass on the experience they had gained at the Kuban bridgehead or in tank warfare at Kursk. They did so in bitter earnest or with merciless wit or however they felt like it. Now loudly, now softly, they plied us with military lingo and outdid one another in bullying us with newfangled or time-honored Army tortures.

I did everything I was ordered to do without a second thought. Crawling under the sump of our practice tank to the command “Measure ground clearance!” Shooting at moving targets. Night marches with combat pack. Knee bends with rifle held at arm’s length. It was all supposed to make a man of me.

Belatedly, a present for my seventeenth birthday arrived in the mail: a package containing woollen socks, a cake that was mostly crumbs, and a double-sided letter full of clueless worries in my father’s fine penmanship. From then until Christmas, only letters; after Christmas, nothing.

The notice board led us to believe that the Ardennes offensive—the Battle of the Bulge—was going swimmingly and would turn things around at last, but soon came the bulletin admitting that the Russians had entered East Prussia. Reports of the rape and murder of German women in the Gumbinnen region occupied my thoughts during theory lectures. All day we saw enemy squadrons sending bundles of vapor trails through the frost-bright sky, wending their unimpeded way—where? It looked quite beautiful, actually, but where were our fighter pilots?

There was still a lot of talk about the V1 and V2 rockets, to say nothing of the miracle weapon that was expected to materialize any minute. Toward the end of February, when rumors of the Dresden firestorm started making the rounds, we took the oath. The moon was full, the night freezing cold. A chorus sang “If Others Prove Untrue, Yet We Shall Steadfast Be,” the song of the Waffen S.S.

Soon thereafter, I witnessed an event that should have made the downfall of the German Reich evident—the organized chaos of defeat moving slowly, then with dispatch, and finally at breakneck speed. Was I able to recognize what things were coming to? Did the never-ending activity, the all-consuming need for a ladle of soup and a crust of Army bread, along with fears of various magnitudes, leave any room for insight into the general situation?

From the training camp in the Bohemian Woods we were transferred group by group to a number of outlying garrisons: one lot set off in the direction of Vienna; another was sent to defend Stettin. Mine was taken one night on a freight train via Tetschen-Bodenbach to Dresden, then farther east into Lower Silesia, where the front was reputed to be. All that remains of Dresden in my mind is the smell of burning and the sight—through the slightly open sliding door of the freight car—of charred bundles piled one on top of the other between tracks and in front of scorched façades. Some claimed to have seen shrivelled corpses, others heaven knows what. We covered up our horror then by quarrelling over what had happened; much as today what happened in Dresden lies buried under verbiage.

After being shifted in one direction, then the next, we finally found the company that we had been assigned to and joined its as yet incomplete squad in an evacuated school. The school benches piled up outside were being sawed into firewood by the kitchen crew. The accommodation awaiting us in the courtyard made it clear that the barracks existence I had led since my days as a Luftwaffe auxiliary was not over yet.

And there we sat, waiting for our famous Tiger tanks to arrive. The wait proved long but, given the regular meals and the loose discipline, tolerable. We even got to see movies.

Eventually, we received three or four Jagdpanthers, Hunting Panthers—instead of the promised Königstigers, King Tigers—which had guns with no revolving turret. And although we lacked the training to operate them, we had to clear out of the barracks and mount them in our capacity as escorts, equipped with rifles and other assault weapons.

The front was supposedly the Silesian town of Sagan, which had been recaptured but was still under fire. From Sagan, there was to be an offensive, or so we were told, to liberate Breslau, which the Russians had besieged.

At that point the film rips and, when I splice it together and switch the projector back on, all I get is a jumble of images: somewhere I throw away my threadbare footcloths and put on the woollen socks we have found in an evacuated military storehouse. We have stopped in an alluvial plain and I am stroking the first pussy willows. Did I hear an early cuckoo? Did I count its calls?

And then I see my first bodies. Soldiers young and old, in Wehrmacht uniforms. Hanging from trees still bare along the road, in marketplaces. With cardboard signs on their chests branding them as cowards and subversive elements. A boy my age—his hair, like mine, parted on the left—dangling next to a middle-aged officer of indeterminate rank, or, rather, stripped of his rank by a court-martial. A procession of corpses that we ride past with our deafening tank-track rattle.

Off to the side, I see peasants working their fields, furrow after furrow, as if nothing were wrong. One has a cow hitched to his plow.

Then I see more refugees, filling the streets: horse carts and overladen handcarts pushed and pulled by old women and adolescents; I see children clutching dolls, perched on suitcases and rope-bound bundles. An old man is pulling a cart containing two lambs, hoping to survive the war.

At this point, the reel of my first contact with the enemy must be singled out from the arbitrary concatenation of images. I can only assume that the encounter took place sometime in mid-April, when, after lengthy artillery bombardment, the Soviet Armies broke through the German lines along the Oder and the Neisse between Forst and Muskau to take revenge for their millions of dead, to conquer, to triumph.

I see our Jagdpanthers, a few armored personnel carriers, several trucks, the field kitchen, and a thrown-together troop of infantrymen and tank gunners taking up position in a grove of young trees, either to launch a counteroffensive or to form a line of defense.

Buds on the trees, birches among others. The sun giving warmth. The birds chirping. We wait, half drowsing. Someone is playing a harmonica. A private lathers up, starts shaving. And then, out of the blue—or was the birds’ sudden silence a loud enough warning?—a Stalin organ overhead.

There is no time to wonder where the name comes from. Is it the way it howls, hisses, and whines? Two or three rocket launchers blanket the grove. They are ruthlessly thorough, mowing down whatever cover the young trees might promise. There is no place to hide, or is there? I see myself doing as I was taught: crawling under one of the Jagdpanthers, where I find someone else—the driver, the gunner, the commander?—measuring the space between sump and soil. Our boots touch. We are protected by the tracks on either side. The organ goes on playing for what is most likely a three-minute eternity—scared to death, I piss my pants—and then silence.

Beside me, chattering teeth.

No, the chattering had begun even before the organ had played its piece to the end; nor did it stop when the screams of the wounded overpowered all other noise.

When I crawled out from under the Jagdpanther, I was assaulted by images. There were bodies everywhere, one next to the other and one on top of the other, dead, still alive, writhing, impaled by branches, peppered with shell splinters. Many were in acrobatic contortions. Body parts were strewn around.

Isn’t that the boy who was tootling away on the harmonica? And there’s that private, his lather not yet dry. . . .

The survivors were either crawling here and there or, like me, rooted to the spot. Some wailed, though not wounded. I made no sound; I just stood there in my piss-soaked pants, staring at the innards of a boy I had been shooting the breeze with. Death seemed to have shrunk his round face.

But I had already read everything I write here. I had read it in Remarque or Céline, who—like Grimmelshausen before them, in his description of the Battle of Wittstock, when the Swedes hacked the Kaiser’s troops to pieces—were merely quoting the scenes of horror that had been handed down to them. . . .

Then, suddenly, the teeth-chatterer was at my side, pulling himself up to his full height and exhibiting the rather elevated Waffen S.S. rank on his collar, his Knight’s Cross medal only slightly awry under his chin, the very picture of a newsreel hero such as we schoolboys had been fed from the screen for years.

“Get a move on, soldier,” he barked at me, the witness to his fear. “Assemble all able men. On the double. Get them back into formation, chop-chop. Prepare for the counterattack.”

I watch him stepping over shattered bodies, both dead and alive. He looks ridiculous striding along, waving his arms, the picture-book hero no more.

From then on, the units I belonged to had no names. Battalions, companies kept dissolving. The Frundsberg was no more—if it ever had been. The Soviet Armies had moved on beyond the Oder and Neisse and formed a broad front. Our main battle lines, steamrollered and broken through, existed only on paper, but what did I know of battle lines and what they were or meant?

In the chaos of retreat, I sought to join up with scattered soldiers who were likewise trying to find their units. Even though I had had no direct contact with the enemy, I was scared to death. The soldiers hanging from the trees along the road were a constant warning of the risk run by every one of us who could not prove that he belonged to a company or was on his way to this or that unit with signed and sealed travel orders.

The central section of the Eastern Front, now retreating inexorably west, was under the command of the infamous General Schörner. According to “Schörner’s orders,” military police—bloodhounds, the lot of them—were to go after soldiers without marching papers and haul them, no matter what their rank, before mobile courts-martial as malingerers, cowards, and deserters. They would then be summarily and conspicuously hanged. Schörner and his orders were more to be feared than the enemy.

Twice in mid-April, I ended up behind Russian lines as part of an improvised unit. Both times I was attached to a reconnaissance troop with an unclear mission, and both times I was saved by luck, if not by chance.

My first opportunity to croak under machine-gun fire or be taken prisoner and learn to survive in Siberia presented itself when a troop of six or seven men led by a sergeant attempted to break out of the cellar of a one-story house. The house was in the Russian-occupied part of a village still under dispute.

How we’d got behind Russian lines and into the cellar of this house is unclear, but breaking out of it and racing to one of the houses on the other side of the street, which was still occupied by Germans, was supposed to save us. I can hear the sergeant, a beanpole in a cocked field hat, saying, “Now or never!”

Through the cellar window we could hear shots—single shots and machine-gun fire—going back and forth at intervals. There was nothing edible on the cellar shelves, but we could tell that the man living there, who had obviously cleared out just in time, had owned a bicycle shop, because he had used the cellar to hide his much sought-after wares, a number of which were hanging by their front wheels from wooden racks, their tires pumped and ready to go.

The sergeant must have been prone to snap decisions, because just after saying “Now or never!” he whispered rather than commanded, “Get a move on. Grab a bike, each one of you, and make a run for it.”

My embarrassed but precisely formulated response—“Sorry, Sergeant, I can’t ride a bike”—must have sounded like a bad joke to him. Nobody laughed. There was no time to go into the deeper reasons for my disgraceful failing: “My mother, who runs a no more than marginally profitable grocery, was unfortunately so chronically short of funds that she could not afford to buy me a bicycle, new or used, thus preventing me from acquiring a skill that might now possibly save my life. . . .”

Before I could go on, the sergeant made another snap decision: “All right, then. Grab the machine gun and cover us. We’ll come back for you later.”

It may be that one or another of the privates, while dutifully removing his bike from the rack, tried to allay my fear. If so, his words went unheeded. I was at the cellar window taking up a position with a weapon I had not been trained to operate. The doubly incapable soldier never had a chance to fire, however, because no sooner had the five or six men emerged from the cellar, bicycles and all, than they were mowed down by machine-gun fire out of nowhere—that is, from one side of the street or the other or both.

I think I see a wriggling, then only a twitching pile. Someone—the lanky sergeant?—turns head over heels as he falls. Then nothing moves. I may also see a front wheel sticking out of the pile, turning and turning.

I departed the bicycle-shop owner’s house without the light machine gun entrusted to me, but with my rifle, and made a run for it through the back garden and the creaky gate. Behind and between gardens, I was hidden by bushes already in bud, and, having left the village still ringing with gunfire, I suddenly came to the tracks of a narrow-gauge railway bordered on both sides by shrubbery along embankments the height of a man. They ran straight in the presumed direction of our front.

After little more than a kilometre of gravel and wooden ties, I saw an undamaged bridge arching the tracks. Crossing it were jeeps and trucks carrying infantry, then a horse-drawn howitzer, then small groups of unmistakably German foot soldiers dragging their feet. Blindly, I joined their column.

I found myself in a group of twelve to fifteen men, with no heavy artillery and therefore classified as a raiding party, belonging to an “ascension commando”—soldiers’ slang for suicide squad. Since I had managed to lose my rifle, I was given a submachine gun of Italian manufacture, which, had there been occasion for me to use it, would have been in unsure hands.

Our orders were to advance and seek contact with the enemy.

Dusk was descending, and after a number of false starts we wandered onto a forest path churned up by tank tracks. The tracks had been made only hours before, we learned, by a column of Tigers and armored personnel carriers racing forward to serve as an advance guard. But, hard as we tried to make radio contact with them, all that came over our walkie-talkie was gibberish and static.

The tree stock on both sides of the road was highly repetitive, pine giving way to pine. We may have had no heavy artillery to weigh us down, but we had picked up an old man along the way—his armband identified him as a member of the Volkssturm, the Home Front Army—as well as two lightly wounded soldiers, both of them, like twins, with lame left legs. The man from the Volkssturm was constantly babbling about something, quarrelling with God or cursing his neighbor; the wounded men had to be helped along, half carried. We made slow progress.

After further vain attempts to contact the tank brigade, the sergeant called for a halt. Putting to use his evident front-line savvy, he had decided to wait for the armored personnel carriers that were expected for the retreat, in the hope that they would provide transport for at least the hobblers and the Home Front bore. We’d had it for the day, in any case. Luckily, he singled me out to stand watch and ordered me to keep my eyes open.

I see another picture: Myself in my own imagination. Myself under my sliding helmet. Myself obeying an order. Myself eager to do a good job.

And that, tired as I was, I did. It wasn’t long before I spied a speck of light on the now night-black path running through the woods. It divided in two as it drew nearer. After delivering my required report—“Motorized vehicle, probably armored personnel carrier, straight ahead!”—I positioned myself in the middle of the path so as to be easily spotted and, according to my orders, ready to stop the tank with, since I am left-handed, a raised left hand.

My first intimation of surprise may have come from the fact that the rapidly approaching vehicle had its headlights on full beam, and when it came to a halt two steps in front of me I realized why. Only Russians would waste lights like that. . . .

“It’s the Ivans!” I shouted to the group at the side of the road, but did not take the time to differentiate the gunners sitting cheek by jowl on the enemy tank and thus meet my first Soviet soldier face to face. I broke ranks before they could shoot, diving into a stand of young pines to the right of the road, out of sight, though not out of danger.

I heard shouting in two languages immediately overlaid by gunfire, until only the Russian submachine guns had their say.

Crawling through the dense pine thicket and slowly increasing my distance from the road, I was shot at from right and left but not hit, which was not necessarily the case with the group around the sergeant. The old man was no longer cursing God or his neighbor or calling for scores to be settled. The only voices I heard were Russian voices, now quite far off. Someone was laughing. He must have been in a good mood.

Because the dry twigs made such a racket, the isolated tank gunner stopped inching forward on his elbows as he had been trained to do, and played dead, as if he could thereby escape the march of history. Not until the enemy tank, which had been followed by others, started moving did he begin to crawl forward again, and he crawled on until the pine cover turned into a mature wood with Prussian-neat rows. No, I had no desire to go back and find only corpses; besides, the pale lights and engine noises coming from the road confirmed the enemy’s advance.

What do I see when I hold up that lone tank gunner by the half-moonlight and view him as an early edition of the man to come?

He looks like a character who has escaped from a Grimms’ fairy tale. He is about to cry. He clearly doesn’t like the story in which he appears. He is still armed, still holding his submachine gun at the ready. A gas mask dangles uselessly from him like an elongated drum. All he has left in his haversack is a few crumbs of zwieback from his last ration. His canteen is half empty. His Kienzle luminous-dial wristwatch, the birthday present from his father, has long since stopped.

Now he is asleep, propped against a tree. Now he casts a shadow like the tree trunks, because it is day, but he cannot find his way out of the wood and stumbles around in a circle without knowing it, takes some crumbs out of his haversack, unscrews the top of his canteen, and drinks, sending the helmet back over his neck.

Now it is dark again and an owl is calling, and, hungry and abandoned under the moderately cloudy night sky, he chews his last crumbs.

A prisoner of the dark, he tries to recall the prayers he said as a child—“Please, dear God, stand by my side, that I may in Heav’n abide”—and maybe even calls out, “Mama, Mama,” and hears his mother’s voice, luring him home from far away: “Come back, my boy! I’ll give you egg yolk and sugar in a glass!” But he stays where he is, alone as can be, and then something happens.

I heard steps, or something that could be construed as steps. Twigs crackling underfoot. An animal of some kind? A boar? Maybe even a unicorn?

I stood stock still and made not a sound; he or it—the animal, man, or imaginary beast that had been stepping through the wood—followed suit. Then a figure appeared, drew nearer, withdrew, only to come near again. Too near.

Careful! Don’t swallow too loud. Take cover behind the tree trunks. Lessons from military training. Release the weapon’s safety catch, as the other man’s safety catch is almost certainly being released.

Two men assuming each other to be enemies. Conceivably, many years down the line, an idea for a ballet or a movie scene. Like the one that sets up the climax in every classic Western: the ritual dance before the final shootout.

Whistling is said to help dispel fear in a dark wood. I did not whistle. Something, perhaps the thought of my far-off mother, made me sing instead. I did not seek out a melody from among the marches we had been taught. No, it was a nursery rhyme relevant to my situation that came unbidden to my lips, and I sang the first line over and over—“Hans left home, on his own”—until I finally heard its mate: “Went into the world alone.”

I can’t say how long this antiphonal singing continued. Most likely until the message behind the words—two native speakers of German are wandering through the pitch-dark woods—was clear enough to allow both sides to drop cover, address each other in German soldierspeak, lower their weapons, and move within arm’s length, then even closer.

My singing partner was equipped with a rifle, several more years, and several fewer centimetres than me. What I saw under his field cap—he had no helmet—was a puny little man, and what I heard was a Berlin drawl that you could cut with a knife. The scare was over the moment he lit up: a cigarette in a sullen face that said nothing.

Later, I learned that in the course of the war, starting with the Polish campaign, moving on to France and Greece, and getting as far as the Crimean peninsula, he had made it to the rank of private first class. He had no desire to advance any further. Nothing could throw him, a characteristic that in our precarious situation soon proved its worth. He became my guardian angel: he led me out of the woods and over the fields and across the Russian front line.

Since, unlike me, the private first class had been to the edge of the woods and had several opportunities to observe the bivouac fires in the open field beyond, which he judged to be enemy territory, we looked for a place that was not lit by fire. That is, he looked; I remained two paces behind him.

During a halt, he lathered his face by the light of the lingering moon and shaved off a three-day growth. I held my superior’s pocket mirror for him.

Not until a field with a furrow leading westward into the darkness bolstered our courage did we abandon the protection afforded by the trees. The field looked freshly plowed and came to an end behind a swell in the soil, after which we followed a bush-lined country road that bridged a stream. The bridge was unguarded. We filled our canteens, drank, and filled them again. He had a smoke.

Two bridges down—could these have been tributaries of the Spree?—we saw the flicker of a fire in the distance. Laughter, snippets of words floated in our direction; shadow figures flitted back and forth in the glow.

After crossing the bridge, we heard a “Stoi!” and then another.

At the third “Stoi!”—the bridge was quite far behind us—my pfc. issued his directive: “Run, and as fast as you can!”

And so we ran, but we ran the sluggish run that I ran through many a postwar dream: across a field, its clumps and clods clinging to our boot soles, falling off, sticking back on, making us look as if we were running in slow motion—though we were now under submachine-gun fire and a sky exploding with signal rockets—through an extended film sequence that finally came to an end in the cover of a ditch at the far end of the field.

The Russians made no effort to flush us out. The shooting ebbed; the rockets stopped. The moon took back the sky. A rabbit hopped past leisurely, as if we were not to be feared.

On we trudged through the fields, crossing no more bridges, and just as the sun came up we saw a village that the enemy had apparently not yet occupied. It lay tranquil in the morning mist, huddled up to a church, peaceful, as if fallen out of time.

Strange that I can still picture the rather grouchy cavalry captain of Austrian descent who met us at the entry to the village behind a poorly guarded roadblock, complete with eye pouches and toothbrush mustache, even though we were exposed to him and his Home Front men for only a minute. He seemed anxious by nature, and interrupted our detailed report with a nonchalant “Just show me your marching orders,” as if that were a mere catchphrase.

Since without official papers we were court-martial fodder, he had us taken away by three old men armed with hunting rifles and anti-tank guns, one of whom made a great show of being the mayor and the head of the local farmers’ organization. They locked us up in the cellar of a farmhouse. Oddly enough, though, they failed to disarm us.

The cellar was lined with shelves full of bottled preserves, their labels written in grandmotherly Sütterlin script: asparagus, pickled gherkins with mustard seed, pumpkin, and green peas, as well as a blood-and-vinegar ragout and goose giblets. The jars weren’t even dusty. There were also bottles of cloudy apple and elderberry juice, and, in a corner, a pile of potatoes with sprouts the size of a little finger.

We spooned lard with pork chunks straight from the jar and munched on the gherkins, washing it all down with the juice and stopping only when we were on the point of vomiting. Then the pfc. smoked a cigarette. Like my mother, he was a master at blowing smoke rings. I took my gas mask out of its case and filled the case with jam.

Having waited two hours to be summoned to our court-martial, the likely verdict of which we refrained from discussing—we had probably slipped into an after-dinner doze, because I do not recall the interval as a period of apprehension—the pfc. tried the cellar door. It was unlocked. The key was hanging from the outside keyhole. No one was guarding us.

The village must have been evacuated in the meantime. The officer had either forgotten us or in a fit of melancholy delivered us into the hands of a capricious fate. The sparrows were doing their calisthenics on the roadblock’s freshly chopped pine logs. The sun was warm. We felt like bursting into song.

On one side of the block, we had an unobstructed view of the fields: the enemy, the Russian infantry, was advancing in protective ranks. I couldn’t make out any faces, but the distance was closing step by step. You could count them from left to right. Each a target.

Yet I did not aim my submachine gun, nor did my pfc. attempt to defend the village with his rifle. We made tracks, noiseless tracks. Even if the Ivans had shot on command or out of habit, we would not have shot back.

We did not act out of brotherly love and we deserve no credit. What kept us from aiming and pulling the trigger was more like reason, or the absence of necessity. That is why the claim I have so often made—namely, that during the week in which the war had me firmly in its grasp I never fired a shot—is at best a way of alleviating in retrospect the shame that remains. Yet the fact remains: we did not shoot. What is less certain is when I exchanged my uniform jacket for one less onerous. Did I do so of my own accord?

It was more likely the pfc. who, his eye on the runes on my collar, recommended the change of jacket. He could not have been pleased about my markings. Through me, though he did not put it in those terms, he had got into bad company. What he did say at some point, either in the larder of a cellar or while shaving or puffing on his cigarette, was: “Listen, boy, if those Ivans nab us, you’re in for it. They see those ornaments on your collar, they’ll shoot you in the neck. No questions asked.”

How he did it I don’t know, but he managed to “organize”—as the soldiers used to say—an ordinary Wehrmacht jacket somewhere. One without bullet holes or bloodstains. It even fit. Minus the double rune, he liked me a lot better. I came to like me better, too.

After is always before. What we call the present, this fleeting nownownow, is constantly overshadowed by a past now, in such a way that the escape route known as the future can be marched to only in lead-soled shoes.

Thus encumbered and at a distance of sixty years, I see a seventeen-year-old with an indecently bulging gas-mask case and a like-new tailored uniform jacket, doing everything possible to join up with the units flooding back through Germany, side by side with a tough slyboots of a pfc. who has seen it all and whom you’d never guess to be a barber by trade. Together, they repeatedly make their way around the “bloodhounds.” There are always holes to be found. The front is not easy to recognize. And they are only two among thousands of soldiers who have lost their regiments.

Then, on the road from Senftenberg to Spremberg, which is packed with horses and carts full of refugees, the two of them, in the same field-gray battle dress yet so ill-matched, take advantage of the crush to negotiate purchase of an official document, life-giving marching orders, at an improvised assembly point, which is out in the open at the side of the road and consists of a table and a stool. There is some printed paper on the table. The war-weary master sergeant on the stool asks no questions, writes quickly, slams down his stamp.

Now we are protected: we belong to a newly assembled combat group. True, for the time being it exists only on paper, as a vague promise, but we can see a perfectly concrete mobile field kitchen—the “goulash cannon” of soldiers’ slang—set up in the meadow behind the table, its kettle steaming and sending out a soupy aroma.

We join the line. All together. Not even officers may pull rank. Come the end, fate dishes out moments of rank-free anarchy.

We have potato soup with bits of meat floating in it. The mess boy ladles each of us a scoop from the bottom, then a half scoop from the top. The mess tin we each have buckled onto our haversacks is just the right size. The mood is neither down nor up. Typical April weather. The sun is out.

Now we are facing each other, our spoons moving in rhythm. “Hey,” says somebody a few steps away, without breaking the rhythm of his spoon, “isn’t today Adolf’s birthday? So where’s the extra ration? And the chocolate, the cigarettes, a shot of brandy for the toast! Heil, mein Führer!

Now somebody tries to tell a joke, but gets all mixed up. Infectious laughter. A peaceful scene. All it needs is an accordion player.

We were standing near a street on which a column of tanks trying to advance and counterattack was being obstructed by a column of refugees advancing in the opposite direction. There was no room to maneuver on one side of the road.

And then came the first explosions of the Soviet tank grenades.

Between one spoonful and another, my pfc. said, “Those are T-34s.”

“T-34s,” said his echo. Me.

A number of tanks had emerged from the woods and begun climbing the deep quarry by the opposite side of the road. Small as toys, they stopped and fired. The traffic on the street had come to a halt, presenting the enemy fire with an easy target. The shots came closer. Our Jagdpanther tanks, because of their fixed barrels, had to turn before they could respond. Commands vying with screams, our tanks pushed packed carts and their passengers and horses over the edge of the road into the quarry pit, tipping them over like trinkets.

Now I see a handsome lieutenant gesticulating out of an open turret as if trying to change the direction of the barrels with his bare hands; I see Silesian peasants refusing to let their possessions go; I see doll-like children on carts sliding off the road; I see women screaming, but I fail to hear their cries; I see grenades exploding, sometimes far off, sometimes nearby—silently they find their targets. So as not to see, I stare at the remains of the soup in my mess tin. On the one hand, I am still a hungry man; on the other, a dumbfounded observer, a mere witness to the filmlike action. I seem to be dreaming, but I am and remain awake until the helmet, its strap now flapping, flies off my head, and my senses vanish.

Where is my pfc.? Where is my submachine gun, my two magazines of ammunition? Why am I still standing—or standing again?

The badly bleeding wound in my right thigh drenching my trousers. The pain in my chin caused by the helmet strap. A limp arm dangling from my left shoulder, which refuses to obey when I try, with the help of someone else, to lift—there he is!—my pfc.

His legs torn to pieces. His torso apparently intact. His eyes open wide, amazed, unbelieving . . .

Then a whirl of sand dust shifts my gaze to the field kitchen, still steaming, unscathed, where it remains until we—he carried, I supported—and another wounded man are loaded into a field ambulance. An orderly climbs in. Other victims, left behind, curse; one of them insists on coming with us and clings to the vehicle. . . . At last the door is shut and bolted.

We rumble along, presumably to the dressing station.

The smell of Lysol. I must have felt safe in the ambulance. The war had taken a break. At any rate, nothing much was going on, especially as we were so slow in finding the way. The pfc. lay flat on his back. His formerly smooth, pink, shiny face—the result of frequent shaves—was tinged with green, and stubble was beginning to show. He seemed to have shrunk. His legs were bandaged, wrapped in gauze.

He lay, conscious, on a plank bed, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. He was trying to form words, and finally, in a softer version of his drawl, managed to ask for a cigarette. I extracted one from the crumpled packet in his breast pocket, together with his lighter.

I, the nonsmoker, lit it for him and stuck it between his lips. The lips suddenly stopped trembling. He took a few greedy puffs, shut his eyes, but immediately opened them in terror, as if he had only then understood his condition. Now I saw fear written on his face, and it startled me. Then, after an interval, during which I heard the groans of the wounded and the curses of the orderly—he was short on gauze—and wondered at my own oddly pain-free condition, my pfc. asked me—no, ordered me—to open his trousers and his underpants, too, and reach in and check between his legs.

Having received confirmation that everything was present and accounted for, he let out a quiet groan, took a few more puffs, then dropped off, breathed calmly, looked tranquil.

We were separated at the dressing station: he was put in a tent, I left out in the open. When the time came for my thigh to be bandaged, I became a laughingstock for the following reason: the gas-mask case, which was still attached to me, had been slit open by a finger-length grenade splinter and the contents had gushed out and made a mess of jam in my pants. From then on, my trouser seat stuck to me whenever I sat down. In time it attracted ants, which was nothing to laugh at.

Not until after my thigh was bandaged did they bandage my left shoulder, which was hardly bleeding, though it was likely that a foreign object made of metal, however small, had lodged there. The hole it had made in my new uniform jacket was all but invisible. The dangling arm was now supported by a sling. As evident as the war was all around us, it was suddenly over for me.

We were loaded onto a train that evening. It must have been the night of the twentieth to the twenty-first of April, because the Army doctor, the orderlies, and my fellow walking wounded were making the same complaints I’d heard being bandied about the field kitchen that afternoon: Where were the extras they’d passed around every year on the Führer’s birthday? No cigarettes, no sardines, no bottle of Doppelkorn per four men, no nothing. All the soldiers—even me, a nonsmoker—found this situation more upsetting and of greater import than the fall of the German Reich so obviously taking place.

Where the freight train in which I lay with all the wounded was headed I had no idea. It made frequent endlessly long and occasional short stops and was shunted several times onto different tracks. Soon, it was dark out. The only light we had came from a primitive acetylene lamp.

We lay on rotten, piss-smelling straw. The man to the left of me, a member of the mountain troops with a bandage around his head, was reading a religious book by the glimmer of a pocket flashlight. He was moving his lips. The man to my right had been shot in the stomach and writhed and screamed until he writhed and screamed no more.

There was no water to be had, no orderly to tend to the pleas of the wounded.

The night seemed never-ending; it lasted in my dreams through the early postwar years. When the train came to its final stop, the goods, both the quick and the dead, were unloaded, and an Army doctor checked off our names on the list, separating the seriously wounded from the rest. A glance was enough. It took no time at all.

The ancient and miraculously undamaged cathedral town of Meissen lay bathed in the spring-morning light. True to the folk song, the birds were all there.

The seriously wounded were hauled away in trucks; the rest of us, propping each other up, hobbled along the path leading to the fortress, which had been turned into a military hospital. Locals, mostly women, lined the path, and many helped the disabled.

I was anything but well cared for there in the fortress. The hospital was full to bursting, its corridors lined with emergency pallets. Exhausted doctors, harried nurses. Everything was in short supply, especially medicine. All they could do for me was put fresh bandages on my right thigh and my left shoulder, in which—it was now official, confirmed by a signed and stamped document—a small grenade splinter had lodged. They did not deem me worthy of an operation, nor did they waste a tetanus shot on me.

Finally, along with a document promising the shot and a pair of trousers, I was handed new marching orders, my last: destination Marienbad. Once a spa for the rich and famous, much celebrated in literature—as an old man, Goethe had fallen in love with a young thing there, was given the brushoff, and sublimated his grief in a “Marienbad Elegy”—it lay on the other side of the Ore Mountains, far off in the Sudetenland.

While I was waiting for the orders, my pfc. was pushed out of the operating room in a wheelchair. His legless torso wrapped in gauze rolled past deep in sleep, leaving behind the question of whether his coming out of that sleep was to be desired or feared. He had never told me his name.

I have no idea how I made it over the Ore Mountains. Some stretches by train and—since trains were then a rarity—by horse and cart through villages whose names now escape me. Somehow, I managed to make progress. And never did I deviate from my marching orders.

I spent one night in the mountains with a couple who kept rabbits behind their house. Man and wife were both teachers. I had begun to run a temperature, and they offered to look after me, give me civilian clothes, and hide me in the cellar until, as they said, “it’s all finally over.” Their son, whose picture, ringed in black, I saw in a bookcase, had fallen at the Battle of Sevastopol. He was about twenty years young. His clothing would have fit me. I could reach out and take down his books.

I didn’t stay. I wanted to go where my travel papers ordered me to go, to cross the mountains in my own trousers, which after a thorough washing had ceased to attract ants. The couple stood in front of their shingle-roofed cottage and watched me disappear.

And I made it, heaven knows how, all the way to Karlsbad, that other spa with literary and—given its connection with Metternich—political connotations, where I fell to my knees in the street and couldn’t get up.

I had a fever. It may have been caused by the grenade splinter in my shoulder or by the lack of a tetanus shot. My left arm was now stiff down to my fingertips, but I don’t recall being in pain.

The military policeman who picked me up followed my marching orders to the letter. He apparently draped me over the back seat of his motorcycle—I was unconscious—buckled me down, and drove me to Marienbad, where for the panzer gunner the war had indeed ended. By the time he had dropped me off and I had been placed, still feverish, in a freshly made bed, the Führer was no more.

(Translated, from the German, by Michael Henry Heim.)