Christian Short Stories
Pray for the SS
by Web Ruble
Web Ruble writes: I am a retired newspaper reporter, and now a novelist and short story writer. Having once been in U.S. forces in Europe just after WWII, I was in a MI unit and free to travel and visit a lot, and even live, so to speak, with German citizens. Many were disturbed and remorseful about the Nazi era. This story is fiction, but of the type I heard over and over.
The sway amused her. The clackety-thump of steel wheels on iron rails made her feel warm inside, knowing that every click took her one step farther from that terrible place from which she had been released some 26 hours earlier.
Margareta Steinman, 54, still expecting something to go wrong, nevertheless had enough hope and confidence to wax dreamy -- pushing aside the dismal nitch and nightmare she had been in for the last black three years.
With each passing kilometer she was distancing herself from that devil’s churn called Buchenwald Concentration Camp, and that was good. However, as the second- class train rattles south it is getting perhaps nearer to Dachau, another cesspool of misery. She didn’t know where Dachau is, except that she had heard it was near Munich.
Geography was a handy thing to know if several years ago you were one rung up the social foot stool from peasant status. If you had that knowledge, theoretically you would know which azimuth to pursue to avoid authorities and trouble.
Nevertheless, in Margareta’s case and level of education that hadn’t worked. Now inexplicably released more than three years later -- she still feels uneasy. ‘Tis now the early fall of 1944, and after 38 months at Buchenwald she had learned not to trust any circumstance. At first she had insisted that she was not Jewish. Later, it didn’t matter. She had been regarded as something less than peasant class. Someone despicable. The great unwashed. A traitor.
Yes, she is a traitor. Not to Germany. But to its Nazi government. She had been naively outspoken.
Margareta Steinman is not Jewish as her name suggests. Nevertheless, she had protested to authorities vociferously when the neighboring Stieglitz family vanished one evening back in 1940. Actually, it had been at night when Gestapo police arrived and took away the whole Stieglitz clan -- five of them. At the time she didn’t know about the camps. She had just asked questions and made a pest of herself, as she demanded to know what had happened to the Stieglitzes.
Authorities -- mainly Gestapo -- told her to mind her own business. However, she had continued to be troublesome, and finally a court judge – Jozef Arthaud – had signed a warrant for her arrest.
Two days later, she was hauled before a magistrate in Munich. A couple of the jail guards and Gestapo had whacked her in the face a few times when she got mouthy. In dirty rags and looking hammered and sick, she arrived before spiffy-looking Judge Hans Ketterer. The unsympathetic judge, listened to a half
hour’s testimony from police, and then asked Margareta her political views, and what she was doing trying to save “a worthless Jewish family,” that nearly everyone had forgotten.
Though she was so weak she could barely stand, she nevertheless pushed aside sobs and told the judge (“and all of Germany”) that they were all wrong and that “God would punish” (them).
“Ga ga hah,” the judge laughed. “Oh yes, you no doubt sit on the right-hand side of the Christ and know everything. We’ll see. You are miserable now? Just wait. Before it’s over you will beg us to hear a different attitude. But we won’t be listening. Har har.” Ketterer then called an end to proceedings and sentenced her to 36 months at Buchenwald.
It was later when she learned of the tragically ill-fated White Rose movement -- an anti-war movement started by German university students in Munich and Berlin -- and how the Nazis eliminated it quickly with executions by guillotine. The movement was dead and buried by early 1943.
At Buchenwald? Still going strong in late 1944. Squalor. Crowded. Filth. Concentrations of ragged people speaking other languages as well as German. Many of them seriously ill and getting worse. Most were starving and therefore getting weaker. Death made daily visits. Inmate crews removed the dead sometimes three times a week. Some inmates were pleasant and reasonable to get along with. Some were not.
All were miserable. Daily some were lined up and forced to take off their clothes. Guards laughed at them as they saw their emaciated bodies or plush-bottomed nakedness. The prisoners by that time were beyond humiliation. They were desperate. Unfeeling guards whipped them and ran them barefoot and shivering down the muddy yard to compounds of several buildings. Some apparently sensed they were not going to showers as promised.
Many screamed and tried to bolt. Rifle shots were often heard.
Some young women were separated from the others and taken to “headquarters” -- no doubt for the pleasure of the officers. But even though she found it difficult to believe that good German folk could be so cruel, she knew that non-returning prisoners had gone to their deaths. As far as Margareta knew none escaped. They simply were never seen again.
Quaking terror gripped her and others. Screams, cries and hollers came at night from the “cow sheds” (over-cramped living quarters).
New prisoners arrived at least weekly, and quite often several times a week. At first this huddled rabble became outraged and noisy. Still later after months of imprisonment, those who had not been moved out or shot grew despondent and too weak to protest. And eventually they became too weak to even move.
Hope had long since evaporated. Many just stared into nothingness . . .waiting . . . for what?
Meanwhile, the incarcerated, who were still somewhat able, began cooperating with guards or other authorities in hopes of surviving. They began spying for authorities and ratting on fellow prisoners.
In her barracks, guards at least once a week would enter and shout, “Time for torture.” Several women -- and sometimes men from their barracks -- were jerked out. Hours of screams, wailing and sobbing would be heard. Some returned whimpering in bloody, bruised and otherwise savaged condition. Others did not come back.
This disrupted the prisoners’ numbness, and re-triggered heart-rendering fear. In this way, prisoners who could still function were kept in line.
Margareta, she is loathe to admit, had been one of those trying to survive by cooperating. She had tried to curry favor with the Gestapo or the guards. She had lost all pride and sense of honor. Terrible. Even though she had turned in no one, she had almost no self respect.
Then a few days ago something miraculous happened. Guards marched her to camp headquarters.
A starch-uniformed, blue-eyed Gestapo officer -- looking intelligent, crisp and imperious behind a clean, large desk -- told her that her 36 months were up and that she would be released the next day.
She couldn’t believe it. Oh, she knew her 36 months had expired, but didn’t expect the commandant to do anything about it. Well, she observed upon being told she could leave, the Germans ARE precise; keep lots of records and orders, and it is their nature to act on them.
This is remarkable, she pondered, as she had heard the camps seldom turn anyone loose. However, Buchenwald did this time. She was surprised but asked no questions. She walked out the gate without so much as a backwards glance. She hurried down the road before somebody changed his, or her, mind.
When she boarded the train, a railroad official looked at her papers, sneered, and pointed to the train door.
She stood in the vestibule. A kind man -- still, however, in uniform -- motioned her to go into the adjacent car and take a seat. She was shocked. She had arrived in a 40 et 8 cattle car.
- - - -
Villages are burning. Piles of brick stand apparently where there have been buildings. As the train moves through the Rhur and down the Rhein, she can’t miss the severe destruction from bombings. Villages and small towns are still on fire here, too, and while civilians are disheveled and hurrying to evacuate, soldiers are marching here and there as if everything were normal.
Even though she feels sick about the shell-shocked civilians -- mainly women with small children or very old couples -- she feels good that Germany obviously is losing the war. Or, at least, the Nazis are not racing to victory as their propaganda claims..
She recalls that in recent months at Buchenwald she and other prisoners had observed overhead strange, foreign-looking aircraft and they heard explosions and lots of sirens. She had even seen searchlights at night. Nevertheless, it triggered little excitement in camp as prisoners believed they would all die long before help ever reached them.
Her head now swimming, she could not remember too many of the events subsequent to the hassle of boarding the train, but about an hour later she remembers finding herself en-trained and rattling south toward Frankfurt. What a rare and wonderful experience! Moreover, she is reasonably comfortable with papers in order. Railroad folk are going quietly about their business and ignoring her. Just as she had hoped. Too good to be true. God is on her side.
The only thing bothering her now is the fact that she has to stop at Schwandorf and transfer to a train headed for Munich. Her ticket is good enough to get only to Munich. However, she has some money in an old sock that might buy a ticket out of there.
She knows a death camp exists at Dachau somewhere near Munich, but she plans to catch a train immediately for Switzerland or perhaps Schwaebisch Germany.
Nevertheless, she remains uneasy, because she easily could wander into trouble in Schwandorf and Munich, especially the latter. However, she must try it. If she could just just get west out of Munich, she would try to get to the Schwaebisch village of Gemuend, tucked in the Black Forest. She perhaps could stay out of sight there and find a quiet way to survive. Even though she might starve, it would still be better than that devil’s elbow called Buchenwald. Or, if trouble was omnipresent in Schwabland she would try to get to Switzerland.
She remembers Baden Gemuend from pre-war days when she occasionally would visit her Aunt Hilda there. However, this time she dares not contact her if she were even yet still alive. It would be too dangerous for Hilda, who by now would be in her early 90s, or at least 80s.
Margareta muses, “God has been with me so far. But I have so little faith. Something easily could go wrong, and probably will. That’s the way my life has been. Why, oh why?” She sobs quietly.
A warm feeling washes over her. But it is followed by wave of caution. The train is entering Schwandorf. Often the trains from Berlin go straight through Schwandorf to Munich, of at least they used to. But not this one. She has to transfer.
The train slows to a stop and somebody yells “Muenchen umsteigen!” (Munich transfer.)
Margareta assembles her bundles and moves to the doorway to debark the train. One official notices her, frowns, approaches, and demands to see her papers. She produces them. He glances at ‘em and rudely sends her and baggage sprawling along the station platform. She whimpers and picks up her belongings, and scurries into the station.
For a small station, it is relatively busy. Perhaps this is good. Perhaps the more the traffic the less she would be noticed. However, she must go the ticket counter and find out train departures to Munich.
She does and learns that a sooty, third-class chugger is leaving within a few minutes. The clerk points to the track. She dredges enough coin to buy a ticket and starts moving toward the departure gate.
She no more than gets started when she notices a smooth uniformed SS officer approaching her. Fear like she has never experienced seizes her and she gets ill. She is about to vomit. She reasons: This man will certainly smack me in the face a few times and probably ship me to a prison where I’ll be beaten and probably executed.
The fear is so severe, she freezes and can’t move. The officer suavely introduces himself as Col. Friederich Kirchenmeier, and asks her name and then demands her papers. He pores over them several minutes, smiles and hands them back.
“Where are you going?”
“First to Munich and then, eventually . . . to Baden Gemuend,” she says in a weak, queer voice that doesn’t sound like her at all.
“You have a ticket?”
“May I see it?”
He’s asking me?
She produces it, and waiting, and is prepared for the worst.
“Third class eh?” the colonel asks.
“Oh yes,” she says.
“We can do better than that . . .give it to me,” he says.
She surrenders it and begins to sob.
He leaves and returns a few moments later, and says, “Why are you crying? No need. Here.”
She whimpers, “I’ve suffered so much in camps. The authorities released me. I just want to go home. . . What’s that?”
“Well, it’s a first class ticket on a train that leaves in an hour. Please take it and ride in comfort and class. That way -- on a first class train -- officials will be less likely to check you out . . . If things go right, perhaps you can survive the war. It’s almost over, you know. We Germans are losing. The Allies soon will be here. God bless.
He handed her the ticket and walked off. After a few yards, he stopped, turned and waved goodbye. He then turned back and strode away.
She stood there dumbfounded and a warm, secure feeling came over her anew.
- - - - - -
A year later, almost to the very day, she is in a medical center in Switzerland, having tea with a hospital nurse. Margareta had developed heart trouble and had just exited the doctor’s office where she had gone for a checkup. The doctor gave her a favorable report.
“Let’s have a crumpet with our tea . . .I’ll buy,” says Sonja the nurse.
Margareta begins to cry. Kindness. Surely most years she would have been knocked to the ground in that Schwandorf rail station, and would have received similar treatment in subsequent encounters with Nazi officialdom.
“You’ve been through a terrible time,” Sonja says. “But at this late date you are crying. Why?
“Kindness,“ Magareta says. “I’m so unused it. And . . .I don’t know why God is so good to me. I have had such little faith.” She tells Sonja part of the story.
“Pray for that SS Colonel,” Sonja said.
“Oh, I do every day.” Margareta said. And a warm feeling came over her again. This time to stay.
(© 2010 Web Ruble – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)
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