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< Echoes of Memory

Snippets from My Life, Unit 2: Coincidence to the Skeptics, Miracle to the Believers

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By gideon Frieder

Oh, the hierarchy of fear. There are many dangerous people outside the house, and one has to recognize who they are. The least dangerous are the Wehrmacht1— these old men with their grey uniforms. They come only occasionally on patrol, as our hamlet is too small and too insignificant, so there is no standing garrison in it. We are warned that they can be quite dangerous, but once they come into the house and sit down, they are really nice. I am just seven years old, yet they teach me how to use the Mauser2 and the Schmeisser3, how to load them and how to take care of them. On another occasion they also showed me how to use a hand grenade. They sit inside because it is warm and they are tired and they usually bring some coffee, which Aunt Paulina brews for them. We can also drink some. Looking back, it was possibly ersatz—but at the time, I felt very important to be able to take a sip.

You never do this with the soldiers with the black uniform, with the skull and bones insignia. Uncle Jozef calls them SS4. Sometime they come with some others who Uncle Jan calls Gardisty5, and they speak Slovak. Uncle Jozef is very strict, telling me never to talk to them or be around when they are here— I should play in my corner where I sleep and be quiet.

When the SS are coming down the hill in their armored cars, we go inside, but we do look through the window. I am careful just to peek, as I listen to what Uncle Jozef says. He is very nice and very wise, speaks many languages as he is really a Polish man who came through the village once and stayed to marry Paulina. He also speaks German, as he is from the part of Poland where there were many Germans, so he learned to speak when he was a child. I know because he talks in German when the Wehrmacht soldiers come to drink coffee in our home.

It is, however, the really dangerous soldiers that we all fear—they have a white uniform over their clothing and they speak very bad Slovak. I cannot understand a word they say. Does not matter, we never stay in sight when they come, we just hear them shouting. They are very visible and easily recognized when coming in their cars down the hill—and everybody who sees them shouts “Vlasovci”6 and runs into the house and hides, no peeking, no talking, just waiting. They do not speak to anybody, just kill and burn the houses. The house next to us was burned with all the people inside and it is still there today, burned down, with a plaque on it.

The partisans are the last group that comes into our hamlet, but I am not afraid of them. They come usually at night and warm themselves around the stove. I am not allowed to be around them. Only Uncle Jan and Uncle Jozef talk to them. Aunt Paulina goes to her side of the house. I stay in my corner, and after the partisans go up to the attic to sleep, Uncle Jozef joins Aunt Paulina. Uncle Jan and I always stay at our side of the house and go to sleep.

One day, still in the winter, only about three months after my arrival here, the Wehrmacht came into the village shouting and running, so we all immediately went into our houses. There seemed to be a lot of them. Some came to our hut and started to search. Suddenly one of them shouted something and came into the room holding a clip with five rifle rounds. After some discussion that I did not understand, really I did not hear a lot because I was crouching in my corner, the Germans put a sentry in front of the house and took Uncle Jozef away. Aunt Paulina and Uncle Jan were distraught and Paulina went immediately to her side of the house. There was a window there where she could have seen where they were taking her husband. I do not know how long it was. Only the sobbing that occasionally came from the other side of the hut marked the time.

I do not know how long it all lasted, but suddenly I heard a shout of joy, and Uncle Jozef came into the hut. The sentry was not at the door and the Germans were gone. Everybody came to the table and Jozef told us as follows: The soldiers took him up the hill to the neighboring village of Polianka and brought him to a room where their commander was sitting. The commander shouted at him, accusing him of being a supporter of the partisans, and demanded to know where they were. Jozef did not wait for the translation and immediately answered in German, surprising the officer. He said that he is not a supporter of the partisans, that he was pressured by the partisans who killed one of his wife’s family members in another village, and he has no choice but to let them sleep in the attic, where one of them left the clip. If the Germans would protect the village from the partisans who come and steal all the food, there would be no problem, but the Germans are not there at night, and what can he do? If he does not let them in, they will kill everybody the same way that they killed others.

Many years have passed since that winter—it was sometime in January 1945—and now, with the benefit of hindsight, I speculate that the commander may have been a veteran of too many killings, sensing the end and the defeat, reluctant to kill any more, especially a German speaker with a plausible story and a family. The commander may have been in an especially jovial mood or may have had reasons unknown to me. The commander may have been in a special frame of mind, having the power of life and death in his hands, but enjoying the ability to be benevolent. Or, as one of my religious friends firmly believes, divine intervention guided the commander’s decision and saved my life, so that two decades later I could meet with David Ben Gurion, in recognition of my work helping to secure the only real shelter of She-erit HaPleta (the survivors), the Jewish state of Israel. Let the believer believe and the skeptic call it sheer luck; the fact is that I was saved.

But the story does not end there. The real miracle had not happened yet. Precisely a week later, the Vlasovci came. They surrounded the village and conducted a thorough house-to-house search. They found nothing in our home—it had been sanitized previously, so to speak, by the Wehrmacht. Had the searches occurred in a reverse order, there would have been no discussion between Jozef and any commander. Simply, the Vlasovci would have found the ammunition, barricaded Uncle Jozef, Aunt Paulina, Uncle Jan, and me in the house, and burned us all, house and people, until we all were turned into ashes. Miracle, divine intervention, or just coincidence? Let the believers believe and the skeptics—well, the skeptics will say it was all a coincidence.

Notes
1. The “Wehrmacht” was the regular German army. At the end of World War II , the garrisons were mainly old men, as most of the young were either dead or on the front lines.

2. The “Mauser” was the Mauser98K, the standard issue bolt-action rifle of the Wehrmacht. It was later (in Israel) called “The Czech Rifle,” as it was produced, among other places, in the Moravian town of Brno, then part of the German “Protectorate.” In the 1947–48 Israeli wars it played a major role, being the rifle that stopped the Arabs before the May 1948 invasion by the neighboring states. It remained the standard issue rifle in the Israeli Defense Forces until the late 1950s.

3. The “Schmeisser” was the popular name of the MP40, at the time of this story the standard submachine gun of both the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS.

4. The “SS ” were really a mix of mechanized and armored units of Waffen SS .

5. The “Gardisty” were Slovak collaborators that belonged to the “Hlinkova Garda,” a paramilitary unit of the Slovak Fascist Hlinka Party, originally modeled after the Sturmabteilung (the Nazi SA).

6. The “Vlasovci” were Ukrainians who collaborated with the Germans. They derived their name from their association with General Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov, an ex-Red Army general whose Russian Liberation Army (ROA , the Russian acronym) fought on the side of the Germans. I did not do enough research to ascertain if the “Vlasovci” that I encountered were actually part of ROA or just collaborators fighting as part of the Waffen SS . They were quite renowned for their brutality. They spoke either Russian or Ukrainian—I do not know which—but both are Slavic languages, and when they are heard shouted from a distance, the children thought that it was just bad Slovak.

©2013, Gideon Frieder. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.
 

Tags:   gideon friederechoes of memory, volume 7

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