War Letters of German Students - pages 86 - 95


And to the right of us the yielding Austrians. We were suspended in the air — such were the rumors. No one knew much. The uncertainty made everyone nervous. And now the order to march back. Already scary and shattered by falling grenades, the streets and trenches filled like when we had found the Russian marching columns after the battle of Tannenberg. Thousands with faces distorted by fear running behind the small highway stones, taking cover as the grenades hit, starring in terror and balled up like old paper. And at midday the Tarzyn Bridge would be blown up.

In any case I was suspended in the air with my people. Perhaps the combat squadron , to which I belong, followed a few hours behind. Then it would overtake me in the marketplace in Grojez. However perhaps it was moving northwest. Then I would see it in a few days. Perhaps it was best to move back. But I was supposed to bring the ammunition. Who knows how much the squadron might need it. So first back to Grojez in order to fill up. Behind the bridge, which would be blown up in a few hours, thousands of sick and wounded were located. If the march back started at 10 o'clock would the cossacks be in the city by midnight? In mercy no one would be left behind. Save whatever can be saved! To the farm wagons. They would not suffice. Not for long. Thus many went on foot past us. Sad figures hunched over on crutches, ugly arm stumps covered in rags dripping blood. Feverish eyes everywhere. Naturally I placed my empty munitions wagon


immediately into their service. Among others I loaded in three people with stomach wounds, who had been operated on a few hours ago. Any minute I expected the death of the worst cases while in the rattling and bumpy wagon. If they were lucky they made it to Grojez and were delivered to the hospital. How many of them got through this?

All at once the army beyond Tarzyn offered a different picture. Squadrons trotted up past us, wounded hobbled off between baggage, columns and entourages. Even the sky had a different appearance which covered us for hours in a net of cold mist and unpleasantness. Adieu wanderlust and morning ride!

I couldn't decide what to do when the combat squadron didn't arrive behind me but instead turned to the northwest! I had 66 draught horses, 8 riding horses, 6 underofficers and around 80 men to feed. Since we figured we'd return home soon no one had packed much of anything. Scarcely a piece of army bread. And Grojez was completely emptied out. We knew that from previous visits. Plus what the residents denied to occupying conquerors would scarcely be saved for a retreating army.

The towers of Grojez rose up in the valley. I trotted ahead in order to inquire if they at least had ammunition. But I learned nothing as there was all manner of snarled traffic, crying people, high swung whips, and rearing horses in the marketplace. There was dreadful chaos which extended down both southbound roads filled with long lines of retreating columns


and continuous movement of troops coming in from the north. Someone told me that Ravené squadron, for which I was supposed to transport ammunition, had marched by in a southerly direction hours ago.

Now I just sat there. No one from my army brigade was nearby. The telephone line, through which one always got instructions, was terminated. Everything was in full transport south. Only troops from other brigades were here in the city along with the wounded and dying. I went back to the column and led them to the field outside the city. So far, so good. I had them set up camp and then went with my capable sergeant Gottschalk and my brave orderly Kliwoneit into the city in order to scrape up any food possible - bread, tea and above all else oats for the horses.

The later it got the clearer it became that my combat squadron had swung to the northwest. We were on the main street of Grojez. The platoon from the withdrawn column had trickled down with only around 100 military personnel left. The street was bordered by old, small houses, the architecture of which reminded me of several middle German cities. Here and there there was a larger palatial structure with prominent contours in the smaller neighborhoods. The countless shops and tearooms had their stands along the street where small Jewish youngsters rapidly conducted bulk tea and coffee transactions with the leaving troops. On the streets one saw lots of military personnel milling about, including officers and orderlies in crisp field gray or in elegant raincoats. Many sat outside the tea shops and had


tea and small baked goods, the few that were available in Grojez. There was a pretty Jewish maiden in a passable costume, the lean horse of an officer, and in between the blue and red uniform of a Hungarian hussar.

Gottschalk, Kliwoneit and I separated and searched throughout the city. I came upon a store in which a picture-pretty Jewish maiden of 16 years worked. At the door of the store an old Jew sat and smoked — my heart stood still — cigarettes, real-live cigarettes, which I hadn't had in two days. At that moment I had no greater craving in this world than for a Russian cigarette. But there were no more of these, at least according to statements from infantrymen, who are good at finding just about anything. I went into the store and immediately began to bargain with the starry old man. He declared he only had a few left in his case, from which he offered me one. However I took them all and placed them in my cigarette pack amid the smiles of the others (there were three or four Jews in the store.) The old man, long accustomed to such actions, smiled amicably and said, "The gentleman will certainly pay for them. The gentleman is noble. Take a look at the gentleman." I felt myself obligated to be noble and I gave him three pennies for the items. An unheard-of price! Based on his satisfaction I mentioned the hope of getting more. He said he would get me more cigarettes and for that I gave him another three ruble notes and sent him to search. "If the gentleman wishes to purchase more Papprosse [Russian cigarettes] then I will go search. Perhaps


Goldstein or one of the others will want to sell some." It was out of the question that these people would disappear with the money. They have too much fear of retribution, which during wartime comes damned quickly.

I sat down on an empty chair with total composure, happy at the prospect of many cigarettes, and began to notice the store and its occupants. It was a kind of confectioner's shop and one could obtain all sorts of items here: tea, biscuits, sugar, matches, coffee. I got a cup of hot tea and began to make bulk purchases. Eventually Kliwoneit showed up and helped me with tea consumption and purchasing. Thus at least we didn't return home empty handed. It just so happened that a visiting uncle was a baker on the next street. He had just buried a lot of rye flour and sympathized with my desire to make purchases. He promised to deliver to me sixty loaves of bread by this evening. He left immediately in order to begin.

Now I was alone with little Channah (Johanna). In the corner of the store she had arranged a kind of boudoir. Here hung postcards from Berlin of the Fasanenstrasse and the Royal Academy of Music. Channah told me that her brother studied music there and many frequented one particular zionist association. She asked if I knew now or ever any of its members. I told her a lot about Berlin, about life there, sang her a few old Jewish melodies from memory. Channah clapped her hands in satifaction and said, "Yes, yes. My brother sings that too!" It was the song "There, where


the cedar..." I might not be a man who can pass up a pair of red lips for too long, and Channah might not have any southern blood but we might have sealed the afternoon of October 19th with a couple of heartfelt kisses. Besides which I came up with the idea that here was a way which by extension led to oats for my horse. Only here under the high protectorate of a Jewish patriarch was there still something to hope for. It didn't take long for the starry old man to come back with 150 cigarettes, which he got hold of somewhere and "sold" to me. Gradually the entire family assembled around me and the store turned into a pleasant family scene. In their midst I sat with two charming Raphael bags on my lap and we gossiped about the evil cossacks and the war and the rates of interest in Germany and Poland. As I told them that in Germany 4 to 6 percent was the usual rate the men shouted indignantly to each other. "Per month!" they wanted to protest. When I told them per year they were only slightly more enthusiastic about Germany and I didn't manage to raise their level of enthusiasm.

It was an idyllic family setting but with a diplomatic background. I let it be known that I would pay a lot of money for a few hundred pounds of oats. It was emphasized that a bad neighbor, a Pole, may have buried a large quantity of oats in his yard. It didn't take long for capable Kliwoneit to come back with eight gunners and eight shovels, and so the digging began as if laying the foundation for a palace. Shall I tell you


how much effort it took to dig up these oats, bag them and load them in a wagon? Before long the idyllic family setting turned into a headquarters. I was on about my eighth cup of tea as the large box wagon of a Pole, loaded with oats and bread, pulled up to my half column. Messages came and went. The Jewish boys knew where there were some empty stalls in which one could at least shelter the riding horses. They ran back and forth and earned 10 pennies in coin for each trip. And as I was on my nineth cup my people outside whipped up a stew. Gottschalk had gotten some meat and everyone celebrated your birthday with tea, roast beef and biscuits with heightened spirits. However I ate meatballs, runner beans and sweet matza with my friends.

Caring for people who hadn't eaten since early that morning was certainly the driving motive behind my suddenly awakened sense of family and a campaign actually runs on bread and oats. Of course battles of a different kind play simultaneously on the same stage. If someone goes to all the trouble of sending individual family members out on nearly impossible tasks this could mean that these are all manoevers to prolong the undisturbed, charmingly tender hours of conversation between Channa and me. If someone were to think that he would not be entirely wrong. Thus a Jewish family, surrounded by Polish malice and Russian cruelty, is hard pressed to move on.


Two or three always stick together. Thank God we still lacked the primary element: quarters for the night. For spending the night on the wet ground without straw one would always avoid being in the vicinity of such a city. And we did not need to depart before 5 the next morning. Thus after everything we had heard from passing soldiers our artillery stayed behind Tarzyn and the exploded bridge was a delayed tactic. However Channah had to help me find quarters. It took a long time until I had convinced everyone about that. Finally we could proceed.

Now imagine a true Polish city abandoned by all the wealthy residents and all the officials. And one can go anywhere, even the most private apartments. There you see sewing rooms just exited by young mothers and factory floors where all at once the machinery is brought to a standstill. Beds, which seem to have just been abandoned, offices from which all fled in mid word. You see scattered books and broken writing tables. Imagine: In one minute all the people of a city are driven away from their activities and routines and now you come along and look at all the dead remnants of lively and normal existence. And then things became obscure. Over this layer of abandoned existence another layer of life formed: the hungry, tired bands of soldiers had landed on these abandoned islands; mobs had plundered. One saw broken doors and trunks, chopped up furniture thrown in fireplaces, mud from the field and dirt from the street coating expensive carpets,


torn clothing and the debris from toiletries in the attic. And over that there was yet a third layer: the troops marching through, the wounded, the Hungarian hussars. Everything relocated onto this pile of debris, for a night and a meal. You go into a salon and see chicken entrails at the threshold; in the fireplace potatoes among the ashes; people in silk underwear snoring; officers in an abandoned auto garage; wounded, who want to march back by themselves,on the stairs and now remaining overnight on the bare wood chewing army bread. Overall humanity and stench. Eating and snoring. Enchantment all around.

Eventually we came through a dark gateway before the back facade of a gigantic building. It was the government manor in which we finally found an unoccupied area three floors up. A white plate hung in the door. Channah, who knew Russian, said it meant "Agricultural Affairs, Meadows and Farmland." It was the Department for agriculture, forestry and estates. I opened the door and the beam of light from the electric lamp fell upon a terrible scene of chaos. Originally clean offices, there were now bundles of documents strewn about and the floors were covered in torn paper. Plus previously some wily soldiers had already made warm and cozy beds out of paper. The torn up documents and books were at least a foot high. The chairs were broken down into pillows. The document cabinets were tossed about. Here is a good spot, I thought to myself and wrote with a piece of chalk I always carried with me


in big letters on the door: "October 19th. Combat staff of the...Division. As I wrote the date I again thought of you and said the Channah, "Today is my mother's birthday." Channah looked at me in astonishment. "You have a mother?" It seemed completely impossible to this lovely child that we crude, dirty characters also have mothers. Such a question from an ignorant mouth made us aware just how deep the chasm was between us in the field and all our loved ones, family and others who once belonged in our lives. Then Channah asked a question, which moved me deeply. "And does your mother cry all the time?" I told her, "German mothers was proud that their sons are in the field." Yet at the same time I felt that such heroism made no sense here. These people saw war only as a dreadful and horrible thing. Anything else was empty abstraction to them. "Of course she cries!" Channah said and shook her head back and forth. "Of course she cries." And I believe that she was more correct than I; more correct than all of us with our great pride in our deeds and our love of the fatherland. Above all the great folk movements there stands as an eternal and ultimate principle simple, singular existence as a human being, as a father, as a mother, a man or a son. Everything else falls away from us suddenly like a veil. I do not know if a Prussian officer should write that down, but one often finds it is so.

My ordlerly brought over my people, at least those who didn't have to stay with their horses, and we slept buried in paper amid the chaos. It was cold. "Jimno" [cold], said the Pole and I concurred.


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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks