The trains were still running in the sum- mer of 1944. I even had a reservation, which proved to some degree superfluous, since the closer the train came to Munich the emptier it was. Not many people wanted to go into the cities at that time. They wanted to get out. As far away from the bombs as possible.
But I wanted to go in. I knew very well that I was going to survive; at the age of twenty everyone is sure of surviving. It was a great promise, a promise made to me, a most-favored-person clause in the contract of life. Something told me that of any two possibilities, the better must always be intended for me. Sometimes I was quite surprised to have come into the world a girl, as if in that other world before birth there had been a version of myself who failed to pay attention just for a moment, and now had to get by as best she could with being born a woman.
In fact, being born a woman was a considerably healthier prospect at the time. Of the twenty-two boys in my class who had taken the school-leaving exam with me a year ago, ten were already dead, and the litany of their names, a monotonous chant now running in time to the rhythm of the train passing over the sleepers, came into my mind of its own accord and almost unremittingly: Hans, Waldemar, Wilhelm, Klaus, Otto, Wilhelm the second, Ernst-GÃ?nther, Rudolf, Walter, Max . . .
I suppose they, too, had firmly believed themselves fundamentally invulnerable. Or would they have marched when the order came to march, would they have run when they were told to runâ€”into the gunfire, into ambushes, into minefields? Wouldnâ€™t they have dug themselves in like foxes, coming out again only when it was all over? Hans, Waldemar, Wilhelm, Klaus, Otto, Wilhelm the second, Ernst-GÃ?nther, Rudolf, Walter, Max . . . Not one of them would have known the knack of dying.
When the first bad news began to arrive, pages of death notices in the Jena newspaper inserted by parents describing their pain as â€œgrief and pride,â€? only occasionally revealing the unutterable depths of misery that had afflicted themâ€”â€œOur dear big boy,â€? they might say, or â€œOur only child, loved above all else,â€? and then a name that brought back to me all the remembered atmosphere of summer afternoons on the bathing beach or at dancing classâ€”when such news came I had walked aimlessly through the woods for hours on end. The wind ruffled my hair, night came on. I wanted to be close to them, to feel what itâ€™s like to be out of doors, without shelter, and with no chance of going home. I began to hear their voices whispering, as if they were in the middle of some old, familiar scouting game to be played only by the dead and those destined to die. I tried to imagine the moment when you assent to your fate. It must come only just before death, I thought. I intended to spend a night in the wood, freezing cold as my friends had been. But then I went home to bed after all.
Hans, Waldemar, Wilhelm, Klaus, Otto, Wilhelm the second, Ernst-GÃ?nther, Rudolf, Walter, Max . . . The staccato rattle of the train going over the railway sleepers was a hollow, ominous accompaniment to that chant. A distant, unreal corps of drummers. It seemed to grow louder as the journey went on, as if something unavoidable were approaching. It had accompanied them, too, on their way east.
Ernst-GÃ?nther was my boyfriend. When the news that he had fallen came I locked myself in my room to cry. But all I really felt was enormous anger to think that he had died before we ever really did it. I think most of those boys hadnâ€™t done it yet. Max might have. Maybe Rudolf. Just possibly Waldemar. Ernst-GÃ?nther? If heâ€™d ever done it, it would certainly have been with me. It simply wasnâ€™t fair to let them die before they really knew what it was like.
I was sorry now that we hadnâ€™t been engaged. If weâ€™d been engaged I might have done it. I probably would have done it. I blamed myself for not being more in love with him. Now that he was dead it wouldnâ€™t have matter if Iâ€™d pledged mad, undying love for him. Weâ€™d known each other so long. Since primary school. Perhaps it was because Iâ€™d really always imagined doing it for the first time with another man some day.
Nonetheless, I still wanted to make Ernst-GÃ?nther a present of myself somehow or other, so I went to see his parents and told them weâ€™d been secretly engaged, we hadnâ€™t told them only because we knew they thought we were too young, but later on weâ€™d certainly have married and set up house together and all that.
That made them both weep dreadfully, and I wept, too, much worse than when I heard the news that he had fallen. They didnâ€™t want me to go, and begged me to call them Mother and Father, which was not easy for me. But they had no one left to call them that, and they even wanted me to move in with them, although they realized that was going too far. Instead, I promised to come and have supper with them once a week. And although that wasnâ€™t so bad, and in fact it was very generous of them since they had no ration card for me and it meant I could save up my rations at home, my decision to go to Munich was made partly so that I could escape the consequences of my well-meant lie.
I didnâ€™t want to be a widow yet. I was full of curiosity about living men. I was twenty years old. Twenty at a time when the men were being sent away to die. If just one of them had been left alive after the war, Iâ€™d have wanted him for myself.
It was May 1944 when Ernst-GÃ?nther fell. I know that because of the cockchafer incident not long afterward. There were huge swarms of cockchafers that year. There have never been so many since. Theyâ€™ve almost died out now anyway, and no one but us elderly folk can remember what it was like when they descended like a plague.
It was during one of my grief-stricken wanderings, those long walks I took in memory of my dead school friends and in their honor. I was walking down an avenue of beech trees when all of a sudden I heard a strange whirring in the air. It was like an aircraft approaching to dive-bomb me. And then they descended on me in their thousands. They fell from the trees like rain. The street was covered with cockchafers. I couldnâ€™t put my feet down anywhere without hearing them crunch underfoot. I walked over the corpses of countless cockchafers as their shiny brown chitinous shells cracked open. They bounced off my shoulders, they slipped down inside the neckline of my dress.
But my hair was the worst. It was long, and I wore it pinned up in what we called the Gretchen style, a kind of wreath plaited around the forehead and the back of the neck. That was the fashion at the time. There was a suggestion of solstice bonfires about it, a suggestion of harvest festivals and Hitler Youth girls. It suited me. I never needed a perm. My hair is strong and quite curly to this day, and as resistant as the feet of the cockchafers that got caught in it. It was as if they had grown into my hair with their whirring and rustling and crackling. As if I were wearing an invisible fire on my head, and I could feel it constantly burning.
At home they had to cut my hair off. There was no other way to get them out. Now I really did look like Gretchen, but in the last act of Faust, ready for her execution. A hairstyle of shame, my father called it, and I was indeed ashamed. Such a thing as shame existed in those days. Something somber, bad, secret, something that must never come to light. Defilement, racial impurity, and something else, too: One must not acknowledge or guess at its possibility, yet one feared it. This other thing lurked behind everything you saw and heard and knew, a shame so deep that no disgrace, no penance could ever atone for it.
Sometimes we asked each other: What will happen if we lose the war?
What would happen? They would come down on us like avengers; they would torture and kill us. They would enslave our unborn children and make them work in their mines. And God have mercy on you if you were a girl.
So I was thankful to the soldiers for giving their lives for me. What would become of me if they didnâ€™t? My life for the lives of Hans, Waldemar, Wilhelm, Klaus, Otto, Wilhelm the second, Ernst-GÃ?nther, Rudolf, Walter, Max? Not just my life, my honor. Was I worth it? And what exactly was my honor, also called innocence? What was I innocent of? Apart from the hairstyle I now wore, and there really was nothing I could do about that.
She looks as if sheâ€™s been branded, said my father.
I myself felt as if Iâ€™d been branded. As if Iâ€™d had my head shaved and been driven through the town so that everyone could see my shame, the way they did with women who slept with Jews or foreigners imported to do forced labor. Yet I hadnâ€™t slept with anyone, even Ernst-GÃ?nther. And now that he was dead that seemed remarkably unimportant.
Of course my hair soon grew back. But when I arrived to stay with Eva in July, I still saw something in her eyes like mocking amusement at my inability to be as pretty as she was. I knew that, as she saw it, Iâ€™d never learn. She was wrong there, however.
Eva was a good teacher of the art of outshining other women by showing yourself off to fashionable advantage, not so much to impress menâ€”thatâ€™s not the point, thatâ€™s more of a desirable side effectâ€”as to make other women wonder what theyâ€™re doing wrong when they set eyes on you. Oh, my dear, donâ€™t you know that headscarves are worn over the forehead now? No one, but no one ties them under the chin anymore! She was always catching you out in ignorance of this kind, as if you belonged to a banned political party and still bore its visible signs and tokens about your person. Such women do exist. All efforts made by others to be fashionable are poor copies. These women sweep their followers along with them this way and that, in a factional struggle that passes entirely unnoticed by men, and my cousin Eva was one of them. She was one of them to the very last hour of her life, for which she made herself beautiful.
Good heavens, child, what do you look like? she said when we saw each other again. Well, thereâ€™s a good hairdresser here. I think Iâ€™d better make you an appointment with him straightaway.
But I am running ahead of myself.
When the train drew into Munich I was almost alone in it.
Two days earlier there had been an air attack on the station and its surroundings. The main building had been partially destroyed. Rough board partitions separated the rubble from those areas where it was safe to walk. Notices were still hanging at an angle. Lighting had been torn out, the roof above the platforms was propped up on makeshift posts. I was probably risking my life when I got off the train, but we did that almost all the time anyway.
Every farewell could be forever. Every arrival could be for the last time. Every departure could be final. The young Wehrmacht soldiers boarding the train on the opposite platform knew that many of them would never come back.
I made my way through embracing couples, swaying as they stood there in sorrow and bewilderment, I passed mothers raising their hands lightly to wave good-bye, just sketching the gesture to spare their sons the sight of the collapse they would suffer as soon as the train began to move, one mother with her hand pressed to her mouth, another with her hand still raised in the air, as if she had spent years taming a hawk and had now let it fly free. And there it went, there it went, and who knew if it would ever be seen again?
Copyright 2002 by Sibylle Knauss Translated by Anthea Bell