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by Hans Hardt
From Tell Us About Fichtenhorst
It was a chilly evening in September 1951. As I stepped off the westbound train at the last village in the Soviet Zone of East Germany, I cast a grateful glance at the dark clouds overhead. It was just the right weather to slip back across the border into Free Germany, unnoticed.
I sought out a dimly lit café. There, nursing a glass of lemonade while I waited for night to close in, I relived the few days I had just spent with my parents and my brother – our first family reunion in over seven years. I had been saddened by my parents’ destitution. They had lost all their belongings when they fled from the Soviet armies in 1945, only to be overrun by the Red tide in the town where they were now living. A return to our native village of Fichtenhorst was unthinkable, and forbidden. It was now part of Communist Poland.
I had been living in West Germany since my release from a prisoner-of-war camp in Britain in 1948. Finally able to trace my parents’ whereabouts, I learned that my father was now crippled with multiple sclerosis, and I resolved to get him to West Germany for proper medical treatment. But after months of waiting, my application for a Soviet visa had been turned down ‘on political grounds’ – presumably because I had spent four years as a prisoner-of-war in England.
In May 1951, I had tried to slip into East Germany to see my parents, only to be stopped at the frontier and turned back, with my passport stamped: ‘Illegal Crossing of the Border’.
Now, some four months later, I had tried again and got through. I knew that to be caught a second time, trying to get out after an unreported sojourn of several days in the Soviet Zone, would mean something worse than a stamp in my passport.
I was fairly hopeful of getting back into West Germany, however, because of the detailed map my brother had drawn for me. It plotted precisely the camouflaged positions of border guards, noted the hours when some posts were unmanned, and indicated various landmarks, such as the high chimneys of several factories near the border.
My watch showed eleven. It was time to go.
For two hours I walked along a deserted country road. When a hamlet came into view, I turned sharp right and, minutes later, entered the forest that stretched across the frontier. I crouched down and struck a match for a last look at my map, stuffed the paper into my pocket, and resumed walking. Every few minutes I stood still and listened, to be sure that the rustling sounds were merely wind and leaves. Soon I was close to the path dividing East from West.
Then a voice shouted in Russian: ‘Stoi.’ (‘Stop’).
I threw myself to the ground, rolled a few yards, staggered to my feet, and then ran. A tommy gun chattered, and two white flares plopped overhead. When the shooting stopped, I heard the terrifying noise of dogs in full cry. Something hit me in the back, knocking me headlong into a clump of bushes. When I lifted my head, I was looking into the panting jaws of a German shepherd.
Two Russian soldiers yanked me to my feet. While one of them held the warm barrel of his tommy gun under my chin, the other emptied my pockets. They bound my hands, and marched me through the forest. Suddenly my blood froze – I remembered the map!
That night I paced a cold cellar room with barred windows, berating myself for not having destroyed that piece of paper. I felt sure that, to the Russians, it would be conclusive proof that I was a spy.
Early the next morning, two guards hustled me to a little office upstairs. Behind a big black desk sat an officer in a major’s uniform, the hated red tabs on the collar of his jacket betokening a member of the Soviet security police.
‘Good morning, kleine spion,’ he said with cold sarcasm. ‘Did you sleep well?’
I was startled to be addressed in good German, although I knew that the Soviet forces had been combed for men fluent in the language, for service in East Germany. But the major’s tactics were Russian enough: the contempt in the phrasekleine spion (‘little spy’), the assumption of guilt, and the apparent expectation that I would soon make a clean breast of things.
‘I am not a spy,’ I protested.
‘I didn’t ask your profession, kleine spion, but how you slept. So, you crossed the border illegally four months ago. Please tell me, what did you try to find out this time?’
‘Nothing. I went only to see my parents.’
‘And where do they live?’
‘I won’t say.’
‘We have ways of finding out,’ the major said.
He was looking through my passport. ‘So you were born in Fichtenhorst?’ He looked at me sharply for a moment, closed my passport, then picked up the hand-drawn map.
‘Fine drawing, that. Roads, villages, our guard positions, even the location of some large factories. How much do the Americans give you for such a nice drawing?’
I was silent. I realised how feeble my explanation would sound.
‘All right, little spy,’ he snapped. ‘Maybe you will talk in Siberia. Guards, take him away.’
Cold fear gripped me at the dreaded word ‘Siberia’. But, dead tired and hungry, I was no sooner in my cell than I dozed off, despite my fears. I could not tell how long I had slept when the guards woke me and led me before the major again. He lit a cigarette and studied me.
‘We have checked the information in your passport. All lies. Now we know you’re a spy. You’d better talk.’
I stood dumbfounded. ‘I have no reason to lie to you,’ I protested.
‘We’ll see about that. How long did you live in Fichtenhorst?’
‘Um … for the first thirteen years of my life.’
‘All right, tell us about Fichtenhorst. We happen to know that village.’ He closed his eyes, and leaned back in his chair.
I spoke of our village, east of the river Oder, of the old church amid the lime trees. I told him how we farm boys washed the horses at the river bank in the evenings. I mentioned the village priest, the local schoolteacher’s foibles, and my own grandmother, who owned a big farm, and was loved for her good deeds.
Through it all the major’s face remained impassive, a wooden mask. When I stopped, he opened his eyes and asked: ‘Then you knew Wolfgang Leuters, Magda Furst and Walter Korb, for example?’
I wondered what devil’s game he was playing at. I remembered no such people in the village in my time.
‘Or the farmer Stolpel – Ignaz Stolpel?’ he continued.
‘Yes, yes, that one I knew. Did you know him, Major?’
‘Shut up,’ his voice rasped. ‘I ask the questions here. Tell me, what do you know about this Stolpel?’
‘Well, he was the poorest farmer in Fichtehorst. His land was so bad that even the weeds were scrawny. Everybody felt sorry for him because he worked hard. He never complained, though, and he was too proud to accept help. Frau Stolpel worked on the land every day, also, and Josef – that was his son. His father drove the boy as hard as he drove himself. Nobody thought that unjust. It was just the lot of most boys in the village. When he was sixteen, Josef left home. It was said that he had gone south to Czechoslovakia, but nobody knew for sure.’
I paused, remembering the pity we all had felt for the Stolpels. ‘Go on,’ the major ordered.
I told him how the poor farmer had changed after losing his son. He had turned against the village, refusing even to come to Mass and forbidding his wife to go. People said that on Sundays, when the bells rang out, she would cry her heart out, for she was deeply devout.
‘Why wouldn’t he let her go?’ the major asked.
‘They said she sided with the boy, and Stolpel was bitter about it. He didn’t want her to talk to people. Two years after her son ran away, Frau Stolpel died. Her husband went to the funeral in his working clothes. Then he returned to his fields, and worked long into the night. He became more silent and hostile than ever.’
I paused. ‘Do you want me to go on, Major?’
My grandmother, I told him, wanted to help the lonely man. She offered him good land in exchange for his barren fields, but he shook his head and went on working. Then, one day, he was found face down on the ground. He was rushed to hospital in a nearby town. He had had a stroke. His farm was auctioned off, but that didn’t even bring in enough money to cover the hospital bills.
‘In the spring, he came back,’ I went on. ‘My grandmother found him wandering on his old farm, and led him to our house. She gave the old man a room, and he sat at our table. He rarely spoke, even in thanks, but he did everything he could to earn his food.
‘To my boyish eyes he seemed very old, with his white hair and his tottering step. At first I was a little afraid of him. Then one day, when I was trying to make my first fishing rod, and bungling the job, he took it from me, finished the job skilfully, and gave it back to me. He did all this without speaking, but with a gentleness that took away my fear. After that, there was an unspoken friendship between us.
‘When he died, Grandmother found his wife’s prayer book sewn inside his mattress. In it was a scribbled note: “Father, I go away now and will never come back. I go away because you do not love me. Please be good to Mother.” It was signed: “Josef”.
‘Now do you believe that I’m from Fichtenhorst?’ I finished, a bit embarrassed because I had allowed myself to ramble on about an old man.
The major did not answer. ‘Go back to your cell,’ he ordered harshly. As I turned to leave, he picked up the map. With dismay I realised that he had given me no chance to explain away that incriminating piece of paper – and people had received sentences of five to ten years’ hard labour on flimsier evidence of spying. I had fallen neatly into his trap. The fact that he had not once mentioned the map proved to me that his mind was made up.
I slept through the night, stupefied by fatigue and hopelessness. Early in the morning a guard woke me, saying: ‘Get ready.’
This was it. I was numb with despair.
‘We will take you to the Western Zone,’ the guard said.
Throughout the hour’s walk to the border between two soldiers, I kept expecting to be turned back. This was some cruel trick, I was sure. I still only half believed it when they handed me my papers, and motioned for me to cross the line into West Germany.
‘You are lucky,’ one of them said, not unkindly.
How right he was I understood only when I look inside my passport and saw a new stamp: ‘Second Illegal Crossing of the Border’.
It was signed: ‘Major Josef Stolpel’.