While the manuscript is still a few weeks from completion here's something to keep you in the mood. The chapter's main character is an older Czech who has been conscripted into Heydrich's forces.
...Time to Cry
...Time to Cry
Near Abersfeld, 15 Kilometers North-East of Schweinfurt
25 November 1940
Mired in silence the column with Johan Maiczek and the Faller boys marched on through Franconia. The sense of elation and camaraderie they all had felt after the first days of battle had evaporated after they had committed their gruesome work as executioners. During daytime in it's stead now lingered a feeling of numbness. At night they all went through fitful bouts of sleep filled with nightmares of the past and of what the future might bring. The levied Czech soldier saw it when he awoke from his own nightmares – or when he had to take a leak during the night. After all he was in his mid-forties. It was strange how the mundane or even the profane sometimes had its uses. For when he was awake he could see who slept safe and sound. It was these men he swore to keep an eye on. You didn't just run around executing people and then go for a toddler's slumber. He had seen that type of men in the trenches of the Great War: the killers, the sadists, the men in whose chests war had awoken the beast and who would put a bayonet through your belly with a smile on their faces. Every army, every society had them. Johan Maiczek just wasn't very keen to be near them.
At the head of their company rode their commander, black in polished black, his cape flapping in the wind, his big white stallion dancing forward rather than trotting. The tall animal was brimming with energy, white mist erupting from its nostrils whenever it snorted contemptuously at the slow pace its rider forced it into. It didn't even deign to look at the old mare that trotted after it, half a horse's length to its right.
In Johan's eyes the rider was a shallow, twisted copy of their commanding officer, a bit of a Sancho Panza to their Don Quichote. Hans Reimann was a new addition to their unit, in equal parts watchdog over them and lapdog to their commander. Gaunt, with a hawkish nose and fiery eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses he was the new Reichsführer's answer to his forces' supposed timid conduct against the enemy. As SS-Führungsoffizier his task was to assure they followed their orders to the letter and with the right amount of ideological fervor, and he had begun his duties of bringing 'his flock' back to the path of righteousness rounding on a man he thought making disparaging remarks about him with a riding crop. Reimann had only stopped when the unlucky son of a bitch's hands and face were a complete ruin. The man had lost an eye, too. He'd be crippled for the rest of his life.
But that wasn't even what had disgusted and frightened Johan, no. It had been their 'commissar's' face. Reimann's eyes had been blazing with laughter and excitement, and he had smiled throughout the whole ordeal.
Despite the pearls of sweat on his forehead from their brisk marching pace the memory sent shivers down his spine.
Before them the land opened up as they began to leave the forest with its gray-barked trees and thick, thorny underbrush. Barren farmland covered beneath a thin layer of snow stretched from east to west for miles ahead. Ahead of them atop a gently-sloped low hill stood a typical Franconian village. A few dozen half-timbered houses and barns with high, long red-tiled roofs were crowded around an old church with a square, squat bell tower with the road the soldiers marched on cutting the settlement in half. White bedsheets and tablecloths flew in the breeze, hanging from windows and a flagpole opposite the church.
It was quite an idyllic sight. Maybe they could stop there and have lunch, Johan thought hopefully. He certainly wouldn't mind a cup of hot coffee. Sometimes villagers and townsfolk offered them some on their own but he would freely buy a cup with a few pennies if-
A shot cracked, its echo thundering across the barren fields and meadows. Like one man the whole formation hit the ground, the flanks diving for the roadside ditches. Johan found himself next to young Hermann in the right side ditch. His knees and chest ached from the plunge onto the hard ground, but it undoubtedly was better to be inconvenienced than dead. Yanking his Mauser carbine free he slowly pushed his head over the mound of frozen earth to sneak a peek at whoever had just shot at them. Fear pumped adrenalin through his body.
Hermann Faller crawled next to him, his eyes widened in equal parts by fear and excitement. His carbine shook in his small hands. He hissed, “Where's the shooter?”
“I don't know. Keep your head down. You don't want to catch a bullet.”
“I'm no coward!” the boy protested.
Johan rolled his eyes. “Courage's got nothing to do with it,” he growled. “You've got no idea where the shot came from and who's done the shooting. Discretion's the better part of valor, boy.”
The Sudetengerman teenager had an angry reply on his lips but the wild neigh of a horse drowned it out.
The white stallion reared up, almost unhorsing its rider, then toddled around the the paved road's surface. It shook its head violently as if to ward off some pesky fly and rolled its eyes. They were glazed. Its breath was ragged, and reddish foam seeped from the corners of its mouth. Dark blood pumped from a hole in its chest, running down its flanks and turning its white fur into a maze of crimson streams.
The animal looked more disoriented and angry than in pain. Nonetheless, its rider struggled to stay in saddle as his mount refused to obey his commands any longer. For a few moments the great white stallion just trotted aimlessly from one side of the road to another, its rider cursing the animal. Then its hind legs gave in. With a pained neigh and a shocked yell of the officer on its back the heavy horse collapsed to the cold ground below.
Instinctively some men jumped up to help their commander and pulled him out from under his mount. From the look upon his face the man felt surprised and maybe a bit embarrassed, but for the first time Johan remembered he heard him utter the words 'Thank you'.
No second shot whipped through the wintry countryside despite ample time and opportunity to fell a man. Slowly, cautiously, the soldiers began to rise, some standing, some kneeling.
The horse lay on the ground, snorting and shuddering as a pool of blood spread out under its chest.
Reimann's mare had gotten the scent of the blood pumping form the white stallion's covered flank. The otherwise so demure animal balked at its wounded companion, white steamy breath snorting from its nostrils as it neighed in fear. It defied the angry commands of its rider, danced backwards and jumped across the roadside ditch, galloping of over the frozen field with a wide-eyed SS-Führungsoffizier on its back.
The soldiers ignored Reimann's plight. Most of them didn't like the man, and Johan thought the few who didn't mind him were so cold-blooded they wouldn't lose any sleep if he broke his neck falling off his mount.
Their commander had knelt down besides his wounded stallion and taken the animal's large head into his hands and lap, disregarding the blood that stained his usually so immaculate uniform and cloak. He gently caressed the stallion's face. It was a strange sight. In fact it was the first time Johan had ever seen something like compassion in the man's face. The Hauptsturmführer1 hushed the raggedly breathing horse and softly let go of its head. Slowly rising back to his feet again he gave the horse a last long regretful look – then pulled his Luger pistol in one fluid motion and put two bullets into the animal's head. When he looked up again his face had changed to a mask of white hot anger.
“Get back into formation you maggots. I want that shooter dragged form that village. I want that man found. Untersturmführer2 Reimann, get your damn horse under control and fall in! On the double!”
The sign at the edge of the village read 'Abersfeld'. The streets were deserted except for a few cats and dogs that hurried away when their unit stormed up the road towards the church, their guns at the ready, their eyes on the windows and doors around them. You didn't have to be an officer to realize that places like this were ideal for an ambush. But again the guns remained silent. No shots cracked, no men fell. Hell, as far as Johan could tell there was no proof the shot had even come from somewhere within Abersfeld!
But that didn't seem to matter to their commander. Reimann - their watchdog – had closed up to them again and was eager to hover over the Hauptsturmführer. The tall, broad-shouldered ignored the mounted subordinate officer and gazed across the village square with cold, angry eyes. He pulled a pocket watch from his coat. “Someone from this village has fired on the legitimate forces of Fatherland and people! You have two minutes to present the culprit – or we will come and get him!” His voice bellowed through the empty streets.
The seconds passed with agonizing tardiness. Faces of men, women and children appeared behind the windows surrounding the village square. Even at the distance Johan could see they were scared. As if to underline the end of their commander's ultimatum the bell in the church's bell tower began to strike noon. When the last gong had echoed through the streets and died down a door on the opposite end of the square opened and a stocky older man in an ill-fitting suit began to walk briskly towards them, his hands raised and a white handkerchief flapping in one. He was huffing and puffing when he came to a halt opposite Reimann and their caped commanding officer.
“I'm the mayor of Abersfeld,” he explained. “We are a peaceful and loyal community, good sir. We're farmers and craftsmen, not soldiers or revolutionaries. We don't understand politics, and we don't want no part in them either.” He took a deep breath and shook himself, his double chin wobbling with the movement. “I beg you. These are good people. Please believe me: nobody here would've been foolish enough to attack you! As such, I can't give up a shooter because I don't have a shooter to give to you!”
“Someone from your damned village tried to kill me, and I swear to you I'll get that son of a bitch. Someone will pay for this cowardly attack. Hand me the shooter and we'll deal with him. That, or face the consequences.” The commander's voice was an impatient growl.
“Would if I could, but I don't know who shot at you!” the mayor wrung his hands. “Please, sir, we are all loyal Germans here. Never would-”
“Loyal Germans?” Reimann's sneering voice cut the villager off. “You proclaim to be loyal members of the Reich and yet wherever I look I cannot find a single true German flag flying over your pathetic excuse for a village! Is this how your people proclaim your allegiance? Or maybe that's just as fickle as a piece of cloth in the wind, too?” the political watchdog scoffed and pointed at his swastika armband. “A true German National Socialist would stand by these colors.”
With shaking hands the mayor produced a lapel pin showing a swastika from the insides of his worn-out suit. “But I'm a member of the party myself,” he protested weakly.
“Oh, really?” Reimann's voice dripped with sarcasm as his hands encompassed the whole village square with a wide gesture. “Then why can't we see any signs of that with your village? Isn't that your responsibility as the party's local leader: to assure steadfast support for our creed and for our Führer? Or are you just a member out of convenience: a fair weather party comrade?” He pulled his mare around and faced the commander. “Hauptsturmführer, I'd like nothing more than to lash this man in front of this whole pitiful village for being a turncoat and a coward,” Reimann exclaimed loud enough for everyone living close to the village square to hear. The man paled and staggered back a few feet, but some of the unit's soldiers blocked his way. “But regardless of what I may want: his village is flying the white flag, and yet a cowardly attempt of your life was made from one of its inhabitants. An inhabitant this man continues to shield. That makes him a traitor. That makes all who keep silent here traitors to our cause, to the Reichsführer, and to us, his loyal forces!”
“What do you suggest, SS-Führungsoffizier?” The commander's voice was almost soft, but his eyes kept the frightened mayor riveted to the spot.
“We have to make an example of these traitors, Hauptsturmführer. They harbor a partisan, maybe a Jew or a Bolshevik even. Reprisals are in order, sir. Reichsführer Heydrich was clear in his orders: 'No quarter is to be given to the forces aligned with the international Jewry and the traitors across the lands who lend them their support.' If the shooter doesn't come forth he's a partisan, the lowest scum on the battlefield, and those who harbor and shield him deserve to be punished in his stead as a warning and example to all others. I say we take every second man of fighting age and put him against a wall. That should get the message across that traitors and Bolsheviks will not be tolerated in the new Germany!” Reimann laughed as if he had told a good joke.
Johan held his breath. Surely they wouldn't do something like that, not to their own people, not to the very farmers their propaganda had droned on and on about!?
The commander kept his eyes on the mayor. The man was shivering by now, and not due to the cold wind that blew across the village square. “I will count to five, Herr Bürgermeister3. And you'll better have given up that sniper by then or you and your picturesque little village will pay the price for your insolence.” He drew his sidearm. “One.”
The mayor's eyes bulged. “Please, I don't know who it-”
“Two.” The commander pulled back the sled, chambering (sp?) a new round.
“We're good people here in Abersfeld. Nobody-”
“Three.” He unlocked the safety.
“Please, I beg you! This is all a misunderstand-”
“Four.” The pistol rose in his hand, his arm a straight line connecting with the mayor's face.
“I don't know! Oh God, I don't know!” Tears ran down the old farmer's weathered face.
“Five.” The back of the mayor's skull exploded into a gory mist of bone splinters and brain matter.
Someone within the ranks retched. Johan gasped, too, fearing he would be overcome by sickness. This was mad. This was wrong! A few places farther into their column a grim looking Friedrich Faller had to steady his younger brother. The youth stared at the dead body of the mayor in wide-eyed shock.
“Untersturmführer Reimann, you'll move clockwise through the village, starting with the south-western part. You are to execute as an example every second man above the age of sixteen and gather the remaining male population in the village square. You'll continue doing so until you've found the shooter. Do you understand?” Going by the SS officer's casual tone he could just as well have spoken about the weather. “Let this be a message and a warning to all of those who believe they can stand against us without having to pay the price for their treachery.”
“Yes, sir!” Reimann's face was a broad smile. He turned his mare around to face the troops. “First three platoons, follow me. The rest of you: cordon off the quarter. Someone runs you shoot them, got it?!” He didn't wait for confirmation and pushed his horse back down the road.
As if in trance Johan Maizcek fell in behind him alongside others. No, this wasn't happening. He was still sleeping in that barn they had taken shelter in last night. He was having nightmares. Maybe the food had been bad. Yes, this was still a dream. A bad dream.
But the cold and the sweat and the lump in his stomach felt real enough.
Reimann was a wild-eyed bastard, but he was nothing if not methodical. They started at the bottom of the street, the first house in the village. Heavy boots brought down the front door. There was a commotion inside. Men barked orders, women shrieked, a child began to cry. Somewhere tableware shattered and pots clanged. Then half a dozen grim looking soldiers pulled four men into the open. One bled from a cut on his forehead.
“Are these all? Very well. Line them up against the wall.” Reimann sounded almost bored. He lazily pointed his riding crop at the second and the fourth in line, a man in his sixties and a teenager Johan wouldn't have put as a day older than fourteen. “Oberscharführer4, select a detail of six men and have those two shot. Get the others to the square. Do it quick, we don't have all day.”
Under the command of a burly non-commissioned officer half a dozen men aimed their rifles and fired. The older man and the teen immediately fell to the ground like sacks of potatoes. Blood spurted from their wounds and stained the white walls behind them. Inside the house a woman was wailing. One of the two other men was cursing Johan and the other soldiers until a rifle butt to the head silenced him. A quartet of troopers escorted them back to the village's center.
Reimann appeared to be almost amused by the interruption. Crimson streams slowly found their way into the gutter. Lazily he gestured with his riding crop to carry on.
The second house was very much like the first one, as was the house after it.
At the fourth house Johan found himself a member of the firing squad. It wasn't as if he wanted to do this. But what choice did he have? Unless the whole units refused to follow orders all his defiance would buy him was either a severe lashing or spot in front of a firing squad. Or they might hang him, slowly and painfully as a warning for others and fodder for the crows. No, Johan Maizcek knew he was no hero. He had no interest in a pointless martyr's death. It was better to be alive than to be virtuous. He looked at the man in his crosshairs and slowly shook his head. He wished he could have told him 'I'm sorry'.
Johan pulled the trigger. He was a good shot, hitting his victim squarely in the chest. The man didn't have to suffer. The older levied soldier tried to find some consolation in the thought, but it did little to wash off the rank taste his actions left in his mouth. It was as if he was selling his soul to the devil.
The next house a young man tried to make a run for it. Reimann gleefully rode him down before putting a couple of bullets into the writhing body beneath his mare's feet. For their 'disobedience' the rest of the inhabitants found themselves against their home's front wall. After the firing squad had concluded its gruesome work grenades were lobbed into the house, tearing the first and second floor to pieces. Somewhere a cook fire spilled over and found ample food in the ruins. Before half the tall farm buildings were checked thick black smoke rose from the broken windows and open doors.
Nobody could wash their hands clean of what was going on in Abersfeld. At some point Johan also found himself numbly crashing down a door to drag innocent people into the streets. It was a nice house, simple but clean with tidy curtains and polished floors and inhabited by equally simple but hard-working folk. It could just as well have been some family's home in the Czech countryside. There were young women and girls in there as well as men and boys. It was a big family, and it didn't come quietly. Somewhere upstairs there was a tussle. They had to push out the people at gunpoint. Seemingly unfazed by the whole intrusion the old family matriarch simply stared after them from her place in the armchair near the fireplace. More than anything else it was this silent, stoic, accusing look she gave him that hit him deep inside. And he knew that whatever she accused him off she now was in the right. He could smell the bile in his own mouth. He'd have to get drunk this evening, really drunk. And the worst thing was that he knew it wouldn't do a thing.
The selection process continued until they had searched all the houses in the first of the four parts of the village. It had taken them barely half an hour. Some five dozen people lay dead in the streets. The same number stood huddled together in the village square under guard.
Reimann rode up to the commander. It would have been comical if not for the grim circumstances. He sat erect in his saddle, gave a snappish Nazi salute and made his report.
A moment later they marched off to cut off the north-western quarter of Abersfeld. War brought out the worst in people, and had their work before started sluggishly many of the men had already begun to settle into a kind of routine by now. House after house they entered and checked, and Johan found himself drawn into the numbing routine.
The front door to the next one stood open. Empty flower boxes hung in front of a neat row of narrow windows. The building's red-tiled roof seemed to go on forever. The first soldier stormed inside. A second was to follow him in but he recoiled when a panicked shriek erupted inside. The man first to enter staggered back out again, his eyes wide and glazed over, his hands shivering. Someone had driven a large cleaver into his left shoulder. Blood bubbled from his mouth. A look of genuine surprise flashed across his face. Then he collapsed into a pool of his own blood.
Reimann was too perplexed to give any orders, staring at the dead soldier like some strange thing he had yet to figure out. These people weren't really supposed to fight back!
But under the impression of what had just happened to a quarter of their village someone in Abersfeld had decided not to be herded to the slaughterhouse like cattle.
Reimann's face turned into a grimace of rage. “Burn that house down! Kill everyone inside! Move!” he yelled.
One of the soldiers lobbed a hand grenade through the front windows. In the sound of the breaking glass another shattering window on the other side of the village square went unnoticed until the deep echo of a large caliber gun drowned everything else. A soldier near Reimann went down, clutching his side that had been torn apart by buckshot. A second shot thundered across the square, impacting impotently in a nearby wall.
With everybody's attention drawn to the shooter it was as if someone had opened a pair of floodgates. The Nazis had enacted very strict firearms regulations across the whole of the Reich after their ascent to power, but especially on the countryside these restrictions found themselves never fully enacted. It never was 'a gun in every house', but some people just had a shotgun or some old rifle and nobody cared to rat them out. It just wasn't important to anyone.
There were no commands, no plans, no prepared ambushes here. There were only people who instinctively had realized one thing: that they could stand together - or die alone.
One of the men they had herded into the village square – the one with the cut on the forehead – lunged forward and began to wrestle with one of the guards for his weapon. Another shot cracked over the houses. The hand grenade in the house where one soldier had been mauled with a cleaver exploded, spraying the vicinity with sharp glass shards. And suddenly all hell had broken loose.
Women and children were running into the streets and away from the soldiers. Shots raced over the SS units' heads. They were few in number but came from different directions. And the 'prisoners' rolled over their guards like an avalanche, beating them down and taking their weapons before the totally surprised troopers could react. It was as if they couldn't belief that their own acts were finally met by an explosion of violence.
The almost clinical killing the SS company had committed earlier descended into a mad melee. Villagers stormed from their houses, throwing themselves at them with knives and axes and farm instruments. One man went down with a pitchfork in his belly. Another one was pinned to the ground while a crazy-eyed villager bashed his brains in with a cobblestone before a rifle shot blew half his head off.
Reinmann blindly lashed out with his riding crop. “Kill them all! Kill all the traitors! KILL THEM ALL!”
The Hauptsturmführer had drawn his saber, keeping it at the ready while he methodically aimed and fired his Luger. Those who weren't fighting for their dear lives in close combat fired blinldy into the crowd, into the houses and into those that emerged from them.
Johan saw a young mother fall to the ground as a bullet ripped through her newborn child and her own chest. But he didn't have the time to feel anything as a man swinging an ax appeared from the fog of battle. More by luck than skill he avoided the attacker's first swing. He stumbled back, but before he could find his footing again the man was on him, bringing the ax down. With all his strength Johan blocked the blow with his rifle. His arms hurt like hell, but the carbine held off the ax's shaft. It's blade hovered a millimeter above his face. Roaring, the villager yanked his ax back and pulled the rifle with him, a triumphant smile on his face. Johan rolled himself to the side, the fear and adrenaline racing through his bloodstream giving him more strength and agility than he had ever felt before. Almost like a cat he brought himself back to his feet. He didn't carry a sidearm but he still had his bayonet. But against the wood-chipping whirlwind a foot long pointy piece of steel still put him in a disadvantageous position. He fell back, sidestepped, fell back again. He could feel the air draft of the other man's blows on his face. Crisp heat hit him from behind like a club and a look of triumph grew on the ax swinging villager's face.
Johan found himself cornered – and hot flames licked greedily from windows that had turned to furnaces at the rest of the half-timbered house.
“Gotcha, ya bastard!” the villager hurled himself at Johan. Desperate, Johan threw himself into the man. A sharp pain raced through his body as something hard hit his shoulder but he thrust the long blade in his hands forward. It found the villager's belly. The man grunted as he buried Johan under his own weight, but he was far from dead yet. With frightening strength he began to push the handle of his ax against Johan's throat. Panicked, the soldier hammered the bayonet into the man's belly again and again, to no avail. His vision began to blacken on the periphery, the grip on his blade loosened.
He was about to lose consciousness - and his life – when the body on him suddenly slackened, then rolled to the side, the look in the man's eyes empty and lifeless. Another soldier stood above him and pulled back his rifle. Blood covered the long bayonet atop of it. The two men just looked at one another with terror in their eyes before Johan's savior stumbled away, his face blank. A moment later he was lost in the fray.
If this wasn't hell it sure was close to it, a sardonic thought made its way through Johan's numb neural pathways. Thick black smoke hung over Abersfeld with a dozen or more houses on fire. People yelled and moaned and snarled everywhere, and into the cacophony of the raging fires and men the sounds of gunfire and the staccato of a machine gun entered. Back up at the church someone simply had begun to fire an MG 34 machine gun into the crowd, regardless of friend or foe. Reimann was galloping through the fray, mad-eyed, his pistol blazing and his riding crop slashing as if he were an eighteenth century dragoon. Even through all the tumult Johan could hear his wild laughter. Despite the heat he felt a cold shiver run through his bones. This was the type of man he was forced to follow. This was the type of work he was forced to do. He dry-heaved and slowly picked up his rifle again.
Up ahead the bear-like Friedrich Faller cowered over his younger brother, shielding the teenager with his mass and his own rifle. A boy hardly older than his brother Hermann stormed at him with a wordless battle cry, a pitchfork in his hand. The older Sudetengerman was reloading his Mauser carbine. Without thinking Johan brought his own weapon up and shot the boy. The 7.92mm round hit the attacker like a steam hammer and he went under in the wave of bodies that still fought on.
But the tide war turning, and the better armed soldiers were clearing the “enemy's” ranks. There was fire and blood everywhere. Johan leaned back against a nearby wall and slowly sunk to the ground. He wanted to cry but no tears came. Instead he just stared numbly through the carnage. If this wasn't hell, hell itself had nothing worse to offer.
1 Rank equivalent to a Wehrmacht captain.
2 Rank equivalent to a Wehrmacht lieutenant.
3 Bürgermeister = Mayor.
4 Oberscharführer = Sergeant.