Friday, 17 April 2009

March 1945

The war may have been over for us on the left bank of the Rhine but there were still weeks to go before Germany surrendered unconditionally. Not until March 24th did the American Army finally cross the Rhine; that night and for days and nights afterwards American tanks rolled past, an endless convoy of tanks, an unceasing movement of troops, a war machine of unimaginable power and might.

Once again the noise terrified me. Much of the terror I remember has to do with noise; the drone of aeroplanes, distant bombing, artillery fire, machine gun fire. The harsh sound of jackboots striking the pavement, men's voices shouting, bellowing commands, all that reached us in the cellar, through the coal hole. I don't think the darkness frightened me half as much as the noise. In fact, even now, so many decades afterwards, I still shake at the sound of loud voices, people arguing and men fighting drives me away rather than stand and stare.

Father had been home for several days, always in hiding. Food stores were running low, although Mother was allowed to collect our rations, mine and hers, Father had not been registered with the new authorities. Officially, he was a non-person. There were fewer house searches now, all soldiers had been rounded up and taken into a makeshift camp; Father stayed mostly in the back garden, close to a kind of cesspit where compost was being made. This pit was a fairly large, deep, square hole, with concrete sides, filled with every kind of rubbish that would rot, including the bodies of dead animals and birds - not that there were any being thrown in now, chickens and rabbits had disappeared into the pot long ago. There were rats, though.

This hole was deep enough to hold a crouching man; green sludge and cabbage leaves could be scraped away to make a space inside the pit and then heaped on top of the fugitive.

This place was in its way as noisome as the earth closet into which Mother had stuffed the landlord's Nazi uniform, nobody would believe that a human being could be hiding there.

The danger of being shot for desertion by German troops was over on our side of the river, so Father finally decided to come out of hiding and give himself up. We had no food and he could do nothing for us as a fugitive.

Each village had a commandant. Father presented himself in his workmen's clothes and was duly arrested and interned. We knew he would be safe. The Americans had not ill-treated the prisoners, they saw to it that they were fed, although the makeshift camps were simple enclosures without shelter.

I cannot remember for how long Father was away, I don't think it was many weeks. Reasonably able-bodied men, who were not considered a threat, were desperately needed to start clearing rubble and erect shelters for people left homeless.

Our village was lucky, the nearby town had suffered two major raids, flattening it, but we had been spared complete destruction. There were only two houses completely destroyed in our street, several others had been partly burned and several were badly damaged but still inhabitable.

The war was over, the struggle for survival had begun.

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