Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Requiem for a German Past I

An oil painting by Otto Būcher. The author second from left and Etzel center.

A Boyhood among the Nazis by Jurgen Herbst
My days in the Hitler Youth training school came to an end in mid-January of 1945 when I received orders to report for basic military training at the National Labor Service camp Rodewald near Hannover. I was glad that the call had come and I could leave the Training School behind.

I took off for Rodewald with mixed feelings. I now was on my way to my eventual destination in the army, but I regarded my time with the Labor Service as an unavoidable, unpleasant interlude. The Labor Service was another Nazi organization that, by 1945, had taken over from the army its basic training function. I, like all my fellow recruits, disliked the brown uniforms with their swastikas attached to our left sleeve. But we consoled ourselves with the thought that, at least, our drill sergeants, like those in the Training School, were all decorated and severely wounded former army noncommissioned officers, and our days in Rodewald were numbered. Basic training was to last no longer than eight weeks. Then I would finally join the army and begin the life I had dreamed of all along.

The weeks at Rodewald were cold, wet, and miserable. We sixteen-year- old recruits were drilled in the basics of infantry combat. From mid-January to mid-March we were sent out day and night through swampy meadowlands that made us sink knee-deep into mud. Every ditch, hidden under snow-crusted ice, had us plunge into freezing water. We were taught how to storm make-believe enemy trenches with drawn bayonets and how to fire bazookas at haystacks. We were doused with tear gas and sent through the billowing clouds, sometimes crawling and sometimes running full speed, with our gas masks on our faces until our lungs gave out and we collapsed in the icy mud. Our barracks were cold, and we suffered from diarrhea and fevers. American bombers high above us drew their contrails across the sky. When their accompanying fighters appeared and engaged in aerial combat with German jet planes, we pressed our bodies in the water-soaked icy grass to avoid detection and being strafed. Our drill sergeants assured us that this was but child's play compared with what awaited us on the front.

By mid-March, the ordeal came to an end. We exchanged our hated brown Labor Service uniforms for our own clothes, and I was given a pass for a one-day leave home. After that I was to report to my army duty with the replacement brigade of the Division Grossdeutschland north of Rendsburg, Schleswig-Holstein. My journey home took me through Hannover where I had to change trains. Just as I arrived around noon, the alarm sounded and all travelers were herded into the concrete bunker that had been buried into the ground underneath the railroad station. We had hardly found our way into the huge edifice with its steel-rod locked doors when the structure began to shake and rock as bombs exploded on and around it. The bunker's bare bulbs shed a ghostly yellow light over the motley crowd of wan-looking women and children, soldiers, and a few invalid men who huddled on the benches. Every time the ground shook and the bulbs swayed the people on the benches pulled in their shoulders; some mumbled, some groaned; little children cried softly and clung to their mothers.

But all of us stared mesmerized at the small group of youngsters, boys mainly, who sat on the floor at the center of the gray concrete hall. They were Edelweissipiraten—Pirates of the Edelweiss, as they called themselves—teenagers who during the last part of 1944 all over the country had begun to show openly their contempt for the Hitler Youth and the Nazi party. I had encountered them first on the Lange Herzogstrasse in Wolfenbiittel while I was still with my boys of Fähnlein Blucher. Then I had considered them a nuisance who, in their dress and behavior, contrasted unfavorably with us boys in the Jungvolk and were best ignored by us. After all, I had thought, except for setting a bad example, they did no real harm.

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