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May 5, 2017 | 0 comments

The Flying Dutchman

by Annette Gendler

“Reichenberg Bahnhof,” photograph by Annette Gendler, 2009.

February 3, 1946. Rain pounded the railcar’s roof. Karl felt as if inside a drum. A stuffy drum, smelling of wet wool and unwashed bodies. He could not see outside as he was standing in the back, too far from the window. It was dark outside anyway. In early February night settled in by five. He had no idea of the exact time. His pocket watch had been one of the many things the Czechs had robbed him of.

As wagon commander he had to be close to the door. It was his job to confer with the authorities whenever the train stopped somewhere, to monitor those who were allowed to step out, to commandeer his fellow travelers into queues when food was dispensed at a train station.

One woman, her long gray hair stringy and plastered to her head, clutched a basket with her few possessions and insisted on standing by the door, ready to jump out whenever the train slowed or came to a halt. “My son! My son! I have to get to my son!” she muttered on and off. Karl found out from a neighbor of hers, who traveled in one of the other railcars, that her son had been killed months ago on the Eastern front.

On the first leg of the transport they had been in a Czech freight car with the door left ajar to let in fresh cold air. Karl watched the woman’s eyes dart back and forth over the passing landscape. He studied her and felt his own grief stir, felt its pull, knew he had to be grateful for whatever it was in his psyche, and in his wife’s, that had saved them from succumbing. Two years ago their younger son Klaus had died from diphtheria, seven years old. Within a week he was gone. How does one live with the death of a child? And how does one, with that ache already pulling, look ahead at a future that is nothing but gray fog, a life without any of the parameters one has known?

He watched the woman, watched her eyes, and knew how she had gotten lost. And while at every stop he restrained her, with the help of another man, to keep her from running off, he wondered if he was doing the right thing.

His wife Hanne was close by. Most of the time Karl felt her staring at him, her eyes beady in the half-dark. She stood, slightly slumped, her arms around their twelve-year old son Helmut. The boy had dozed off, leaning into her, his cousin’s flowery scarf still tied around his neck. The tah-tong, tah-tong of the train had lulled him to sleep.

Karl knew that Hanne, always concerned with others’ welfare before her own, worried about his health: The heart attack he had suffered the previous summer, on the very morning they had to give up their house, and his exhaustion now from months of forced labor and imprisonment. Worrying about him gave her focus. She was probably concentrating on how she could get some soup into him, even though they only had an old ceramic mug of lard left. She was resourceful and caring, and still young at 36.

They could look into each other’s eyes when the train passed a streetlight and a streak of yellow rippled over those huddled inside. Their eyes would lock then, but the moment was always too brief to manage a smile. They held each other’s gaze, secure and grateful in the other’s presence. That, he knew, after all else had been taken away, was what counted. They were together. The two of them, and their boy. That was all that was left of the 54 years of his life.

Standing in the dusk of that rattling railcar, on February 3, 1946, on the first transport of Germans out of Reichenberg, Bohemia, bound for the U.S.-occupied zone of Germany, he looked back on his life. He felt as if he was marveling at an illuminated snow globe, turning it in his hand: The figurine of a man in a housecoat, sitting up late at night in his library, his slippered feet up on the desk, dictating a short story to his wife who perched on the sofa, her dark bobbed head intent on the notepad on her knees.

He had not seriously entertained the thought of fleeing, of packing up for some other place, for he could not see another place, could not imagine that it would be any better in a Europe flattened by war. How does one give up the house with the newly installed copper pipes, the rebuilt porch, the emerald and amber colored glass in the entryway? The dormer window from which Helmut had strung his toy cable car? The library Karl had amassed over the years, the textbooks he had co-authored, the archives of the newspaper he had edited, the files of manuscripts of the plays he had written for Prague’s German radio station? How does one give up the tree-lined streets, the way to work past the turreted museum, the memories of summers spent by the Talsperre Lake? The favorite table at the Café zur Post, the waiter who brings the mélange without asking? The Sunday afternoons spent with his sister’s family? The graves of his parents, his boy?

The train rattled on, hurling them farther into the unknown. That was what terrified him the most: the unknown. As a German in Bohemia, he had weathered several momentous political shifts: Why should he not have weathered this one? Why should he not remain who he was, a German in Reichenberg? Not a Reich-German, no never; even though the border to the Reich was so close, his affiliation had always been with Prague, with Vienna, not with Berlin. He was at heart a German of the Old Austria, of the old monarchy of his youth.

He weathered the Nazi reign when Reichenberg became regional capital of Hitler’s annexed Sudentenland and when, due to his stature as a former city councilman for the Social Democratic Party, he was not on the right side of the fence. When his Jewish brother-in-law died in 1938, Karl became the guardian of his half-Jewish niece and nephew, a further complication. He endured SS interrogations due to accusations that he had used “Jewish money” to finance his house on Grillparzerstrasse. He bore the demotion from principal of the Girls’ Middle School to plain subject teacher. He only avoided the Volkssturm, Hitler’s last effort to halt the Allied advance, to which men and boys of all ages were conscripted, because he was already doing air defense duty for the Red Cross.

Unbeknownst to Karl, his existence in Reichenberg had already been signed away in December 1944, when Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met in Tehran to determine the post-war order of the world: The German problem was to be solved. Never again would any German government be able to claim territories in the East. The German population would be expelled from Eastern Prussia, from Silesia, from Bohemia, from Romania; all Germans herded into one territory. It was only a matter of practicality as to when and how.

On May 9th, 1945, one day after the official unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, the Russians bombarded and then occupied Reichenberg. From then on the Germans in Reichenberg and the rest of Bohemia became outlaws.

In the days right after the war, all German men had to report to hard labor. First Karl spent days dismantling fortifications. Then he managed to get recognized as member of the Red Cross and was allowed to work as a paramedic at Reichenberg’s train station. Trains crowded with German refugees from the East, carted out of Silesia, had rolled through. Sometimes the Czech guards forced them off the train, chasing them into the streets like unwanted cattle. Other times they had them unload their few possessions, then pilfered through wicker baskets, suitcases, rucksacks, and tossed the emptied luggage back up. One militiaman’s sport had been to pour the milk out of any baby bottle he found, laughing hysterically as the milk splattered onto the platform and the helpless mother’s eyes widened with terror.

On August 13, 1945, Karl and Hanne’s house on Grillparzerstrasse 5 was confiscated. They managed to argue their way out of the internment camp, on the grounds of the pending anti-fascist documentation, and were assigned one room with a kitchen in the suburb of Johannesthal, which they shared with three other women.

After the loss of the house, Karl concentrated his efforts on obtaining extension upon extension of their lodging permit for their room in Johannesthal, banking on his anti-fascist paperwork coming through. Permits were only granted on a monthly basis, and thus, in October, Karl had gone again to the Národní Výbor to reapply. While he was granted an extension for his family, he himself was ordered to stay for a long interrogation: What had his role been during the Volkssturm? What did he know about Werwolf, the alleged Nazi resistance group that had supposedly operated behind Allied lines? Ultimately they kept him in the camp, first for a day, then for a few months.

The memory droned on in his mind: roll-call at five, breakfast of bitter coffee and one slice of bread, at work no later than seven, unloading potatoes. He figured he hauled an average of eight tons a day, until after five weeks a cart jammed him against a wagon and he was laid up for ten days with broken ribs. Then on to other “commandos,” that is, assignments: moving furniture, clearing air defense bunkers. Work never ended before eight. The coal “commandos” had been the worst: unloading coal from eight in the evening until six in the morning, then back to the regular “commando” at seven.

In mid-December he was fortunate to be assigned to the German library where all the German books, gathered from the emptied homes, had been dumped and needed to be sorted. He worked every day, even the Christmas holidays. Cataloging books suited him, even though, as he wrote down titles and opened up cloth-bound volumes embossed with gilded lettering to note the year of publication, his stomach would wind itself into a knot at the sight of the owners’ names, often scrawled in ink on the inside covers: What greater symbol could there be of a culture, an era, coming to an end, than piles and piles of books, swept off the shelves of the villas and studies, their owners carted off or crammed into an internment camp?

The cities reduced to rubble, their streets imposing a kind of containment grid over the heaps of debris, the half-standing walls, the teetering balconies, the dangling shop signs. The countryside, largely hills, some forested, loomed gray and desolate in the barrenness of winter.

In the meantime, Hanne badgered the Referent to get Karl free. Several times she was dismissed without getting an appointment. Finally she managed to have someone jot down Karl’s name. Then it turned out that his file was lost, and without the file they could not do anything. Finally, by asking around among his fellow inmates, Karl managed to find out the name of the inspector who had interrogated him back in October, and Hanne called on that inspector. In mid-December Karl’s file materialized, but by then the Referent was on sick leave, and nothing would happen until after Christmas. On January 20th Karl was finally ordered to appear at the police station, only to be asked: “So why are you in the camp?” “That’s what I want to know from you,” had been his reply.

It had been a misunderstanding. Four months of his life had been a misunderstanding. On January 25th he was released, with the offer to be wagon commander on the first government-organized transport into the U.S.-zone. He accepted right away, for now it was the best choice. With his anti-fascist certification still in limbo, he would not have been able to obtain another authorization to stay, and of the four Allied occupied zones, the U.S. zone was known to be the lesser evil.

While the Allies had acquiesced to Czech President Beneš’s insistence that the problem of the German minorities in Czechoslovakia be solved, once and for all, by driving them out of the land, they decreed that it would have to be an orderly and civilized transfer. Through a series of meetings in Prague in early January 1946, American and Czech officials confirmed the plans for the transfer: Each trainload would include 1,200 persons in 40 heated cars. The Czechoslovak government was to provide sufficient food for the trip and for three additional days. Families were to be kept together, clothing was to be adequate, and every person was permitted to bring along personal belongings totaling 30 to 50 kilograms and an allowance of 1,000 Reichsmark.

The transport Karl and his family were now on adhered closely to that agreement. They pulled out of Reichenberg on February 3rd, packed into closed freight cars, little coal ovens providing some heat. Two buckets were dispensed per car: one with drinking water, another to be used as a toilet. At each train station along the way—Prague, Pilsen, Taus—watery but warm food was provided: boiled potatoes, cabbage soup. In Furth im Wald, the border town on former Reich territory, now under U.S. command, they were transferred into a converted Wehrmacht hospital train. Passengers from three Czech freight cars were crowded into one Wehrmacht car.

They rode on. Most of them standing, each person unable to claim more floor space than their feet under them. Maybe it was luck to be on the transport in winter. Karl imagined how unbearable the heat and smell would be in the summer, with all those people up against each other. Maybe they were fortunate after all, to be rattling on, passing through Nürnberg, Würzburg, Aschaffenburg. The cities reduced to rubble, their streets imposing a kind of containment grid over the heaps of debris, the half-standing walls, the teetering balconies, the dangling shop signs. The countryside, largely hills, some forested, loomed gray and desolate in the barrenness of winter.

Karl had been told that they were bound for the rural area of Odenwald. He had only a faint idea of where that was. Not as far as Frankfurt, that he knew. The authorities had also told him, in case people got unruly, that the ride wouldn’t be much longer once they passed Aschaffenburg. But people were too tired, too beaten to be unruly. They waited, holding on to each other through the bends in the tracks when the car swayed left and right. Even the woman desperate for her son had stopped muttering and stood silent by the door.

Eventually, some time after Aschaffenburg, the train screeched to a halt. This must be the destination, what other reason would there be to stop? For a moment, all was silent, inside and out, only the rain continued to drum. Then a gust of wind beat against the railcar’s sliding door, yanking at it like a desperate person wanting to gain access. But the despondency was inside. They were the homeless, come to be spilled onto a ravaged land.

Karl opened the door, and immediately the icy rain cut into his face as he peeked out. The rain was turning into sleet and came down like miniature razors on his uncovered head. A few uniformed men stood at the end of the platform by the only lantern that drew a yellow circle into the dark. American soldiers, he figured. He could barely see them as the wind whipped at him. They did not advance. Five or six other figures appeared, coming towards him, carrying dim lanterns. “Red Cross. Red Cross. Come on. We have tea for you.” Karl nodded at Hanne. This was it.

As the storm battered the train, his fellow travelers clambered out, some pulling blankets over their heads, others not minding the storm. The scene reminded him of the first act of Wagner’s opera “The Flying Dutchman,” when the doomed ship, condemned to sail the oceans for eternity, finds shelter from a storm in a Norwegian fjord and the locals walk up to the strange vessel, gaping at its ghostly crew. Yes, they were landing, arriving like the cursed captain and his shipmates, dependent on the goodwill of those whose shore they had landed on.

While Karl stood, half leaning out of the car, holding hands, reaching down suitcases, an official strode up, cupped his hands over his mouth and yelled: “Endstation! Alles aussteigen! Endstation!”

“The Flying Dutchman” is an excerpt from Annette Gendler’s memoir Jumping Over Shadows, published April 2017 by She Writes Press.

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Annette Gendler is a writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, Bella Grace, and Artful Blogging, to name a few. She served as the 2014–2015 writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois. Born in New Jersey, she grew up in Munich, Germany, and lives in Chicago with her husband and three children. Visit her at annettegendler.com.

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