Leutnant Konrad Wengler
It always starts the same way.
I am holding a gun--a rifle--and I beckon two people from the huddled crowd of ordinary people standing under guard in the field--a woman and child--and march them into the autumnal forest. The woman is weeping softly, and her child follows blindly, a chubby hand grasping her mother's.
My senses are quite acute. I am aware of her dark hair, the dark blue of her dress and the scuffed leather of her shoes. The forest is open and I can see a long distance through the trees, along the dirt trail past where the woman stumbles. I see a tiny flash of red on a tree trunk and recognise a butterfly opening and closing its wings, while in the covering of plants on the forest floor I glimpse a wood violet and tell myself to collect it on the way back, after...
After what? Why am I here? I see beyond the woman a long mound of earth and men in uniform waiting. It is the uniform of the Police Battalions. I look down at my own uniform and the rifle in my hands and remember why I am here.
Just short of the mound of earth and the trench cut into the dark woodland soil beyond it, the woman stops and, at a command, starts to undress. She puts her dress on top of a pile of clothing and hands her rings and a bracelet to one of the men. They allow her to keep her shift on as they have no interest in her nakedness, only her death. The child joins her beside the trench and I see it is a little girl, perhaps three years of age, crying in earnest now. They shiver in the cool autumn air and also because of what lies before them. Kneeling in the muddy soil beside the pit, they stare into it.
Bodies lie sprawled within this pit--this grave--white-limbed and splattered with blood, while pale tree roots stick out from the dark earth sides like fingers eager to grasp the life they are offered. I look at the back of the woman's head, seeing each strand of hair and a little pulse of a blood vessel in the side of her neck. I raise my rifle and a man steps up beside me, pointing his own rifle at the child. The little girl turns her head to look at me and I see it is my daughter Wilhelmina. I open my mouth to cry out that there has been some dreadful mistake but the man's rifle fires and the little body tumbles into the pit.
Now the woman looks round, accusingly, and I recognise the features of my darling Ilse. I stare into her eyes but I show no mercy, pulling the trigger and consigning her body to the grave that already holds so many other victims. I want to feel grief and horror, but I feel nothing, and when I look up I see I am standing on a road with many other men, and I am helping to herd shivering men, women and children into the waiting trucks.
I give a sweet, an Ingwer bonbon, to my Wilhelmina and hand her smiling to her mother who is already in the truck. The doors close and the engine starts, but the truck does not drive off. Instead, it just sits there with the exhaust fumes pouring into it and the screaming starts. Mercifully, it does not last long, and then the doors are opened.
Hilfswilliger step forward, native Poles who have lived alongside these people, and haul the bodies out of the truck, laughing and joking as they do so. I watch the Hiwis at work and do nothing, not even when an officer sticks his finger in Wilhelmina's dead mouth and hauls out the uneaten bonbon. He turns to me and says, "Konrad, you should have been in that truck too."
Then I am running and it is night. My boots clatter over the cobbles of a darkened city street and I hear shouts behind me. I duck into an alley and through a door, into someone's home. The home is a single room, almost devoid of furniture. Two men, a woman and three children sit on the floor huddled around a single candle. They are Jewish and I ask them to hide me because I am Jewish too, but they refuse saying that I chose to give that up long ago. One of the men calls to the men outside and they burst in, drag me out and...
...I am in a quarry, hauling broken rocks to a cart with a dozen other emaciated men. Guards stand around laughing and threatening us with death if we do not work harder. I fall to my knees but I am dragged upright and a coarse noose is settled around my throat. All the men, prisoners and guards alike, watch as I am hauled up, choking, and as I turn on the end of the rope, my chest in spasm as I struggle to draw breath, I see Ilse and my friend Erwin Schwab watching me. The rope burns like fire around my neck. I feel a scream building inside me...
The scream is still echoing off the bedroom walls as Ilse throws her arms around me, holding me tight as my shoulders shake and tears stream down my face. I am sitting up in bed, staring into the darkness, and my breath comes raggedly and my terror turns by degrees into common anguish and I sob quietly.
Wilhelmina is bawling now in the next room and Ilse goes to attend to her. Alone in our bedroom I gather my courage and swing my legs over the side, tottering through into the parlour where I slump into a chair and stare out the window to where the first flush of dawn is pinking the eastern horizon.
Ilse comes in, having settled Wilhelmina, and bustles around, lighting the fire in the wood stove and filling a kettle with water. Then she draws up a chair and sits down beside me. She takes my hands in hers and looks into my face, her eyes filled with compassion.
"The same dream?" she asks, and I nod.
"You need to talk it out, Konrad. A doctor...or a pastor, perhaps."
I shake my head. "Who could I trust with my story? You and Erwin are the only ones who know."
"Then you must do as we agreed. Return to your work and find a way to make amends for your actions. Address the burden of guilt you say you bear."
Ilse is right. We have talked about this many times. I am Jewish on my mother's side, but I have a Blood Certificate signed by the Fuhrer himself, and that document gives me the right to live my life within Germany as if I was not a Jew. As long as I do not practice my faith openly, I am safe. But though I am safe, what of the thousands or millions of other Jews in Germany and the occupied lands? Why should I live while they die?
I have even killed some of them. I have taken part in the systematic hunting down and execution of Jewish men, women and children, and their blood stains my soul indelibly. I have repented of my actions and suffered because of my refusal to take any further part in that slaughter, but it is not enough. What else can I do? Is there any action that will make up for the evil I have committed? I have considered turning myself in, offering myself up for immolation and hoping to atone through my death, but that will only visit destruction on my Ilse and Wilhelmina. For their sakes I must continue my deception, and find a way to assuage my burgeoning guilt. But how?
The kettle boils and Ilse makes a pot of tea from her small container of dried raspberry leaves, and the sweet-sharp aroma fills the parlour. We sip the hot liquid from our cups and watch the sun rise over snow-covered fields.
"What day is it, Ilse?" I ask.
"Monday, March 23rd."
"Nearly three years since this first started--since I first heard about Falk's plans."
"You're not going to let him get away with it, are you?"
"He's already got away with it. He's Ortsgruppenleiter and a party member."
"No longer Ortsgruppenleiter. He's been given a new rank--Hauptabschnittsleiter. And besides, you're a party member too."
I shudder. "Don't remind me of that."
"I say it only because if he has power, then so do you. You are a Police Leutnant and Schutzstaffel. Use your position to bring him to account."
I think about this for a few minutes. "It would be satisfying, I admit, but there's probably little I can do."
"So if you accomplish nothing, at least you will have tried. Isn't that better than doing nothing and letting evil men go free?"
"I am an evil man too..."
"Do not say such a thing, Konrad Wengler," Ilse says sharply. "You are a good, decent man who got caught up in evil deeds."
"Deeds of which I am heartily ashamed."
"So do something to atone for those deeds. Bring the men responsible to account."
I laugh bitterly. "They are myriad and I am one man."
"So bring one man to account, Konrad. Find evidence to bring Hauptabschnittsleiter Heinz Falk before the courts."
"For what? Persecuting Jews? Stealing their farms? There is no court in Germany would punish him for that."
"You told me he stole Balzer's farm and killed him also. Balzer was not Jewish. Isn't that a crime for which he could be punished?"
I nod slowly, thinking. "You are right, Ilse," I murmur. She is no longer listening though, as Wilhelmina has awoken and she has gone to dress her for a new day. I must get dressed too, for it is the day I am to resume my police duties and Bad Reichenhall is many kilometres from here. I have a lot of work to do, but many men under my command, so maybe I can find time to investigate our Ortsgruppenleiter--no, sorry, Hauptabschnittsleiter--and maybe make him account for his sins.