I am Colonel Johannes Steiger with the Army Group Vistula. Formed on January 24, 1945, from the remnants of other shattered and virtually destroyed armies, Army Group Vistula's single most mission was to protect and deliver Berlin from the Russians advancing from the Vistula River, thereby to squeeze out necessary time to relieve the Fuehrer to a safer sanctuary than the Chancellery bunker. We were hopeful to see Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici, an astute and tenacious leader, appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army Group Vistula. We were hopeful because the Russians could not yet break through him.
It, however, did not look any better; we were being pushed back, if not broken through, each day. My regiment headquarters was atop a ridge overlooking a bird's-eye view of the Vistula River. Being atop a ridge and with a wide, well-dugout, well-defended perimeter, my headquarters looked safe at least for now.
But the rockets from the Soviet Katyusha multiple rocket launchers kept punishing our positions with deadly accuracy, causing heavy toll in men and materials. One night during a lull in shelling, a soldier knocked on my makeshift command post.
'Who is it?' I said without looking over my shoulder. 'I am Reichert, Sir. Sergeant Erich Reichert, your new battery commander.' I turned around to take Sergeant Reichert's salute. 'Welcome Sergeant,' I said. 'It's good to have you in my outfit.'
'Thank you, Sir. I am also your new orderly.' 'My battery commander cum orderly?' 'Yes, Sir.''Good. I feel good about it.''I do too, Sir.'Over a couple of days, Reichert became my favorite man; a cool guy so to speak, a confidant to be exact.
Besides, what struck me most about him was his passion for literature, especially literature by both German and American authors. We talked about these when we got a chance while eating our rations in the bunker. 'Who are your favorite German authors, Reichert?' I asked.
' Heinrich Heine, Erich Maria Remarque, and Thomas Mann.' 'And among American authors who are your favorites?' 'F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and e. e. cummings.' 'Have you ever thought about becoming a writer?'
He paused for a few moments.' I have.''Seriously?' 'Seriously.''Then what happened?'' Men who seriously want to be writers end up becoming soldiers.' He smiled, happy to be able to unload his mind. I changed the subject of our discourse lest it makes him a turn off.
' What will you have on your mind when you return home?' I said. ' What do you mean, Sir?' he said. ' I mean what your plans are once you return home after the war?' ' I don't have plans.'' Come on Reichert, everybody has plans.'
'Not everybody. I don't.''You need one, just in case.'' Just in case.''You need one.'' I will have plans when I am there - home.' ' Or what will be left of it.'' You're talking my mind, Sir. You know it.'
We heard the shells howling overhead and exploding into our nearby positions with a deafening sound. My outfit ducked as usual. I looked into my binoculars. The shells were hitting our positions anywhere and everywhere. I lay my hand on his shoulder trying to assure him. Reichert turned around to face me.
'And what are your plans, Sir?' he said. I wrung my palms uneasily as though trying to hide something of a secret. 'As of now, I don't have plans either but one: get back home in one piece.' 'Then we're on the same page. Get back home. Get back home in one piece.'
'Yes. You will get back home to much of what you had seen and left behind of your hometown and Germany before the war; you will not recognize them after the war. Do you get it, Reichert?' 'Yes , Sir.''What will remain you will call it home.'
'Germany, you mean?''Yes, and especially your hometown...'' Ulm.''Ulm that is.' ' I can figure it.''Absolutely.' ' You feel the same way, Sir; I suppose?''You got it. For Germany as well as Berlin.'' Berlin is your...' 'My hometown, Reichert. Born and raised there. A Berliner I am. Every bone of my body.'
Lull over, we heard the Russian Katyusha rockets resuming to rain down on our foxholes and pillboxes and trenches; and fortified positions on the ridge. Reichert stood up, taut and tense. He double-checked his helmet. 'Permission to return to my battery, Sir.' said Reichert. 'Permission granted,' I said. Reichert saluted. 'Heil Hitler.'
'Thank you, Colonel.''Thank you, Sergeant.'Despite all his efforts, Generaloberst Heinrici could not beat back the Russians and prevent them from breaking through his lines. He simply could not do it. It was too little too late. But he was nevertheless relieved of his command on April 28. I radioed Reichert the next day.
'You know about Heinrici's dismissal by now, Reichert. Don't you?' 'Yes, Sir. This is unfair to Heinrici.''Yes, it is. The curtain for Germany is about to fall. ' In a few weeks. Sooner.' 'How do you feel?' 'The war isn't over until it's over.' ' How do you feel?'" It's agonizing.''How do you feel?''It's awful.''How do you feel?''I feel awfully bad.''Sure.''God is my witness.' 'God knows better.' 'Are we coming back home, Colonel?''Yes, Sergeant.' 'All of us?''All of us.''Even the dead?''No. Except the dead.''What has happened to the dead?''The dead are already home.'
'You are right, Sir.''I hope so. It's good to be home, Sergeant.' 'You couldn't be more right, Colonel.' 'Good luck, Sergeant.''Good luck, Colonel.'Luck comes in different packages, in different forms and denominations. Sure enough, to get back home from the front during or after the war, we need luck in bits and pieces if not in a lump sum. Both soldiers and civilians. We need all the luck all the good luck we can get. Many of us will have it. Count your blessings.
The author is a bilingual fiction writer, poet,
translator, and literary critic.
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