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The Great Guilt

In the following, Gertrud Knopp-Rüb delves in literary form into the question of guilt during the Bessarabian settlement in Poland. This is excerpted from “Eine Sehnsucht klingt auf [Echo of a Longing]” by Gertrud Knopp-Rüb in the Jahrbuch der Dobrudscha-Deutschen [Yearbook of the Dobrudzha Germans] 1960, pp. 11-15. Texts provided by Gertrud Knopp-Rüb, selections made by Heinz Fieβ.

Knopp-Rüb, Gertrud. "The Great Guilt." Mitteilungsblatt, September 2011, 17-19.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, and editorial assistance by Dr. Nancy A. Herzog, Boulder, CO


The Camp

Perhaps the time after leaving might have been easier for them if they only had been taken to Germany right away and not to an area which the war had made “willing.” And perhaps their homesickness might not have been as severe if they had been kept close to the soil.

Instead, the camp they were taken to was in the center of a city. Whenever they went out the door, they stepped onto pavement and their feet, used to the plain ground, grew tired and sore from it. And whenever they looked out the window, their gaze landed on backyard walls, where trash bins stood and laundry was hanging out to dry, or where an occasional ball, forgotten, was lying in some corner.

The nights were filled with agony. One could hear the other sighing, crying and moaning. And when morning arrived with its scant light, one crawled ashamedly out from under the blankets and passed the others as if they were all strangers.

It was no wonder, then, that they began to ask about the farms and land they had been promised, for they could not imagine where these might possibly be, given the immense number of people awaiting such farms. And when the time finally came--after a year and another half year had passed--when over long distances they were finally led to the soil, they took on the inheritance of a great guilt, and they dared not thank God for being allowed to enter onto that land.

For the right to that land had come from the defenselessness of those who had been conquered, and again the land was certainly not the Germany they had longed for and where, walking in the tracks of their ancestors, they might finally close the circle of having been lost.

The Great Guilt

It was approaching evening when they left the camp. Even though Simon Wildermuth had become somewhat used to the rhythm of his new surroundings, where it had never been important that plans be realized in a timely manner, he was plagued by a feeling of unrest and a measure of fear of things he could not understand. He was still beset with a lack of closure, but mingling with that feeling were calming memories of the cattle chewing in their stall, of the bright beam of light from the summer kitchen spreading across the entire yard and to the gray rim of the well, even of the hesitant dusk when the air seemed to clean itself of the day’s dust.

What good would it do to bring into the night the events that had to be lived through during the day? Did not the night have its purpose in weakness, doubt, and in dreams that mock or gladden mankind? And so, during the very onset of his departure he was already discovering the injustice, and even the many troubles and peculiarities of the trip could not really free him of a feeling of suspicion.

The sky was slowly turning blue when they arrived at the place. The streets were still quiet, and only behind the walled fences could one hear an occasional cock crowing or a door clicking shut. It was at that moment that the gendarme arrived. He alternately glanced at the papers Wildermuth handed him and at the growing pile of baggage being unloaded. As they were standing around counting the suitcases and rolled-up bedding, they saw a man in uniform approaching from across the empty plaza. He introduced himself as the mayor of the village. He warmly welcomed them to their new home—for that is what this place was intended to be for them—and expressed his hope that they might become well accustomed to their new situation. After all, he said, living here is good, the people here are good folks and, for the most part, displaced people from all parts of the East. To be sure, things in the area were still developing, and because of the war, progress could not be as quick as one might wish. And they [the newcomers] would have to contribute to completing the great task that had been placed upon the farming profession during this fateful struggle of their people. All in all, he said, they [meaning the German occupiers] had had good experiences with colonists now finding themselves away from home. They are hard-working and modest people who do not complain like those coming from the Old Reich. And since he could imagine that they [the newcomers], after their long and idle life in the camp, might be eager to get back to their accustomed ways, he would now lead them to the home that had been designated for them. The property, he said, was not in the good condition as those of the long-time residents because it had been occupied by a foreigner, who had not been careful to keep the farm in good order. For that reason, much work would have to be done, and to assist in that work, he offered his experience and the promise to help with advice and deed. The gendarme was to stay at the farm for a week or so in order to introduce the family to their new place. He was familiar with the land, and the new residents could rely on him in other matters, too.

Wildermuth merely nodded. He was willing to fit in and to appear content. Perhaps he had lived in the camp too long to have any further wishes, except for the one, of being on his own. He would have liked to discuss the situation of his sons, who had been taken from the camp after they had been inspired to participate in the war, and whose help he would sorely miss. But he did not know whether that would be among the wishes the mayor did not want to hear, so he remained quiet and looked down at the ground like one who had nothing further to say. He felt half-startled as [the mayor] took a step and kicked the gate open. He wished them a good start and advised them to get some rest and to fortify themselves.

He did not accompany them into the house, and Simon Wildermuth suddenly felt a sense of helplessness, just standing there with his wife and children, who were expecting him to take the first steps. His wife found the gendarme, who had also come along and who was by now carrying their bags into the hallway. They then hastened to do as he was doing, though feeling as if someone were watching them force their way inside a stranger’s property.

Once in the house, they felt even greater unease. Lacy yellow curtains covered the windows and brightly colored geraniums were blooming on the window sill. The soil inside the flower pots felt moist, as though it had just been watered. Everything seemed to be in its place the way it ought to be in a real home. Along the window-less wall there stood a long buffet with its richly decorative carvings. Its glass-paned doors were open, and in looking at the way the figurines and vases were placed, one noticed that something may have been removed in a kind of haste that would not leave time to close the doors. On the wall above the buffet there were two lighter spots in the wallpaper, stemming most likely from pictures that had been removed. In the air there seemed to hover a strange breath, a kind of anxiety, a measure of desperation.

Then they discovered the beds with the bedding in disorderly piles, and the window shutters still closed, making the semidarkness seem like the presence of a ghost. The wife began to cry, and they all left the room. In the hallways they lay down on the soft rolls of bedding and tried to sleep as well as they were able, and the tiredness soon began to leave their limbs.

When they awoke, they saw the gendarme working on the pots in the kitchen. He laughed in his comical way and said they could just as well have slept in the beds, because that’s what they were there for, after all. That may be true, the wife told him, and added that they did not want to behave worse than animals, because not even for them is it the custom to crawl into a nest that was still warm and still contained the impression of someone else’s body. Besides, they had always acted in a manner that respected someone else’s property, and should they now depart from that standard of behavior and thereby become guilty? She also wanted to know what had happened with the people who had lived here, and why they were taken away from their farm.

She need not think about that, the gendarme told her. They had plenty of bad things on their record and so it was nothing more than justifiable that they now had to pay. Had she not heard how they treated the Germans here during desperate times? One cannot even describe it, yet this woman still seems to feel sorry for them. There were many in the village who could tell her about it. She needed only to ask them and let them tell her everything, then she would perhaps think differently. Besides, he had no idea how these newcomers would possibly ever get to have their own place, seeing that Germany was already overpopulated. It was no different for the others who had already been resettled, and those people all had come to terms with it, he added.

They would therefore have to do so likewise, said Simon Wildermuth to himself. It was only that he had imagined things in their new homeland quite different, and so it would take a while until they could accept the current situation without thinking about those other people.

After they had talked it over, they seemed a little more at ease, and they began to unpack and to make use of things around them. The daughters took the beds outside and poured boiling water over them because the gendarme had warned them that they should take care so that any bedbugs, should there be any, would be chased out of their crevasses.

They scrubbed the floors and cleaned the windows while the wife took her place at the stove to cook her first meal there. By the time they sat around the table and things tasted good to them as they once had, something like a feeling of joy actually welled up in them, even a feeling of being at home.

Simon Wildermuth went to inspect the yard, the stables and the barns. Hanging below the overhand at the shed were bridles and other gear. Some of it he had never seen before, and he felt ashamed at his age to have to ask what their purpose was.

The garden was on the gable side of the house, behind a dense hornbeam hedge. The flower and vegetable beds in it had been designed with artful care and edged with sharp-tipped stones, while the paths between them had been paved with a thick layer of gravel.

It seemed almost wasteful to him that someone had gone to all that trouble in the garden while there was so much more to do in a farmyard than planting flowers and making sure they had enough water and that the weeds did not choke them. Now, during the first few days of spring, not much of them could be seen, except that here and there a green little hump was barely jutting out from the black soil as if to see whether it might dare to break out altogether. Painted wooden birdhouses were suspended like lights from the leafless trees branches. He imagined that the birds might very soon build nests in them and chirp and sing in the morning air.

At the farthest corner of the garden, next to a small opening in the hedge, he found a shallow, water-filled bowl mounted on a pole. Bees were buzzing around it and sitting on the thin rim while slaking their thirst and wiggling their tails happily, and he stood there, just a step away, watching them though lost in thought. As he stepped through the opening and into the space behind it, his gaze immediately rested on a number of boxes that fairly stood out from the tender green of the sloping meadow like sheaves left over from last summer’s harvest. If they were part of this property, thought Simon Wildermuth to himself, he would have to deal with them even if nothing much came of it. How much easier it seemed to him to do something new rather than walking in the steps of someone else. It didn’t seem quite right to him just to continue on with another’s work as it had always been done. There are the tendencies and peculiarities which everyone puts into his work, those which a stranger doesn’t know how to deal with. All of this occurred to him as he was standing in front of the bees and as he became more aware of his own awkwardness. In the evening he spoke with his wife about this, and she said that he was right, because the same kinds of things had happened to her. Sometimes, she said, she had to wonder, even to the point of being shocked by it, how the children had so quickly forgotten the circumstances of their move and how any little discovery brought joy to them.

That night Simon Wildermuth talked at length to himself and with others. He thought he was behaving a bit childishly, yet he decided to start from fresh, anyway, as if he was forced to. His thoughts were telling him, “I don’t know your name, and I don’t recognize your face, although I did see how you loved the flowers, the birds in the trees, and the bees behind the sloping meadow. I also noticed that you were not as good a farmer as one has been told, but that you did the work simply because you had to make your living from it. I saw many other things your heart embraces and which will never come to approach my own heart because such things are not given to me. We are made differently and are different in our entire beings. That will always remain between us and it will pay witness to the injustice that has been done to you.

“You left without taking anything with you, in a way as if you wished to return another time.”
The guilt—as he would later come to feel very clearly—was not that he had moved into the house and had lived in it as if it were his own. The guilt actually grew in the joy he found in being active from morning till night, as though he could never get enough, so much so that the [indigenous] farmhands began to murmur about his enthusiasm and wished not to be like him, and in the night they hurried into the woods and entertained thoughts of revenge…      

“Greater Germany Welcomes You!” [reads the banner] at arrival in the “Ostmark.” From here the resettlers were distributed to individual transition camps. [“Ostmark” is a generic term referring to a province east of Greater Germany, the Warthegau in Poland in this case.]

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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