|War Costs More Than Money
- Part IV
The Walking Wounded
By Alfred Opp, Vancouver, British Columbia
Edited by Connie Dahlke, Walla Walla, Washington
"I swear to serve and be obedient, so
help me . . . ."
Emil was a man who worked in my father's wagon-making
shop. His wife and my mom were the best of friends.
Mom spoke highly of Emil, who was a good worker and
true to his word. After the relocation to Poland,
Emil was conscripted into the German Army and served
nearly four years in the military during which time
he slept every night in a bed and had regular meals.
He never was on the front lines in battle, never was
wounded nor taken prisoner. When the war ended, the
next day he was in civilian clothes and on his way
home. Yet he became the victim of guilt left in his
soul by the war. His conscience gave him no rest.
Here is his story:
When Emil entered the military, he did so well in
training that Headquarters promoted him to the military
police. He was assigned as a guard at Headquarters
and became an escort for government officials. When
the tide turned in the war, Emil's assignment also
lost its glamour. With Russia gaining momentum and
Germany losing, security concerns became the big issue,
front and center. Stalin made sure that Germany's
allies knew what was coming to them if they continued
to hold the line for Germany. The allies of Germany
ran off like people escaping a house on fire. In the
areas of former alliance, ethnic Germans and German
soldiers became targets of ambush attacks. Emil and
his unit got the order to keep their area under control.
Every house was searched for weapons, and anyone found
with weapons was often shot on the spot. It got very
ugly. Emil was very disturbed by the violence and
asked for a transfer. His commanding officer advised
Emil to reconsider, along the warning that if Emil
did not stay with his assignment the commander had
no choice but to report him as refusing an order.
Not being able to stand up to duty is a serious offense
in the military. With a wife and three daughters at
home, Emil went back to work.
By the time the war ended and Emil returned to his
family, he was a changed man. The world around him
had become a dark place. He was haunted by guilt from
which his conscience would not release him. He started
drinking and died before his 65th birthday. He was
obedient to everyone, but lost himself.
Wounds for which there is no bandage
World War II left millions dead, and additional millions
suffered guilt, shame, homelessness or grief from
the death of loved ones. Many of the survivors were
never able to get their lives back. Their stories
are many. To get the feel of their situation, to understand,
one has to walk in their shoes. Here are a couple
Once we were settled in West Germany, Mom befriended
a woman named Selma. Selma was attractive and had
been married to Heinrich, a wealthy Bessarabian farmer
with whom she had two children. Theirs was a marriage
that had some problems and stresses. With others from
Bessarabia, they made the Trek to Europe and were
resettled in Poland. For a while their life seemed
better. A year later, Heinrich was conscripted into
the German Army.
Selma and Heinrich kept in touch, under the wartime
conditions. Then Selma received a letter from the
military telling her that Heinrich was missing in
action. That meant he was either captured or dead.
When the war ended, people everywhere put up names
and pictures to locate loved ones. Both the Red Cross
and the post-war press stepped in to help people find
their loved ones. Selma sent Heinrich's picture and
description to the Red Cross. Eventually, Selma received
a letter from the Red Cross saying that someone had
been positively identified by her picture of Heinrich,
but that his name was not the same. She wrote to the
man to clarify the situation. The man wrote back,
saying that his name was Paul Schulz. Selma wrote
again, giving a more complete description of Heinrich.
Again the man wrote back with the same answer - his
name was Paul Schulz. She began to suspect that her
waiting might be over - it was. Selma died of old
age and a bleeding heart. "Oh Lord, help me with
the burden the war laid upon me."
Another lady we met in Germany was married with two
children. She knew her husband was alive somewhere
in Russia. It took some time before he got out, and
by then he was skin and bones. Eventually he arrived
in West Germany and his wife nursed him back to health.
He then got a job and went back to work. Two years
later he began an affair with a younger woman. When
the wife found out about it, she said nothing. She
was a good mother and a brave wife who gave up her
feelings to keep her family together. This was not
an isolated case. The war destroyed so many men. Young
ladies and widows became the forgotten. But they,
too, wanted to get back into life. Many young women
gave up on what Mother taught them, in order to have
a man. The war of hearts was real. "Oh Lord,
shed light on love I can feel."
How dark is dark? - Soldier Ewald
I met Ewald when we, as homeless refugees, were assigned
to live in an old Inn. The place had nine rooms and
two toilets. This became home to nine families. We
spent three years in that situation, and adjusted
well to one another. We felt safe, and felt that with
patience better times would come. Life did become
better for us, but not for Ewald.
Ewald had been blinded during the war. I went with
him on walks, and so did others. He was a remarkable
person: handsome, smart and fiercely independent.
He was rarely seen without a tie. Born in Bessarabia,
he left on the Trek for Europe with the rest of us.
On our walks, he shared with me his experiences and
feelings. Here is his story:
After his family was resettled on a farm in Poland,
Ewald was called into the German Army. He was assigned
to a Storm Trooper division stationed near a big city.
On pass, he and his buddies visited the city, and
there he met his sweetheart. After his training was
completed, he was allowed time off, which he spent
with his girlfriend and her family. Then he had to
say good-by and was off to Russia.
The train ride out was long and dangerous, passing
partisan hangouts. The troops knew they were headed
East, but didn't know their destination. Everything
was in code to keep their position secure. Traveling
in boxcars, his group made it to a place - out in
the middle of nowhere. On arrival, the commanding
officer greeted them, shook hands, then called them
to order for a briefing. The troops were given instructions
as to what position to take when an attack was called.
The soldiers were told they were expected to fight
courageously and bravely for the Fatherland.
His first assignment that day was to go out on patrol.
Ewald later described this as a death trap. Along
with four others, he went on a walk to check up on
the enemy. They remained on patrol until late that
afternoon. Besides an isolated shot here and there,
all seemed normal. The Corporal wanted to have a last
look, and told Ewald to cover him. The Corporal went
ahead, and Ewald lost sight of him, so he went looking
for his comrade. Walking along, Ewald heard a "bang"
and everything went dark. He felt a burning sensation
around his eyes, and called for help. His comrades
came running to see what was going on. All who looked
could see something was wrong with his eyes. They
tried to figure out what had happened. It turned out
that a bullet hit him in one side of the face and
went out the other, showing little damage to his face,
but destroying his eyesight. They bandaged him up
and took him to the medics who looked him over and
decided they couldn't help him. He was then sent to
a field hospital where he was told his eyes couldn't
be saved. He was treated and sent home. His parents
were notified by the military of his condition, and
Ewald sent word to his girlfriend. It was bad news
all around. Ewald had a huge hill to climb. Both of
his parents were elderly, and his mother was not well.
His only brother also had a health problem. The military
could provide some monetary support, but Ewald needed
more than that - he needed a home. His hopes now rested
on his girlfriend. They met and talked, and both came
to an agreement that they would be married. With this
decision, the girlfriend returned to her parents to
prepare for the wedding.
Two weeks later, Ewald received a letter from his
girlfriend informing him that she couldn't go through
with the wedding. She felt she did not have what it
takes to adjust to what life would be like with Ewald.
The letter came as a blow. He tried to persuade her
to change her mind, but the facts were settled as
far as she was concerned. It was not his decision
to lose his eyesight - it was the bloody war. He was
now dependent on his elderly parents. When the war
closed in on them in Poland, like everyone else they,
too, had to flee to the west. They ended up in the
same place we did, only ten months earlier. Here we
met, and here we parted. I moved on to get my life
in order. Ewald tried to pick up his life as best
he could. Ewald was unable to write to me, and neither
did I write to him, so we lost contact. Later on,
a friend told me the rest of Ewald's story.
Ewald was given a good pension because of his war
disability, got a job, bought a house, got married
and became the father of two boys. One would think
he had it made. But once again bad luck came down
on him like an avalanche. His wife befriended another
man and ran off, taking money from Ewald's bank account.
The younger of the boys went with Mom, and the older
son stayed with Dad. Nearly broke, Ewald was in need
of help again. Friends and the community stepped in
to help him out. A caretaker came in to look after
the house-keeping needs. The son that was living with
him had a job.
One day, the police showed up to arrest his son on
a serious criminal charge. The case went to court
and the boy was put behind bars. Ewald had no choice
but sell the house and check into a Care home. When
my friend last saw him, he was frail and showed no
life. He sat in his chair, withdrawn - a shadow of
the man he once was.
"In a war the bullets often hit
in slow motion."
Alfred Opp is the author of "Pawns
on the World Stage" - the memoirs of his
childhood in Teplitz, Bessarabia and the experiences
of his family in war-torn Europe (Poland during 1941-1945
before they fled to East Germany in 1945, then the
reconstruction of West Germany 1945-1955).