We never really knew where we were. We were ordered to proceed toward landmarks on a map. Villages. Hills. Roads. “Cross that road and take Hill 117.” Orders like that. Sometimes we were sent towardbridges over rivers. Towns had names on our maps that didn’t match any names we might see in a town. When Soviet soldiers surrendered, the couple of men who could speak Russian would ask them about a city or town nearby, try to get information on who might be there. The soldiers would give these blank looks, like they didn’t know what they were talking about. Of course, if I had just surrendered, I would probably look like that, too. I’d be thinking, Oh my god, what next. That usually kept me fighting, even when the smart thing would have been to fall back from whatever position we were in, try to save myself. Of course no German soldier would contemplate out loud being captured by a Soviet one, since they were thought to be inferior people. ‘Dogs,’ some called them. But privately, sometimes, we talked. If you got captured, they would send you ‘to the east.’ That’s what we always said, ‘to the east.’ Some terrible place out there, labor camps where you might starve. Camps out in a frozen nowhere place, in Siberia. We didn’t know what it meant or what it would be like. But it sounded terrible.
I heard a story about a soldier who surrendered, an officer. This was not in my company, but one in my area. There was an officer who spoke some Russian, who was being sent to attack a target and he didn’t like the looks of something, was thinking there must be a big gun hidden there, or more soldiers than he could see. He was showing the officer the map and the officer was dazed, not understanding. Maybe this map meant nothing to him. But as the officer talked to him, asked questions, pointed at the map, the Soviet officer just shrugged. He said nothing. Pretty soon the German officer was yelling his questions, jabbing the map with his finger. The Soviet officer is still just staring, shrugging. Suddenly the German officer pulls out his pistol and just shoots him. ‘Useless,’ he says. You weren’t supposed to shoot a prisoner of war, of course, so sometimes when I heard that story it ended a little differently. But you could imagine it. There was a lot of that, officers getting frustrated with prisoners, or sometimes in the towns we entered. And they’d just pull out a gun and shoot. Or order one of their men to do it. And they would.
Usually we were just sending these men down the road, behind us. Take away their weapons, which we’d use sometimes, and send them back down the road. We never saw them come back. Or when we were retreating back toward Poland, we never saw them anywhere they went. They just disappeared. Like so many people did in those days. Just lines and lines of people, walking off, probably walking off this earth and what would happen to them. For a while I had nightmares of these people, hordes of these people, marching up the road toward me. Five, six, seven, ten across, walking shoulder to shoulder, like walking dead. Ten across, hundreds and thousands deep, coming. Coming back to get their due. I slept terribly for a long time. And then I forgot about them. I stopped having those dreams when I came to America. Until now, when they sent me to live here.
In my company, we had a man who had been at a university. Herr Weisskopf. He had been a scholar of that part of the world, Russia and Poland and Hungary. One night he told me how after Hitler came to power, a few years after, to teach at the university you had to become a Nazi officer. They came and said no Jews would be allowed to teach. Only Nazi officers. He had to sign a piece of paper. He refused and his job was taken away. That’s why he was just a common soldier, like me. Among our company, he and I were the only ones who had been to the university. Sometimes we talked late at night. The other men in the company did not like him much. I think they thought he must look down on them. Which he probably did. I would have. There was one guy, a big Bavarian named Müller, who heard the story about him losing his post and tried to bully him with it. He’d try to force him to give up some of his rations, so he could have some extra sausages. He used to taunt Weisskopf that all his knowledge was useless. Weisskopf knew so much about the area where we were, the history. He knew the big cities, a lot of names of the places, but they were all old. I remember when we crossed into Russia, he called it something else. Galicia. He said, For a long time this was Poland, then it was Russia. He was telling me a story one night and Müller interrupted and said, “It’s not Galicia, it’s Russia, you idiot.” Then he corrected him, “No, it’s the Soviet Union.” Müller started pummeling him. I had to get between them. But Weisskopf’s knowledge was useless, you could say. He knew Polish names of things, of places. But our maps had the towns with German names on them. And the signs on the road were in that funny alphabet they use, so I couldn’t read them, but when he translated them we couldn’t match them to his stories. We were lost, in a way. But we also knew just had to keep going. East. Toward the sunrise.
All that summer we marched on through this countryside, where the names been erased and lost by the Soviet government. The places were still there, but their right names, all their history, just wiped clean. And just as the German mapmaker, whoever that was, had wiped it clean again on our maps. Putting names down that not only weren’t the right names from history but they weren’t what anyone who even lived there called them. Only us, the invaders. And what did we know about anything? It’s a wonder we ever got to the Black Sea. More than a thousand miles, marching across the flat plain, sort of like here, but not knowing anything about where we were. It’s amazing what you can do, just having one general direction and a lot of men willing to do whatever they’re told to go do, even when it’s clear from the maps and the instructions that we have no idea what we’re doing. You can still get somewhere, even if you don’t know where you are.