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Before the War Ended

A short story by Kay Hoff

The following is a short story that comes to us from Richard Rottenburg of Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.  It was written by author Kay Hoff, and originally produced as a radio feature.  Rottenburg worked with translator Carrie Hampel to bring this to an English-speaking audience.

Kay Hoff is a German author born in 1924 in Neustadt/Holstein, a town in northern Germany by the Baltic Sea. In 1941, when he was seventeen, Kay and all fifteen of his classmates voluntarily applied to join the army just six months before they graduated from high school. Due to a stiff arm from a bike accident in childhood he was classified as “nicht KV” (“night kriegsverwendungsfähig,” not fit for combat) and was enrolled as an army clerk in 1942. He worked for over two years in different towns, while yearning to become a reporter on the war front. In 1944, he managed to be transferred to the Propaganda Division in Potsdam, from which he was later deployed as a war reporter to various divisions in Eastern Europe. At this time, he was still deeply convinced of his duty to support Germany and its Nazi government. On the morning of May 8, 1945, when he was at a military command station near Dresden (recently bombarded and largely destroyed in February 1945) he heard the official radio announcement by the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKH) declaring that a surrender agreement had been signed, to go into effect at noon that same day — in fact, it was to go into effect at 23:01 MET.

To avoid being captured by the Russians, he jumped on his motorbike — something he could do as war reporter — and drove westwards as fast as he could. Yet he soon ran out of petrol at a crossroad south of Dresden, which became the scene of this short story. On his way southwest, later on the same day, he was caught by American troops. Since this was in Sudetenland territory, which is today part of the Czech Republic, he was handed over to the Red Army with thousands of others. After three months of starvation, he was deemed seriously ill and released in July 1945, while most others had to stay on (some of whom were not released until 1955). During his captivity, prisoners were shown photos of the extermination camps. He assumed the photos were faked and actually taken at Katyn, where the Soviet Secret Police massacred Polish nationals in 1940. From his cohort of sixteen classmates with whom he enlisted, only eight returned home.

The same year Kay Hoff came to believe that the evidence of German genocide and war crimes was indeed irrefutable, whereupon he became one of the few post-war intellectuals who contributed to rebuilding Germany into the liberal, democratic country that it is today. In autumn of 1945 he attended the University of Kiel to study psychology, German literature and art history, and graduated with a PhD in 1949. He married Marianne Schilling in 1951 and worked as a librarian in Düsseldorf between 1950 and 1952 at an educational facility established by the British Military Administration.  

Afterwards he earned the family’s income as a freelance journalist at the daily newspaper “Rheinische Post,” as well as with numerous journals and radio stations. Between 1970 and 1973, he was appointed head of the then newly founded German Cultural Centre and the Hirsch Library in Tel Aviv, Israel. From Tel Aviv he moved to Berlin and worked again as an independent writer. He has been a member of P.E.N since 1969.

Kay Hoff has written various essays, short stories, novels, poems, audio dramas and radio features. His main focus has been to describe and thereby to come to terms with the past — with the guilt of his generation for having been naïve supporters of the Nazi regime. His first and largely autobiographical novel about daily life before and during Nazi Germany in his hometown Neustadt entitled “Bödelstedt oder Würstchen bürgerlich” (Boedelstedt, or Bourgeois Sausage) (orig. 1966) was well received by critics. Several of his later novels, dealing with a wide range of issues, were less well received. Kay Hoff has been awarded a number of prizes, such as the “Ernst Reuter Award” in 1965.

The short story “Die Kreuzung bei Dresden,” here translated as “Before the War Ended,” was written as a radio feature in 1957 and later reprinted. The protagonist narrates a minor incident during the last hours of the Second World War where a seemingly innocent passer-by probably lost his life due to the protagonist’s unconditional will to live. The story deals with the absurdity of having to follow orders for a lost cause and the subtle trauma of having inadvertently sacrificed another’s life to save one’s own.

***

I don’t know if they actually shot the man in the brown leather jacket. The military police led him to one side, behind the trees lining the road. That’s all I saw. That’s all I know. Perhaps he wasn’t even a deserter. Perhaps he was suffering from internal bleeding or heart disease so he wasn’t even any use to the Volkssturm[1]. Or maybe he’d earned a pension years ago because of a bullet lodged in his lungs, so he’d followed regulations and given back his gas mask, army shirt, underpants, tie and rifle to the very same military he was now facing at the crossroads. Perhaps he really was a civilian with a draft card and ID and food vouchers, and he had just been working in his garden somewhere close to the village, whose friendly houses shone through the thin green of the bushes. After all, it was the time of year when the garden beds had to be brought into shape — and the man had a gardener’s face. Maybe he had been brought out of his garden by the burst of noise from the frontline that had faded without returning, or he just wanted to go out and get something before the Russians arrived and it was too late.

I don’t even know now where those crossroads are, where the military police[2] captain jumped out of the jeep with his arms outspread yelling, “Stop! Hey, that means you too! Stop!” It must have been about three, six, or nine-odd miles west of Dresden. You forget these things over the years. Now I probably wouldn’t even be able to find it on a military map. Maps are unemotional and oblivious. There is no map that still knows the thin green of the bushes and the bright sun of that day, there are no map features for hope, despair and shame, and if the military police really did shoot that man in the brown leather jacket behind the trees lining the road, his grave is not marked on any map. Maybe nobody even knows anything about it. The military police shot so many people back then, they could hardly recall the man in the brown leather jacket, and if one of them should remember — perhaps nights when he can’t get to sleep, or when a dream wakes him up, or in the morning when he’s riding in a streetcar and the man next to him is wearing the same kind of brown leather jacket — he definitely wouldn’t talk about it. Anyone who has shot people is happy enough if they can keep quiet about it.

I should probably keep quiet about it too. But even though everything happened as fast as any newsreel item, I can’t forget about it and I don’t want to keep quiet. I don’t know what happened after that, whether they shot the man behind the line of trees, or let him go, or whether they sent him off with the others to where the frontline was disintegrating. I don’t know how guilty I am. But I do know that my fate was sealed at those crossroads near Dresden, stretching out at perfect right angles through the hilly landscape in the four directions of the compass.

Everything is seared into my memory, the grey faces of the other soldiers gathered in front those machine guns, the hard commanding tones of the captain, the neck plates hung by decorative chains on the military police uniforms with their special insignia, the look on the face of the man in the leather jacket as he was led away. The years haven’t erased a thing. I can see it all as if it were yesterday, as if it just happened, and I can see it in more detail now than I did back then.

It was a glorious spring day; it was May and everyone knew that the war would end at twelve o’clock midday, and everyone was very aware that they were still alive. That was such a strange feeling — after treading over so many graves, to then stand in the sun that day as it shone over the countryside like in popular poems, making the asphalt on the roads gleam. It was already warm and the sky was a peaceful blue, and in two or three hours all weaponry would become obsolete. Even though the front was still somewhere out there, with its crumbling lines, huddling hedgehogs, cadaverous leftovers. But everyone was trying to escape to the West, everyone who wasn’t getting burnt up in this slag of the war and judged a target and forced to kill until the clock struck the full hour. And there on those crossroads, three, six, or nine-odd miles behind Dresden, the captain sprang out of the jeep, positioned himself in the middle of the crossroads with his arms outstretched and yelled out, “Stop!” Three or four military police got out of the jeep with him and blocked the road to the West with their machine guns. The captain called out: “Listen up! I will shoot anyone trying to run! We are building a new frontline right here. Sergeant Bittenberg! You gather up anyone that comes this way! Attack at any sign of resistance! Then you take over securing the road to…”

I don’t know where the road led to anymore. The new frontline was supposed to be built on the road leading south. That was on the 8th of May 1945, about half past ten in the morning, and everyone knew that the war would end at twelve-midday, or at midnight, and some people even thought it had ended already, and nobody wanted to get killed in the minutes counting up to the full hour, and nobody wanted to kill.

I wanted to get to the West. Everyone who walked, drove or rode over that crossroad wanted to get to the West. I had been standing there for the last hour trying to wave down trucks so I could escape the insanity behind the crumbling frontline. If I had moved further along the road westwards, I would have already forgotten those crossroads like any other. But I waited and tried to flag down vehicles to get there faster before the Russian tank lines completely cut off the route to the West. All the passing drivers wanted to get away quickly. No one would stop for me. And then the jeep was suddenly there and the captain sprang onto the crossroads and yelled “Stop!” and I was cut off from everything, just one and a half hours before the end of the war. Anyone who’d already passed the crossroads was saved, because the military police weren’t looking towards the west, they only stopped everything that encountered their blockade from the east. But I was condemned to war, one and a half hours before the ceasefire — and that meant death or Siberian barbed wire.

It didn’t take long for a whole group of us tired, dirty and almost indifferent soldiers to bunch into a crowd in front of the military police and their machine guns. The captain strode impatiently back and forth, spoke to his staff sergeant, pointed over the hill towards the southeast and puffed himself up to speak to us, “Listen up, people! This here is a first-class disgrace, I won’t waste another word on it. Now you have a chance to redeem yourselves. The Russkies are attacking us with relatively weak forces. Your job is to hold them back. Got it? In case I haven’t made myself absolutely clear: anyone trying to make a run for mommy or any other lily-livered move will be shot. Understood?”

That was the situation. I’m not trying to excuse myself with it. But that’s how it was. Here, one last time — one-and-a-half hours before the end of the war, or thirteen-and-a-half hours before the end, no one quite knew exactly which — death was to be organized. Perhaps there was still some kind of headquarters somewhere with zealous orderly officers, where lines were drawn and enemy forces marked out and brightly colored flags on military maps pinned back and forth, and perhaps cool calculating minds could recognize some sense in the flags and numbers and lines. Death however, whose meaning in this war had always been doubtful, seemed to be completely senseless in this hour, the stranger’s death still housed in my gun, just like my death that was possibly riding in on tanks from Dresden.

“The Russians are not to be allowed to move forward under any circumstances!” said the captain. “I require all of you…”

Then the whining of a low-flying plane threw us all into cover. The machine lifted up over the crossing and came back down at us from the sun. Machine gun fire pelted onto the asphalt. Branches broke. Someone cried out. Then it was quiet again. We stood up carefully. Only one of us stayed down, he didn’t cry out any more.

The captain swore, because the jeep was peppered full of holes.

“Damned filthy swine! How are we going to get Lückel’s fighting group over here, Bittenberg?

The sergeant shrugged his shoulders, “Stop whatever vehicle comes our way.”

“Should we get the Russkies to send us one, then?” sneered the captain, “There’s nothing in front of us anymore! No, tell me, which of your people can run well?”

“But it’s more than 5 miles to the road maintenance depot, captain, sir,” argued the sergeant.

“So what if it is?” said the captain, “Do you think I want to die here on my own? We have to get a message to Lückel. He should start marching here right away. Bittenberg, pick out some reliable man!”

“As you say, captain, sir!” said the sergeant and went over to the other military police. After a short exchange, one of the men clicked his heels, turned around and ran down the empty street westwards. Even while he was still in sight, his gait got heavier, and before he disappeared over the hill under the grey-blue strip of road, he had already fallen into a regular march.

“Register that fellow with me afterwards, will you, Bittenberg!” said the captain tightly.

That’s when I saw the man in the brown leather jacket. I was looking up the road to the north where a double row of trees, wearing the first green of the year, melted into a far curve. Through the thin bushes next to that was the outline of a village, roofs, white house walls, a picturesque church tower. The village seemed as unreal as the whole day, marked with a point in time that was supposed to put an end to death in holes and roadside ditches and cellars. The man in the brown leather jacket was equally unreal, there on a small, sparkling green motorbike driving towards the crossroads. No one else was on that road north. There were still groups and smatterings of people from the east and there were a few single figures recognizable on the road to the south. The road to the north was lifeless. Everyone knew that the Russians had managed to get their tanks across the Elbe north of Dresden. No one was trying to escape north.

It was from this direction that the man on the green, light motorbike rode towards us, with gleaming paint and bare parts shining, as if it had just been delivered. The man sat upright on the motorbike, mindless of the one-and-a-half hours till the ceasefire, as if there wasn’t any danger anymore, as if peace had arrived yesterday, or years before. It was only as he was fifty-odd yards from the crossroads that he seemed to notice our group. He braked suddenly, stopped, and because the width of the road didn’t seem to be enough to turn the bike around, or because the motor had cut out, he pushed his vehicle with clumsy steps to the other side of the road. In this moment, the sergeant noticed him.

“Hey, there’s our messenger!”

The captain turned around. “Hey!” he called, “You there! Stop! Stop right there!”

The man in the leather jacket had turned the bike around. As if he were deaf, he kicked the starter and the motor started eagerly; the man sat on the bike and drove away without looking back.

The captain ripped his pistol out of its halter, walked a few steps and fired, and fired again. “Damnation!” he swore, “Bittenberg, kill that man!”

The sergeant lifted the machinegun, aimed and squeezed the trigger. A burst of gunfire sprayed down the street. The man in the brown jacket ducked down low over the handlebars. The green flash of the rear mudguard disappeared quickly. The line of trees moved in closer together as if they wanted to protect the fleeing man. But just as the man had almost made it around the bend that would save him, the sergeant fired again and under the clatter of gunfire the target swayed like a figure in a shooting gallery, swayed, tipped to the side, skidded to a stop, stayed down, motionless.

“That’s the way, Bittenberg!” said the captain. “Go and have a look what’s up with the fellow – No, rubbish, now you have to get into position with the people. You there!”

“Yes, captain, sir!” I said, though I didn’t know then that the captain had just decided the course of my life.

He looked at me suspiciously, “Can you ride a motorbike?”

I nodded.

“Then go and get the vehicle, if it’s still usable. Or fix it up and hurry over to Lückel’s fighting group!”

I gave my rifle to the man next to me and I ran, ran, and I thought about how the war would be over in one and a half hours, and I hoped that the motorbike would still work. I ran and I prayed that the bike would work. Then I saw the man in the leather jacket move. He wasn’t dead. I saw how he stood up. He didn’t even seem to be wounded. He lifted up the motorbike.

“Stop!” I yelled, “Hey! Stop! Don’t move!” I wanted to get away, I wanted to live, the war was over, just 20 yards between me and the man pushing the motorbike, he had to take me with him. “Stop!” I yelled, “Wait a minute! Stop! Or I’ll shoot!” Then I reached him.

He trod down on the kick-starter. The motor gurgled, but it didn’t spring to life. “Please take me with you!” I said.

The man looked up, “First you want to kill me, and then you want a ride. But this bike only takes one person anyway, if it even works. Can’t help you!”

He fiddled with the spark plug.

“I wasn’t the one shooting. “ I said.

“That wont help you.” said the man, “This bike is too weak for two.”

He wiped the spark plug and carefully replaced it. The ceasefire was just an hour away. Just one more hour of war, and I wanted to live. “You’re under arrest!” I said.

He raised his head and looked at me with his brown gardener’s face, “Give it up, kid.”

“But I have to get a message to Lückel’s fighting group!” I said.

He laughed loudly, “Yeah, like they’re really going to be there, just waiting for you to turn up. It’d be better if you’d help me push.”

He put the bike in gear and began to run. The motor gurgled and spluttered without starting. I wanted to live.

“Please take me with you!” I pleaded.

The man didn’t pay any attention to me. He tried to push-start the bike again. Gunfire chopped up the road from the crossroads. It hit the branches just above us. The man quickly pushed the motorbike under the cover of the trees lining the road that began to follow the curve to the right, and in just a few yards he was in safety. One of the military police officers started running towards us from the crossroads. Suddenly the motor sprung into action, roaring. The man got on the seat. In an hour the war would be over and I wanted to live. As the man put the bike into gear and turned the throttle, I hung onto the pannier rack with my whole weight, letting myself get dragged along. “Let go!” screamed the man, and he tried to hit me off. But I didn’t let go, I held tightly onto the motorbike that lurched across the street. I let myself get dragged by the roaring motor, got a whack, the motor drowned, suddenly it was quiet.

The military police officer ran up to us, “You’ve got guts, kid!” he said. He waved the machine gun at the man, “Sorry. You’ve got to come with me.”

The man raised his hands, “But I don’t have time! And this bike belongs to me!”

“I’m sure you’re right,” said the officer, “But that won’t help you now. I’m just doing my duty.”

I was shaking. I was filthy from the dust on the road. My legs felt like they’d been crushed, my right hand was bleeding. But I held on to the motorbike and I was alive, and in an hour the war would be over. Petrol swished around in the tank. I trod down on the kick-starter and as the motor refused to obey me, I tried it over and over again. The motor had to start, I cursed it, I swore, I tried the kick-starter again and again, almost in an automatic motion, again and again, doggedly against reason. Suddenly it sparked, the motor roared, sputtered one more time, found a smooth rhythm, and with a light shriek, the machine pulled away. I was riding, and it was only an hour till the end of the war and the wind brushed my face, wind from home, like every wind now, I was riding home.

I stopped at the crossroads with the motor still running.

“What are you waiting for?” asked the captain. “Lückel’s fighting group should get marching over here right now. They should report to me. And you had better come back here, or I’ll string you up like a church bell. Go!”

I still saw how the man in the brown leather jacket was led to one side, behind the trees that lined the road. That’s all I saw. I rode down the road westwards, past villages, refugee trucks, and scattered people, and past the road maintenance depot where Lückel’s fighting group were waiting for their orders, and somewhere I saw on a clock tower that it was half past midday, and I thought about how no one had been shooting for half an hour already.

Later I got onto streets that were blocked with long convoys, swam for hours in a sticky and forever-halting stream of vehicles. But I got away through a small side road and I rode and rode, and the tank still wasn’t empty when I got stopped at a roadblock that evening. There wasn’t time to panic. I heard foreign voices, recognized foreign uniforms. I was caught.

That was the day that decided the course of my life. I didn’t know then that this decision would be about something other than whether I got to the West or not. Back then, I thought that running away could lead to freedom. I always think about whether the man in the leather jacket died because of me.

Perhaps I should also say that I was very young back then. I hadn’t learnt or practiced much more than how to kill. But that doesn’t change things and it won’t let me go.

***

Translator’s Notes

Kay Hoff’s beautiful imagery of spring, in contrast to the senselessness of war, were just some of the many aspects of this story that were a pleasure to translate. I was happy to find a less-typical tale from WWII Germany, from within the ranks of Nazi soldiers, where victims and perpetrators are no longer decipherable. The challenges in this text arose around Nazi army terms. While terms like “Wehrmacht” are known outside of Germany, the terms “Feldgendarmen” and “Volkssturm” are less known and are hardly comparable to regular army activities. Together with Richard Rottenburg, who initiated the translation of Hoff’s work, we decided upon using the most relevant, recognizable English terms with footnotes that would add information without distracting readers. I enjoyed Hoff’s very authentic dialogue, and tried to keep the same informality and character in English. German texts often have much longer sentences than in English, which are often divided in translation. However, Kay Hoff’s longer sentences convey so much emotional drive that I chose not to divide them.

Translator bio

Carrie Hampel is an Australian-born writer, researcher and translator living in Berlin since 1994. Rebelling from a family of academics, Hampel’s linguistic abilities are completely autodidactic and have been tested and refined through readings and productions throughout Berlin. Having worked as a translator for the last 12 years, numerous of Hampel’s translations have been published in art books, magazines and academic papers. Her articles are published in ExBerliner magazine and she is currently working on her first novel.

 

Footnotes

[1] The Volkssturm was a German Home Guard set up on Hitler’s orders in the last year of the war, under direct control of the Nazi Party and quite separate from the Wehrmacht. It was staffed by conscripted males between the ages of 16 and 60 who were not already serving in a military unit.

[2] The military police (called Feldgendarmen in the Wehrmacht) are known to have assisted the SS with war crimes in occupied areas. Towards the end of the war they were stationed just behind German frontlines to execute ordinary German soldiers deemed to be deserters.

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