QUATSCH

QUATSCH


quatsch/kvatʃ/ (also quatch)
Etymology
From the verb quatschen.
Noun
Nonsense, rubbish, babble.
Quatsch m (genitive Quatschs or Quatsches, no plural)

  • 0. (colloquial) verbal nonsense Synonyms: Stuss, Unsinn
    Was für Quatsch ist das? What kind of nonsense is that?

  • Origin
    Early 20th century; earliest use found in Mary Annette von Arnim (1866–1941), novelist. From German Quatsch from quatschen to talk nonsense, to babble, apparently specifically use of quatschen to hit mud or something moist and soft (e.g. of a foot stepping into mud), to emit the corresponding sound.




    New Years Eve, December 1959

    Zum Letzten Zapfenstreich, Nuremberg, Germany


    Robert trudged along the dimly lit street. The darkness was in his mood. Wall mounted lamps and colorful Christmas decorations cast glistening pools of light over damp, tightly fitted cobble stones. A biting winter chill had fallen over the city. Nuremberg still nurtured a lingering gloom from the ugliness of a war not quite fifteen years in the past, of the city’s utter destruction and the bitter path to reconstruction and the restoration of its historic inner city, die Altstadt. Behind him he could hear the music and laughter of partying in the restaurants and bars of the old city, spilling tipsy celebrators out into the chilly streets.

    His gloom had nothing to do with the city’s recent past, nor even with the intensifying Cold War that cast its own brand of gloom across the still militarized landscape of Western Europe. Two days ago he was a freshly minted sergeant in a U.S. armored infantry battalion. Now he was busted back to corporal, even before he could draw his first pay as a sergeant. Then he had an argument with Erika when she scolded him for allowing himself to be drawn into the fight on that damned train the previous weekend that had cost him his stripes. Now instead of partying and dancing with Erika on New Year’s Eve, he was headed to a bar where he knew he could sulk and drink in solitude.

    He spotted his destination. A brass-colored scrollwork sign protruded over a shadowed stairwell that cast a faint glow onto the damp cobbles. It identified the establishment as Der Letzten Zapfenstreich. A dented and tarnished bugle hung beneath the scrollwork sign. An old soldiers’ bar, the name meant, The Last Tattoo. He held tight to the wrought-iron handrail, the footing uncertain, as he walked carefully down the deeply worn stone stairway into the bier keller. A vagrant thought struck him, how many weary warriors had stumbled up those steps into the streets of Nuremberg after a night of drinking with their comrades.

    The bartender, a woman in her late fifties, claimed the stone arched cellar had been serving bier and schnapps to soldiers since 1743. After 1945 all had changed; soldiers were no more heroes and the bar had descended into a quiet anonymity. The bar’s ambience obviously didn’t lend itself to the frenetic celebration of the New Year. At his first glance the bar appeared to be empty of anyone but the woman who seemed as permanent a fixture behind the bar as the porcelain taps of the bier kegs. The regulars were either celebrating elsewhere or had chosen to remain home.

    Robert learned of the beer cellar when Erika, his German girlfriend, took him there after he confessed his dream that someday, when he completed his military service and entered the university, he would become a writer. He began collecting personal anecdotes from the ex-Wehrmacht soldiers that frequented the bar. His parents had immigrated to the United States following the First World War and he had learned German from them. In fact he owed his promotion to sergeant that his commanding officer discovered his fluency in the language and assigned Robert to be his driver and interpreter.
    The bartender glowered sullenly at him. Even the regulars she acknowledged begrudgingly, seldom exchanging words with anyone beyond those necessary to discharge her tasks. Robert often constructed images in his mind about her past, perhaps an embittered war widow. Her generation of Germans certainly harbored a surplus of them, or perhaps she was in hiding, another Ilse Koch known as the Beast of Buchenwald for her terrible cruelty to prisoners. His mind drifted, I wonder, he thought, if she is aware of how she has type-cast herself?

    Robert dismissed those thoughts and ordered a Steinhaeger schnapps, and from the tap a Löwenbräu chaser. After his reverie, he deliberately offered her a smile, but she ignored it, brought his drinks to the table, snatched up his ten mark note and without comment returned to her station behind the bar. To hell with ‘er. He swallowed the Steinhaeger in a single gulp and slammed it down, a signal to bring a second. He was ready to start, his anger welling up again at the unfairness of his commander and Erika.

    The woman ignored Robert and carried another beer to a man in a dark corner whose presence Robert hadn’t noticed when he entered. The man was seated under the only sign of military memorabilia in the place, a photographic portrait of Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox. Robert recognized the man from his many visits with Erika. He almost always occupied that corner when they arrived. That corner was near the warmth of a large porcelain oven. He always sat alone and when others were present they respected his solitude. He had a craggy, emaciated face. He hunched over his beer, his shoulders rounded under a brown loden coat. A soft field-grey cap lay on the table at his elbow.

    As Robert began to speculate about the man, the bartender brought his second Steinhaeger and smacked it down in front of him. While Robert fumbled to withdraw another bill from his pocket, the man from the corner passed them walking with an awkward limp to the WC. When the man returned, Robert lifted his glass in salutation, prompting the man to halt in front of him, “You are American . . . and you speak our language.”

    “Yes, Robert responded in German, “My mother and father were born not far from here, in Herzogenaurach. They came to America after the Kaiser’s War.”

    “Ach, you were too young for my war, but you are here now. You are a soldier, nichtwahr?”

    The man stooped and placed a hand on Robert’s table for support. He was not drunk, but nevertheless unsteady on his feet. “Did your parents ever return to visit Herzogenaurach: their birthplace, family left behind?”

    “Before the war my father worked to support us. He wanted my older brother and later me to have university educations. He had no money for travel. But my older brother returned. He was born here.” Robert answered impulsively, “He died in a B-17 over Cologne.”

    The man placed a second hand, a fist, onto the table to further support himself, “Ach, then they must hate us . . . you must hate us.”

    Regretting the impulse that had led to his response, Robert shook his head thoughtfully, “No, I don’t, but my mother and father did, at least they did Hitler. They are gone now.” He paused again to give thought before he continued, “I don’t hate you. I hate the terrible things that many of you did, but to hate Germans just because they are Germans makes no sense. I didn’t hate my father.”

    He attempted to see into this old man’s eyes, but they were veiled in shadow. The man waited silently, knowing Robert had more to say, “I am a soldier, not by choice, but by obligation. I know because I have read . . . even my father served in the Kaiser’s army . . . most of us, even your Wehrmacht, were obliged to serve just as I am. I have not been ordered to commit acts that I believe are immoral, but if I were, what could I do?”

    “Komm,” the old man pulled himself erect with effort, “sit with me. We will talk.”

    Robert rose and reached to assist his companion across the room. The man waved him off. “I must do this myself.”

    Interest awakened, when the woman brought his beer and untouched schnapps to the corner table, Robert waved off the Steinhaeger and asked for another beer for him and the old man, “Do you have hot food?”

    She answered with a grunt that he took for yes. He raised his eyebrows and she responded, “Hot sausage, sauerkraut and potatoes, with a cold salad.”

    He looked at his companion. The man nodded, “Ja, breaking bread with old enemies is good.”

    When the woman departed to prepare their food, Robert glanced at the portrait of Rommel on the wall behind them. “Did you serve with Rommel?”

    “No, with Paulus . . . Stalingrad.”

    Robert knew about the siege of Stalingrad that climaxed in the winter of 1942-3. It was the turning point of the European War, a bloodbath. He had read that the battle deaths at Stalingrad exceeded three-times the total battle deaths of US soldiers during the entire war in Europe and the Pacific. He could think of nothing to say.

    The old man changed the subject. “Why are you here? What about that young woman who usually comes with you?”

    Mildly surprised that the man had so closely observed them Robert sparred unwilling to admit why they weren’t together, “I couldn’t bring her back. It’s not a proper place for her.”

    The old man chuckled, “A lovers’ quarrel? Bad timing. She is beautiful and I could see she was in love with you.” The old man snorted with humor, “Are you a fool?”

    “It wasn’t like that.”

    Robert’s companion placed a steady gaze on him, waiting for more.

    Robert shifted uncomfortably and riposted, “Why are you always here alone?’

    The man sighed in resignation, “I wanted to talk about good things, happy things. A new year begins; a spring comes, and with it comes new life . . . and hope.” He sighed again, “I will tell you, but it is a long terrible story, so when I ask, you must agree to tell me more about yourself and this young woman.”

    Robert nodded his agreement, There’s a story here, he thought.

    The old man began, “Three years ago I returned from Russia, a long trial of agony and loneliness after Stalingrad . . . actually even longer. I had last seen my wife, my Ursula, and our daughter Rikki on October 13, 1941.”

    “You have found them since your return?” Robert didn’t wait for an answer. “You became a prisoner at Stalingrad,” the questions in his tone. Then, embarrassed by his impulsive response, he asked, noting how the man hobbled, “Were you injured there?”

    “No, not at Stalingrad. Most of the wounded died there, or shortly after the surrender. I was strong. I could work in the pressed labor gangs. I lost my toes later . . . when I no longer had boots.”

    “What happened after the war? They didn’t repatriate you when it ended?”

    “Enough of war, tell me about your young woman and then I will tell you about my Ursula and our daughter. What is your schatze’s name?”

    “She’s not my schatze, at least not any more. Besides I don’t like the word . . . schatze. That makes her sound like a soldier’s woman, a camp follower. Erika is not like that. She is educated and a lady.”

    The man smiled and nodded knowingly, “Yes that I could see.”

    Robert suddenly thrust his hand forward, “By the way, my name is Robert.”

    The man looked at Robert’s hand hesitantly then, brought up his hand. It lacked three fingers, “I am Karl.”

    “I met Erika at the German-American Club on our base. She said she came to the club to practice her English. I told her I came to practice my German,” Robert smiled remembering, “so we agreed that we would meet at the park the next weekend. For one hour I would speak English and she would speak German so we could attune our ears to the other’s speech, then we would switch and correct each other’s mistakes. We only expected to spend a few hours together in the park, but we spent the whole afternoon and then I took her to dinner and we talked and talked. It was late when I put her on the bus that would take her home. We agreed to meet at the park the next day, a Sunday.”

    “Ach,” the old man said, “love-at-first sight.”

    “Well, it wasn’t quite like that. I can’t afford to fall in love.” Robert paused, “Well, maybe it is kind of. We spent a lot of time together, and I looked forward to spending all my free time with her.” He thought for a moment and a glow came to his eyes, “She must have felt the same. A soldier’s time is never his own and I couldn’t always say when I would be free, but I would call when I could get away and never once did she not come to meet me.” Robert’s face clouded. “Yeah, maybe it was love, but that’s over now . . . after that damn Nazi tried to throttle me.” He shook his head, “It’s all for the best, anyway.”

    “For the best?” The old soldier asked, craggy eyebrows raised. “What do you know about what is best . . . about what is important?” He paused and drank from his beer. “I kept myself alive, hoping that someday I would find my Ursula and my Rikki. Fifteen years I didn’t see them, but they kept me alive. That is love. There is nothing in this life more important than love! All else is Quatsch!”

    The woman brought their food and fresh beer. The break allowed Robert to veer the conversation away from the uncomfortable subject of his relationship with Erika, especially since the conversation with the old soldier had led him to admit to himself that, he not Erika was responsible for the breakup. She told him his actions on the train were childish and that had angered him.

    Robert looked at the old soldier, “Karl, you took me off track. I want to know about your experiences in Russia.”

    Karl frowned, “No, we were talking of love. I will tell you about Ursula and my daughter Rikki. It is important that you understand about love. Then you will tell me about this Nazi with whom you fought.”

    Karl began, “My wife’s father had a farm in Saxony, near the village of Unterfalkendorf, about a hundred kilometers from Dresden. Soon after I was sent to the Eastern Front, her mother died and she returned to stay with her father and assist him on the farm. She remained there when the bombing of our cities began. The farm was a safe place for her and Rikki. After Stalingrad fell she received a letter from me that must have gotten out with one of the last flights to escape. That was the last she knew of me until I returned in 1956, but she kept hope alive because it was common knowledge that German POWs were being exploited by the Soviets as slave labor.” Karl’s gaze settled on Robert’s eyes, “Thirteen years of thin hope kept alive by my last letter in 1943 to the day when I came back from the dead. That, my young Ami, is love.”

    Robert sensed there was much more, “And?”

    A strange light came into Karl’s eyes, sadness, but something Robert couldn’t fathom. Karl continued, “The Russians came to Unterfalkendorf. That was in 1945. The soldiers came to the farm. They killed the old man in his doorway. Ursula took Rikki and ran out the back. A soldier waited there and he shot my wife, in the leg mind you. They dragged them back into the house and one after the other they raped my Ursula as she lay on the floor bleeding. When they lost interest in Ursula-they must have thought she had died from loss of blood-they started on my Rikki.”

    Anguish showed in Karl’s eyes. “She was nine years old, an innocent child. They used her and left her there, with her mother presumed dead. Ursula did not die. Rikki, my nine-year-old daughter, saved her mother’s life. She stopped the bleeding, bandaged the wound. Farm people know of these matters, because they attend to their own needs. The doctors are in the cities. The damage to Ursula’s leg was serious. She eventually lost it. Rikki decided to take her mother to Dresden.

    “The soldiers stripped the house of most of the food and took the horse, but they left an old ox. Rikki hitched the ox to the hay cart, placed her mother in it and joined the long line of refugees clogging the roads to Dresden. It took many days and soon the little food Rikki had scavenged from the remains in the house was eaten or stolen.”

    Karl focused his attention on Robert and held his eyes for a long moment, then continued, “Rikki, to provide for her mother who was semi-conscious, raving, began to sell her nine-year-old body to soldiers, refugees, whoever could provide food for her mother and herself. Ursula lost her leg, but she survived because of her daughter’s love. Do you, Robert, know a love like that?”

    The old soldier continued to stare at Robert. He slammed his maimed hand on the table, startling Robert. He repeated, “Love is everything. All else is Quatsch!”

    Karl raised his hand, signaling the woman for more beer. He looked at Robert, “You want Steinhaeger?”

    Robert silently signaled his rejection.

    Gut, tell me about the Nazi on the train.”

    Robert shook his head. His problem was so trivial after hearing the story about Rikki and Ursula. Robert wanted to know more. “What happened to Rikki and Ursula? Did they survive the firebombing of Dresden?”

    “They are here,” Karl said brusquely. “The Nazi . . . tell me,” he ordered.

    “There’s not much to tell,” Robert replied. “I was in the last car of the train from Erlangen to Nuremberg. I walked outside to stand on the narrow platform at the back. There was this fat guy, well not really fat, but stout. I greeted him in German, commenting about the pleasant evening. He asked me if I was an Ami, and I said yes and that I was stationed in Nuremberg. He puffed out his chest and declared that he had served in the Hitler Jugend. Then he said that we Amis were at fault for the Cold War . . . the occupation by the Soviets of half of Germany.”

    Robert frowned, Erika was right. I could have avoided the problem with this guy. All I had to do was keep my mouth shut. “I looked at him like he was crazy and I told him so. The man, the Nazi, then told me that after Hitler’s death, he said tragic death, Admiral Raeder, who took over after Hitler died, sent a message to General Eisenhower, proposing that Germany and the Western Allies should arrange an armistice and jointly drive the Soviets out of Germany. But Eisenhower rejected the offer. I laughed in his face. No it was more than just a laugh. It was provocative. I’ve read history, so I know that the offer was made and rejected, but I could have laughed and walked away or just walked back into the car without saying anything. What the man believed was of no importance to me. But I didn’t. Damn it, the son-of-a-bitch pissed me off!”

    Robert leaned back in his chair and shook his head in self-disgust. “I told him that there wouldn’t have been a Soviet Union or a Stalin, if the German General Staff in the Kaiser’s War hadn’t transported Lenin from Switzerland to the Eastern Front and sent him to Russia with the arrangement that when the Bolsheviks took over the revolution, a peace treaty would be signed between Russia and Germany. Hindenburg and Ludendorff shifted their resources to the Western Front but their strategy went sour because by that time fresh American troops began landing in France and ended the war.”

    Robert glanced apologetically at Karl who simply waved it off and commented, “You are right, of course.”

    “Well, the guy jumped me and grabbed me by the throat. He tried to push me from the moving train over the railing onto the tracks.” Robert shrugged, “He wasn’t very strong. He was out-of-shape and I’m a soldier, ten years younger and in-good-condition. Still he was furious and I was only contemptuous, so it took a bit to get him on the floor and break away from him.” Robert shook his head and looked wryly at Karl. “I gotta admit, when he was down, I could have left it at that, but by then I had a head of steam up. I stepped in his face and ground it into the filthy floor. Then I walked back into the car.”

    “Is that what made your sweetheart angry with you?” Karl asked.

    “No, I didn’t tell her about that. Afterward I was ashamed. I don’t really think I’m that kind of person, but I guess a kind of wild fury took hold of me.” Robert looked somberly at Karl. I want this man’s good opinion, he thought. “No,” he said, “that’s not the kind of man I want to be.”

    Karl nodded at him with a slow smile of approval.

    “In any case that cost me my sergeant’s stripe. When I first introduced myself to the Nazi, I had told him where I’m stationed. He must have some influence, because the next Monday he was in my captain’s office making a formal complaint. He looked pretty beat up; his face all scratched from being rubbed into the dirt of the floor and he had a black eye. I don’t remember hitting him, but I’ll take credit for it.

    “Because I’m the captain’s interpreter I was present and there was no problem identifying me. While the Nazi bastard was there,” Roberts’ face reddened at his crude outburst, “the captain didn’t give me an opportunity to tell my side of the story. Afterward, when he asked for my side, the captain frowned and told me that according to my defense, I certainly had enough provocation, but it had been in my power to avoid the confrontation. He lectured me that the United States Army is no longer an occupying force. We are in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and the new Federal Republic of Germany is our ally. Community relations are of paramount importance.”

    Robert looked apologetically at Karl. “I admitted that I had acted without thinking. The captain took away my new sergeant’s stripe, but then told me that there would be nothing in my official record in case I wanted to apply for Officer Candidate School. I guess he wants me to do that. He said he liked my spirit and that he thought I should apply for OCS. He’d recommend approval. He told me it pissed him off to punish a good soldier for fighting a Nazi, when he had been promoted for fighting them all the way from Normandy to the end of the war. He promised me I’d get my stripe back as soon the fuss blows over.” Robert shook his head, and then smiled ruefully, “I guess I got off easily.” But I lost Erika in the process. Maybe not so easily.

    Karl commented, “So you learned a valuable lesson and maybe,” he smiled approvingly, “you now have an opportunity to become an officer in your army.”

    “I had never thought about OCS. I want to go back to the US and get a college degree. I want to become a writer.”

    “Did you tell your captain that?”

    “Yes, I did. He told me that if I obtained a commission, the army might send me to college and pay for it. He said we need officers with advanced education. I’d never thought about an army career. It might not be so bad,” Robert mused aloud.”

    “So,” Karl asked, “what did you say about going to officers’ school?”

    “I asked him if a married enlisted man could still get into OCS.”

    “The captain said, ‘no problem’ and then asked me if I was planning to get married. I said ‘no, but what if I married a German girl?’”

    “He said that she would have to pass a security investigation, and then he asked me if that would be a problem. I thought of Erika and told him I didn’t think she would be a threat to national security.”

    Karl’s craggy face held a small hint of satisfaction. “Then you want to marry this young woman you bring here?”

    “OCS would solve the problem I’m faced with.” Robert rubbed his face with both hands and reached for his beer, “I can’t have a wife, transport her back to the States, set up a household and pay for the university. It’s too expensive. I would have to work, study, and support a family. Sure, I’ve thought about marrying Erika, but I can’t do that and go to college. I want to be a writer. That’s special. There are only a few places that teach that curriculum. If they’re good, they’re expensive. Besides, it’s moot. I’ve lost Erika.”

    Quatsch,” Karl snapped, “If she loves you, you’ve lost nothing. She won’t allow that to happen.”

    Their conversation had been very civil up to that point. Karl’s abruptness startled Robert but before he could react, Karl continued, “And if you love her, you will not let it happen. All else is Quatsch.”

    The old soldier’s conversation somehow always seemed to lead back to Erika. Talking with him about his problems with Erika was embarrassing. It was private. The old man kept prying. It occurred to him that Karl wasn’t an old man in the sequential sense. He was probably no more than in his forties. Life had aged him. Perhaps he was using Robert’s dilemma to fill in the empty years, build an imaginary life and love for his unfortunate daughter, Rikki.

    “Tell me about the Gulag. It’s your turn.”

    Karl pointedly examined his watch. “I will tell you some, but shortly I have to go. I will come back in a half-hour and tell more. Please wait, I have something very important to show you.”

    Robert nodded, curiosity piqued. Besides, Karl’s story had whetted his appetite. A writer needs subject matter and Karl’s story had the makings of something special. He told Karl so.

    “You cannot become a successful writer immediately.” Karl examined Robert with an almost fatherly eye. “A writer has to have something to write about. Telling a story is never enough if the writer hasn’t experienced life. The result will be thin, shallow. It will be Quatsch.”

    Robert bridled and almost delivered an angry retort, but stopped himself. Karl was right.

    “Tell me about the Gulag.”

    “There must have been a hundred thousand of us remaining when we surrendered at Stalingrad. According to the reports issued by Chancellor Adenauer’s office, less than six thousand of us have been repatriated. So, I ask myself, what happened to the rest of us?”

    The old soldier began unemotionally, “When we surrendered in Stalingrad some small units were gunned down where they stood. The wounded were left to die. I was surrendered in an intact kampfgruppe, a composite unit made up of the remains of decimated units. We were marched out of Stalingrad to a railhead. I can’t remember how many days it took, nor can I guess how far we walked. The temperatures were far below zero and we were given no food. Many dropped out of the column and were shot and left where they fell.”

    Karl paused to organize his thoughts. “There might have been three thousand in the kampfgruppe when we started. Perhaps two thousand remained when we reached the railhead. I can’t say for sure, but we saw so many die. They loaded us into boxcars. I was among the last of the kampfgruppe to be loaded. It required two days to move us out. Those who remained behind the first day received a few ounces of bread and a thin soup of cabbage leaves.”

    “More prisoners followed us to the railhead for shipment. Many died. They made us pile the bodies of the dead away from the loading pier. The frozen ground was too hard for burial.” Karl looked up, a bleak coldness in his eyes that chilled Robert even in the warmth of the porcelain oven beside them, “When I saw all those dead being left for the wolves, and the wolves came every night, you know. . .” Karl shook off his digression, “It made me think of Ursula and Rikki. I feared I would die there and they would never know. They would be left in a devastated Germany to fend for themselves.” He looked away, now a hint of quaver in his voice.

    “Already at Stalingrad we knew the war was lost. We on the front lines read the propaganda, the tales of great victories against the Bolshevik hordes, the lies Goebbels was telling the people. We knew the truth and could guess the reality in Germany, too.”

    Karl returned his gaze to Robert’s, “I swore to Ursula when I left, that I would return to her. I decided right there at that railhead, that I would survive.” Karl’s eyes narrowed showing a hard determination he must have felt at that moment he had made that decision. “I would return to Ursula and Rikki, no matter what I had to do.

    “The trains took us eastward. Along the way some of the cars from our train were detached and sent elsewhere. I and my companions, I think there were two carloads of us that arrived at Kolyma in Siberia. Don’t ask me where it is. Even today, I can’t find it on a map. There was a coal mine. There I worked as a slave for thirteen years. They also brought in political prisoners and after the war some Italian and Romanian POWs. They even sentenced repatriated Russian soldiers who had been POWs in Germany to that endless slavery. They didn’t want to return to Russia, but American and British soldiers had forced them into boxcars and sent them back.

    “They assigned each of us a production quota and if we made the quota they fed us. It wasn’t much, mostly just black bread and thin soup. But if we were successful, they increased the quota. It was deadly cold. There I lost all of the toes on my feet. There were no doctors. When they turned black, I just pulled them off and threw them away.”

    Karl took a long swallow from his beer, emptying the tall glass and waved for another. He looked away from Robert, unwilling to meet his eyes, “I did terrible things to survive . . . stealing food . . .” he paused and returned his gaze to Robert. “I kept my strength by stealing and hoarding food and other worse methods . . . even murder. Anything to survive,” the cold determination Robert observed moments before returned.

    “I ingratiated myself to the guards and later the camp commander, and I was made foreman of a labor crew. I received more food, warmer clothes. We heard rumors that the Western Powers had negotiated the release of German POWs. The camp bosses began by culling out the weak or unproductive to send back. I was productive.”

    Karl held up his mutilated hand. “These fingers I lost a few weeks before I was repatriated. I was sure they would not release me. I went into the mine, took a heavy sledge hammer and crushed my own hand. I had to smash it three times before it was done properly. When I reported the accident, I would be sent home or I would die. It was time. I believe the camp commander knew what I had done, but he signed the papers and sent me home.

    “They sent me west by train across Russia. I saw empty wasteland and then gray, filthy villages, a joyless landscape. It occurred to me that maybe Ursula and Rikki had died in the war. The thought tortured me through the weeks it took me to reach Germany. It was December of 1956. When I saw Germany and how it had changed I was shocked. Things were better than when I left for the war. Many damaged buildings remain, but only those being carefully restored. I saw book shops, bakeries, restaurants; well-dressed people crowded the streets, Christmas decorations, children smiling! Germany had passed me by . . . no not quite. I had passed through the Soviet Zone in order to arrive in West Berlin. The West was a success! The East German Zone resembled the Soviet Peoples’ Paradise I saw from the train. There the children didn’t know how to smile.

    “In Berlin I was processed by Americans, interrogated to make certain that I was not a Soviet spy. They had a center where refugees could register and inquire for lost loved ones. Ursula and Rikki were listed there, looking for me. But no further contact had been made after 1947. Their last address was Nuremberg. I took the train through the access corridor to Hanover from Berlin. I talked to a prosperous businessman and told him I was going to look for my wife, that I hadn’t seen her and my daughter since 1941. He looked at me strangely and then asked, ‘Is that wise? Are you sure she hasn’t remarried?’ “

    Karl’s eyes were now riveted on Robert’s, watching for what? My reaction to all this, Robert thought. His time in Hell didn’t end with the Gulag. He faced a new Hell. What if all that had sustained him through those terrible years was no longer his?

    As if reading Robert’s mind, Karl said flatly, “I found them. They waited for me.” He looked at his watch and struggled to his feet. “It is time. I will not be long.” He looked fiercely at Robert. “Wait for me. It is important.” He disappeared up the worn stone steps to the street.

    Robert looked around him. No one had entered during his conversation with Karl. The stoic woman bartender stared at him without expression. He ordered another beer and settled back. She brought his drink and collected payment wordlessly, but without the surliness exhibited before he and Karl had begun their conversation.

    Robert reflected on the terrible odyssey of Karl and then on that of his daughter Rikki, a nine-year-old child selling herself to provide sustenance for her mother! The child was a heroine, all else was Quatsch.

    His mind drifted to Erika and their drive to Vienna. He had informed her that he would be away for two weeks. “Why,” she had asked, and he explained that the army gave him thirty days leave each year and anything accumulated over sixty days would be forfeited. He had decided he wanted to see Vienna.

    Erika insisted, “I have never been to Vienna. I want to come with you.”

    He had never imagined Erika would travel alone with him on an overnight trip, much less two weeks. It would have been unthinkable for a nice girl in the United States. He agreed without reflection. He didn’t ask the questions he should have. What would her parents think? He knew nothing of them and she had never volunteered information. Fearful of the consequences to his growing attachment, Robert never inquired. She also seemed content with the arrangement.

    He always waited eagerly for every outing with her, but he knew nothing about her except that she was a student at the university in nearby Erlangen. Should I ask her about her family? Maybe she’s afraid, too. American soldiers have a bad reputation. They might not approve.

    They left for Vienna in March. Their first stop was Salzburg, a beautiful city sprawling on both sides of the Danube. Robert found a pleasant pension with two rooms available. The weather was clear, but chilly. They strolled in a park lined with busts of famous German and Austrian composers. They selected a restaurant for their dinner. It boasted a small chamber orchestra playing Strauss waltzes. Robert was nervous, grateful that he didn’t have to conduct a conversation. He’d had one previous sexual experience and it wasn’t what he wanted this to be. He expected that Erika wanted to advance their relationship to a new level, but he didn’t know what was expected of him.

    Oh God, she was beautiful that day: her cheeks rosy from the chilly air, her eyes bright from the music, the food, the romantic setting. The winter sun set early and they walked hand-in-hand through the dimly lit streets. Strauss seemed to dominate every corner locale, violins pulling at heart strings.

    Eventually, the moment came and they returned to their pension and parted at the doors to their adjacent apartments. He entered his, showered and shaved, brushed his teeth and lay down in his bed. How should he act? What should he do? It was up to the man to make the first move! He rose, donned the robe provided by the pension and crossed to her door. He knocked and she responded, “Robert?” He walked in and saw her tucked into her bed. He bent over her, kissed her until she put her arms around his neck. He lifted her out of the bed, the covers falling away. With her in his arms, he walked out of her door and started for his own apartment. She looked innocently into his eyes, “What are you doing?”

    He deflated like a leaky balloon. He assumed he had made a terrible mistake and he swiveled in his doorway and returned her to her own room and placed her on her bed, then reached out and covered her. He said nothing, but bent down and kissed her softly and departed.

    His memories of sex were restricted to a single experience in Tijuana, Mexico, just before he had shipped out to Germany. He and friends had crossed the border and cruised the cantinas drinking beer and then tequila. His buddies disappeared on their own adventures and he found himself alone with a bar girl. She coaxed and wheedled and finally he got up the courage to ask, “How much?” She named her price and guided him to a crib in the back of the cantina that was made private by a blanket hanging on a rod. She examined him for disease, lifted her skirt, lay down and spread. He mounted her for his first experience. It was a let-down. She munched on an apple while he humped and thrust at her. He had since wondered about the apple business. No doubt, it was a gesture. But was it contempt for him or what he represented? Most certainly that, but perhaps it was more . . . a gesture of defiance at whatever form of slavery she had been forced into.

    And what of Rikki, Karl’s daughter on the road to Dresden? How had it been for her? A sense of shame assaulted him for what he had done in Tijuana. Was Rikki subjected to such feckless youths? Not likely, more probably sweating peasants, rutting soldiers in stinking uniforms worn during months of combat. How had a nine-year-old child been able to survive that? Had it destroyed her? Had it made her strong? Had it driven her to the streets and the local bars catering to American soldiers? Maybe someday, Karl would let him meet his daughter and her mother. Rikki had become a prisoner to a need that none of Robert’s friends or family had experienced or imagined. He pushed the thought from his mind.

    He and Erika arrived in Vienna. He had thoughtlessly made no reservations for a place to stay. Erika got on a pay-phone and soon found them a pension on the Ring, a half circle boulevard that surrounded the old city, backed on one side by the Danube.

    After his experience with Erika in Salzburg, Robert was surprised that she had reserved a single room with two beds. They arrived in early afternoon so she again got on the telephone in the room and arranged for tickets to Aida at the Vienna State Opera that evening.

    The opera house was overwhelmingly magnificent to a youth from rural America: gilded columns, rich tapestries, massive crystal chandeliers and Viennese gentry strolling in finery, ball gowns and tuxedos and some wearing diplomatic sashes as they sipped champagne during the intermission. There was a place for the common folk, too. Opera was a popular form of entertainment, even to the working classes. The sets and music of Aida were splendorous.

    Afterward they drove to a village outside of the city, Grinzing. It was famous for its heurigen, new harvest wine. They ate a late dinner in a typical weinstube and were serenaded by a trio of Hungarian violinists. The food was excellent, the wine delightful. They tarried long, giving no thought but to the other person across the table. They returned to the Ring road and found a place to park near their pension. Once parked, Robert turned and wrapped Erika in his arms and kissed her, long and deeply. He leaned back looking into her eyes. She glowed with happiness. They heard a tap on the window of the car. Robert rolled it down and a gentleman, obviously of some status, wearing a homburg, a beige scarf and black wool overcoat, peered in at them and said in pure Viennese dialect, “The second kiss will be even better,” and then with a wide satisfied smile continued on his way down the street, swinging his umbrella.

    They went to their room, shyly disrobed, backs turned and after evening ablutions, darkened the room and went to their separate beds. Then, she came to him. She rolled into his arms, her own arms around his neck, her breath fresh on his face. This is love, he thought. The shock of the responsibility of what he was doing made him afraid. I love her. Can I do this to her and then leave her?

    Nature owns powerful weapons and Robert rose to Erika and then . . . she stopped him.

    He caressed her cheek. It was wet with tears. “What is it?”

    “Just hold me. I’m afraid,” she whispered.

    “Of what?” He queried.

    “Of losing something I treasure more than life,” she responded.

    That night they slept in each other’s arms. She settled there as if she had been born to fit. Robert didn’t understand what had occurred between them, but he decided that when the right moment came she would explain. In the meantime, he would hold her close and shelter her from whatever demons threatened her.

    And she had given him respite to reexamine his own motives and feelings.

    Karl’s return interrupted his reveries. Robert gestured to order them each another beer and Karl waved the woman off. He stated abruptly, “The keller has been empty all night, but for us. I think we should allow her to go home. I would like you to come with me. I can finish my story of the Gulag at another time.”

    Mystified, Robert followed Karl up the worn steps to the street. The old soldier stepped out onto the walk, moving away from the door. Robert’s eyes fell upon a small woman with beautiful, delicate features. She was seated in a wheel chair and then he noted that she had only one leg.

    “Ursula,” Karl placed a hand on Robert’s arm,” this is my new friend, Robert.” She gave Robert a gentle smile and offered him her hand. He took it and returned her smile. What a vision to sustain one’s determination while undergoing a Russian Hell, he thought. He bowed over her hand German fashion, and spoke softly “Gnadige Frau.” He looked back up at Karl.

    Karl gestured, “And this is my daughter, Rikki.”

    Robert turned and his mouth dropped, “Erika?” He stared at her.

    “Yes, Erika. We have always called her Rikki since she was an infant.”

    Robert didn’t hear Karl’s last words, he saw only Erika. Her eyes were wide, like those of a terrified fawn. His mind whirled. Now he knew the treasure she feared losing. And he thought, She didn’t want to trap me with a sense of obligation to her.

    The two were there alone, caught up with their own private drama in that darkened street in the first minutes of the New Year. She spoke, “Papa told you all about me?”

    “Yes.”

    “Can you ever love me?” Tears rolled down her cheeks, her eyes flooded by fear of his answer.

    “It’s too late for that,” Robert whispered, “I already love you. That will never change. What your father has told me. . . .” He hesitated for an instant . . . and it came to him what he wanted to say, “Rikki, if you will have me, I will take you with me always and make you safe from the terrible things that happened to you and your mother.”

    Her eyes glowed with hope and more. She took a step toward him. In a stride he pulled her into his arms.

    “Don’t call me Rikki,” she whispered. “It stands for such terrible things . . . those terrible things I did . . . what happened to me.”

    “No Rikki, to me your name means courage and self-sacrifice.”

    “But,”

    “Rikki is the name of my love. Everything else is Quatsch.”


    Copyright © 2018 by Robert Bruce Drynan
    All rights reserved. This short story or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.



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