I have a writer friend. I am quite fond of him. So I told him that he had to work some sort of change into his short stories. He frowned.
I drew him five graphs, showing him variations on the theory. I mentioned Goethe’s requirement: there has to be ein unerhörtes, unerwartetes Ereignis, an unusual unexpected event in the story. And this event changes the character in some way.
My friend shook his head slowly. He looked out the window. He said there were lots of ways of doing something. I fixed him in the eye–to let him know that, no, there was only this one way for a story to be successful. For example, I said, my Uncle George was twenty-four years old when he was captured by the American army.
My writer friend scoffed.
Since then, I said, his name has rarely been mentioned in my family. I said I was not sure whether it was because he was a member of the SS, or because he tried to make his post-war living as an artist. He had been studying at the 300-year old art institute Die Hochschule der Künste, in Berlin. The German government had lost his papers. They discovered him in 1943–not by following an impressive line of empty wine bottles or young women’s knee-length undergarments–but because he admired the Impressionists, who were considered decadent, subversive and French. And because he was trying to paint like them, had shown three landscapes in a local café, and had been caught by a school official painting graffiti on a city bus–Judenmord, Maßenmord, killing Jews is genocide.
There was a stink. The director of the Institute–a recent appointee–said my uncle could prove his loyalty and enlist, or he could receive a visit from the Geheimstaatspolizei, the Gestapo, who would probably take him to a windowless room with a drain in the middle of the stone floor and put a Lugar bullet in the back of his head. Confused, frightened, and hung over–and as someone who had always looked for the easy way out–my uncle went to enlist, thinking he could let himself be captured by the Americans, at the earliest opportunity.
At the time, Himmler was forming international SS fighting groups: Danes, Norwegians, Poles, Hungarians, Dutch, Rumanians, and Czechs. My Uncle George stood in the wrong line and found himself in an International SS Brigade attached to the German 19th. A year later, he was retreating through snow, eastward through Alsace, out of ammunition–wasted by his style of firing over the heads of anyone he saw in his sights–and still carrying the weapon, the feared German MG 42 machine gun. It weighed 11.6 kilos, or 25.5 pounds. He could not drop it because he would be shot for abandoning one of the most effective weapons in the German army.
Patton’s Third Army had swung north to stop the German breakthrough in the Ardennes Forest, the famous Battle of the Bulge. When that was contained, Patton swung south and joined the Seventh Army. Together they began chasing my Uncle George and the rest of the depleted and starving 19th Army through the Vosges Mountains. To get out of Patton’s way, he climbed alone over 4,671-foot Grand Ballon mountain, slept on the dining room floor, beneath the rich wood paneling, of the Grand Ballon Inn, under the eyes of two frightened but sympathetic French maids. They knew the tide was changing, and they knew the machine gun was out of ammunition. He may have been gaunt, but they also found him appealing. They invited him to lie between them on one of the guest room beds, under a thick down comforter. All night they listened to his deep breathing, draped their limbs over his dirty uniform, and resigned themselves to his exhaustion–chastely and dutifully pressing the warmth of their breasts against him as he slept.
In the morning, he walk down the inn road to Thann, and then turned east, out onto the Rhine plain toward Mühlhaus, leaning into an icy January wind. My uncle and other soldiers walked as fast as they could ahead of the whining, diesel-belching tanks of Patton’s armored columns. If he walked toward them, he risked being shot by an SS officer for desertion, or by Patton for armed resistance.
So he walked east.
He was starving. He had wrapped his feet in rags, because parts of his soles were missing. SS officers appeared in their field cars and ordered them to turn around and walk back toward Patton. They complied, until the officers raced off. Then they turned around walked east again.
They walked all day, and then all night. People left baskets of winter-stored carrots, stale bread, and flasks of water along the road. At night, so they themselves would not be accused of undermining the general defense.
The following morning started clear, then it began to snow. My Uncle George and sixty other men walked slowly now. Most of them had thrown their weapons to one side. Snow built up on their heads and shoulders. They walked like ghosts, one foot in front of the other, head down, never registering when the earth began to tremble, and Patton’s tanks came up behind them, and then passed them. They barely looked up. American soldiers rode huddled over the warmth of their tanks’ motors. Occasionally, they tossed down chocolate and cigarettes. Occasionally, they sneered and pointed with their M1s. Once, too close, there was a shot, like close-striking lightening, and a hunched dark figure, part snowman, went down.
A Sherman tank stopped. A soldier on top motioned to my Uncle George with his rifle. He pointed down at the tracks left by the tanks ahead. My uncle understood and lifted the 25.5 pound MG 42 from his shoulders and let it fall exactly perpendicular to the tracks. It fell a foot from him. That was all he was capable of. He had been the only one still carrying a weapon. No belts of ammunition hung around across his shoulders. Himmler had denied the International SS Brigade the Gothic SS’s on their uniform collars, because he was not sure of their loyalty. Those two things saved him. No ammunition. No SS markings. My uncle contemplated raising his hands. He considered saying something in English. But there had been stories of English-speaking German commandos wearing American uniforms and dog tags, talking their way through American lines. They had been executed summarily. The difference between their situation and his did not seem great enough. The man on the tank nodded several times, perhaps thankful that he had not had to kill a starving, frost-bitten ghost of a fellow soldier. My uncle nodded, even managed a small smile, glad that he had not been shot for either carrying or not carrying a weapon–for being or not being an American.
The tank crunched over his MG 43 machine gun. Now he was 25.5 pounds lighter, and things seemed better. Trucks stopped. Soldiers ordered my uncle’s sixty companions into the trucks. It took half an hour to get them in. The first step of the ladder was too high. They were too sick and stiff and hungry to climb up by themselves, and had to be hauled and pushed up.
They were taken to a barbed wire enclosure in a sugar beet field. They received C-rations, thin hot coffee, blankets, toilet paper and cigarettes. There was no shelter. They used the supplied shovels to deposit their shit and yellowed snow in one corner, then to spread new snow where they would squat again. They huddled together at the opposite end of the compound, taking turns being the windbreak for each other. The snow fell, covering their shoulders, built up on them, like lawn furniture left outside. Five men died of infections from wounds. Five more just died. Medics gave them shots. Their strength returned. They walked in a circle and did gentle exercises, to stay warm. The sun came out and eventually the snow thawed. They were loaded into trucks. They were told they would stay in houses now. During the day, they would clear land mines.
My Uncle George was in the last truck, near the back of it. He could not see himself clearing land mines. The American guard dozed, and my uncle, who preferred being shot to being blown up, rolled up onto the truck’s tail flap and let himself drop. He broke his shoulder, but got up and walked into the woods. Over the next month, he walked from farmhouse to farmhouse. A doctor bound his shoulder. This was a time when many farms had no men, and so it was often women who took him in. And it was women who heard his story, told with an American accent, how he had been studying Impressionist painting in Berlin and how he had been forced into the International SS Brigade.
The women fed him warm milk from their cows, cooked him eggs, helped him get in and out of his farmer’s clothes, and on a few occasions took him gently into their arms on chilly Spring nights. Eventually, he arrived at a farm deep in the Böhmischer Wald, a dark forest of beech and hidden meadows in the easternmost edge of Germany. It was a place missed by the advancing Soviet Army. He stayed with and helped a young woman whose mother had died and whose father had not returned from the Russian Front. Her name was Elizabeth. She was twenty-three years old when she died giving birth to his child.
For a year, my Uncle George hid from the Russians and the East German political police. Then, when Elizabeth’s father returned to the farm, a drunk and homicidal, my uncle took the one year old girl–whom he had also named Elizabeth, and walked for two weeks to the Austrian border and, in the American Sector of Vienna, to the door of the American Embassy, and–after some fact checking–to safety.
I stopped talking. My writing partner paused for a moment, then snorted. “Well, there wasn’t any real change that took place in your example,” he snorted. I disagreed. I thought my uncle had matured.
I nodded, wisely. Well, then you get my point.”
“Besides,” he said, “None of it was true.”
I fixed him in the eye to show the confidence I had in the veracity of my story. But I could see he wasn’t buying it.