The story was originally called School Lane. A 5,000 word version was entered for some festivals and got nowhere, for several reasons. But it became the basis for something else, something better. It made someone cry at my kitchen table once. It made someone else silent for the rest of an afternoon. It was a true story.
The First Part
It was night time in a field a long time ago. Men in uniform are digging. It looks like it’s hard work. There’s a lot to dig. The hole looks like a grave but as the camera pulls back we can see it’s too big to be a normal grave, at the side of a hill.
Maybe it’s a mass grave. We always think that now, because slowly we can see the men are wearing German army uniforms. Nobody is smoking or chatting while they work, they’re just digging, a job to be done. Soldiers with guns stand guard, over the men digging, keeping watch. When the digging is done the men climbed out of the hole and quietly lit cigarettes. The soldiers pulled wooden shutters into place in the hole, then piled earth onto the wood to cover most of it, then re-plant whole bushes and branches back over the disturbed earth.
At a command the soldiers walk to one of the military trucks standing nearby. They take wooden crates from a military vehicle and place them in the hole they have dug. We can read military markings and serial numbers on the crates, the words 7.92mm AMMUNITION and EXPLOSIVES stencilled on the cases. An officer opens one of the cases and we can see brand new sub-machine guns, wrapped fresh from the factory, glinting in the moonlight. He makes a mark on his list then closes the case again before the case is placed in the hole. He does this with each case, each one full of bullets or grenades, or brand new weapons. Quite soon the hole is covered, the last bush is replanted in front of it, the officer marks a map and the soldiers and get back into their vehicle and drive quietly away in the dark.
I don’t know how to start this, so I’ll do it the only way there is, just start this and see what happens. The way Hitler did. The way someone didn’t. And this story is much more about that someone than it is about Hitler who to be honest, I didn’t know at all. He died before I was born. I don’t know if the someone did. And he was a real person. A very real person. A school teacher. I know he was real because someone told me about him. I was about to say he never did anything famous. But he did. Whether he did after this story as well, I don’t know. Maybe he did. But in this story, this very real, very true story I’m going to tell you, he did something worth being famous for, even though he shouldn’t have. There were other people as well. Millions of them, too many for this story and this story has enough people in it already. More of them come in, standing in the shadows until I write them down, each with their role to play. Each one of them real and in the same places at the same time, a long time ago. I said I didn’t know how to start this.
Some of it, this beginning anyway, started in a pub, as things sometimes do. But that begs the question which pub. Not that it matters to you, because these things don’t happen often and if they ever do happen to you, which pub it happened in won’t matter. But there were two different stories I heard, in two different pubs, about seventeen years apart, the difference, coincidentally, between my age and the age of the person telling me the second story, a woman who described herself as a member of the third generation of the war. If things are ever coincidental. Maybe they are.
Like all the best stories, it was night time and the wind was blowing hard against the walls of an old pub. But before that it started in another pub. Not the bierkeller in Munich, the one in the old joke, where it vas so crowded everybody was putsching und tschoving. Not that one at all, but the one where I first met Janni Schenck. He was probably really called Johannes. But in my head he’s always Janni. And as he’s undoubtedly never going to read this I’ll use his real name, the name that keeps coming to me every time I try to tell this story.
It was a summer afternoon and I didn’t have much to do that day. I’d only just moved to this place on the outskirts of an ugly town all but swallowed up by London. My house was about half a mile inside the M25 and back then I could walk up the hill, along the footpath where if my big cat came with me, as sometimes he did, I’d leave him in a tree because he was afraid of the pigs that lived in the field I’d cross and turn left, over the footbridge over the motorway, down past the abandoned model farm built some time in the 1920s when this was Betjeman’s MetroLand, down to the railway station and along the footpath to the canal then up the leafy wide suburband road with its tall old trees to the pub at the top. There was another pub at the bottom of this road too, on the old main road through the village. Back then Humphrey Littleton still played there now and again and stupidly I never went to hear him. I didn’t know how important Swing music was going to be to this story. I think nobody ever knows the things that are going to be important until afterwards, often when it’s too late.
But this other pub, the one I was going to now at the top of the hill, near the school was nearly empty when I went in. The two of us doubled the crowd in there. The only other customers were an old man with white hair and what used to be called a patrician nose. As we were so close to the school and as I wanted my partner to think I was amusing I said to her, “Look. It’s Rudolf Steiner.”
But of course, it wasn’t. It was someone who made a much bigger impression on me. The man who wasn’t Rudolf Steiner was somewhat improbably talking to a much, much younger and much fatter English skinhead. The conversation was getting quite heated and the old man’s voice was raised. It was still a shock to hear the words ‘Hitler Youth’ in a pub, whatever the argument. It isn’t a phrase used very often.
My partner turned her head towards the speaker too. We both thought the skinhead was threatening the old man. We were wrong. The old man’s voice was raised and he kept talking even as the skinhead seemed to shrink in his chair.
The skinhead said ‘You could have done something.’
The old man said that he couldn’t, that he was conscripted into the Hitler Youth the same as every other boy in Germany on his thirteenth birthday. I didn’t know this was how it worked.
The skinhead said ‘So you were a Nazi.’
The old man really kicked off now. He said how the Hitler Youth was brilliant fun. How they went to camps in the summer, out in the open. They had flags to carry and fires to light and cook on, and songs to sing and the great glory of the outdoors and pine forests and the future. Tomorrow really did belong to them, or at least it did back then, back when the old man was a boy. They had real knives in their belts and real pistols to shoot and real grenades to throw and they were thirteen. Nothing could have been better. But he was not a Nazi. The old man insisted on it. The old man who was Janni Schenck.
And much later in another pub sometimes, very occasionally, an electric bell rang to tell the servers that a meal was ready, to come to take it out to the customers, but all the customers had gone home hours ago, along with all the staff and there was nobody in the empty kitchen to press the bell.
You see, the woman said. I told you that happens.
She was blond with a high Saxon forehead and a lisp and her dog was named after her grandfather. A series of circumstances had brought her to this pub in the middle of nowhere at all, so far from home but she liked talking to me, she said. She wanted to ask me something important, something she wanted to know and she couldn’t do it while there were customers and other people around.
We drank wine and talked about anything other than the thing she wanted to ask me, even though I didn’t know what it was. Her blue dog and his white eyes. Her beautiful Springer spaniel that stank all the time. German food. Presenting recipes for a pub in rural Suffolk. The price of asparagus and strawberries, because although it was stormy that night it was just about summer, dark outside but light in about four hours. It was past midnight and the radio on, playing music I hadn’t heard in the dark pub, with just the light of our table in the room when she asked me the thing she wanted to know. She frowned and looked at me, her head down a little but determined, as if she was hunched waiting for the answer.
“What do you think about Hitler?”
It wasn’t something anyone had ever asked me before. She quizzed me for half an hour. I don’t know what I said. It isn’t a one-word answer. I didn’t know if she was asking me about Hitler or Germany or the war, the 1939-1945 war, the one people of my age still call The War. The one people of her age, from Germany, still call the war. I hadn’t know that before. I don’t know how I answered, or in what detail or how much I hedged around. I told her about my grandfather, a man who thought when he died that he’d been cheated out of going to the war, with his eight children and nothing to do with the fact that by then he was nearly forty, with no special skill the war effort might require. When he died almost his last words were ludicrously like a Dad’s Army sketch, this Air Raid Patrol man whose contribution was to shout ‘Put that light out!’ but those were not almost his last words.
‘They wouldn’t let me fight in their bloody war’ were, instead.
She stood up and told me to wait there. She came back into the room with an old suitcase, the thick cardboard or pressed paper bound with what looked like leather.
They were going to throw this out when he died, she said. They did throw it out. I went and got it. I said you can’t throw this away. My mum couldn’t decide. I will always keep it. It was my grandfather’s.
She’d already told me he was in the Army. Just not our Army. The other army or at least, one of the other armies. Not the British Second, the one an ex’s father was in, a man who might be in this story later on. Not the United States Army Air Force, that the pilot who will be in this story was part of. The German army. The Wermacht.
She thought the other grandfather, the one who was never named in public, whose history she and her mother hissed about in the kitchen at Christmas, was in the other German army. The SS. He kept horses after the war. What would you expect? she said.
‘Do you want to see inside? I want to show you some things.’
I didn’t know how to open the suitcase. I didn’t want to break it. To be honest, I didn’t really want to open it. I’d said I did, but now it was here in front of me I didn’t know what I was going to find when I opened the lid. I’d just been questioned thoroughly about how I felt about Hitler. Now I was supposed to open a suitcase that used to belong to a Wermacht officer, a surgeon. I had no idea what I was going to see.
Actually that’s not true. I had a lot of ideas about what I was going to see. A grey cap with a black peak and oak leaves twined in cord on the front of it. Perhaps – and because of all the legal problems it would start I really hoped not – a Luger or a Walther pistol, dull and un-oiled for nearly seventy years. A tattoo, still on the excised skin sliced from the person who used to wear it.
The SS used to wear a tattoo giving their blood group under their left arm, according to Frederick Forsyth’s book, The Odessa File. It was the standard introduction to the war when I was growing up, along with Sven Hassel’s pulp fiction, passed under the desk in Third Year History, falling open on the bit about the journalist’s girlfriend Sigi being a stripper in Hamburg, waking him with a blow-job years before anyone in the class would ever have anything like that happen to them, particularly not waking up.
But that was Germans, we thought. That’s what they’re like. She’d be how old? Twenty-five? And the book was set in about 1960 or thereabouts. She’d have been ten when the war ended. Perfectly old enough to know what was going on. Old enough to know her house was smashed flat. Old enough to have been raped by the Russians if she was the strapping girl the book described and they were drunk enough, except we didn’t know about that, then.
We lived in a town full of refugees from that war, Poles and Italians we had no real idea were Polish or Italian. They were just kids called names likes Chris or Liz or Buzz or Gino. They spoke the same English with a Wiltshire twang as we did. Their parents shopped in Gateway the same as ours did, or when they went to the Polish deli, the little black-painted corrugated iron hut in a street of terraced houses near the school, they never mentioned it. But this man, the man whose suitcase this was, he was there, in a uniform. The wrong sort of uniform for anyone in the town I grew up in. He was part of it. A surgeon. Like Herr Doktor Mengele. So what was I going to find in this case? A Jew’s hand, mummified and shrunk, clenched in a fist? An Iron Cross?
She slid the suitcase across the table towards her and turned it round, opening the lid. She turned it back towards me.
‘Do you want to see this?’
I wasn’t sure that I did, but it was far too late to say so now. Too late at night, and the wine and driving and I had the distinct impression back then, that night, that I wasn’t going back to my own house that night anyway, and too late to say look, sorry, I’m really not sure that I do, not least because probably if I wanted the first thing to happen and I certainly did then saying the second thing didn’t seem like the way to trigger that chain of events.
I slid the suitcase towards me and opened the lid as she watched me closely. I looked for the gun, or the grenade, or the dagger or the medals or the photo of the mass grave or any and all of the things you’re told to expect. The ink writing on the back of the picture in my head, the reverse side of the grey image of the tank and the burning buildings and the young men with guns I’ve only seen in museums and Airfix kits, their hair tousled with effort. ‘Ach, hot work with Willi and Kurt. Great days!’ scrawled in faded ink over the grainy bleached out black and white photo of young men smiling next to a mass grave.
I didn’t see any of that. The things I found in the suitcase were much more disturbing. Everything in the case was completely ordinary, all but one thing. There were the kind of pieces of paper that anyone gathers in a totally ordinary life; books, some brochures, a postcard, two photos in black and white (no tanks, no ruined buildings, no mass grave). A little green cloth case, faded with age. I could feel small metal tools inside. Everything was written in German. I don’t read German but I didn’t need to.
The thing that couldn’t be avoided was printed on every piece of paper, the eagle and the swastika, on the flysheet, on the brochure, on the postcard, on every piece of paper in the suitcase. The big book reminded me of the Guinness Book of Records my parents used to buy most years when I was a child, about 35cm tall and 20cm wide, full of photos and the minutiae of a sporting event, the Olympics, but of course it wasn’t any sporting event, or any old Olympics. It was the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I’d read somewhere about how Hitler was furious that black Americans had won some of the races, but if he was he didn’t let that stop the meticulous recording of each track event. Mit photographs. There they were, these black men in black and white, standing on the podium wearing their medals. If the master race was hacked off that Jesse Owens was winning they still took the pictures to record the result. Or maybe all that stuff was just a story. There are lots of stories. This is one.
The Olympics Book
The Olympics book was as compelling as these things always are, probably more so if you like sport. I never really did. I picked up the brochure. Again the first thing, the inescapable thing, inside the coloured cover, the green and red of the simple printing showing a cruise liner and people on their holidays was the swastika, clutched in the eagle’s talons, centre of the page at the bottom. I wished I read German. I’d heard of Strength Through Joy. I didn’t know how attractive it was. It’s the 1930s. There is a global Depression. In America, millions of people are literally begging for food, the same way they were in Germany just after the First World War, before Hitler came to power.
And now, or at least then, when this brochure was published, here’s the new deal, different to Roosevelt’s one. You don’t have to beg for food. In fact, perhaps you’d like to go on holiday, the first generation in your family to ever have had one. How about a cruise? Obviously, or maybe not entirely obviously, the cruise will be going to places that possibly might be invaded later on, places like Norway, or Denmark, for example, but that’s all in the future. Right now, here’s the first foreign holiday you’ve ever had. Bring your pretty wife. Oh, and it’s 90% off. You’d like to join the Nazi Party? What a very good idea sir. And your wife, of course? Just sign here. You get quite a lot of extra benefits, as you can see. And over it all, under it on the page, the swastika.
There were two photos in black and white, two different young men, shades of grey in grey uniforms. I don’t know who they were. There was another brother, also in the Wermacht, the German army, killed on the Eastern front, the woman said, this woman who described herself as the third generation of the war. Little things. When I asked her about the town she grew up in she told me simply it was like any other town in north Germany, mostly new houses, flattened in the war. She said it without rancour or guilt or blame. The little medieval town with its tradesmans’ guild houses and churches nearly got through.
It wasn’t a strategic place, the little crossroads didn’t really interrupt any major road that couldn’t be bypassed on the way to Hanover. It didn’t feature in any major set-piece battle or stand in the way of Patton’s tanks. But it was there, and by late March 1945 that was all the reason the Royal Airforce and the American Eighth Army Airforce and Eisenhower and Bomber Harris needed. Less than six weeks before the final surrender the bombers came one night and when they left, half the town was gone. The Guildhall, most of the churches, almost everything that had been beautiful was rubble. It was the same story all over northern Germany, done by the allies principally because they could. There was nothing important there to bomb, but maybe that was the point. Surrender, or there will be nothing left. There was no other brother left. They didn’t even know where he was killed, his grave the Russian Front, along with another two million Germans in uniform. And still ten million German men in uniform at the surrender.
Numbers as big as that lose their meaning. Even if you were lucky enough to have a house worth £2 million, even if you were exceptionally lucky and earned £2 million, there would never be a circumstance where you went to the bank and withdrew all that cash in pound coins to count each one. If it took three seconds to do that, moving one coin from a pile, counting it off out loud and putting it in another pile it would take you fifty thousand minutes, eight hundred and thirty three hours, more than thirty four days, over a month to count them all. It took five years to kill the two million. Nobody counted at the end, or if they did the records are gone, burned by the Germans themselves.
Not all of them though. Germany conscripted every boy from the age of thirteen. By 1945 eighteen million people had served in the army. The starting point for tracing the record of any of them starts with the WASt, the Deutsche Dienststelle für die Benachrichtigung der nächsten Angehörigen von Gefallenen der ehemaligen deutschen Wehrmacht, which holds unburned personnel documents and listings of military losses and a register containing over 18 million soldiers from World War II.
It isn’t open to just anybody. Whether to deter neo-Nazis or the idly curious or to protect against identity theft you have to state your relationship to the person whose records you’d like to see, as part of your application, especially if your family name is different. The records cost eight Euros per page, usually just basic biographical information such as the soldier’s father’s name, his date and place of birth, drafting date, dog tag number, training units and units he was posted to in the course of war, his ranks, notes on injuries and captivity. But better than nothing. Better than not knowing at all. They weren’t 18 million soldiers. They were 18 million people.
The woman told me he was posted to Norway, then to Czechoslovakia. His dog tags were there in the suitcase too, the large aluminium oval, perforated along the middle, the identical stamped abbreviations and numbers the same on each half so that if the man died his comrades or someone at least could snap the tag in two and take the record of the military life of the dead man to be recorded, while the other half remained with the body for burial. Assuming he ever had a grave. Assuming there was time to snap dog tags. Assuming anyone was left to care.
I didn’t know all of this that night. I still don’t know if one of the photos was of this man, the brother, or who the other young man was, der Jungen, the boy. He looked about fourteen. No more than seventeen at most. His picture reminded me of another one I saw from the same time, someone else’s father’s picture, a man who landed in Normandy on the third day after D-Day and walked to Germany. He killed a man face to face. He said he didn’t want to but the other man was going to kill him otherwise, so he did.
He stepped out of a doorway with a gun in his hand. The other man stepped out of a doorway with a gun in his hand. He lay in a ditch while a man with a gun walked towards him. Or he walked towards a man lying in a ditch holding a gun. One of them saw the other one first. Or one of them froze or one of them remembered what he had to do, what he’d been trained to do, on the range in the drill again and again until you can do it without thinking, because sometimes it’s important you do it without thinking and chambered the bullet and pulled the trigger and felt the jolt through his arm as the gun kicked back, saw the other man stagger and fall.
It doesn’t matter. It happened all the time. It was the only reason they were both there. And he befriended a boy, a young boy in the Hitler youth, the HJ, der Hitler Jungend, a boy who the British Army had captured and moving so fast had no time to send him back down the line to a prison camp, but kept him with them, tagging along doing small chores for food. It was better than being dead. Same time. Same place. It could have been the same boy, although the story was nowhere near as unique as you might think. Janni Shenck. Which boy in this story was he? And The Soldier. He landed in Normandy on D+3, the 6th June 1944, and rode in a radio truck to Germany. He got there in late April 1945, like everybody else in this story.
The woman stared at me across the table. She told me the man whose suitcase we were looking at had been a surgeon and these were the things he used and she passed me the little cloth pouch, opening it to show the essential tools of his trade, that had lived in his pocket the five years of his war. There was a small grey sharpening stone, as someone who had to be self-reliant would need. Two scalpels, one curved. Two pairs of small forceps, nothing above ten centimeters long, including the stitching needles, straight, curved, differently curved and above all, thick, much thicker than I thought they could be or should be. There was still some stitching thread in the little cloth pouch, un-used since 1945, nearly seventy years before. I’d never been this close to the war before.
There was one other thing in the case I hadn’t seen, a little postcard with writing on the back, obviously in German. I passed it to the woman. She said it was just about how to get to somewhere, having a nice time, wish you were here, nothing exceptional at all. By now neither of us thought of the black eagle and the swastika it held as anything exceptional at all, stamped in the middle of the back of the postcard, stamped on every piece of paper in the suitcase. This must have been how it worked. It was just everywhere and because it’s everywhere you don’t even really notice it. She passed the card back to me. The exceptional thing was on the front of the card, a coloured picture, delicately coloured so that I wondered if it was hand-tinted. A small child held a posy of flowers up for a kneeling man, the child half-uncertain, the man smiling in his double-breasted suit and tie, not caring about the dirt on his trousers, on the knee he kneeled on, the sun shining on them both, this unknown, fragile child and Adolf Hitler. Today I met a man whose grandmother told him a story about the time she was chosen to give a bouquet of flowers to Adolph Hitler. I have to wonder.
It was everywhere. It must have been everything.
That was the surgeon’s suitcase. I don’t have a name for him yet. I’m going to call him Otto. The woman told me a little about him. He was posted to Norway. He might have disembarked on the same ship that he’d cruised the fjords on holiday. Towards the end, when Germany was being squeezed in the middle but long before it split into two parts he was sent to the Balkans and at some point there he changed his mind about being in the Wermacht. He did a curious thing. He walked home. I don’t know yet which part of the Balkans he was posted to, but it’s a long way to Bremen. He walked home to surrender to the British, or at least specifically anyone who wasn’t Russian. Or probably anyone who wasn’t French, and the 1st Free French army was carving up through southwest Germany at that time which was the same for everyone in this story. April 1945.
As I write this I’m trying to work out how long it would take to travel 1,000 km. At first you think well, maybe he got lucky and got a lift, but then you learn that however many Airfix kits you made as a boy, however much you scoured the catalogue and mispronounced Panzerkampfwagen, and sneered at the war films that used American tanks with a black cross painted on the side of them, even despite the evidence of the Blitzkrieg, the German army didn’t have that many vehicles, considering there were eighteen million people to get around. What they did have they put up front.
Everyone else made do with horses, even in this mobile, mechanized war. They prioritized. Shock and awe and mobile fast moving troops meant vehicles, so they went to the front line. And by April 1945 any road in Germany was ‘the front line’ according to the pilot. Anything that moved was shot at from the air. Look on YouTube. The sandy coloured roads through the green fields and the red-roofed villages are empty, except for one black dot you have to assume is a car or a truck but sometimes turns out to be just a horse and cart, blurred by the juddering of the aircraft as the guns fire and 50 miles an hour is scrubbed off its air speed by the recoil of the eight machine guns, spraying bullets half an inch across, hidden by the white flashes of tracer ripping up the green, obscured by the cloud of dust that was the road and the poor horse and the antique cart disintegrating under the impact of the bullets. Getting a lift had its drawbacks, even if a lift was there to be had.
Years before I met this woman I was talking to a man born in London. His mother was Polish. She was being taken to a camp somewhere by the Germans. She didn’t know where, except she didn’t think it was going to be a good place. She wasn’t Jewish, or political and I think now, you didn’t really have to be. All you had to do was piss off someone in the Party. I think that’s how it worked in the end. Maybe in the beginning too. Maybe that’s why people liked being in the Party. It might even things up, in life. She never got to the camp, wherever it was. He said the train was shot up by an aircraft.
The pilot told me it was brilliant fun shooting railway engines, steam engines back then, because when you hit the boiler they’d blow a huge cloud of white steam 200 feet or more into the air. You could see what you were doing. He never worked out why they tried to run, piling on the coal and getting up to 80 mph or more, unable to move left or right unless the tracks went that way, trying to outrun a Mustang fighter pulling 400 mph. Once, he said, he and a buddy hit a train together and as he flashed through the cloud of white steam just a hundred feet or so above the train he saw something like a manhole cover fly up in the air in front of him, stall out over his wing and then fall to earth again, this huge metal part of a boiler, missing the aircraft’s wing by inches. If it had hit the wing I’d never have heard the story. Nor would you. The man whose Polish mother’s train was wrecked got out and ran. She lived on raw potatoes from the fields, sleeping in what she stood in, for over a week. He told me he never even thought that it was the RAF or the American airforce that did this. It was though. He pretended he didn’t know, that maybe it was the German airforce, the Luftwaffe. It suits people’s ideas better. Like the unknown men who bombed another girl’s father’s house in Italy, it wasn’t they were almost certainly not German but British bombs if it was night-time, American if it was the day, on the whole. They saved his mother’s life, but they didn’t intend to. They were just shooting up a train, because it was there. It gets complicated very quickly.
So the surgeon probably walked, I think, for most of the journey, and probably at night if he had any sense, and if he survived this journey, which he did, he must have done for one good reason. If he bumped into the Gestapo or the SS or probably the Wermacht itself and didn’t give the right answers to how come the rest of his unit was a hundred, two hundred, three hundred kilometers away, they’d simply have shot him at the side of the road as a deserter. He must have known this perfectly well. You don’t get to be a surgeon by being stupid.
He was a survivor, the woman said. We are, we Germans. I would have done the same.
We’ll have to give him a name. We’ll have to give all of them names, but I don’t know what their names were, right now. I don’t really know how to write their story, because every time I sit down to do this, to get this story down on paper or at least a screen, the story spins away into other stories.
A man in a pub told a story about the Hitler Youth. Another man walked a long way and didn’t get shot. Another man rode in a truck a long way in the opposite direction and met a boy in the Hitler Youth and another man in another army on the other side. Another man flew over all of them and had to walk home one night, but not as far as the other men had to walk. Another man saved lots of boys’ lives. And another boy liked Swing music and beating up Hitler Youth boys. Where does he come into these stories, the boy in the Eidelweiss Pirates? Was he the boy in the photo in yet another suitcase? They were all real.
I know the Eidelweiss Piraten were real, der Swing Kinder, because I met someone who had dinner with one of them, the few left and there were only a few to start with. Like White Rose, we don’t know much about the Eidelweiss Pirates, not here, not outside Germany. But they do there. The Gestapo hated them. So did the Hitler Youth who got beaten up by them. It spoils the story we all learned, groups like White Rose, groups like the Eidelweiss Pirates, the Swing Kids.
They were all in it together. They could have done something about it but they chose not to. Janni could have done something to avoid being drafted. They all knew about it. They all knew what Hitler was like. I even heard that today from somebody at lunch. But they didn’t. All they heard was how good it was. And the Eidelweiss Pirates heard Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Gene Kruppa. Django Reinhardt and his German friend, protector and saviour, the Wermacht officer who ignored some key facts about the gypsy guitarist. You see how these stories spin away from your grasp. As soon as you think you know what they’re all about they become something else.
Django Reinhardt played a guitar. Mostly an acoustic guitar, but an electric one towards the end of his life, which was after the war but maybe the war had something to do with it. When he was fifty-two he had a cerebral aneurism. In fact he didn’t. He was forty-three and he died in 1953. This is what happens. You probably wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t told you. According to Nazi rules, when France collapsed before them in 1940 and the sympathetic Vichy French government took over in the parts of France that the Nazis didn’t run themselves, two things were wrong about Django Reinhardt. First, he was a gypsy. Second, he was a jazz musician. The Nazi Party detested both.
I don’t know why they hated gypsies, except lots of people always have and lots of people still do. They did in the Wiltshire village I grew up in. Where they went, the one or two caravans that were there some of the time, the grass track they were allowed was called Gypsy Lane. It’s not OK to say you don’t like Jews anymore, but there’s no problem putting sneering mock documentaries on TV and calling them My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. No problem at all. And as for jazz while it’s generally OK to like that now the Nazis didn’t at all. They even had specific rules for music, to stop jazz creeping into it.
Maybe. A man called Skvorecky was living in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis annexed it. He liked to play tenor sax back in this time when it wasn’t even called a tenor but a low-tone, a man conveniently dead now, conveniently because anything he said cannot be checked with him now but not before he wrote a novel call The Bass Saxophone. In the introduction he wrote from memory the ten Nazi Jazz Rules that he claimed came to him from the Reich Gauleiter of Bavaria and Bohemia. Except there’s something wrong with these rules apart from the fact that there’s something wrong with the idea of prohibitive rules for music, as if music was so dangerous in and of itself that it had to be banned.
The Nazi Jazz Rules
- Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
- In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
- As to tempo, preference is to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones, so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
- So-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
- Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
- Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylised military marches);
- The double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
- Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden.
- Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
- All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.
Skvorecky had this published in The Atlantic magazine. They didn’t spot the thing that puts the entire list into question either. Or maybe they did and thought it was rude to mention it. Skvorecky was there, after all. He played the blues in the Reich, in the part of the Greater Reich that didn’t just have its own Reich’s Gauleiter but had another Reinhard, Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich for its own, the head of the SD, the Nazi intelligence service, the head of the Gestapo. The man who said ‘we will Germanise the Czech vermin,’ some time before the Czechs shot him in the street, aged 42. Ninety-nine people were executed in the first few days after Herr Heydrich came to Prague. To make the point that he was annoyed, their names were printed on posters and plastered up all over the country. Then he shut the concert halls. Then he arrested around 5,000 people and the ones that weren’t killed at once were sent to the concentration camp at Munthausen-Gussen. About four per cent of the Czechs there survived.
You can see why Skvorecky’s text assumes an almost sacred sanctity. But it shouldn’t. There’s something wrong with it It’s about Czechoslovakian, it’s about German and it’s about French, a language that doesn’t have any sensible, logical place in this list. Rule eight. If the strings are plucked, let alone slapped, they must not be allowed to patter on the sordine. It could damage the instrument.
Except of course, it couldn’t. Sordine is the plural of sordino, an Italian word for a mute, to deaden the sound of the strings. There were metal ones that fit on just one string, and there are rubber ones that fit, like a comb, over all four strings. The strings couldn’t possibly patter on the sordine, because if we’re talking about a plural that must have been the metal sordino, which each fitted around each of the four strings on a double bass. The strings couldn’t patter on them, because the strings fit inside them and in any case, it’s hard to see how a string could damage a piece of metal. If any damage was going to happen it would be more likely to be the other way around.
But did the Nazis hate swing or jazz anyway? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. There was a poster, a famous poster all over the internet, a black monkey playing a saxophone on a bright red background, the red presumably supposed to represent the Soviet threat, or communism, but certainly not to be confused with the red field behind the white circle and the black swastika on the Nazi flag. An entirely different red. Obviously.
And there are other odd things about the money too, little signs and signifiers to tell us, not so very subtly, that this is a naughty monkey, a bad monkey, not one we want anywhere in our lives. Unusually for a monkey, apart from playing a saxophone, he’s wearing clothes. I say he out of habit, but in truth there’s something feminine about the monkey’s face. He’s wearing a big hoop earing in his right ear, but the face itself is soft underneath the curly hair. He’s wearing a top hat with a crimson hat band, white leather dress gloves that can’t make it easier to play a saxophone, the cuff turned back and red cuff links on a dress shirt, a red bowtie on a cutaway collar, and a dinner suit. The lapels of the black jacket are crimson red again, standing out in bright contrast to the white of his shirt front and white on the right lapel the monkey wears a large badge, in the middle of it a Star of David. The text on the poster reads: Entartete Musik. Eine Arbrechnung von Staatsrat. Degenerated music: A reckoning of the State. The name Dr H.S. Ziegler sits at the bottom right hand corner of the poster, below this Jewish, black, effeminate, saxophone-playing Negroid ape. Dr Zeigler, it’s safe to assume, was not a big jazz fan. If he existed at all.
But the Swings? Das Swingheinis? Where do they fit into this? The thuggish Eidelweiss Pirates? The eternally doomed White Rose? Born in England, I’d never heard of any of them until a few years ago. Janni Schenck. Where did he fit into this? This boy in my head. Not the pilot. Not the surgeon. Not the schoolmaster. I haven’t told you about him yet. The old man in the bar? Was he Janni Schenck? He could have been. Das Swings though. Das Swingheinis. Maybe you need to know about them first of all. You know about the monkey already.
For every action there is a reaction, equal and opposite. It’s a basic law of physics. As the exploding gas fires a bullet from a gun barrel, so there is an equal push back on the gun itself, recoil. The flame searing down the barrel behind the bullet is hotter than the surface of the sun, with a ton or two of pressure per square inch propelling the bullet out into space, the nine millimetre bullets the German army used in Walther and Luger pistols some hundred and twenty-five grains, barrelling out at around fourteen hundred feet per second, the big sledging .45ACP rounds the American army used in their Colts around two hundred grains, chugging along at about eight hundred and thirty feet per second. Rifle bullets were much more deadly, smaller in diameter but longer, and more lethally, much, much faster, up at around three thousand feet per second, a speed where liquid can’t compress and blood is blasted forwards, out of the way of the bullet in a solid mass, a teacup-sized blood hole through someone’s body, English, Polish, Russian, German, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Russian, Finnish, American, Norwegian.
It doesn’t matter to the bullets, nor where they were made. A couple of pennies worth of copper and brass and lead and nitro-cellulose, a couple of machine pressings all it takes to negate birth and school and laughter and tears and love forever. And with this reaction, the other reaction, the gun being pushed back into the hand or the shoulder. The monkey attracting people to its music as much as Herr Doktor Zeigler was repulsed by it. If he existed at all.
Once upon a time long, long ago, but not so long that I can’t remember, I heard a thing that had happened a really long time ago. It stuck with me, ever since. I don’t think I have an awful lot of imagination. I listen to stories. I jumble them up and glue them together into another, bigger story, but everything I’ve ever written happened to someone real. Just not usually one person, or one person at one time. Something I saw or heard or someone else’s story. An old man’s story for example. Or as I think of it, Janni Schenck’s story.
It happened one summer’s afternoon in Kings Langley, just outside Watford, just north of London, where the M25 crosses the A41 and just one junction further north crosses the M1. It’s a comfortable commuter village, which means that there are some big houses and in the daytime, as this was, hardly anybody on the pavements of the High Street that used to be a main road just off the M25, until they put the bypass in, so cars could get away faster. I was working for myself and as happened this sunny afternoon I didn’t have much to do. We might have been between jobs. I don’t remember. We were pretty busy back then though, so I think we were more accurately part-way through a job, after I’d written the proposal, after we’d got the contract and this was my down time, before the results of the job came back, before I’d write the report and the presentation and to tell the client what it was we’d found out for them, hoping it was something they hadn’t forgotten to tell us they already knew. That happened sometimes. But sometimes it’s hard to know what people know, especially if they don’t want to tell you and sometimes, for a lot of different reasons, people don’t.
So this was where everything that could have been done had been done and now we had to wait until other people had done other things so more things could be done. We locked the doors and got our mobile phones and walked down through the fields, across the river, across the canal, over the footbridge over the M25 and up the hill to the pub at the top of Kings Langley, near the Rudolf Steiner school.
A fat English skinhead, or at least someone in his twenties with no hair was having an argument with a much older, white-haired, aquiline-looking man with an accent. Look, I said wittily, to the woman who’d come to the pub with me. That’s Rudolf Steiner.
I know. It just pours out of me, doesn’t it? It hardly ever stops. But I was wrong. It wasn’t Rudolf Steiner at all. I never knew this old man’s name. But I heard his story and that was much more interesting, because here he was, here and now, the way most of them aren’t now, because this was fifteen years ago and all flesh is grass.
The old man was furious. Specifically, he was furious at being called a Nazi, just because he’d been in the Hitler Youth. He was conscripted, he said and years later I found out this was true. Every boy in Germany was conscripted into the Hitler Youth on his thirteenth birthday. It wasn’t like chosing to join the Boy Scouts. It was much more clever than that. He had had no choice. Back then I’d never ever heard of the Edelweiss Pirates nor White Rose and nor had anyone else I knew. I’ve since met an Army Major who had dinner with one of the surviving Piraten, but I only heard about the boys who skipped out of the Hitler Jugend a few years ago. The old man I met thought the HJ was great. His eyes were shining as he remembered the songs and the campfires, the flags and bugles, the friendship and the pure fun of the big rallies in the woods. He wasn’t the boy who sang Tomorrow Belongs To Me for Sally Bowles at the end of Cabaret. He didn’t have to. Millions of people felt like that, before the guns began again. It was the new dawn. The thousand year Reich.
He went to school in a little German village in the hills and one day in April 1945 the SS arrived in a big car. They took all the boys from the school up the lane to a field where they’d dug a bunker, where they handed out oily new machine guns and helmets and grenades and told the boys to defend their village and the Fatherland. The American invaders would arrive to spoil and loot within the hour. Meanwhile the SS felt they had pressing business to attend to a long way away. The schoolmaster was as he usually was, the leader of this troop of Hitler Jugend. He marched them down to the playground and lined them up on parade to inspect them and their brand-new factory-fresh guns and grenades and steel helmets, bullet bandoliers and knives and anti-tank rocket Panzerfausts.
And if I tell you the rest of the story now then there won’t be anything much to read. Because I want to tell several different stories here. The story of the pilot who walked twenty miles through the night to fly to Czechoslovakia. The story of the army surgeon who walked seven hundred kilometers to get home to Bremen from there. The story of a man who walked from Normandy to Bremen. And the story of the man who saved Janni Schenck, who didn’t walk anywhere except from his house into a village square. All joined together
A friend’s father landed in Normandy in June 1944, 20 days after D-Day. He got to Germany from there. Let’s call him Marshall, this Scottish man from as far into the Highlands as you can get, this man who joined the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, who rode to Germany in a radio truck. He would never talk about the German he killed. He only talked sketchily about the German boy in uniform who tagged along with his regiment for food and company, after they’d checked his pockets thoroughly. He left two pictures, both of them young German boys in uniform, both way under 20. I don’t know which is which, or whether either of them are those two boys, nor what became of them. There were two pictures of two German boys in uniform in the suitcase, that night in the dark pub with the wind rattling the windows, too.
The German woman talked about recording the stories she knew. ‘You haven’t heard half of them. But what’s the point? How is it relevant to now?’
Because soon there will be no-one left to tell these stories. People will still tell them in other places, in future times. But the tellers won’t be people like us. We won’t understand. We’ll say oh, that’s what they do in these foreign places. They always have. It’s tribal, isn’t it? But we’ve done this too, not so long ago. That’s what School Lane is about. The story of four men and Janni Schenck. The school teacher. The pilot. The surgeon. The soldier. And Janni. Tomorrow belonged to him. Now all I have to do is write it, so that you can read it. And remember, before we forget. Because this is all going, one by one, breath by breath and even Janni, he’s not very young now. He nearly didn’t get here at all. But the story doesn’t start with Janni. I’m not sure where it starts at all. Let’s imagine it’s a film. We can do that. We’ve all seen films. We know how films go.
Willi Horscht. The School Teacher
We can see the whole little village from up here in the tower where the school bell is ringing. We can hear cockerels crowing around the village and a dog barking at a cat ignoring the dog, perched high on a fence. The sun shines on the snow at the top of the mountains down there in the south, the Harz Mountains in the background. You can just see them, looking over the rooftops, easier in the summer when the sky shines down deepest blue on all of Germany, not so easily in the white-grey glare of this cold April sky. And down here in the village we can see a horse-drawn milk cart stopping at each house and the women standing chatting, waiting to fill their jugs and bottles with milk as it draws up to them at their houses, at the gates where some women stand wrapped in coats this Spring morning, this everyday morning where everything in Germany is the same as it always was, except there are no young men anywhere, or none healthy. One who has only one leg and a grey army coat, his cloth brimless cap perched on his head against the cold, wool gloves on the crutches he uses to cross the street. Guten Morgen Inga. Guten Tag, Willi.
An elderly postman gets off his bicycle in the village square when he sees another man man, graying, in his fifties when fifty was much older than it is now, about to pull a newspaper from the Der Stürmer news-stand, leans the bicycle against a wall, rummages in his sack full of letters, walks over and gives it to the man. Above the wooden news-stand we can see the painted words: ‘This community has been free of Jews for a thousand years.’
Still early and children are leaving their houses to walk up the lane to the school. The boy all wear leather satchels like a backpack, with a smaller leather satchel around their necks in front, short trousers under their coats. A few wear braces too, to keep their shorts up. One or two of the older boys wear an armband but we can’t see what it is as they file into the school house and line-up obediently in class, the way children anywhere do on any other school day morning. Some of the kids are better dressed than others but all of them are lined up obediently, joined in prayer.
Hädchen falten, Köpfchen senken, und an Adolf Hitler denken.
Nobody says this, but really, they don’t need to. Hands folded, heads bowed, and thinking of Adolf Hitler. His picture hangs on the wall opposite the clock in the main room of the school house, looking down over all.
Now we can see the boys’ armbands clearly enough, the black swastika angled on its white square, diagonal against the red cloth. Herr Horscht at the lectern, the schoolmaster himself wearing a different armband, red, with the white circle, the Hakencruz, the black broken cross of the swastika on his right arm, glaring red against the green of his felted wool jacket, this loden coat warm against the Spring winds. Willi Horscht is wearing a Nazi Party band on his arm as we imagine the picture of Hitler behind Horscht in our film. Half the childen move over to one side of the classroom, the others to the other side. Boys and girls are mixed. All the children sit down and get their books out.
The girl called Anne, a little older than the others, asks: Lisle, please?
Lisle stands at her desk and her friend Lotte replies for her.
Once thirteen is thirteen. Two thirteens are twenty-six. Three thirteens are thirty-nine. Four thirteens are fifty-two as Herr Horscht walks along the rows of desks on his side of the classroom, handing out exercise books. Like any good teacher he can listen without listening, seeing four different things at once. Imagine him looking like an older Harrison Ford, if it helps. An ordinary man that extraordinary things might have happened to once and might again. We’ll have to see, won’t we. It won’t be long. He gives back some of the books carefully. Some he drops on their desks in front of the children.
‘Neckar, quite good. Sturmann, you need to concentrate more. Groptmann, see me. You can do much better if you just put your mind to it. Wiess, what is there I can possibly say?’
And the children laugh, even Albert Weiss, but something is happening out in the street. The schoolmaster sees a movement in the street, through the window. People are talking, pointing out there. A woman puts her hands to her face as a policeman walks up the garden path to a house and bangs on the door. As it opens he pushes the door open wider and walks in. Seconds later he comes out of the house again, carrying a small stack of thick, black 78 rpm gramophone records.
You ought to see Hannah Schenck. The policeman, oh pretty much everyone would like to see Hannah Schenck, preferably without her clothes but on this cold April morning Janni’s mother is wearing a coat. It’s not the cleanest or the newest coat but those days are long gone in this village. Long gone for most people for the past four years in Germany. If you have a coat now, you treasure it.
The schoolmaster can see Hannah Schenck and her blond hair and her high Saxon forehead running into the street after the policeman. She’s saying something but we can’t hear her through the glass. She looks angry. Everyone knows about the records. She knew she’d get into trouble about them. Everyone knows. The policeman, it’s obvious, doesn’t want to arrest her but she can’t play this music. Nobody can. Not the black music, anyway, the entartete musik. The schoolmaster knows exactly what’s happening, even though the window is closed.
The policeman walks to the steps of the war memorial in the village square with Hannah at his heels, looking like a dog that’s normally very good but this time might turn vicious. He picks one of the records out from under his arm and reads the label as Hannah lunges at him, trying to grab it back as the schoolmaster opens the window.
The policeman holds the record above his head.
‘Because you can’t play this. That’s why. You know this perfectly well, Frau Schenck.’
‘That record is my private property.’ Hannah looks as if she might just possibly jump up to snatch the record out of the policeman’s hand.
‘You are mistaken. This record is negro music. Debased music. It’s illegal. If I did what I ought to do I’d arrest you for having it in your house.’
‘Hannah. Frau Schenck. Just be quiet. You can’t play this music. I have to stop it. I don’t have any choice. And the policeman throws the record against the cobblestones and sees it smash into three pieces.
‘You can’t to that! Those are my things!’
The policeman didn’t look at Hannah directly.
‘Be quiet. Or I’m going to have to arrest you. These are not your things. Enemies of the Reich planted them in your house. Jews, probably.’
‘There are no Jews here. It says so on the sign! Not for a thousands years! Stop smashing my records. Who do you think you are?’
‘I saw it happen, Hannah.’ And as she coils like a spring the policeman loses his patience. How many chances do you have to give a pretty woman ? He drops the rest of the records onto the hard ground and blinks as they shatter.
‘Hannah, that’s enough. Shut up. Go home before you talk yourself into trouble. And take this litter with you.’
We have to leave them there for the moment. We’ll come back to them later. We’ve got time, just about. It was only seventy years ago. We know where to find them. They’re people like us, just without wifi and iphones. That’s important. Unless you were born before everybody had mobile phones you can’t imagine how important that is. That’s why it was so important to bomb French towns for the Normandy invasion. That’s why the Resistance went active. Not to kill Germans. To kill the telephone network. To blind the enemy. It saved one German’s life. The surgeon’s. You haven’t met him yet.
You see how every time you think you’re about to understand this story it gets more complicated. It does. History is like that. And this is real history, even the bits I’m making up. Like Hannah. I don’t know her. But I know her grand-daughter. They’re very alike. But likeable or not we have to leave them there for the moment. We’ll come back to them later. But right now we have to sort out when all this happened. We have to get the timelines in order if this is going to work at all. I’m still not sure that it is. I don’t know one of the timelines at all.
Janni’s timeline I know because it only really lasted this one short day. The pilot’s timeline is easy. So is the soldier’s. It’s all on record. But right now we’ve got to sort out when all this happened. We have to get our timelines in order if this is going to work at all. I’m not sure that it is. I don’t know one of the timelines at all. Janni’s I know because his short story only lasted for the rest of this day. The pilot’s timeline is easy. It’s all on record. You haven’t met the pilot yet. You will. In fact, maybe you should meet him now.
He’s in Czechoslovakia. The Czechs are going to go mental as soon as they can. They’re going to throw millions of German Czechs out of their homes and burn people alive in a few weeks. He doesn’t know that for sure, right now, because nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen in the future. But you get an idea of what’s going to happen, sometimes. Sometimes you can tell. So where do you go, apart from home? Except home is 700 kilometres away, and at the same time, nobody’s going to take you there so you can die here when the partisans get you, or die here when the Russians who killed your brother-in-law come for you. Or when the Americans come in shooting. Or when the Gestapo go mental if you sneeze when an SS man’s talking or some other pile of crap you get from being in the army, any army, in a war. This war that you think you’re losing, that everyone probably except Hitler himself thinks you’re losing.
When do you decide to go home? Because apart from the slight difficulty of getting there, 700 kilometres away and anything on the road is going to get shot into small pieces by the RAF or the Americans and don’t even bother to ask where Goering’s Luftwaffe are supposed to have got to, the Luftwaffe you haven’t even seen in a month and more, you also have to decide when enough is enough. How long will it take to get there? And if everything’s fine when you arrive, how are you going to explain being there? How long is it going to be before the Gestapo or even just the police turn up at your door? You need to eat. You haven’t got a civilian ration book. Just your army pay book. That won’t buy you anything in a shop. If there are any shops left. If there’s any town left.
Then today I found this, in someone’s war diary, online.
Passing unarmed German soldiers
The 195 Field Ambulance moved on 26 March. Travelling some 30 to 40 miles a day,en route we passed numerous unarmed Germans solders in groups of between some 20 to 30 strong. Unguarded, they were making their way towards the Rhine and captivity.
It seemed that the end of the war was at last close.
Bremen was captured 21st April, British 2nd Army after a week of fighting.
It’s notes. Just notes of something that happened a long, long time ago. The girl who cried was German. She said she was the third generation of the war. It stuck in my mind. It won’t go. It won’t go.