Janni Schenck

I’ve been working on a story. It’s been in my head for two years, but that’s not true. It’s been in my head since I don’t know. 1997 or ’98 maybe, when I went into a pub one summer afternoon and found an old man arguing with a skinhead. The pub was close to a Rudolf Steiner school.

                What more could a 13 year-old boy want?


“Look!” I said wittily to the woman I was with, nodding at the white-haired, distinguished-looking old man. “It’s Rudolf Steiner.” She was kind enough to smile a little, but the afternoon got much stranger faster then. I heard the words “Hitler Youth” and thought I was witnessing a hate-crime. I thought the skinhead was saying how great the Hitler Youth were.

Then  I noticed he wasn’t a skinhead, really. Just one of the people who don’t seem to have any hair these days. I think it’s the food they eat. Whatever it was, he didn’t have any hair. But he didn’t have any bluebird of freedom tattoos either. And it wasn’t him saying how great the Hitler Youth were, but the aristocratic old man with white hair next to him. The skinhead who wasn’t called the old man a Nazi and that’s when it kicked off. The old man said at some volume that he wasn’t a Nazi, he was in the Hitler Youth. And, he said, it was great.

You got flags to wave, songs to sing, camp to go to, something to be a part of. And more than this, at thirteen you got to shoot a real pistol and throw real grenades. When I was a boy half his age at thirteen, or maybe a little older, a Dutch woman who lived at the end of our road told me about firing the Colt automatic. She said “It kicked like a mule.” She was loud and a bit fat and they’d built an extension on their house and seemed to own the local shop. I didn’t know she’d once been hungry. I didn’t know around 30,000 people in Holland starved to death.

A present from the Netherlands.
A present from the Netherlands, a long time ago.

She had an odd accent I thought, but it was just a Dutch accent told to a small boy in Wiltshire who hadn’t been anywhere apart from Somerset. I didn’t know so many things then. I didn’t know, for example, that if she’d been caught by the German occupying forces anywhere near what was obviously a pistol for the Resistance dropped into Holland then she would have been shot, but probably not before she’d been made to tell the names of everyone she knew who knew about the gun as well. The alternative scenario – Allied soldiers took her shooting with a pistol because that’s how you’d entertain a girl around twenty whose country you just liberated. Sure it is.

I didn’t know too that as the old man told anyone who would listen, every German boy was conscripted into the Hitler Youth at the age of thirteen. Exactly the same way that at eighteen, boys were conscripted into the army. And apart, presumably, from the freezing cold nights manning anti-aircraft guns waiting for the mile-long streams of RAF bombers, it was mostly fun. Apart from the last day of the war, when the Americans came to the village.

The SS turned up first, in a jeep of some kind. They told the boys they had to defend the Fatherland and kitted them out with brand-new guns and steel helmets and grenades from a bunker in a field, that nobody knew was there. Years later I heard that the best way to hide something is simply to dig a hole and put the thing into it, with a sign saying ‘MoD – Keep Out’. Or ‘Water Company.’ It works in countries where order is an important thing. The boys made their way down towards their village again and the SS realised they had an important appointment somewhere else more urgently, coincidentally on the way to Switzerland, and left. The schoolmaster in the little village met the boys on their way to fight the Americans. He was the head of the Hitler Youth.

He beat the boys up, made them throw all the guns in the ditch and sent them home. The Americans arrived about an hour later. The old man said they would have shot everyone in the village if there was any resistance.

It’s stuck in my head. It asks so many questions. And now I’ve written it. It’s called Janni Schenck.  It’s very nearly a true story. I can’t speak without gabbling. I’ve been ill and I’ve just slept for a couple of hours accidentally, fully dressed, instead of going out as I was going to do. But I’ve done it. I’ve got to buy some paper tomorrow and proof read it, because I can’t proof on-screen,  but tomorrow is another day. I’ve done it. And I didn’t think I could.


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