This really happened. I think.
(Warning: Contains some pretty harsh imagery of war. Read responsibly. I'm serious.)
It was autumn, I think, or early winter. Cold, but not biting, no snow as such. I was in Berlin for reasons that tuned out to be a pretense for mere aimless wandering, but the pretense allowed me a free public transit pass so I spent a lot of time on the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, spinning around the city and watching the city's slow motion fall into bankruptcy and despair.
As I said, it was autumn, I think, or early winter. I had had a Kebab lunch, and was nursing a bottle of the cheapest beer I could find (which, in Berlin in the early 2000's, was pretty darned cheap), and I made my way down into the Friedrichstrasse U-Bahn station. It was a weekday, around noon, so the crowd was mostly business people on long European lunch breaks. I leaned against a concrete bolster, enjoying the feeling of the city around me, and I noticed him coming.
He was older, probably in his 60s. His clothes were shabby but showed signs of care, and his empty left sleeve was rolled up and pinned just above where his elbow would have been. He was walking down the rows of waiting passengers with a cup, bold and unashamed of his begging. The passengers mostly ignored him, but a few euro coins did make their way into that cup. As he approached, I fished in my pocket and found a 2 Euro piece. As I dropped it in his cup I said some little phrase, good luck or the like, and he stopped.
"You're not German." he said.
"Ummm...no. I'm not." I said. I was hesitant to say I was American, it was not a popular time to be one in Europe, what with two recent invasions under our belt and a particularly un-European President at the helm.
"You American?" he asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Yes...is that ok?" I was getting a little nervous.
He stuck the cup under the stump of his left arm and dug into it. "I don't take your money." he said, this time in heavily accented English.
"What? Why? I'm sorry..." I said. This was a first for me, and I was completely unsure what was going on.
"Listen, I tell you something," he said, pushing a 2 Euro coin at me. "I'm German, but I'm Polish. You understand? I'm from Breslau."
I understood a little. Breslau was the German name of what is now the Polish city of Wrocław. It was the site of a particularly hard fight on the Eastern Front, and one of the last defenses between the Soviet army and Berlin. After the war, and the division of Germany among the Eastern and Western powers, Breslau was given to the Soviets who made it part of Poland, expelling the German residents and relocating them to the DDR.
"I born there," he continued. "My father there, my mother there. In the war, I was a little boy. We fought the Russians." at the word, he spit down at the railroad tracks. "Three months we fought. And we knew we lose, you know? No way to win. But we hated the Russians. They animals. Animals. So finally, we pray. Every day. We pray. You know why we pray? We pray to God in heaven that the Americans come and take our city before the Russians take our city. Because they animals."
I stood and stared, unsure how to react.
"But the Americans didn't come. And the bastards in the army, they give up. Give us to the Russians." His face was starting to darken, now. His right hand trembled, the coins clinking in his cup. He fell into German again. "The damned Russians. They had won, but still they killed us. They shot the men, the older boys. They raped the women. My mother, they raped my mother and my sister. I tried to stop the men who attacked them, but I was a boy. They laughed at me. They did this," he waved the stump of his arm at me. "They broke my arm, shattered it with the butt of a gun. The doctors had to take it off."
Tears started to run down his face then, and his eyes didn't even seem to see me. He was just talking to himself now, I thought, but I listened. I couldn't not listen.
"They did terrible things, I saw such terrible things. So many people, murdered. Not dying in battle, murdered in the streets. Women, children. Babies! They took babies and crushed their skulls, and they laughed!"
He stopped speaking. I think he couldn't speak, actually, his throat worked and his breath was loud and gasping. Finally he looked up at me, seeing me instead of the horrors inside his own head.
"Why didn't the Americans come? I wish they had come. The Americans weren't animals." he said. And he turned and walked away.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
This really happened. I think.