By Oscar Valdes
Gustav B. was 20 years old and living in Dresden when he had tried joining the Army at the start of WWII. He was rejected because of a birth defect, a deformity in his right leg that made him limp. Instead, he was assigned to a munitions’ factory in the outskirts of the city.
Still, yearning to be in the fight, in March 1943, after Germany had suffered heavy losses in the battle of Stalingrad in the Eastern front, he reapplied and was allowed to enlist and then assigned to a tank division. He started off as a tank mechanic but as the war continued, got to serve as a gunner in one of the units, a Panzer IV model, and proved himself a ferocious combatant.
In the final stages of the war he took part in the battle of the Bulge, managing to return to Germany safely and a few months later, surrendered to the Allies when his nation capitulated on May 7, 1945.
Gustav was in Berlin at the time. He had chosen not to return to Dresden after he learned that all his family had been killed in the Allied bombardment that had taken approximately 25 thousand lives.
He was never charged with war crimes, became a carpenter and gave himself to the effort to rebuild Berlin.
But the memories of the war haunted him.
There were days he thought he was a lucky man since he was never injured in battle and had made it back safely, but other days he thought he was not. Even though he put in very long hours at work, he had much difficulty resting at night. He would go to bed at around 9 pm, feeling very tired from his 12 hours on the job, but would wake up at about 2 am and could not go back to sleep.
Scenes of the war kept intruding. They were short and bloody. He would see a scattering of Allied soldiers running away from his tank while he aimed his machine gun and pulled the trigger. He would see them drop, one after the other.
The scenes were taken from life. Taken from that one day, when his unit had spotted a group of Allied soldiers crossing a field. His tank – with its four other crewmembers – had been hiding on the edge of the field protected by a canopy of trees. The Allied soldiers had not seen the tank before they went unto the clearing. Gustav and his crew waited till the Allied soldiers were well in range and then the Panzer burst out of its hiding place. The Allied soldiers were so surprised, so exposed, that most of them dropped their rifles and raised their hands. Two had turned to run away but Gustav had shot them dead with his machine gun.
But it was what happened after the soldiers surrendered that kept coming back in his sleep.
The soldiers had stood with their hands up in the air while the tank advanced menacingly toward them. Then it stopped.
The men were very still. Was this where their lives came to an end? Would the tank shoot them too? Was this their last moment?
The tank commander stared at the men… scrutinizing their expressions… waiting… while Gustav kept his tense finger on the trigger.
All was quiet for a moment… then…
And Gustav did just that. He was a good shot, aimed well and hit everyone.
When the smoke had cleared, the Germans got out of the tank and checked carefully that there was no one alive. Nine men lay on the ground, but three were still showing signs of life, writhing in pain as blood oozed from their wounds.
The Germans stepped back from the scene.
It was the tank commander’s call.
Then the commander said to Gustav, ‘you are the gunner.’
And Gustav had not hesitated. He took out his pistol and gone up to each survivor and shot him in the head.
He remembered all their faces, for they kept showing up in his dreams.
The last one he killed was just a kid, 20 years old, barely five years younger than him. As the young man lay on the ground, face up, he had stared at Gustav and pleaded, haltingly, ‘My girl… she is waiting for me… I’m from California… please… the war is almost over…’
Gustav knew enough English to understand. He hesitated… turned to his commander… but the man had shook his head.
That was the last man Gustav killed in the war.
Before they got back in the tank, they went through the soldiers’ belongings. The crew was mostly interested in what food they had carried or any other valuables like money or gold, but what appealed to Gustav was their letters and pictures. And he put them in his pockets.
The commander noticed. ‘Why do you want to do that? That might incriminate you.’
‘I’d like to read them… I’ll get rid of them later.’
The commander shrugged. But Gustav never did get rid of any of it.
Gustav and his fellow crew members were never singled out for those or any other actions. There had been no witnesses that they knew. Anyway, what they did would be considered a small incident when the vast amount of atrocities was counted.
But what had happened had stayed in his mind.
Growing up with the leg deformity had been difficult for Gustav. He was not able to take part in sports that required the full use of his legs so he took up swimming instead and did quite well.
There was a girl whom he liked, and who sometimes went to the pool to watch the competitive swimmers, but he had not felt comfortable enough to approach her and tell her how he felt. He would just look at her and she at him. The last time he saw her she was walking away from the stands where she had sat. Only then did he realize that she, too, walked with a limp.
After secondary education he went into a vocational school with the intention of becoming a car mechanic but then the war broke out.
Gustav had been involved in a lot of fighting while assigned to his Panzer, but he had never been as close to his victims as he was that day on January 19th 1945, during the final days of the battle of the Bulge.
He and the other men had talked about how, given the way the war was going for Germany, the offensive they had been part of would probably be their last. The sense that Germany’s defeat was inevitable was growing by the day and yet the men avoided discussing it, for fear that their commander, a strong supporter of the war, might disapprove.
But the pressure was mounting. What was the point of continuing to fight?
Should surrender be something for them to decide?
While in the middle of their last combat, their radio had been disabled and in the chaos that followed they had been separated from the other units. Because they were very short on fuel the commander had chosen to hide and wait rather than risk destruction trying to find their way back. But the rest of the crew had disagreed with the decision.
Sounds of heavy fighting in the vicinity continued. How had the frontline shifted? Were they now on the Allied or German side?
The sky had been overcast for weeks, which at least had kept the Allied planes from dropping their bombs. But how long would that last?
So there they stood… hiding… waiting… undecided.
After killing the soldiers, they had pulled their tank back into the cover of the small forest that surrounded the clearing.
They had just finished eating some of what they had taken from the dead men and still had some left. Maybe two days’ worth of rations.
Then one of the men spoke, ‘Why don’t we surrender?’ He was the driver of the tank.
The other men stared at him.
The commander looked down to stare at the ground.
There was silent tension in the cramped space of the Panzer.
Gustav thought it had taken a lot of guts for the driver to say what he did.
The driver spoke again, ‘Other soldiers will be coming by soon, do we kill them, too? ‘
The commander shook his head slowly.
‘We’re probably behind enemy lines,’ said the radio operator.
And the commander answered angrily, ‘Why don’t you fix the radio?!’
The radio operator had lowered his head in embarrassment. But then he looked up and said,
‘I can’t fix the radio. It’s broken.’
Then Gustav said, ‘other soldiers will come by and see the dead men… the tracks of our tank… so we should not stay here. We should leave… and when we run out of fuel we abandon it and run toward Germany.’
‘Maybe we should move the dead men, hide them in the woods…’ put in the second gunner.
The other men shook their heads.
‘Once we leave,’ said the driver, ‘if we are behind enemy lines, then we surrender… and hope they don’t kill us… like we killed them.’
‘We cannot abandon the Panzer,’ said the commander.
And the men were quiet again.
Then the man who loaded the ammunition spoke. ‘We still have bullets left… but I think we should surrender to the Americans.’
‘We will not surrender,’ replied the commander emphatically.
The men shifted their weights uncomfortably, glanced at each other, rubbed their faces, stared down at the ground.
‘I’d rather go back to Germany,’ said Gustav.
‘I agree,’ said the driver.
‘We wouldn’t have this problem if we had fixed the radio,’ muttered the commander to himself.
‘We shouldn’t wait much longer,’ pressed Gustav.
The commander then rose, reached for the tank’s exit hatch, opened it carefully as he looked around and then climbed down. What the men were considering was reasonable, but he needed to think it over.
It was dark outside and the commander could hear the sounds of cannons and machine guns. But was the battle now more distant?
He had his hand on his side arm, as he kept glancing about. He came to a tree and relieved himself, then sat down on the other side. The earth was very cold. He looked up and thought that the sky above was starting to clear. It was hard to tell. If so, then the Allies would resume their bombing and the German forces would have to retreat.
Inside the tank, the four other men were quiet. Then the driver said, ‘Maybe he won’t surrender but this war is over. I’m going to have a word with him,’ and he started to climb out of the tank when Gustav reached out and held him by the arm.
The two men looked at each other. Then the driver said, ‘it will be quiet.’
‘Don’t,’ repeated Gustav, still holding his arm.
And the radio operator said, ‘let’s wait till morning.’
‘Morning may be too late,’ said the munitions loader.
‘We can’t stay here,’ said the driver.
‘We understand,’ returned Gustav.
‘We can’t just leave him… he might make it back,’ said the second gunner.
‘We’re not talking about leaving him,’ began the radio operator, ‘let’s wait till morning… when we all go out.’
And the driver settled back in his place.
A few moments later the Commander returned.
They didn’t sleep much that night and, early in the morning, when it was still very dark, all the men exited the tank, guns at the ready, just in case.
Sounds of the fighting continued, flashes of light piercing through the woods that hid them. They formed a circle, all the men conscious that they would kill the commander at that very moment… when the man spoke.
‘I agree,’ began the commander. ‘We should go back… and when we run out of gas… we abandon the tank and run towards Germany.’
The men looked at each other.
‘Every man for himself,’ said the driver.
The Commander nodded.
‘Okay… let’s go… before the Allied planes start dropping their bombs.’
They scrambled back into the tank, started the engine and, with the dimmest of light to guide them, roared toward Germany.
They got lucky. The tank ran out of gas after about a mile but they found no resistance and then abandoned the unit as planned and raced towards Germany. They thought they had a better chance of making it if each went his separate way and so they did.
About an hour later Gustav ran into a German patrol that was also retreating and he joined them and all made their way back to Germany. Gustav never saw any of the men from the tank crew again. He didn’t know whether they were alive or not and didn’t much care.
Less than four months later Germany surrendered.
Gustav was interrogated only once by Allied officers, a Canadian and an American. He gave them the name of his unit and told them of how they had become separated at the end, but he left out the detail of the soldiers he’d killed, all the while hoping that there had been no witnesses. The Allied officers took down his information but never contacted him again.
Gustav went to work as a carpenter.
He stayed in Berlin for the next 5 years, and while there met a French woman who was assigned to the Allied headquarters as a translator. She was from the Alsace Lorraine region in North Eastern France. Her name was Elise and was 2 years older than him. She knew German and English. They got along well and talked about a future together, but Elise wanted to return to France.
She had grown up in wine country but her dream was to own an antique furniture store. With his carpenter skills he would be able to help and they could build something together. So, in the spring of 1950, they married and crossed into France.
Since Elise had come into his life, Gustav had done better with his bad dreams, but they had not gone away. He talked to her about scenes of fighting he had been part of, fights against the Russians and the Allied forces, tanks against tanks, and all the shooting and destruction he’d caused or witnessed, but he never mentioned the soldiers he had killed on January 19th 1945.
Meanwhile, he had kept the small bag with their letters and photos. It didn’t make any sense to keep them, he told himself again and again, but he kept them anyway. He hid them carefully in a room in the house they lived in on the outskirts of Nancy, west of Strasbourg.
That’s were Elise had wanted to start her antique business. And so they did. Soon it began to prosper, with Gustav tending to all the wood mending, she dealing with the public and the two going out together looking for new pieces to buy, fix and resell.
Gustav thought of himself as a happy man. But he still could not get rid of his bad dreams. Sometimes it would be only the voice of his commander, saying to him, ‘You’re the gunner,’ and thus instructing him to kill the three surviving men.
Gustav had thought of seeing a doctor to get help, but he would have to tell the truth and he feared the consequences. If he was going to share his secret it would have to be with someone who knew the victims. That’s when it occurred to him to write to the girlfriend of the 20 year American from California. He had her address.
Before doing anything, though, he would want to tell the truth to Elise. He thought that their love was strong enough that it would hold if she knew the truth. That was his gamble.
It had been 6 years since they had moved back to France, and with things going well now they were thinking of having children, but Gustav didn’t want to take that step unless he confessed to Elise. She needed to know what he had done.
He chose a Saturday evening, after they’d gone out with another couple and had a good time.
It was still early, about 9 pm.
They were sitting in the living room when he said to her, ‘I have something to tell you…’
‘It’s about the war… something I did.’
Elise’s expression changed as she stared back at him.
Once he had said those words, he knew there was no going back. He had to go through it.
‘It has to do with the nightmares?’ she asked.
She sat back in her chair and closed her eyes for a moment.
‘I love you, Elise… I’m not the same man I was 11 years ago… and you have a lot to do with it.’
Elise’s eyes mistied. As a translator for the Allied Forces, she’d heard many stories of cruelty, but there had been a distance, physical and emotional, that she could keep from the person describing it. With Gustav she did not have that protection.
Gustav saw fear in Elise’s eyes and it scared him that he might lose her.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I have to tell you this before we have children… I have to… so if you want me to leave I will…’
She couldn’t find words to answer and just kept staring at him.
Then he began, and as he spoke, he went into all the details his memory could retrieve.
Elise had listened intently, and when he was through, she started to cry softly.
‘I’m so sorry… sorry I didn’t value life…’ said Gustav.
Elise dried her tears as she looked at him. She was moved by his candor, his willingness to walk away from all they had built if she felt repulsed by his story. But drawing all the strength she could muster, she joined her hands and said, ‘Gustav… you were following orders… it wasn’t your fault.’
A feeling of immense gratitude swelled up in him… but he didn’t think he deserved any of her forgiveness.
‘True,’ he replied, ‘but what gets me, Elise, is that I didn’t object… I didn’t have the courage to speak up… and at least say to my commander, “this man is dying already… I want to leave him alone” … I didn’t say a word… just obeyed blindly… like most Germans obeying the Fuehrer.’
Elise thought about this but then said, ‘He could’ve killed you, Gustav… the commander… and we would never have met and have what we have’.
They were quiet for a moment.
‘And if the soldier had lived… he could’ve identified all of you…’ she continued.
And then she stood and went to his side and put her arm around him. She looked him in the eye and caressed his face. ‘You have to forgive yourself…’
‘I have needed other people’s forgiveness, not my own… that’s too easy… that’s why I’ve kept the letters and photos of the men I killed… so one day I would return them to their survivors.’
She was puzzled. ‘How are you going to do that?’
‘Write to them…’
‘It doesn’t make any sense… it would be prolonging your agony… and theirs too… surely by now they have dealt with the losses… what would be the point of stirring things up?’
And Gustav acknowledged that he hadn’t thought of it that way.
‘You were following orders… you were a soldier… a soldier who had to obey orders… and now you have to live with the pain.’
Elise looked down at his hands and, leaning forward, took them in hers.
‘Maybe it will go away slowly… maybe it never will… but I will help you as best I can.’
Tears started sliding down Gustav’s face.
‘I’m such a lucky man… all the pain I’ve caused… and all the love I get.’
Elise caressed again the side of his face. ‘All the time I’ve known you, you’ve been a kind man… hard working… earnest… you helped rebuild Berlin… you’ve helped me build this business… and yes… I want you to be the father of my children.’
Oh, how much a human being could do for others, thought Gustav, and yet… how little he had done himself. But now he saw a ray of hope.
He put his arm around her and pressed her to him.
‘That means so much to me.’
She smiled at him.
Then he said, ‘Would you do me a big favor?’
‘Would you read their letters…?’
And she looked off for a moment, ‘Why?’
‘Maybe I need someone to share that moment when I was there…’
She stared down at the ground, then, ‘And after I do so… will you agree to destroy them?’
He didn’t know what to say. Was that possible? Could he do that?
‘Please?’ she said. ‘We have a life ahead of us.’
‘Yes, we do.’
‘Then I will read them,’ she said.
‘Do you think the nightmares will ever go away?’
‘We don’t know… but I won’t.’
He kissed her gently on the lips.
Then she said… ‘Gustav… I love you as you are.’