Major Heinz Eisenbraun climbed the wooden steps to the crowded platform. The bustle of activity was his work in action and he reveled in it. Twenty-four hours a day, every day of the week, warehouses full of ammunition, food, fuel supplies and whole armies were his to deploy, to feed, to maintain. He did not feel it at all inflated to consider himself one of the most important elements of modern mechanized warfare. True enough, the Führer and his commanding officers decided strategies and implemented battle plans. True enough, the field commanders and their officers waged the war. True enough, the Landsers and the Panzergrenadiers did the killing and the dying. But, also true enough, no one did anything without the efforts of Heinz Eisenbraun and others like him. Eisenbraun needed no award, no thank you, no public acknowledgment of his worth. His own awareness was enough.
Eastbound Reichsbahn 42 arrived promptly at 0600. By 0630 it was laden with fuel and water. By 0654, all supplies destined for Munich or Tusa or Gnossen were off-loaded. And by 0700, troops climbed aboard for the long, tense, ride through Poland and points east, to the vast, savage lands of the Soviet Union.
Eisenbraun watched the rear lantern of the departing train grow smaller in the distance even as he heard the whistle of another approaching on the same line. Eastbound Reichsbahn 69, 0708–seven minutes early. Already replacements for Guderian’s II Panzerkorps were lined and waiting, many with families and sweethearts to see them off. In a scene Eisenbraun witnessed every day, two lovers held one another as the train slowed, then stopped.They embraced at the edge of the station platform, kissed and clung clumsily together, the Landser’s field pack, rifle and helmet in the way. Awkwardly, her soldier pushed her back to arm’s length and held her head between his hands as he gazed into her eyes–pretty eyes, hazel and misty with tears. She was young, lovely, sad and, no doubt, more desirable to her Soldat, her young lion of the Reich, because of that sadness, a sadness that spoke to his importance to her. There was something essentially German about the scene, about parting, about turning away from the face of love, of happiness, and embracing one’s bloody duty; the bloodier the better. There was something Wagnerian about it.
Eisenbraun watched the sad, beautiful woman give her lover over to the embrace of the Wehrmacht, to the embrace of the Valkyries. The soldier, too, was moved. He pulled her close again and gave her a final, meaningful kiss just before taking his place in the line of infantrymen bound for the Moscow campaign.
Eisenbraun noted all this, but he was unaffected. Romantic demonstrations were only touching for so long. When one witnesses such partings dozens of times a day, one becomes a bit inured to the drama of separation. Even if he were inclined to sentimentality, it was much too early in a day that would be filled with many, many partings.But it was not beneath him to admire the sad young women as they reluctantly pulled away from their soldiers. For that matter, it was not beneath him to comfort the young ladies if such opportunities presented themselves. And they always did. Rank has both its privileges and its attractions. Tonight, tomorrow, the next day, with the taste of departed love still on her lips, one would smile shyly, accompany him to dinner, accompany him to bed.
Such was life.
Eisenbraun did not invent the game nor could he avoid being a player. Besides, the fidelity of women was totally beyond his control–or anyone else’s. It did not seem to him that his own ex-wife had wasted a moment waiting for his side of the bed to cool.
Four Soldaten came out of a side passageway, pushing a cart loaded with supplies into a staging area. They chatted and laughed about something and, for a moment, he envied them their camaraderie. He recognized Meyer, a hard-working young man with an irrepressible good nature. Meyer looked up and grinned at Eisenbraun as the officer paused to let them pass.
“Excuse us, Major,” Myer said. “We didn’t see you.”
Eisenbraun returned the young man’s smile and waved his hand for the crew to pass. “Happy Christmas, sir,” one of the others said.
Eisenbraun clumped along the boardwalk parallel to the eastbound tracks, tracks that ultimately lead into the Soviet Union. The “chuffing” sound of the steam engines, the scream of whistles almost drowned out the shouted goodbyes of women left behind, almost drowned out the vows of love and fidelity that would last until the next group of handsome Landsers arrived. How nice to be young, foolish, naive enough to believe such promises, to think they would last a lifetime.Eisenbraun was no longer young. At least not that young. He was forty-two years old. Though he did not consider himself particularly old, he was old enough to abandon the fancies of invincibility and happily-ever-after love. He was not really envious, not at all. After all he, too, had once confused himself with such things and now his mind was clear, his thinking straight. Those along the eastbound rail line did not know.
The feelings that would last a lifetime steamed into one’s life on the westbound lines, the lines that led back into Germany. There mothers, fathers, wives and children waited at the final stops along those railways. There, the Reichsbahn brought the handfuls of worthless iron and ribbon to place on mantles and drape like shrouds over old photos; brought the empty condolences of the state, the missives that drove grief like a weapon into hearts that would never heal. The westbound lines brought pain–not the sweet pain of separating lovers that was forever tempered with the hope of future joy, of reunion, of happy endings, but the pain of unbearable loss, the ending of worlds. The dead traveled the westbound lines, along with bleeding, ruined wreckage of once-vibrant young men. The westbound trains brought despair into the presence of disbelieving eyes, into disbelieving minds that could not understand, could not accept nor reconcile the ideas of sacrifice and duty with what they beheld. Medals did not replace children; empty speeches did not replace laughter, connection; and duty did not diminish the pain that would last a lifetime.
Eisenbraun saw them, these destroyed parents, destroyed wives, saw them as they walked about in shock, in disbelief, in a death more subtle but every bit as final as the death that swept daily through the ranks of the soldiers in Russia. He could do nothing to change that either. So Eisenbraun kept his mind upon the Eastern rail as much as he could. That was his responsibility anyway. Move the troops, supply the troops and move the troops again. He took his work very seriously. Never did he want it laid at his door that even one Landser died at the front due to some oversight, some incompetence, some hesitation on his part. He did not care at all for even the idea of personal responsibility for bringing the devastating agony of loss to anyone. Instead, he thought of himself almost as an agent of life, a savior, not in the religious sense, of course, but in a more practical sense. He took pride in the fact that none of the troops on the Eastern Front would die for lack of ammunition to defend themselves, for lack of medicine, or blankets, not if he could help it.
Sometimes, of course, he could not.
God, what a bloody fucked-up lot, we Germans.
The day promised mild temperature and high blue skies, fairly rare and always welcome this time of year. Towns all over eastern Germany were resplendent in their Christmas finery and every rail station along the route bustled with support efforts for the Eastern Front. Eisenbraun stopped for a moment and watched as other efficient members of his supply units moved masses of supplies from the warehouses onto loading platforms. Move the troops, move their supplies, move the troops again. It sounded simple enough perhaps, but only to those who had never done it.As the troop train pulled away, soldiers shouting, singing and waving from windows, Eisenbraun lit a cigarette and watched the final send off. Family, friends and lovers again smiled and waved, blew kisses, tossed bouquets of out-of-season greenhouse flowers festooned with Christmas ribbons and berries and the ubiquitous swastikas that were stamped upon every aspect of German life. Christmas, 1941 was less than two weeks away and the celebrations this year had a decidedly nationalistic theme. Christmas decorations included the federal eagle nesting inside the tinsel, the swastika cradled in a wreath of holly, stamped upon the crates of supplies, printed upon the wrapping paper and boxes that were presented to the soldiers at the front.
Gleaming brass swastikas were fixed upon the fronts of the Reichsbahn engines, swastikas fluttered upon flagpoles along every street, adorned the facades of every government and military building, and were part of every military, police, or government official’s uniforms. There was, of course, the exception of the Gestapo officer who walked silently up beside Eisenbraun and also lit a cigarette.
“Good morning, Holtz,” Eisenbraun said.“Heil Hitler,” Holtz responded with a half-hearted wave of a salute. Like Eisenbraun, Holtz was a bit too heavy, a bit too soft, to fit in well with the trimmer Soldaten who swarmed the platform throughout the day. But unlike Eisenbraun, Holtz did not have to concern himself with how well he fit into a uniform. Holtz wore a rumpled gray wool suit and brown raincoat that did not complement one another at all. He looked rumpled in every way a man could look rumpled, with clothes that looked slept in, shoes that needed shining, hair that needed attention and a shave that was always two days behind. His wire-frame glasses hung crooked on his face and made him almost appear comical–almost. Edwin Holtz was born a policeman and his sleepy eyes in a face as wrinkled as his suit, belied a sharp mind and a surprising sense of humor. His position in the Geheimestaatspolezei notwithstanding, Holtz was one of the most likeable dangerous men Eisenbraun knew.
“So, Major,” Holtz said, without looking at Eisenbraun. “Have you purloined enough coffee and jam to share with a tired old cop who needs help to start his heart.”
“Might that not be an act of sedition? Bribery of an official? Might not that tired old cop shoot me in the head as an enemy of the people? Right after he’s finished his coffee of course.”
Holtz took a deep drag of his cigarette, nodding his head seriously. “Under other circumstances, Major, perhaps. Right now, I haven’t had enough coffee. Besides, there are too few people left in the Reich who aren’t absolute tight-asses. I would hate to detract from those who have a sense of humor.”
The Gestapo man’s delivery was understatement, matter-of-fact. Eisenbraun smiled, almost chuckled, but he was unsure of Holtz’s intent. The man could arrest him and ship him away to a Konzentrationschlager just as easily as chat with him about the weather–and without changing his tone of voice. Eisenbraun was not at all sure if the man was his friend.
“Walk with me, Heinz,” the Gestapo man said, taking the Major by the arm. They walked a few steps along the tracks and two Kettenhunden “chain dogs” of the Feldgendarmerie fell in behind them. Holtz offered no instructions to his minions but the bulls, obviously adept in the art of providing their keeper his space, allowed a distance sufficient for privacy.“Forget that foul brew in the station break room. Why not kill two birds with one stone? I have both hot coffee and hot files at my office. Let’s consider it getting rid of evidence.”
“I like you, Major,” Holtz said, as he and the Major casually about-faced past the two gendarmes who followed faithfully along as if such sudden changes of direction were something which escaped their notice.
Good for them, Eisenbraun thought. Obliviousness to changes from above was no doubt a survival skill that everyone in the Reich would do well to learn. Yesterday Russia was a friend, today Russia is an enemy. If tomorrow she were to be a friend again, it would be in one’s best interest to take no note of the inconsistency. This, too, was life in the thousand-year Reich.
They walked most of the way in silence, content to enjoy the mild conditions. The pleasant smell of wood smoke from Eisenbraun’s chimney could be enjoyed from some distance but as Eisenbraun stepped aside for his guest to enter, the aromas of coffee, sausage, bread, jam and cinnamon bolted from the doorway like live things to overwhelm Holtz and his escorts. Holtz made directly for the coffee pot, hardly acknowledging at all the proper, to the book Nazi salute that Gefreiter Mohr gave him.
“Where’s Captain Dorfmann, Corporal?” Eisenbraun asked, picking up a file from his desk.
“He is seeing to the security of a load of medical supplies, Sir. He should be back soon.”
“Mmm-hmmmmm,’ Eisenbraun said. He nodded toward the chain dogs who still stood in the doorway. “Take these gentlemen to the kitchen and give them coffee and a bite to eat. I’ll come for you if I need you.”He joined Holtz, who had made himself at home with a pastry and coffee at the table where Dorfmann and Eisenbraun usually took their meals. The Gestapo man removed his glasses to wipe away the condensate fog on the lenses.
“Bloody, goddamned annoyance, poor eyesight,” he said. “Fortunately, my hearing is much better.”
Holtz was quick to see the concern on Eisenbraun’s face which was no real trick. The anxiety was plain enough for the most obtuse of bulls.
“I am not one to carry tales, Heinz, but I think of you as a friend.”
So Holtz considered him a friend. That was good and Eisenbraun, relieved, was still wary. He had done nothing illegal, nothing wrong that he was aware of, but that was little solace.
“Here I am, a glorified shipping clerk who’s so bloody lousy at skimming supplies that I’ve already attracted the attention of the secret police. How inept. I’m being investigated?”
Holtz smiled, but he did not miss the forced delivery of the nervous Major. “Relax, it’s nothing like that. The Gestapo, as an organization, is not at all interested in you but, as I said, we do have ears.”
“What do you mean?”
“It seems, my good man, that you have no knack at all for politics.”
“Two weeks ago, you upbraided a captain in front of his men. You humiliated him. You put him on report.”Eisenbraun was surprised. “Of course, I did. But you would have, too. The man was a disgrace. He had been drinking on duty, failed to supervise his crew and had important shipments, shipments vital to the men at the front fucked up in every possible way. We had trains backed up halfway to Munich. What I said, I meant. And, really Holtz, I don’t know what has been said about the incident but I can assure you it was nothing of consequence.”
Holtz nodded as if he understood completely. “It was nothing of consequence to reasonable men, my friend, men such as you and I, but his mother’s sister is married to a high-ranking party official from Bavaria. Someone who knows Hitler himself. And that cow is most unreasonable.”
“Dear God, she’s making trouble for me?” Eisenbraun asked, now clearly alarmed. “She’s making trouble for me with Hitler himself?”
“Nothing quite so dramatic. Rest assured that the Führer has his hands full with Stalin and hasn’t time to waste on drunken captains who run to their mothers like little girls. But the aunt . . . well, she is a bit shrill and her husband is a high ranking official and he does have to live with her.”
“Bloody hell, man,” Eisenbraun said, “will you get to the point?”“The point is that we should make time to have a drink or two and enjoy ourselves, my friend. In a couple of days you will called to General von Kurtzenbach’s office and given new orders. Don’t give any of those bureaucratic pricks along the way reason to take pleasure in your surprise or your reluctance. Fuck them. Don’t try to justify anything either because it will do no good. Pack your bags, Heinz, you’re being reassigned.”
Eisenbraun said nothing but he could feel his face go white.
Holtz crushed his cigarette beneath his boot, finished his coffee, and shook his head as he looked at the stricken Eisenbraun. He put the cup on the table and leaned forward on his elbows.
“And, for God’s sake, don’t let anyone see you looking like that. It’s not like you’re going to Russia.”