When I finally picked my head up from preparing the reprint of “Eva’s War: A True Story of Survival,” which documents the plight of the German people at the end of WWII, I found that in the here-and-now my country seethed with protest, sometimes violent, over police brutality, racial profiling, and cover-ups of both. It has been 25 years since “Eva’s War” was first published and 70 years since the events it describes, yet it remains painfully relevant on many levels. With respect to Baltimore and the other cities that have seen protests against institutional injustice, we are given the stark contrast of pre-war Germany’s bullied-into-obedience citzenry.
From Eva’s War Ch. 16, in which German citizens, along with the rest of the world, learn about the concentration camps and wonder if they should have known…
When I returned to the big room I found all three in a heated discussion. As I filled their cups Helmut said angrily, “They’re just plain lies.”
Irene’s voice sounded depressed. “I’m afraid they’re true.”
“It’s probably all exaggerated,” Manfred said.
I put the coffee pot down. “What are you talking about?”
Suddenly, there was silence. The two men wrinkled their brows.
“The Allies say millions of inmates were killed in the concentration camps,” Irene said….
“Supposedly, some of the camps were extermination camps,” Manfred said. “They contained gas chambers in which the inmates were gassed to death.” The image of an atrocity of such enormity could not be absorbed immediately by anyone.
“It’s a bunch of lies!” Helmut yelled.
“I don’t believe it either.” Manfred’s voice was calm but firm. “Where are those camps supposed to be?”
“In Poland and Southern Germany,” Helmut answered.
“Far away from Danzig,” I said. “Thank God we had nothing to do with it.” Not realizing it, I was accepting the accusations. “Who did the killings?” I asked.
“The SS, Hitler’s handpicked elite,” Helmut replied.
The image of those black-uniformed tyrants, who’d worn a skull and cross-bones on their caps and lapels, rose before me. “Everyone feared them,” I said. “But who would have suspected them of mass murder? It’s unbelievable.”
“There are even pictures in today’s newspaper,” Irene said. “People who look like living skeletons.” She got up, stepping over to the corner of the room. She picked up and uncrumpled a newspaper, putting the front page before me.
I stared at the huge black letters, which seemed to jump off the front page:
GRUESOME DISCOVERY: EXTERMINATION CAMPS
INMATES GASSED TO DEATH
CREMATING FURNACES FOUND. MILLIONS CREMATED
GERMAN NATION MUST FACE TRUTH
POPULATION ORDERED TO SEE HORRIBLE EVIDENCE
Two pictures, somewhat blurred by the low quality of paper and printer’s ink, showed Allied soldiers standing before collapsed but living bodies, who were no more than skeletons. Reality. Cruelty. Atrocity. “Oh my God,” I whispered. No one spoke. The silence seemed to confirm the accusations. Shaking my head, I said, “I can’t cope with it.” I looked at Manfred. “Mass killings! No! No! I can’t believe it!”
Manfred took several sips from his mug. “We don’t know what’s true and what’s exaggerated.” He put his mug down with a clang. “When we listened to enemy stations during the war the Allies broadcasted false propaganda — like our own government. We’ve been lied to for years. I never heard anything about what happened in the camps. And we’re supposed to believe them now?”
“But what if all this is true?” I asked.
“Everyone knew the camps existed,” said Irene. “But knowing what was going on inside was a different matter.”
“My cousin Franz was in a concentration camp for a year,” I said.
“What had he done?” Helmut asked.
“He was a Communist, got drunk in a bar and sang the Nazi anthem in parody.”
“Did he tell you how it was inside?”
“Of course not. You know yourself, everyone upon release had to sign a paper that they would never talk about their experiences in the camp. If they did, they’d be returned. Everyone knew that.”
“We brushed it aside,” Irene said. “Do not trouble your head about others; what we don’t know doesn’t harm us.”
“And now we have to pay for this attitude,” I said.
“If it’s true,” Manfred said, staring at the pictures, “then we must carry this horrible crime on our shoulders until we die.” Immersed in our thoughts, no one spoke.
Still shaken, I could not give up on the topic. “How much did we actually know about the camps?”
“Not much beyond that they were prisons for dissenters,” Helmut said. “And that they were impossible to escape from.”
“The fact that talking about what went on inside was strictly forbidden, should have told us something,” Irene said.
Helmut snorted. “It did. But we had other things to do. Our mind was set on fighting the enemy.”
“Our duty was to be good Naval officers,” Manfred said. “Besides, curiosity was dangerous. In a dictatorship all negative information is very effectively suppressed. It never reaches the population.”
“We were too intimidated,” Helmut said. “All Germany was, and later, all of Europe.”
Manfred hesitated. “I’m not sure I ever felt any fright.”
“We just dismissed fear from our consciousness,” said Irene. “Along with all the rumors we heard. That was the path of least resistance.”
Manfred shook his head. “I think we treated the rumors as we treated the propaganda. We felt it was a waste of time. As children we were trained not to pay attention to our neighbors. Later, in the Navy, we were taught not to pay attention to politics. We were tightly knit groups with our interests limited to the Navy.”
“Kind of living in a golden cage,” Helmut said.
“Rather like in a wildlife zoo,” Manfred said. “Only the bars weren’t visible.”
“We all lived that way, didn’t we?” I said gloomily. “Well-fed and protected by the lords if we were obedient and agreeable.”
“Of course. A good citizen never interfered with the government… Helmut began, and Irene continued, “…good sheep have no responsibilities.”
“I can tell you how rebellious sheep were treated,” I said to Helmut and Irene. “The Gestapo summoned me two years ago.”
“Tell them,” Manfred said.
From Eva’s War Ch. 17, Eva remembers being interrogated by the Gestapo:
I knocked at door number 378.
Someone opened the door from within with force — not for me, I soon discovered. A petite middle-aged woman in cheap, unfashionable coat and hat was chased out of the office, followed by an SS man who yelled at her, “You damned asshole, don’t tell us any of your lies!”
The woman’s motherly features were distorted by fear. How could anyone shout at an older woman — a respected figure in our culture! — I wondered. I felt like putting myself in front of her to protect her. Before I could do anything the SS man quickly took her down the hall.
The door had stayed open and a tall, black-uniformed SS officer commanded me: “Come in!” I stepped into a large room with carved dark-brown office furniture and leather armchairs of the same color. A bespectacled SS man sat behind a typewriter, motionless, apparently awaiting orders. Next to him, a young, slender SS man bent forward, staring at me, never taking his eyes off my face.
An SS officer in his tailored black uniform and red armband with swastika sat behind a huge desk and rose as I entered. Looking thirtyish, he had an almost pleasant face.
I looked at the skull and cross-bones on his jacket lapels as he asked me: “Frau Krutein?”
“Please, take a seat,” he said, pointing to the comfortable leather chair across from his desk. We both sat down.
He hadn’t introduced himself but I saw the small brass plate on his desk. “Dr.Wolf. Lawyer.”
A long interview began. Wolf asked questions about my life and my education. I answered and the puppet behind the typewriter typed my answers into his machine.
The staring man became a great nuisance to me. His function obviously was to observe the delinquent persistently. After a short time I felt so nervous from his staring I had to make a strong effort to hide my irritation. I had no idea what charge they would bring against me.
After two hours of interrogating me, Wolf picked up a piece of paper. “This letter has been brought to my attention. Did you write this?” He passed it to me.
I recognized my handwriting, read the words and remembered. It was a letter I’d written to my father when he was on vacation six months ago. One of my sentences was underlined with a red pencil — by someone else.
“Yesterday, some Army shark came to our factory to draft our last workers.”
Suddenly, I felt a chill colder than ice crawl up my spine and knew I was condemned. I had used the derogatory term “shark” for an army officer. A crime unheard of and unpardonable. I knew people who had been sent to concentration camps for lesser offenses — perhaps even the poor woman who had been chased out of this office before I came in. Maybe I’d never see Manfred again, or my parents.
“Did you write this?” the lawyer asked again.
“Explain what you mean by ‘shark’,” he commanded.
I sighed. It was so hopeless.
“Answer my question!”
I searched for words. “I meant,” I began, “I meant we felt terrible that he drafted our last workers. We hardly knew how to go on with production with not enough workers…”
His hands clutched the edges of his desk as he started to shout at me. “You stubborn Frau! Do you know what you are? A defeatist! You are an enemy of the German people! With your behavior you damage the people’s will to victory! You as a citizen of Danzig should be grateful that the Fuhrer led you back to the mother country Germany!”
Oh, how I wish he hadn’t! We would still be free. I know I was never obedient, neither to my mother, nor at school, nor to the Nazis. And now I had to pay for it.
“Do you know what you are?” he screamed. “An abscess that we’ll squeeze out! A cancer we’ll cut out! You know what it means — concentration camp!”
I had known it all along. This lawyer meant business. The end of my freedom. I became aware of the man whose job it was to read my thoughts and emotions from my face. Powerless, I let him see them. There was a silence in which I expected the inquisitor to push the button to call his henchmen. I held my breath.
Yet with a lower voice he spoke again. “There’s only one fact that might save you. Your husband is a Navy officer. He’s devoting his life to his fatherland. For this we might save you.”
A straw, a totally unexpected straw! Oh dear God!
“If you sign a letter, we’ll let you go,” my accuser said. Anything, I thought, just to get out of here. I nodded.
The lawyer motioned to the typist. “Write: ‘Out of stupidity, I, Eva Krutein, have used a derogatory term in regard to our outstanding, courageous Army and I am overwhelmed with remorse. I implore the Gestapo to forgive me and grant me probation time, in which my future behavior will be observed. I promise never to use subversive language again; otherwise I shall be sent to a concentration camp.’“
I signed the letter and he released me.
Eva lends credance to our image of the dutiful German, unquestioning of authority. At what point did national pride blind sensible people to even the possibility that those figures who wielded authority so bizarrely were sociopaths? How did folks become so fearful and isolated that, although individuals did perceive the wrongs of their government, they would not join together to speak out in protest?
In a democracy we go to the streets together, take collective actions – we’ve got each other’s backs. There is safety in numbers and in numbers – enough numbers – we cannot be ignored. As for the violence, I do not condone it. I also do not condone the bazillion (give or take) arsons, shootings, assaults, explosions, car wrecks, and fights that fill our cultural landscape 24/7. Channel surfing for fun is more often like going to war. So, a CVS on fire? The media ate it up. Destruction, violence, bad guys, uniforms, and product placement all in one killer clip. They couldn’t stop showing it…
We interrupt our regularly scheduled car-bombing-homicide-abduction-detective-drama to bring you a city in flames…. (“Now that’s incendiary, baby! Go ahead, roll it again…”)
No doubt, angry residents of Baltimore – probably more of them – would still have been in the streets without the looting and arson. But what about the media? Would they have made as big a story of it? Maybe those “thugs” performed an unfortunate but necessary function in the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” department. They brought the eyes of the world to the situation the way, in today’s culture, only wanton destruction can do.
On to “thug” as racial code word… Give me a break. My first thought, upon hearing it used several times, was: Wow, they’re really going out of their way to be mild – to not call the kids criminals, arsonists, rioters or hoodlums (emphasis on the hood). Thug? In my book, that’s about one step above bully (or shark!). It is obviously an attempt to cut the bad players down to size, make them less threatening, less significant. “Just a bunch of thugs.” But the racist white media gets a hold of that and, because they see black people behaving badly and have a label they would like to use but can’t, they use “thug” to introduce “the N word” into a conversation where it would not otherwise arise. Touche! I’ll see your burning drug store and raise you Thug. Anything to avoid talking about why all those people are so mad.
The thug business put me over the top. Once again, it was so ironically close to all that is cherished by Hollywood screenwriters, you might almost think the whole thing was scripted – not real at all, not serious. Score another point for weapons of mass distraction.
Call me a patriot. I love the freethinking, truth-telling, rebellious spirit of the U.S. I am not equating our police force to the Gestapo; but then, I am of the privileged class here, untouched thus far by law enforcement methods and not under their gaze. I am grateful that government in the U.S. is supposed to be under scrutiny of the populace and not the other way around. I’m relieved to see that even in the electronic age we are still taking to the streets – in fact, we’re more connected and better able to organize than ever.
There is another protest we should also be engaged in that does not involve marching. It will require everyone to consciously reject and avoid the excessive racism, sexism, greed, violence, and physical and emotional abuse that characterizes our popular entertainments. Stop spending money and time on desensitizing, demoralizing, demeaning crap. If you crave action, drama, life-and-death struggles, conflict and violence, love and sex, heartache and redemption, you can read history. The difference is that the real stories, or based-on-real stories, or realistic stories, make us care instead of numbing us, make us better informed instead of befuddled. If “Eva’s War” teaches us anything, it is that we can’t afford to be fuddled by propaganda, to be numbed by our own creature comforts or to be frightened by “jackbooted thugs.” (Ah, so there is a racial connotation to the word, after all – I believe that refers to white supremacists.)
We are all complicit; we are all capable of change; when we stand up for each other, we achieve true freedom and equality.
Editions of EVA’S WAR
The FIRST EDITION, 1990, is being re-issued for international distribution in May 2015. Watch your favorite online vendor for availability.
The E-BOOK EDITION, 2013, is available in all formats from Smashwords.com or your favorite ebook vendor.
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