Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Disillusioned German Soldier - Poem "Death in a Polish Woods" by Wayne Lanter

Christal Cooper

Christal Cooper

Death in a Polish Woods
by Wayne Lanter

                Legend tells of a German soldier who, rather
                than kill innocent Polish civilians in a
                woods on a November afternoon in 1939, took
                off his uniform and stood with the condemned
                and died with them.

These fifty-five years I think of him since that
gray Polish afternoon when as a child on this side
of the world

I was spared by time and space and history the
of war, where all of life is thrown into sharp relief,
a matter

of either/or that some may live a lifetime
and never face
or have to endure, the torture of splitting
in moments

what the balance may contain of fortune, future,
of good
and bad, right and wrong, in which mistaken choice
or failure

can derange a mind so thoroughly, so without repair,
it may wander
for a life-time the pitted regions of loathing, of

rotting with rancor and despair. And of this man,
this mensch,
what is there to say? The story claims he wasn't
the youngest

soldier sent out that day, and so we should not speak
of youth
and ideals alone, nor was he known for bravery.
He was older

than most but not an elder. His understanding of the
"larger picture"
was slow, at best, he suspected little, believed his

held faith in the Fuhrer's grand design to bring
all of Europe
beneath a common mind, the plan inscribed so

in Hegel's absolutist hand. So we should not think
too much
of wisdom and guile. Physically small, even
as Bavarians

of that time go, not handsome, unmarried, no intentions
to speak of,
given on occasion to introspection, taken from
a mountain

village, inducted into the army, his training
was brief
but thorough, a good soldier, he obeyed, by no means
a fanatic.

Competent but taciturn, he arrived in Poland
on a notion
soldiers would show less concern for languages
they did not know.

That he spoke low German may have proved the reason
why he was
dispatched that chilled November morning with the

to guard a prison-labor detail. That day as a child
of seven
I played in sanctuary longitudes, the sun hung
heavy in a haze,

the hemisphere of innocence edged by ancestral woods
where a hawk
huddled with a broken wing beneath a fallen hickory
hooked my hand

with her beak when I tried to touch her, opening
a splash
of bright blood. I screamed the hawk's scream.
They filed

away from camp sometime after six o'clock on Polish
Independence Day,
twenty-six civilians with picks and shovels, thirty-
three in all,

the guards at a distance to either side, three miles
to Poznan Woods
and there as directed on a line marked out between
the trees

they began to dig. All morning they continued. The work
was slow,
backbreaking, warm despite the chill. One by one
they paused

to remove hats, vests, their worn and tattered jackets,
or shirts.
They wore civilian cloths, thin black street shoes,

of business men, ministers, lawyers. One man, a dentist,
stopped entirely
to rest on his shovel, and cried. A boy, maybe fifteen,

prodded to his feet by a Mauzer muzzle. His hands
blistered and peeled.
The shovel handle was slick and red with blood. Then
no one spoke.

The only sound a thud of picks, the scrape and pitch
at the shovel's edge
as dirt raised on a ridge beyond the trench. At noon
the sun

came through the clouds and far away to the north
he could see
fields already dressed in winter coats of snow.
A hawk hung

above the valley on invisible currents. And then
it seemed he
was farther from home than he had ever been. But
what moment

it came to him these men were truly condemned,
would not live
out the day, there is no way to say or fathom,
even if

he recognized it as such. But surely he did. For
he had seen
the handbills stuck to kiosks and lamp posts
in the town,

the lists of those chosen to be hanged or shot,
their offenses
real or invented. At lunch with three comrades
he walked

into the woods from where the prisoners worked
and there
removed from his rucksack his issue of bread and wine
and ate

in silence while the others talked. One noticed that
he watched
the prisoners, and made light of the entire affair,

to the workers in the pit, drew his finger across
his throat
as if it were a knife, and grinned. By early

he began to calculate what he might do and live,
or how
he might die. The trench was already waist deep
when he approached

the officer in charge, saluted, requested permission
to speak.
"These men do not deserve to die," he said. "They
harmed no one.

The Fuhrer would not agree." The answer, "Yes,
the Fuhrer
would agree. They will be treated fairly for what
they have done.

Deutschfeindlich gesinnt. Long live the Reich."
The Captain
directed him resume his post and so he did,
we might assume,

somewhat assuaged, his faith in the Fuhrer renewed.
he believed, they would not harm civilians. These
were not men

of arms, but villagers, taken from bed at night,
with the excuse that they would be used in the war effort.
After all,

it was said, the Reich needed every working set
of hands
it could find. There had been stories of such killings,
but he could not

get in his head the greatness that was all of Germany
would condemn
innocents to die for no reason but accidents of birth.
He continued

to think, to brood, on paradoxes. The chill, the sun,
the men, the boy,
the hawk, the fields sloping away from the woods.
It seemed to him,

in how they worked, the slow falling arch of picks,
placement of each shovel as it struck loose earth,
the prisoners

knew something he did not. And it came to him again
that men
with rifles have but one purpose. This stuck in his mind
and multiplied
with uncommon rapacity and then, in late afternoon,
the order came
to collect the picks and shovels. The trench by then
was nearly

deep as the tallest man and the anguish of his
the weight of the impending afternoon, came full circle
in his mind.

There was nothing now that could be said, no word
to stay
the execution. Here he might have made a soldier's
show of it.

No doubt, if he had chosen to turn his weapon
on his comrades
several more would have died. He considered this,

his rifle first at one, then at another. But
it was killing
that appalled him, and so he did not. Instead, as if
to dispatch

an enemy with a bayonet thrust, he brought his Mauzer
forcing the muzzle deep into the hard ground,

the weapon standing point, a single sentinel. With great
meticulously, he was a tidy, well-trained man, he unbuckled
his belt,

took off his overcoat and hung it on the rifle stock.
He settled
his kettle helmet on the sagging coat, creating that
ominous scarecrow

of war, the remnants of metal, wood and cloth that testify
to the true
rewards of men gone surely mad that warns off no one.
As if to keep

a vigil, behind the scarecrow facade he sat on fresh earth,
pulled off
one boot, and then the other. The boots lay where
he dropped them,

flat, pointed opposite directions. His shirt and trousers
he unbuttoned
and discarded without much care, for now, we should know
he had been so outraged,

his heart so thoroughly betrayed, his honor damaged so,
by what he knew
was surely to transpire, that there was nothing left
in him

that he would want to save. His small possessions
that day
were a Mauzer rifle, an overcoat and helmet, his
ammunition belt,

boots, a rucksack with half a bottle of wine, a bit
of bread.
The trousers and shirt he stripped away as if to expose
his heart,

to show, what there was of the world gathered in the woods,
on that hill
that late afternoon, the soul of the man the cloth had
meant to control.

The soldier to either side regarded him with alarm.
One took his arm.
He wrenched away, tears in his eyes, but he did not
break or cry.

Clearly, they thought he would run to the deeper woods
and they
would have to shoot. "Think," one said, "think of your

What will the people say?  Da ist nichts zu befurchten."
"I have been
thinking all day," he replied.  "And this is what I thought.

The conversation ended with a command. "Auchtung."
The soldiers
froze at port arms and he stepped forward dressed
only in socks

and shorts, a gray undershirt, and slid into the pit
to take his place
in line. And there he stood, for a time, exposed,
shaking in the cold.

I removed my coat and settled it on the hawk that did not
struggle now,
but permitted me to carry her the half mile home across
exhausted fields.

The dentist took his hand. In brief the Captain
what to do. Insubordination would encourage desertion
and death.

With this the prisoners, too, knew fully well what all
that day had hung
in their heads. Several dropped to their knees to pray,
to beg,

others cried, their screams and wails echoed across
the barren snow
encrusted countryside. By week the hawk grew stronger,
in eventual time

set to wing. The November of my scarred hand healed,
but even
today burns red, inflamed with the volition and design
of the hawk's mind.

In a frail voice the boy began to sing "God Who
Protects Poland."
One by one the others stood and joined in. The dentist
held his hand,

but all those miles from Bavaria, he could not understand
the words
of this song. The Captain raised his hand, called to
the firing line,

hesitated again, then reports of rifle fire filled the woods.
The anthem fell
silent by degrees, one third, half, the song ended. And

because some in the squad had served to execute civilians
their accuracy was less than true. In keeping with orders
the Captain

drew his revolver, walked along the trench, sich einsetzen,
and shot those
who were not yet dead once in the head. Then all in the pit
were silent,

motionless, lying where they fell, to be buried in the grave
they dug that day,
expect for one, who went unyieldingly to what others
prepared for him,

not as a gift, but accepting it, to compensate
the outrage,
his grief at having fallen to this dark wood,
this desolate

and desecrated ground, bound as he was by what
he could not be
and therefore what in the horror of his mind that afternoon
he had become.

They died, as it was said "Ausgezeichnete Haltung."
The Captain
took the rifle, helmet, ammunition belt, the rucksack,

his boots. The picks and shovels were collected
by another
detail. The trench was filled and spread with pine

And because no one who survived the afternoon
would soil
his hands, or consort with a deserter, an enemy,
those relics

of heresy, of failed conversion and death, the clothing
was left.
It shriveled down, encrusted in the mud and snow, and

with a complement
                of seasons,
                          rotted into the ground.

Deutschfeindlich gesinnt - to be of a hostile mind towards
Da ist nichts zu befurchten - there is nothing to fear.
Todeskandidat - a doomed man.
Ausgezeichnete Haltung - excellent conduct or bearing.
Sich einsetzen - to put into action or to do one's self.

by Twiss Hill Press
Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter

Photo Description and Copyright Information

The German Disillusioned Soldier
Photographer Unknown
Date of photograph 1944-1945

Public Domain

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