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,
of either/or that some may live a lifetime
and never face
or have to endure, the torture of splitting
what the balance may contain of fortune, future,
and bad, right and wrong, in which mistaken choice
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,
what is there to say? The story claims he wasn't
soldier sent out that day, and so we should not speak
and ideals alone, nor was he known for bravery.
He was older
than most but not an elder. His understanding of the
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
of wisdom and guile. Physically small, even
of that time go, not handsome, unmarried, no intentions
to speak of,
given on occasion to introspection, taken from
village, inducted into the army, his training
but thorough, a good soldier, he obeyed, by no means
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
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
of bright blood. I screamed the hawk's scream.
away from camp sometime after six o'clock on Polish
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
they began to dig. All morning they continued. The work
backbreaking, warm despite the chill. One by one
to remove hats, vests, their worn and tattered jackets,
They wore civilian cloths, thin black street shoes,
of business men, ministers, lawyers. One man, a dentist,
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
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
it came to him these men were truly condemned,
would not live
out the day, there is no way to say or fathom,
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,
real or invented. At lunch with three comrades
into the woods from where the prisoners worked
removed from his rucksack his issue of bread and wine
in silence while the others talked. One noticed that
the prisoners, and made light of the entire affair,
to the workers in the pit, drew his finger across
as if it were a knife, and grinned. By early
he began to calculate what he might do and live,
he might die. The trench was already waist deep
when he approached
the officer in charge, saluted, requested permission
"These men do not deserve to die," he said. "They
harmed no one.
The Fuhrer would not agree." The answer, "Yes,
would agree. They will be treated fairly for what
they have done.
Deutschfeindlich gesinnt. Long live the Reich."
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.
it was said, the Reich needed every working set
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
innocents to die for no reason but accidents of birth.
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,
knew something he did not. And it came to him again
with rifles have but one purpose. This stuck in his mind
with uncommon rapacity and then, in late afternoon,
the order came
to collect the picks and shovels. The trench by then
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
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
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
took off his overcoat and hung it on the rifle stock.
his kettle helmet on the sagging coat, creating that
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,
one boot, and then the other. The boots lay where
he dropped them,
flat, pointed opposite directions. His shirt and trousers
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
that he would want to save. His small possessions
were a Mauzer rifle, an overcoat and helmet, his
boots, a rucksack with half a bottle of wine, a bit
The trousers and shirt he stripped away as if to expose
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
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."
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
but permitted me to carry her the half mile home across
The dentist took his hand. In brief the Captain
what to do. Insubordination would encourage desertion
With this the prisoners, too, knew fully well what all
that day had hung
in their heads. Several dropped to their knees to pray,
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,
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
One by one the others stood and joined in. The dentist
held his hand,
but all those miles from Bavaria, he could not understand
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
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
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
his grief at having fallen to this dark wood,
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."
took the rifle, helmet, ammunition belt, the rucksack,
his boots. The picks and shovels were collected
detail. The trench was filled and spread with pine
And because no one who survived the afternoon
his hands, or consort with a deserter, an enemy,
of heresy, of failed conversion and death, the clothing
It shriveled down, encrusted in the mud and snow, and
with a complement
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.
*excerpt from If the Sun Should Ask http://www.amazon.com/If-Sun-Should-Ask-Parables/dp/0983841225/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415848276&sr=8-1&keywords=if+the+sun+should+ask
by Twiss Hill Press
Copyright granted by Wayne Lanter
Photo Description and Copyright Information
The German Disillusioned Soldier
Date of photograph 1944-1945
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