She was in her 50s back then, still an attractive women to look at, very pleasant to be around, gentle and placid, a lady uninvolved in the brute rush of—men. She spoke softly, sometimes seemingly unaware of the import of her anecdotes, such as the story of the nice young man she had a slight affair with many years before, shortly after the war, a nice young man from Denmark, a young man who’d been conscripted into the German Army, who’d been reluctant to join, who’d gone to the tropics afterward to live a quiet life as a hand on a riverboat in the jungle. She looked still surprised when she told me the other young men on the boat didn’t like her boyfriend, there being no reason she could see for them not liking him, he being attractive and nice, courteous and kind. The other young men on the boat tormented him, seemingly for his time in the army, which she felt was unfair to him, he having been conscripted. And she sighed and looked dreamy when she said he fell overboard one evening and was caught in the boat propellers, how awful it was to see him like that, how she’d never forget him. “He was so nice, you know.”
I do know. I recall laughing out loud when she told me that. I knew some “nice old men” who were nice. I laughed then; I could laugh now. We might all in time know others of various sorts who claim this or that, those who believe for or against; and in the muddle of Wonder we could come away with stained and dirty faces all of us looking much the same.
Over the course of the long way through the years I’ve met nice men and not so nice men, some of whom of either kind weren’t much of either mostly. Some I’ve met have claimed their innocence, which makes me laugh; and I’ve met others who claim they want only justice, which makes me howl. Those I meet, each and every unique one, all the sons of their fathers.
Hemmingway did it, and so too did Kosinski, between them Sven Hassel doing it in a book I’m reading this evening. They italicize parenthetical narratives. Before ‘our heroes’ stand the giddy old lady at the wall and shoot her, let me step back a bit and bring out the fathers of our children, anecdotal and italicized.
‘Look, they can do what they bloody well like,’ declared the youth, vaingloriously certain of himself. ‘I don’t give a tinker’s damn for any of ‘em. Far as I’m concerned, they can go and get knotted.
He was sitting on the draining board, his feet in the sink, eating pickled gherkins from a jar. As he spoke, his companions solemnly nodded their agreement and approval. The house was full of young people, boys and girls, all very vociferous and very sure of themselves; sure of their ability to stand out against authority and of their willingness to face death rather than fight for a cause they did not believe in. On the chairs and the tables, stretched out on the floor, squatting in the corners, in the kitchen, the salon, the bedroom, this band of young rebels shouted their agreement.
‘It’s not our war!’ cried a disembodied voice from beneath a table. ‘We didn’t start it, we don’t want it, and we’re not going to fight it!’
‘People are dying every day, in their thousands, and the poor fools don’t even know what they’re dying for—‘
‘They torture them at the Gestapo. People are scared to open their mouths and tell the truth anymore,’ declared a young girl who was not quite as young as she looked and was doing her best to seduce a nervous youth who was still a virgin.
‘Well, I’m not scared!’ screamed a fragile-looking creature from his position on top of the unlit stove. ‘When my turn comes to be called up I shall tell them exactly what I think of them!’
‘Hear, hear.’ Muttered his companions, while the nervous youth took off his spectacles and vigorously polished them, rather alarmed at his won daring at being in such company.
‘What happens if the Gestapo comes?’ queried some faint-heart sitting in the passage.
‘Let them come!’ A young boy seated on the kitchen table, who was in the habit of declaiming dramatic poems that he learnt by heart, threw wide his arms and faced them challengingly. ‘Let them come! What do we care? The world is our oyster… and this land is our land, because we are the future! They can’t force us to fight and destroy ourselves!’
One Sunday morning, five months later, their weekly meetings were brought to an end by the sudden arrival of three men. Three men in leather coats, wearing shoulder holsters.
The nervous youth, who greeted their appearance with shrill screams of hysteria, was silenced by one sharp slap across the face.
The young girl who was not so young as she seemed, and how never had succeeded in seducing him, managed to spit out a couple of obscenities before she was kicked in the stomach and pushed to one side.
The boy in the sink had moved to the bathroom and was making love on the floor with his girlfriend. They were separated with a few well placed prods with the butt end of a pistol and sent downstairs to join the others.
The poet wet himself with fright the very moment the intruders arrived. He offered no resistance of any kind.
In a long line, shuffling single file with their heads hanging, fifty-two boys and girls left the house and entered two green coaches that were waiting outside. The world was their oyster, but fear was an unknown quality and they were meeting it face to face for the first time.
For three days they were retained at Stadthausbruke No. 8. Their treatment was not particularly harsh, but it was enough to simply be there; it was enough to learn the meaning of fear and to understand that courage had no place in their lives. Courage was for those with power.
After three days they were put into uniform and sent off for training. Several died during the preliminary courses of instruction; some through accidents, others because they chose to. And as for the rest, they battled on and tried to come to terms with their new situation and their new selves; tried to grow reconciled to the fact that when it came to the point, they were no different from all the other poor idiots whom they so heartily despised.
They didn’t want to fight. It wasn’t their war. They hadn’t started it and they didn’t believe in it. But they fought, just the same.
That’s a passage from my second-favorite Danish Existentialist philosopher, Sven Hassel, Assignment Gestapo. London: Corgi Books, 1965; trans. Jean Ure, rpt. 1973; p.p. 110-111.
Nice kids, likely. Nice young men, nice old men. One drops here, one drops there, 52 drop; all drops in the River of Time. And still the level lowers.