Max and Arajs kept the men on the move. The Latvian S.S. men weren’t a problem as they were, after all, men without a home and men desperate to escape the Russians. Nothing except a bullet or Siberia awaited them at the hands of the Russians, so their march discipline was excellent and they formed a tight little group of over a dozen men, well-armed and alert, at the head of the column.
Strangely, considering the circumstances, it was the German contingent that presented the ad-hoc group with the most obvious danger of disintegration. Hansen had anticipated this, as these men were the remnants of remnants of units. Some were rear echelon troops; cooks, transport troops and the like. Others were young recruits, sent as replacements to units that no longer existed, or worse, survivors of units that had been destroyed. Their morale was non-existent and they were constantly dropping packs, weapons and gear from their kits as the slog through the forest grew longer.
Hansen planted his boot in a few backsides, cursed the others and generally ranged along the length of the straggling line pretending to be a bigger arsehole than the Russians chasing them. He kept a particular eye on the men lugging the panzerfausts. They carried the only effective anti-tank weapons this scrapping of a unit possessed and any attempt to abandon the weapons brought a quick, physically and mentally damaging response from him.
It helped that he wore the S.S. runes, but it helped even more that he managed to convince them that he would shoot anyone who couldn’t keep up or dared to abandon his weapon.
Still, the physical state of his men demanded that he halt their retreat more often than he thought necessary or even safely.
Arajs and Hansen studied the map and their compasses during one of the halts as the other men flung themselves to the ground or huffed and puffed leaning on their rifles.
“How many kilometers do you thing we’ll make with this lot before a Russkie tank crawls up our arses?” Hansen asked in disgust.
Arajs shook his helmeted head. “We’d better find some place to hole up in quickly. I’d only trust these my back to these men if we found someplace they couldn’t run from.”
Hansen poked at the map. “Only place to go–Bad Frostberg. There’s a North-South road to it less than a kilometer West. We’ll have to take it or these idiots will collapse. Can’t expect these fat stove-bellies to last long in this forest. ”
“Bad Frostberg?” Arajs said skeptically. “Why is it that we never head for some place called “Green Fields” or “Pleasant Valley”?
Max snorted at the strictly rhetorical question. “I wouldn’t worry about it Arajs, I think we will all be in a place called Heaven shortly!”
Arajs chuckled. After all of these long years and hard fights, his dislike of Hansen had faded away, a thing long dissolved by shared hardship. Equally, Hansen had come to regard him as a reliable and brave “kamerad”.
Arajs never faded in a fight and he never hung behind. If anyone volunteered to take point, it was Arajs. Despite his engrained prejudices, Hansen had to acknowledge the truth of things, especially when the situation was desperate. And he had only rarely been in a situation so desperate as this.
As far as Hansen could see, the front had been blown open for dozens of kilometers. There were no longer even theoretical lines of resistance or coherent German units in the region. If his men were the last scrapings of the barrel–and they clearly were–it was only because the barrel itself, the Wehrmacht in this region of Prussia, was an empty barrel.
Arajs took a hard look around. “I’d still stay off the main road if possible.” He observed.
“These men won’t last. There’s nothing for it. We either lose them on the road or lose them quicker in the forest. “We make it to this town, we dump the weak and continue on with the strong. Agreed?”
Arajs looked deeply into Hansen’s eyes. There wasn’t a trace of deception in them and the hardness in Hansen’s gaze was as palpable as chunk of ice. What Hansen was actually saying was that he intended to get clear of this mess, no matter how many of these nameless recruits and replacements he had to sacrifice in doing so. This was something that Arajs understood perfectly–he intended to save his countrymen, his fellow Latvians, if they could stand the pace and endure the losses, but, in the end, Arajs himself intended to escape the Russians at any cost.
“Agreed.” Arajs said without hesitation. “This is a bad time for the strong and we cannot waste time on the weak.”
For the first time in all of those years and during all of those campaigns, Hansen extended his hand in friendship. Arajs shook it and the deal was made.
An ashen “Papa” Brandt returned to his home in his wagon pulled by his only horse. Out of caution and concern he had checked on his nearest neighbors. His dear wife Anna and his servants, Czsimir and Ursula, anxiously awaited his arrival, huddled together on the porch despite the falling snow. Bringing the horse to a quick halt, he jumped down despite his age and swept past Czsimir and Ursula to grasp his wife’s arm.
“We have to leave!” He insisted. “Our neighbors are gone, gone on the North road–the Beckers, the Steiners, they’ve fled! Everyone is on the North road. Carts, sleds, wagons, all I could see was our folk headed North!”
The urgency in his voice caused Anna to cry. Czsimir and Ursula exchanged quick, if unfathomable, glances.
“Pack the wagon!” Ernst Brandt ordered in a shrill tone that neither of the two Poles had ever heard before. “Only food, blankets and clothes. Quickly! We have no time! Leave everything else–hurry–Move!”
Papa Brandt pulled Anna into the house, shouting at her and ignoring her protests. They had lived together on the farm since their marriage, thirty-four years before. He did not expect her to leave easily and secretly prayed that his firmness and resolution would accomplish what a reasoned discussion could not.
As he rushed her to pack their suitcases, Czsimir and Ursula hurriedly piled blankets on the wagon. The pace of events had caught them by surprise as well, no matter how many hours in the past years they had prayed for liberation.
“We should stay”, Ursula whispered to Czsimir. “The Russians will be here soon, what do we owe these Germans?”
Czsimir looked back at her but was quick to find his tongue. “The Red Army is hardly here to free us! I know, I fought them after the Great War for Poland. For a Pole, being “liberated ” by the Communists is as if the Devil were taking you to heaven!”
A deep frown grew on Ursula’s otherwise unblemished face. She was a strong, healthy woman and her strength of character, while hidden, had by no means been diminished by her years of servitude.
“The Nazis are finished!” She spat out, trying to keep her voice low. “Why should we suffer with them–for them?”
Czsimir, his own heart deeply torn, lowered his eyes as he loaded the wagon. “You think that I’m a coward and I am not. What can the Reds do to me–shoot me? Send me to Siberia as they did my father? Make me enlist? I’m thinking of you, dear girl, only of you. You should think of what they will do to you.”
Ursula, who didn’t feel the snow, felt the chill of his remark. In all of her suffering, through all of the years of being officially a “subhuman” and a slave in Germany, she had managed--sometimes with Czsimir’s help--to keep her womanly virtue intact. She knew exactly what he meant by the remark, through outraged stories from her family before the war and through the rumors that servants exchanged during the war.
“Load the wagon, the Brandts are old and more feeble than you think, girl. We must save ourselves in this war and if it means saving them, then that is what we will do.”
Ursula reluctantly obeyed, her fear demanding one course, her hopes demanding the other, with only her faith in Czsimir tipping the balance.
From the window, Papa Brandt watched the exchange and quickly drew himself back behind the lace curtains when it ended and before either of them saw him. He had already retrieved his ancient service pistol and tucked it into his belt. But, he thought to himself, what good did a pistol do? How, why would he ever use it against Czsimir or Ursula? Could he even consider using it against either of them?
He looked at Anna, whose sobs hadn’t yet broken into the weeping he feared.
Long ago, he had been a soldier and long ago, he had killed enemies of his country. But that was duty and duty was thing beyond reason. Surely his two sons, somewhere, were doing their duty to their country.
Now it fell upon his age-worn shoulders to do his duty, which, being a humble, God-fearing man, could only mean that he must save his household from destruction. And his household, as he realized when he saw the two Poles argue, included not just his beloved wife, but also the man and woman who had kept them from poverty and starvation during the war. In such a situation, he reckoned, an old pistol solved nothing....
Death is lighter than a Feather, Duty is heavier than a Mountain....