lunes, noviembre 12, 2012

1945: The Lost Woman

Sometimes we resist without really knowing why. Maybe it’s not about love for our own life, but for the countless lives yet to come.

The Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park is a quiet cemetery located in the valley north of Hollywood, almost in the threshold of the Bob Hope Airport, and close to the biggest movie studios that has ever existed in the world.

Emi asked Fran, her partner, to visit the place without giving a reason, and he obeyed without asking for a reason because this was Emi’s trip: a reward for a tough year when she had faced two major losses in her life. In previous days, they had been down the wide boulevards of Los Angeles, its malls, its suburbs, the beaches of Malibu, and many other things that they would barely remember, always following the wishes of Emi. 

That sunny morning they were completely alone there, so he decided to follow her again but silently through a sea of metal plates embedded in the grass while trying to control his curiosity.

It was the cemetery sector dedicated to war veterans. Just a piece of land whose simplicity contrasted with the neighboring ostentatious tombs.

In the sky above, the relentless traffic of the neighboring airport insisted on trying to return them to reality; she, however, lost in her own thoughts, seemed to float away while looking for a very specific place.

Finally, they stopped in front of a simple marker on the ground with an inscription on which had accumulated some glitters:

NOV. 23, 1905 † SEPT. 15, 1972

And she kept silent. Fran left her alone for a moment and, upon returning, he watched her leaning over the plate and saying goodbye with a slight shake of her head. They returned to the car and he drove for a while until they left the city behind. He asked her if she wanted to talk, but she just smiled and looked at the sea. He knew she would do it slowly later on when she felt ready, so he did not insist.

Then, as they walked along Point Dume —one of the most beautiful beaches of Los Angeles—, Fran turned to Emi with a funny face and said cheerfully, pointing at something on his mobile phone:

—Hey, listen to this! Did you know that the final scene of the movie Planet of the Apes was shot here?

But Emi did not respond. Instead, she sat on the beach and invited him to do so besides her. He did it again without question. Then, for a while, she spoke by the first time of Lore, her grandmother. Fran may pretend an educated interest at first, but he soon became truly captivated by the story and all it meant for both of them.

Back in Barcelona, Fran decided to investigate further. So he learned that after the collapse of the Third Reich and Nazi Germany in May 1945, and in retaliation for the annexation of their territory by Hitler, about two and a half million Germans — called Sudeten Germans — were deported by the new Czechoslovak authorities from their homes in Bohemia to Germany and other places. 

Deportation continued until 1948, sparing only those who had distinguished themselves by their struggle against fascism, were crucial to the industry or simply were married to an ethnic Czech. But if the revenge on German blood civilians was terrible, the vengeance on those who —in one way or another— had collaborated with the Nazi invaders was so fierce that it painted in red the Liberation Spring.

As they sat in the sand on that beach, she remembered how Lore used to talk about many things, but never mentioned a word on her youth. One day, however, being very old and seeing her little girl turned into a grown woman, she decided to tell her a truth that she had kept hidden even to herself for too long.

Lore told, for example, how she volunteered to become a Helferin, female assistant to the Luftwaffe, with other young people from the proud Nazi BDM —Jutta Rüdiger’s League of German Girls— and how she was transferred to an antiaircraft warfare training center at Rendsburg, near Kiel. There she met Emi Huller, a girl from a good family who suddenly found in the vital and strong Lore her ideal companion. Both were selected to study practices at Stolpmünde, a beautiful fishing port in the Baltic Sea about three hundred miles to the east and away from the rigors of war.

With many other Helferinnen, she learned to handle all sorts of electronic and optical devices to detect enemy planes. So, by New Year’s Eve 1945, Lore and her dormitory mates were assigned to an air defense center under construction in Prague, the SS Flak Abteilung Alarm Prag. Lore was very happy to be finally destined to active service and wrote to her parents with the news. However, war reports were increasingly worrying. Before leaving, all permissions were removed. That year, 1945, there was no Christmas.

When Lore and Emi finally reached Prague, they met other Dutch Jugendhelferinnen eager to get into action. During the following weeks, her training was no longer limited to the handling of screening instruments, but went on to comprise all sorts of weapons, including antiaircraft guns, once all useful men had fallen in the battle field or been sent to the Western Front.

The situation of the two young Helferinnen worsened rapidly as the Czech revolt against the Nazi occupation was gaining in virulence, and the barracks they were living in soon got under constant sniper fire. The Prague Declaration as Lazarettstadt, banning the entry of soldiers in the city, put the group of women in danger of being massacred by Czech militia or Russian troops who were already in and around the capital.

In early May, Keitel —who after the suicide of Hitler had held the rank of field marshal in the provisional government of Admiral Dönitz— had ordered license all women of the German armed forces to prevent them from being made prisoners of war. And in Prague, the German High Command announced that they would blood drown any uprising. But it was just too late. On May, 6th, the Prague radio kept repeating ciphered messages about the uprising: "It's six o'clock". The clashes in the capital between the Wehrmacht forces and insurgents were of an extraordinary violence and lasted for several days. They ended suddenly when the anticommunist Russian allies —until then under the command of Hitler— decided to switch sides to try to surrender to the Americans, ignoring that the land split between Stalin and Roosevelt prevented the Yankees from marching in the capital. And when they realized it, they tried to reach the American lines that had stopped halfway between Prague and the neighboring Pilsen.

Also part of the Deutschland Regiment stationed east of Prague near the airport Ruzyne tried to reach the American lines. However, only a few succeeded. Most of them, German and Estonian boys, were killed by Russian or partisans on what survivors later called the Czech Hell.

Fortunately for Lore and Emi, a regiment of the Panzer Division Das Reich managed to reach the city and could help them to escape escorted by soldiers to join groups of civil and military German refugees in a convoy of more than a thousand vehicles towards Pilsen on the evening of May 7.

That must have been the longest night for the two young women.

They moved quickly through fields and villages to keep away from the Russians until, early in the morning and near Rokycany, they encountered soldiers riding motorcycles from the Second Infantry division of the United States. That meant that perhaps they would narrowly escape the Russians, but then there were the partisans, the Czechs themselves. They knew they were in the final hours of the Second World War in Europe, but also that the crimes committed during the occupation years may payback at any time, with or without a ceasefire.

Lore and Emi were so exhausted they sat on the edge of the road with a group of German soldiers to rest and warm up. Without realizing it, they found themselves in this place, surrounded by onlookers talking in Czech and watching them but not daring to approach until a peasant approached the group and spat them. Lore knew what that meant and tried to flee, but was caught immediately under a terrible rain of blows. People used whatever they could find at hand: blades; sticks; farm tools. Lore, appalled, could see her companions hunted down one by one and beaten savagely to death.

For Emi and herself they had reserved a different fate: they dragged them to a nearby barn and then, hidden from the view of others, thrown them violently to the ground. Emi, knowing what would happen next, said goodbye to her friend prompting the group of men to avenge on her first, so that Lore could have at least a chance. With her face bathed in blood and tears, Lore escaped listening at her back the piercing screams of Emi, which aroused further loops of revenge from her captors.

Lore could barely remember anything of what happened next, except that she ran as never before, not knowing which way to go. However, as often happens when we allow ourselves to panic, Lore had run in a circle and landed directly on her pursuers. Exhausted, alone and in pain, unable to open her left eye that had received a sharp blow, looked at the crowd that had already cornered her, and behind them, half hidden under some straw bales, she could peer the motionless body of Emi. She thought mourning, but determined that she barely had time for anything else save, perhaps, to remember that distant summer of 1943 in which, in a barn like this, Lore discovered love. Although she had acted like an idiot then —now she realized— trying to follow Stephan by enrolling herself in the Luftwaffe with the distant hope of meeting him one more time. She never saw him again.

And now she was there, with her best friend dead next to her and herself about to follow the same fate.

The sun was overhead, and Lore had no way of knowing that at 12 o'clock that very same Tuesday, May 8, 1945 World War II had ended in Europe.

Lore told her granddaughter how, at that precise moment when she was resigned to her fate, she heard engines noise, and how their persecutors, hearing them, vanished without a trace. A jeep stopped by, and a tall, dark and burly man in his forties with a thin moustache, who was apparently looking at a map, stared at her from top to bottom with an expression of surprise.

Obviously, he got wrong in the detour to Ejpovice.

It was not a young frontline fighter, but neither seemed a senior officer. The man asked her, pointing to the map something in a language that Lore could not identify. She was so terrified she could barely move her lips when she realized that the newcomer had just taken care of the situation to see hover Emi legs and was inviting her into the vehicle in desperate indifference, while the driver of the jeep was looking for his gun. These men would not dare to attack Americans who were partly to credit for their own liberation, but neither would let their prey to escape easily.

So they immediately got up and left the place. The morning breeze was caressing Lore’s face as the jeep was avoiding occasionally small columns of prisoners. She was deeply immersed in a kind of post traumatic shock and barely blinked despite the bright sun lit up her face.

After a while, they stopped at the side of the road to meet with other American soldiers.

Lore walked down the vehicle, absent and silent. She did not want to join any group. The man smiled at her carefully, as if he were doing it to a wild gazelle fearing to frighten her away. She had never seen a smile like that but, dismayed and confused as she was, she fled his eyes because she was feeling guilty to be alive while the body of her little friend Emi, who she would consider capricious and spoiled, remained alone in the barn after given her life to allow her to keep hers in a foolish act of altruism. When she finally decided to look at him, she was surprised to see a badge on his arm representing the head of an Indian chief.

—You are very beautiful— she would remember how the man would compliment her; but she was startled to be targeted with a film camera. Schöne, you’re schöne... —the man rectified.
Amerikaner? —she replied almost inaudibly and pointing at the Indian head. No doubt he was someone connected to the film industry, she thought.
—Yeah! Hollywood, Hollywood! —he answered jovial, delighted to have found a common ground with this creature that seemed out of this world.
—Clark Gable? —The cameraman snorted, surprised that even there they knew about the old Gab—. Of course. He is a soldier, too —he went on—. Chocolate...? —He gave her a bar—. But keep it to yourself —with some body language he asked her to hide it to prevent children from stealing it, and in exchange for the sweet, he immediately set to film her without further permission.

But she was not offended. Obeying without question, as she had been trained, Lore was moving defiant in front of the camera with the elegance and restlessness of a caged feline. Then the girl pulled out of some hidden pocket in her pants a small notebook with some notes of 100 crowns, completely worthless that had gone unnoticed by her attackers, and showed them to the American.

Pilsen, Pilsen! Bitte, prosím! Russische Soldaten, nein! —She repeated desperate in a mixture of German and Czech. The American ignored the offer without stop filming her, guiding her arms as a filmmaker would guide his actress.
—Now come to me. Do not be afraid, baby... you SS daughter of a bitch...

But she did not answer. Her expression, however, was changing every moment, as if thick storm clouds —occasionally crossed by sunbeams— were covering her mind. The cameraman had trouble understanding her, and certainly her look would have no chance in the world of entertainment, but still he was fascinated by this little creature of haughty yet fragile look. Her statutory pants, keilhosen, had lost almost all its buttons. She wore hanging straps, and her messy hair and black shirt gave her the appearance of a ridiculous little tramp.

Then she pulled her now dirty blonde hair shaping a small ringlet on her forehead. It's funny —the American thought — how a woman subjected to this tragedy can still show signs of flirty femininity. But finally she hid her face in her hands when she saw refused her little bribery and perhaps her last hope for survival. Finally, he took pity on her. He gave her a tissue that she quickly applied in her left eye and left her gather with other refugees to rest by the roadside until the arrival of the column of soldiers from Myto.

By the time of separation, the man handed her a small penny. She looked at the coin, confused, and handed it back. But he somehow managed to make her understand that it was just a friendly gesture to wish her good luck and observed that she had a severe contusion on her right hand she was not complaining about, so he closed her left fist instead around the small coin.

Then they parted. Well... actually the man just got to see her get on a truck with other prisoners. She remembers that she did not turn around, but in an unexpected gesture, and certainly one he could not decipher, she briefly patted his hand with her right hand as she walked away, even when that meant a huge pain for her.

Lore was then transferred to one of seven refugee camps in the vicinity of Rokycany. Along the way, his heart skipped a beat when his vehicle crossed the village where his companions had been killed. She was also surprised to see the bodies of two men surrounded by locals. Lore was told that a soldier had killed them while they were raping two women. Propaganda. Over the following weeks they lived in the open, with no roof, because in that field there were only a few tents. And there was not much to eat; sometimes nothing at all. Although she could feel lucky to be alive, life was still extremely hard. Only in the field alone where she was, there were two rapes by American soldiers in those days.

She was then transferred to a barracks in Prague where she stayed for weeks until she finally received the coveted American Ok to return to Germany. She was transported to Munich and from there she sought her parents. Then she married and had two children. One of them, Ula, born in 1962, graduated in medicine and had Emi —named like this after an quick, yet never justified, request from Lore— and her two sisters.

This tale fascinated Fran so much that he, moved by a strange impulse, put some words in an Internet search engine, and what he found left him paralysed. He compared the images that Emi had shown him of her grandmother in her youth with a mysterious woman who appeared briefly in a documentary of the time and whose identity had been debated for decades.

Analysing the evidences, Fran could not avoid the conclusion that this brief encounter on that road near Rokycany had been recorded on film tapes that ended archived and gathering dust in Washington for decades. And it was not until much later that some television channels chose precisely the appearance of Lore in numerous documentaries about the war as a quintessential representation of pain and disorientation of a conquered people. Groups of historians —both professional and amateur— set about the task of identifying the mysterious woman, comparing her to the famous Afghan girl from National Geographic. However, this fact, known in the family for years, had never been revealed and nobody wanted to undermine Lore’s right to privacy… not even after her death in Munich at the age of 82.

It was much easier for researchers to identify the man who filmed the scene. It turned to be Oren William Haglund, an aspiring writer and assistant director who in 1942 became part of a unit dedicated to developing educational and propaganda films for the U.S. Army, the First Motion Picture Unit. Oren’s contribution was not limited to handling the camera but he also served as self-defense instructor in Hollywood luxury barracks where the creation of the unit was forged. Among its illustrious collaborators were Frank Capra or Clark Gable —who was said he was the favorite star of Adolf Hitler— and with who Oren bore a certain resemblance.

Despite so many accumulated honors in his service record, Oren was a minor contributor, and quietly returned to the United States after having the rare honor of attending — again, accidentally— the victory parade of the Russian troops in Prague held the day after his brief encounter with Lore. A few months later, was discharged from active duty to resume his modest film career.

Before the war, he married Priscilla Lane, an actress and singer who had gained some notoriety, but she left him next day! After that, Oren never married again. Neither did he achieve success in the film industry, although both in the First Motion Picture Unit as in the civilian life he worked alongside people like Ronald Reagan —future president of the United States— and, furthermore, to our knowledge, never met Lore again. Finally, at age 66, alone and without a coin in his pocket, he passed away in San Bernardino, California, with an association of veterans defraying part of the expenses of the funeral.

Sometimes, watching her, Fran wondered what would have happened without the sacrifice of that other Emi who died in 1945... or if the man had not decided to take that detour. Maybe, Oren thought that all his life was in vain… that his whole life was worthless. But in that small gesture —although he never really realized it— he saved a life. In fact, both Emi and Oren saved countless lives. Sometimes, Fran thought... without Miss Huller, without Mister Haglund... Emi would not be there with him. And he… without her… would not be himself.

—What did you put in the grave of that man...? —Fran had asked her when they arose on that beach in California, shaking the sand off their clothes.
—A penny. My grandmother Lore promised him to return it —she said…