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31 December 1944
Behind Russian Lines
Some days were better than others for Colonel Johann Faust. There were days when he didn't think about it for hours. There were occasional nights when he actually slept without nightmares. Once in a while he woke up without thinking about Anna first thing.
Today was not such a day.
Faust crawled forward, slowly and carefully, so his weight against the snow make no sound, nothing to signal a heavily armed soldier pressing down on a foot of freshly fallen snow. He stopped, lowering his face into the cold snow, trying to shock himself back to reality.
No, not now! Not here!
He lifted his face from the whiteness. Frozen crystals fell from his cheeks as he shook off the snow that had melted from his body heat, instantly refreezing among the tears he hid from his men. Faust took a deep breath, slowly and deliberately turning his head. He saw his two men, clad totally in white, crawling behind him. Their weapons, StuG 43 Assault Rifles, were wrapped in white cloth, as were their boots. The only non-white items were their warm Russian fur caps, the best headgear for prolonged periods in the freezing cold, covered by the hoods of their white parkas. Lying in the snow, they were practically invisible.
Satisfied with their pace, Faust thought of the mission, his responsibility calming and focusing him. They had a long way to go and he could not allow his emotions to take over. He exhaled in relief as the desperation passed, careful to not send a plume of telltale frozen breath sailing into the air. He crawled on at an agonizingly slow pace, aware that the slightest abrupt motion could be picked up in the peripheral vision of an alert Russian sentry.
Faust was aware of the pressure lurking within his mind, barely contained. It had been there for months, growing and feeding on itself, since he had received the news. News that he had hoped would never come. News that he knew he was partly responsible for. It came from East Prussia, the eastern-most province of Germany, on the Baltic coast, where his family was counted among the minor nobility, living in the deep Prussian forests at the outer reaches of the German border.
His fiancée, Anna von Seydel, was from an older, nobler, but slightly impoverished family on a neighboring estate. They had been inseparable as children, playing each summer in the fields and gardens of their family homes. As they grew, their fondness had blossomed into love and they had looked forward to a life together, living amongst their families and the familiar green hills of East Prussia. It seemed to them that fate had joined them, and that nothing could stand in their way. As he thought back to those days, Faust could smell the freshness of Anna's long blond hair in the sunshine and the fresh scent of the pine forest in springtime.
But then war came, delaying the grand wedding their families had planned. At first, it seemed as if the conflict would be brief, and victory certain. Instead, defeat in North Africa followed defeat at Stalingrad, and the fates seemed to laugh at the young lovers. There was no wedding, no return home except for one short leave and later, another to recuperate from wounds. Faust had begged his parents to leave East Prussia before the Russians got too close. They refused to listen. Faust's father had taken his wife's hand, gently cupping it in his, and said it was quite simply out of the question. They had lived through the Great War, he said, and would live through this one too, on the family lands.
Faust pleaded with Anna to convince her family to leave, but she failed as well. Her parents were also stubborn, bound to the ancient soil. They had been together for one last dinner party, the last night of Faust's leave. The candlelight of the dining room still sparkled in his memory. His mother, her dark hair streaked silver, her favorite strand of pearls around her neck, laughed and worked hard not to show her deep sadness at her only son's departure. His father, broad-chested, with close-cropped hair and a handlebar mustache, toasted his son and future daughter-in-law, and quietly patted the arm of his wife, reassuring her with a gesture, all he had to give. Anna's mother told stories of watching the Czar's cavalry ride by during the last war, their uniforms as dazzling to her young eyes as their prancing horses. Perhaps Stalin's army would not be as proper, but they would find a way to cope, wouldn't they?
Faust remembered holding his tongue, knowing that he had failed to convince them they must go. He knew things they did not, things he had seen which convinced him the Russians would take a terrible revenge when they came to German territory. To East Prussia. He choked on the memories, ashamed to admit to them, to all the death, savagery and destruction he had witnessed and contributed to on the eastern front. It was not the war his father had fought a generation ago, and he had no wish to tell this proud man his son had the blood of innocents on his hands. Instead, he sat quietly, drinking excellent wine, listening to those he loved convince themselves the Soviet occupation would be unpleasant, but survivable, knowing all the time that if it was anything like the German occupation of Russia, the ground of his homeland would be soaked in blood.
Faust blanked out these thoughts as he crawled to the base of a large pine tree, its limbs coated with thick white snow. He signaled to his men to rest for a minute under the cover of the low branches. Sitting up, he looked from where they had come. It was beginning to snow, the white coating already hiding their tracks.
Excellent, he thought, enjoying the cat and mouse game of this reconnaissance behind enemy lines, the physical thrill of spying on the enemy, and the respite it brought him from the demons. He heard the sound of engines from the next ridge, and knew they were close to their objective. He tried to relax, knowing the short distance to the ridgeline would be the most dangerous part of the approach. Looking around, he breathed in the stark beauty of the green firs rising from the snow-draped landscape. Just like home.
As soon as that innocent thought slipped out, Faust knew it was a mistake. Memories of Anna in winter played out in his mind, joyful and alive against the pure white snow. He feared he would not be able to quiet them.
Please, no ...
The last time he had seen her was in winter, late in the season, the coming of spring and the Russians both a certainty. On that visit, there were no candlelit parties. Anna's parents were ill, suffering from the cold and the lack of proper food. She refused to leave them. He ordered, argued, cajoled, begged and pleaded. Nothing worked.
His parents were nearly as desperate, living in two rooms to cut down on the firewood needed to keep warm. He had walked through empty hallways, mirrors covered in frost, a chill cast over the scenes of his boyhood. Their remaining servants all crowded into a single room, only the old, very young and sick left. His parents refused to abandon them, refused to leave their home and the people who depended on them. He finally extracted a promise from his father, that at the first sound of artillery, they would leave and head west, on horseback, on foot, whatever it took. His father agreed, and Faust forced himself to believe they would go.
He was forced to depart early, another breakthrough on the Russian front canceling all leaves. At the railroad station, Anna had kissed him good-bye and told him not to worry. He had smiled and promised to come back for all of them when they were well, and the emergency at the front was over. They both knew his orders might not allow it, but they pretended it was true, holding hands until the train started to move and Faust jumped aboard, gazing into Anna's blue eyes until a blast from the engine threw up a cloud of steam, and she was lost to him.
He did not want to think about what happened next, instead signaling one of his men to stay at the fir tree, to provide covering fire in case they needed to beat a hasty retreat. He crawled out from under the branches, his body tense and alert for the sounds of sentries on patrol. Eyes darting over the landscape, he tried to refocus on the mission, not the agonizing thoughts of Anna in the hands of the Russians.
The knowledge of what had happened to her and to his parents was burned into his brain. One of his father's stable hands, a tough old man of seventy-five years, had seen everything, and then walked over the hills to Anna's home to warn them, arriving in time only to see a second terrible tragedy. He alone survived the ordeal, escaping west and eventually finding Faust, telling him everything.
The old man had gone after a stray horse, leading him back through the woods when he saw the Russians surround the house. They took the horses from the barn, and the people from the house. They shot all the male servants. Faust's father was strung up by his ankles and hung over the barn door. They left him alive as they raped his wife, two young servant girls, and an old woman. The Russians lined up, ten or more for each woman, spread-eagled in the snow. Screams of rage, anguish and protest rose up to the old man's ears, and then faded to sobs and moans. When they were done, they shot all the women. Then they looted the house, and set fire to it. Only then, as they left with their horses and valuables, did they slit the elder Faust's throat, his blood soaking the soil, as his son had foreseen.
It was different at Anna's home, different only in that the Russians there didn't burn the house, since they intended to stay. The old stable hand had been captured and beaten, then forced to work for the Russians. His first duty was to remove Anna's parents from their sickbed, where they had been shot, their end at least quick. Anna, they kept for days, a company of Russians raping her repeatedly. The old man told Faust how she had called for him, screaming his name into the night when they came for her, Johann, Johann, Johann.
Finally, how she had broken free and found the only escape possible, jumping through a fourth story window, smashing headfirst through the glass to the cobblestone drive below.
Johann, Johann, Johann.
Sometimes Faust could hear her. It happened often in his dreams and it had begun to happen when he was awake. It was happening now. A gust of wind blew through the branches of the fir trees, and in the low murmur of pine needles he heard the mournful sound of Anna calling his name, over and over and over again. He stopped, pressing his hands to his ears. Still he heard her. It took all of his willpower to start moving again, to not cry out her name into the wind, to not seek her out amidst the green swaying branches.
Guilt ate at him. If he had been honest, if he had confessed all he had known, all he had done, perhaps they would have left. Perhaps it would have been enough for all of them to rise from that dinner, pack their belongings then and there, and head west, away from the Russians and their revenge, away from their son and his crimes.
But he hadn't. He had remained silent, and now everything he loved was gone. More than gone, it was desecrated, humiliated, tortured, tormented, betrayed. Silence had allowed the crimes to take place, and silence had brought retribution. He could almost admire the horrible symmetry, the near perfect balance between the evil he had served and the evil he had wrought.
He made it to the top of the ridge, mentally exhausted, feeling the tension course through his body. He felt as if he might explode. The mission. He had to stay focused on the mission. A quick hand signal brought one of his men forward. As he reached Faust, he pulled a camera from inside his parka, his eyes widening as he took in the sight before them.
The faced a small valley running between two ridgelines, a roadway plowed out, and camouflage netting set up on either side. Rows of artillery pieces were parked along one side, towed artillery of all sizes, including powerful 152mm howitzers, invisible from the air. On the other side of the road were trucks and ammunition crates, Katyusha rocket launchers, and T-34 tanks. Camouflaged anti-aircraft emplacements ringed the valley.
Faust had been certain the Russians were building up for an offensive in this area, and here was the proof. This artillery park held enough firepower to shatter the German line at any point. The camera made tiny clicks and whirring sounds, eerily out of place in the forest, as Faust counted the artillery pieces. He made notes of the number of each type, estimating what he could not see beneath the netting. As soon as he was done he gave the photographer a look, silently asking if he had enough pictures. Getting an affirmative nod, they began crawling backwards down the ridge, to the relative safety of the cover beneath the fir trees.
Faust felt an initial joy and relief at finding his objective, quickly tempered by the thought that he would have preferred to be wrong. Once the Russians unleashed this offensive, it would be the beginning of the end. The rest of Germany could soon expect the same treatment as Anna and her family had received in East Prussia. Occupied with the slow and methodical crawl through the snow, it took Faust a minute to realize that the voices were gone, and no thoughts of Anna tortured him. The intensity of the last few minutes had washed it all away. He felt clear-headed, alert, and in control. It was a blessed relief.
Minutes later, the two re-grouped with the rear guard man and caught their breath. Faust watched the fat snowflakes coating the trail they had left. In less than an hour there would be no trace they had been here. He nodded his head to each man, a job well done. They followed him out, back to the German lines.
Coming to where they had hidden their snowshoes, Faust judged they were far enough away from the artillery park to speak in a whisper.
"Karl, is the camera safe?"
"Wrapped up like a baby inside my parka, Colonel."
"Good. Stay between us. Wilfred, take the lead. We must make good time. I want to be back to our lines before dark." It was already past noon, and the winter darkness would descend in a few hours.
For the first hour, they made good time. They moved through stands of pine trees and skirted open fields, keeping to the low ground. During the second hour, fatigue started to set in, the dull, repetitive trudging on the snowshoes wearing on Faust, allowing his mind to wander. Anna's face appearing in his mind, beautiful and smiling, gazing into his eyes. Then her smile turning to anguished screaming, screaming out his name, screaming for help, for mercy, until finally it was an endless shrill and piercing scream ripping into his soul.
Faust gripped his assault rifle until his hands shook, telling himself the screams weren't real as he looked around, as if Anna were somewhere close by, and if he could only run to her he could save her, rescue her from the hands of the Russians.
"Do you hear something, Colonel?" Karl had turned around to see Faust swiveling his head, looking in every direction.
"No ... I thought I did ... but no, it must be the wind."
"Quiet as a church in these woods, Colonel."
"Yes, yes it is." Faust spoke quickly as he let his grip on the weapon loosen. He was breathing hard, stunned that he had nearly asked Karl if he heard the screams. Frosted air flowed out from his lungs in quick bursts, matching the rapid thumping beats of his heart.
I must be losing my mind. God help me, what should I do? What can I do?
Colonel Johann Faust was a decorated professional soldier, experienced in combat. He had killed often, many times close enough to smell the sweat and fear of his opponent. He had learned how to put away the love he felt for Anna and his family, how to close them off so he could win and live on the battlefield. This hard man now walked behind his two fellow soldiers, tears streaming down a face filled with fear and shame, certain that he was going absolutely, totally insane.
As quickly as they had come, the demons receded. Faust felt the calm rational side of himself return, his mind compensating for where it had just gone. The telltale puffs of breath settled into a steady pattern, in and out, matching his strides in the snow. Wilfred signaled a halt, and knelt behind a rock outcropping. Faust went forward.
Excerpted from On Desperate Ground by James R. Benn. Copyright © 2012 James R. Benn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 27, 2012
The title is well-chosen; all the characters are in desperate straits, and it's fascinating to see how Benn weaves their stories in and brings them together to a gripping conclusion. It's a page-turner, but also contains fascinating personalities. The German lovers, Dieter Neukirk and Elsa Klein; the war-weary American operative Mack Mckenzie; the tormented and highly dangerous Colonel Johann Faust, all are full-blown characters caught up in desperate times. The fact that the character of Elsa Klein is based on a real person who aided hidden Jews in wartime Berlin makes the story even more fascinating.
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Posted August 28, 2013
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Posted December 3, 2013
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