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School for Sabotage
A chance to rehabilitate yourself, they had told him. A chance to fulfill your obligations to the Fatherland.
He had been ordered to report in uniform to the army post in Brandenburg, a slow two-hour train ride from Berlin's Zoo station.1 Stations with names like Wannsee and Potsdam glided past his window as the train chugged westward, packed with soldiers returning home for a few days' furlough with their families as a respite from the hell of the Russian front. From the train, the Prussian countryside seemed reassuringly permanent and serene, almost undisturbed by two and a half years of war, a collage of sparkling lakes, village churches with high steeples, children riding their bicycles down wooded lanes.
He took a streetcar from the station to the military garrison, whose old brick barracks dated back to the time of Kaiser Wilhelm. The regimental clerk took him to a storeroom, handed him a set of civilian clothes to put in his knapsack, and told him to take the Quenz Lake tramway to the end of the line. The farm was a ten-minute walk from the tram stop, along a road bordered by a drainage canal on one side and vegetable gardens on the other. The lakeside estate was impossible to miss, the clerk had insisted. There were no other farms in the vicinity.
He got off the streetcar as instructed, and walked up a country lane to a brick gatepost, beyond which he could see a two-story farmhouse at the end of a driveway lined by chestnut trees. Signs posted along the high metal fence warned intruders to "Keep out under penalty of severe punishment by the Law."
As he wandered up the driveway, he caught glimpses of the lake shimmering through the woods. It was early spring: the chestnuts were not yet in bloom, but shoots of light green had appeared on the trees. Patches of snow still lay on the ground. To his left, he could see a converted two-story barn with a high sloping roof, along with some stables and outbuildings. The main farmhouse, fifty yards from the lake, was neat and well maintained, reflecting the Prussian virtues of thrift, hard work, and order.
Several men were lounging on the porch of the brick building as he approached. He felt a little out of place. They were all in civilian clothes, while he was still in uniform.
"You must be Burger," said one of the men, a wiry fellow with a thin face and a streak of gray running through his dark hair, as he extended his hand. "My name is Davis. George John Davis."
A housekeeper showed him to a room, on the ground floor of the farmhouse, which he would share with one of the other men. After changing into the clothes the army clerk had given him in Brandenburg, he went outside to join his companions. The man who had introduced himself as Davis suggested they take a walk around the estate.
"You will be part of my group," the man explained, as they strolled down to the lake, still half-frozen after a long, hard winter. "Eleven men have been chosen to take part in this course. Only the best will be selected to go to the United States."
To outside appearances, Ernst Peter Burger had arrived at a working farm on the eastern shore of Lake Quenz. There was an apple orchard, a barnyard full of cows, pigs, and chickens, and a hothouse where vegetables were grown. Between the main building and the road, just north of the driveway, was a one-story house occupied by the people who looked after the farm. There were even a few children running around. But it did not take Burger long to discover that nothing was what it seemed at Quenz Lake.
In the first place, his new acquaintance's name was not Davis at all, but George John Dasch. Like Burger, Dasch was a German-American who had returned to the Fatherland to take part in Hitler's great experiment. Davis was merely the code name that he would use for their mission.
As Burger walked around the lakeside estate with Dasch, it became clear to him that it was not a farm at all. The barnlike building he had noticed as he came up the drive contained a classroom and a chemical laboratory above a garage. Next door was a gymnasium equipped with parallel bars and weight-lifting equipment. Beyond these buildings, on the other side of a bridge leading across a pond, was an area that looked like an abandoned movie set. It included a hundred yards of railway tracks leading nowhere, an observation tower, and a deserted house, pockmarked with bullet holes and traces of explosives. Next to the railroad tracks, bulldozers had torn a large hole in the ground. The pit was reinforced with concrete and was evidently used for setting off high explosives. At the southernmost end of the estate, beyond the explosives pit, was a shooting range.
The meaning of all this was still a puzzle for Burger. He had volunteered for intelligence work in America, for which he believed he was well suited. During the six years he had lived in the United States, he had learned good English, even though he retained a strong German accent. He felt comfortable among Americans. He had received an honorable discharge from the Michigan National Guard, and had become an American citizen. With his swarthy complexion and slightly elongated nose, he could pass himself off as a Jewish refugee. But how he would get to America-and what he would do once he got there-remained unclear.
The mystery unraveled as he talked to Dasch, who explained that Burger was the last of eleven students to arrive at the farm. Over the next three weeks, they would learn how to blow up factories. They would then be sent to America by submarine in two groups, landing somewhere along the eastern coast. Was he still interested?
Burger barely hesitated. Yes, of course, he was still interested.
They ate dinner on the ground floor of the farmhouse, in a large room overlooking the lake. They then set off through the woods for a drink at a nearby tavern. It took about half an hour to reach the place, and once again Burger found himself walking with Dasch, who began quizzing him about his past. Since Dasch was going to be his new chief, Burger thought it better to admit he had been in trouble with the Gestapo. To his relief, Dasch said he was already aware of that. He had studied the files.
"Tell me your side of the story. The other side I know."
There was so much to tell that Burger scarcely knew where to begin. He was thirty-six years old, and his life had been in turmoil since his return to Germany from America nine years previously. Readmission to the Nazi Party. The elation of rejoining the storm troopers and taking part in Hitler's triumphant parades. The Night of the Long Knives. Clashes between the storm troopers and the S.S. Trips to Czechoslovakia and Poland. Marriage. A trumped-up charge. Imprisonment. His wife's miscarriage. Release from jail.
Burger found it difficult to talk about his seventeen months in Gestapo prisons without indignation. He began to curse Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo, and "the dirty bastards who beat me up." Dasch cut him short.
"That's enough. Don't say anything more. We'll talk about this later."
They changed the subject. A slip like that could have serious consequences. To Dasch, Burger seemed suddenly fearful, "a man haunted by a terrible past, happy and elated one minute and given to moody spells and silence the next."
Despite the secrecy that surrounded the Quenz Lake camp, little effort was made to hide the identity of the school. Burger was surprised to hear his fellow trainees chatting in English when they visited the local tavern or took walks in the countryside, even though Germany and America had been at war with each other for the past five months, ever since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They would often burst into songs like "Oh! Susannah" and even "The Star-Spangled Banner," which they remembered from their days in the States.
The fact was that the people of Brandenburg-like the people of any small German town-had lost all sense of curiosity after a decade of Nazi rule. They had learned to keep their heads down, refusing to notice the most outrageous things that were being done in their name. On Sunday, April 12, the day after Burger passed through Brandenburg on his way to Quenz Lake, the remnants of the town's Jewish population were herded to the train station by half a dozen Prussian gendarmes on the first stage of a journey to the Warsaw Ghetto. As several dozen Jewish families trudged through the town in their heavy winter overcoats, hauling bags crammed with their possessions, local people simply averted their gaze.
It was not just Germans who preferred to ignore what was happening around them. Beginning in 1940, the local Opel plant, a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, had been using slave labor from conquered German territories to replace workers conscripted into the Wehrmacht. Every day, thousands of Poles, Belgians, and Russians were marched through the streets of Brandenburg in long columns to the Opel factory, where they worked fourteen hours a day for starvation wages. Although the American managers knew all about the use of slave labor in their Brandenburg plant, they made no effort to divest themselves of their German holdings, and acted as if nothing were amiss.
It was hardly surprising, then, that nobody would pay much attention when, as Nazi Germany geared up for war in 1939, the country estate of a wealthy Jewish shoe manufacturer on the edge of town was turned over to the Abwehr and transformed into a training camp for saboteurs.
In order to get his chance at rehabilitation, Burger had called in his Nazi Party connections, ties that dated back to his experiences as a street brawler before and after the Munich beer hall putsch of 1923. The coup had been quashed, and Hitler sent to prison, but in retrospect it marked the first big step on the Führer's road to supreme power. The putsch had become part of Nazi folklore. To have participated in the failed street rebellion was a mark of distinction that nobody could ever take away from you. None of the other men, Burger felt sure, could match his knowledge of the inner workings of the Nazi movement.
After his release from jail in July 1941, he had wangled an appointment with Alfred Rosenberg, the party ideologist, and had mentioned his interest in foreign intelligence work. Rosenberg had picked up the phone and called Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr. Canaris passed the message on to a Colonel Schmidt, who introduced Burger to a Lieutenant Colonel Marguerre. The lieutenant colonel called a Major Hotzel, who sent Burger to see a Captain Astor, who in turn introduced him to Lieutenant Walter Kappe.
Kappe, Burger learned, was a former editor of German-language newspapers in Chicago and New York. He had also been a high official in the German-American Bund. Some of the other men at the camp had heard Kappe speak at meetings in Chicago, railing against the Jews and urging his audience to show solidarity with the "New Germany." Fat and jovial, with an eye for the ladies, Kappe was not the kind of man you easily forgot. His flabby face was very distinctive, "a real baby face." According to an unflattering portrait in the files of the American FBI, he spoke English with a strong German accent, which he tried to hide "under an atrocious and unsuccessfully affected phony Oxford accent . . . Kappe likes to play the suave, imperturbable superman but can easily be made to lose his cool."
Kappe had personally screened all the men selected for training at the sabotage school, and had arranged their transfers to Quenz Lake. In Burger's case, Kappe had questioned him extensively about his experiences in the United States. Satisfied with his answers, Kappe made arrangements for Burger to be transferred from guarding a prison camp outside Berlin to a secret military unit known as the Lehrregiment that trained espionage and sabotage agents for the German High Command. The Brandenburg garrison, where Burger was ordered to report en route to Quenz Lake, was an outpost of the Lehrregiment.
Burger arrived at the farm on Saturday, April 11. Since classes were not scheduled to begin until Monday, he devoted the rest of the weekend to getting to know his fellow trainees. They spent much of Sunday lounging around the living room of the main farmhouse, perusing various American newspapers and magazines long banned in Germany, such as the New York Times, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post. The publications, most of which were about two months old, were stamped "Property of OKW, to be returned."14 OKW, Burger knew, stood for Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the German High Command. There were also reading materials in Hindi, Arabic, and various other languages.
The other trainees were all German-Americans who had spent varying amounts of time in the United States. Some spoke good English; others retained a thick German accent. Most had worked in menial occupations in America, such as cook, housepainter, chauffeur, odd-job man. They ranged in age from early twenties to mid-forties.
Dasch turned out to be a character, thirty-nine years old, very loquacious, and full of nervous energy. Before returning to Germany in May 1941, he had spent nearly twenty years in America, where he held a variety of jobs, including waiter, traveling salesman, and manager of a brothel. His English was a little rusty, but he had an extraordinary command of American slang, and would sprinkle his conversation with expressions that seemed to be lifted out of a Boy's Own magazine, such as "check and recheck," "scram," and "blow my stack." He referred to his brain as his "noodle" and people he disliked as "a bunch of nuts." Once he began to talk, it was difficult to get him to stop. Burger noticed that Dasch had the habit of waving his long, gangly arms while talking to people and holding his index finger up to his nose, as if to preempt anyone who might try to interrupt him. Dasch had been selected to lead a team of four or five saboteurs that would include Burger.
The leader of the second group was Edward Kerling, alias Eddie Kelly, a heavy-jawed man with thick wavy hair who always seemed to be smiling. Kerling dropped hints that he was a Nazi Party member of long standing, with a membership number of around 70000, indicating that he, like Burger, was one of Hitler's early followers.15 He had lived in America for eleven years, and had had quite an adventure getting back to Germany. In 1939, after Hitler invaded Poland, Kerling and a few friends pooled their savings to buy a small yacht, the Lekala, with the intention of sailing across the Atlantic and offering their services to the Fatherland. But the boat was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard, triggering a spate of newspaper headlines about American Nazis making illegal trips to Germany and violating the Neutrality Act. The following year Kerling managed to get his papers in order, and returned home on board a regular ship.