Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Visitors

The staff had cleared the big table in the Mess dining room and – as they did every day – polished it until it shone like a new car. Presently, the three white-coated Germans came out into the drawing room and quietly closed the tall mahogany doors behind them.

It was late autumn, around three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in 1952. Out of uniform, I sat alone by the fireplace, reading Friday’s Daily Telegraph, and looked up when Jürgen, the chief steward, stepped forward a little and was waiting to speak.

He was tall, built like a blockhouse, with cornflower blue eyes and blond hair cropped like a Junker. It was easy to imagine him in his black uniform and jackboots, and I hadn’t been surprised when he’d once told me that, promoted from the ranks on the Eastern Front, he'd been a troop commander in an SS Panzer squadron. He added that he’d been wounded and taken prisoner. At Stalingrad he’d said, as an afterthought. They all said that. We rarely met a veteran who admitted he’d fought the British or the Americans.

“Everything all right, Jürgen?”

“Alles in ordnung, sir. We would like to go now, please.”

It felt strange. This man was in his late thirties, a veteran of the Wehrmacht, while I, at twenty-one, had been commissioned only months ago, and had yet to hear a shot fired in anger. But according to the unwritten rules of victory and defeat, he now had to ask me for permission to leave. I thanked him and said they could go and, almost like a drill movement, the group turned in unison and left the room.
The Mess was always deserted on Sunday afternoons. A few of the majors drank heavily during lunch, and took a nap. Younger officers jogged through the frosty cabbage fields in the countryside not far from our barracks, or cycled along the bank of the river Weser, past the stark silhouettes of coal mines that seemed deserted. Some took a trolley car and strolled through the city of Minden, or watched a local game of soccer. Others wrote letters home.

I was about to go back to my quarters across the street when the front door bell jangled beyond the green baize kitchen door. Since the staff had gone, I went out into the hallway and opened the door. Two frail, elderly people, a man and a woman, stood holding hands on the doorstep. The man took off his fur hat and made a slight, deferential bow.

He spoke in German. “Good afternoon, sir. I must apologize for this intrusion.”

We shook hands.

“That’s all right,” I said, “what can we do for you?”

“My name is Helmut Krieg, and this is my wife, Resi.”

He turned to the woman, and back to me. “It’s . . . well, you see, Resi was born in this house and lived here until she went to the university. We live far away and, as you can see, we are old now. My wife has not seen the house for nearly fifty years, and we wonder whether we might see inside it once more.”

Krieg spoke hesitantly, in the softer, less gutteral hochdeutsch, the southern dialect of Bavaria. It sounded much more agreeable than the one we were used to hearing in Westphalia. He was clearly an educated man, and with my school-boy German I could just follow what he was saying, but doubted I could maintain a conversation for long.

“I’m afraid my German isn’t very good,” I said, “Do you or your wife speak English?”

Krieg smiled for the first time. “Jawohl!” he said. “Me, my English is not very good, but Resi still teaches English at the University of Munich.”

His wife, a sparrow of a woman with sad, anxious eyes, had said nothing, but now spoke in almost accentless English.

“Let me tell you something, so you will understand,” she said earnestly. “My family lived in this house for generations. Helmut was a judge, and the mayor of Minden. Mutti died in the 1890s when I was a girl, but he lived until 1912. A few years before, Helmut and I had married and settled in Munich, where I was teaching. I was their only child, but we could not maintain this house, and so we sold it. It was sad, because I loved it and was so very happy here, but what could we do? It was so beautiful, but ever since, for many, years Helmut has promised to bring me back to see it once more.”

We weren’t allowed to let unauthorized Germans enter Army premises, but I was sure they were what they claimed to be. Anyway, what could be secret about an officers’ mess? How could I refuse them?

“I’ll be glad to show you around.” I said. “Come on in.”

Resi had seemed apprehensive and ill at ease until then, but now her big, expressive eyes had brightened with the excitement of a little girl.
She turned to her husband and said in German “There, I told you! And you said it wouldn’t be possible!”

The man smiled. “I also told you, my dear, that it is often not a good thing to go back. It could be strange and different after all these years.”

I took their hats and coats, hung them by the door, and we walked into the drawing room. To them, I thought, the room would seem more like a gentleman’s club than her parents’ living-room. Resi took in the big leather armchairs and couches, the paintings that depicted battles in which the regiment had fought, and portraits of long dead generals. Over the fireplace hung a portrait of the young, newly crowned queen, and her husband, who wore the dress uniform of the Royal Navy. Resi looked up at this and turned away. Her face was anxious again.

Now they stood, apparently waiting for me to move on, and I eased open the big dining room doors and ushered them in.

The room was some forty feet long, and almost as wide. It, too, had a somber masculinity about it. No woman had been involved in its design and furnishing. The carved wooden table, already set for dinner, could seat fifty people. Pictures much like those in the other room adorned the walls between high casement windows with heavy burgundy curtains. Cris-crossed in front of the unused fireplace were our regimental colors, two unfurled, gold-staffed Union Jacks embroidered with the names of past victories from the two World Wars, the Boer War, Crimea, Waterloo.
Resi turned to me. “I would like to see the ballroom, please?”

Ballroom? There was no ballroom, what did she mean? “We . . .we don’t have a ballroom,” I said.

“Of course you do,” the old woman said, smiling, “There is a beautiful ballroom through here! I will show you.”

She stepped ahead of us toward a double door, made of mahogany like the others, but even taller and wider. There was a tarnished brass key in the lock, which she tried to turn vainly. Beside her, I drew the door-handle toward me, and turned the key only with difficulty.

We went in. The room was two stories high, with an elaborate gilt minstrels’ gallery. Dark evergreen trees in the garden outside shut out the dying afternoon light through its grimy, undraped windows. One wall was stacked with wooden crates of Army stores, another with blankets. A rusty bicycle with a buckled wheel lay on the once polished floors of inlaid oak. Up in the lofty ceiling hung the shattered remains of six crystal chandeliers.

Resi’s mouth was open, yet at first I didn’t realize that the sudden anguished wail was hers. The cry seemed to fill the great room. She had turned and was stumbling back through the dining room, and her husband and I followed.

“She is very upset,” he said. “I warned her many times that everything might be different. How could she think otherwise?”

Back in the hallway she had draped her overcoat over her shoulders and was leaning on the half open door, sobbing like a child. Her husband hurried forward and took both her hands tenderly, but she snatched them away, grabbed her coat, and ran down the steps and the pathway toward the street.

Helmut turned to me as he made for the door and grasped my hand. “You have been so kind, and I am sorry this has happened.”

We shook hands and he was gone.

Through the glass of the now-closed door I could hear her screaming, until the sound of a passing trolley car drowned her voice.

* * *

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