Saturday, August 25, 2012

Uprooted: Part XX Jail Time

On Saturday mornings this blog is devoted to the serialized telling of the Ralph Kand story. Kand, a young man with a withered leg who fled Estonia when the Red Army began its westward march in autumn 1944, had been living in Schrunz, an Austrian ski resort town that hugged the Swiss Alps. With the approach once more of the Soviet advance he attempted to escape to freedom by going over the mountains. This plan was thwarted by Nazi soldiers and Ralph was jailed in Germany.

Jail Time

The cells were located in the basement of the county office building, an old sandstone structure in the vicinity of Munich. A few of the sullen-eyed men who occupied the row of steel cages looked up at Ralph as he was escorted by two Nazi police to his new residence. Here he was given instruction regarding the use of the toilet, the shortage of blankets, the feeding regimen and other practical matters. Each cell had two small buckets of water. Because there was no running water, one bucket was for flushing the toilet, the second for drinking and bathing. As the cell door clanked shut an icy grimness withered his spirit. 

"What have you been charged with?" said the man in the next cell who called himself Franz.

"I don't know. I'll find out at the hearing."

"Ha! That's a good one. When is your hearing?"

"I don't know. Why is all this funny to you?"

"Franz! Leave him be," someone called.

"Why is this funny to you?" Ralph repeated.

"There will be no hearings until they rebuild the courthouse," Franz explained.

"Allied bombs," a voice from another cell called.

Ralph soon learned that there were bombing raids taking place in the region almost every night now. The courthouse had been badly damaged a month earlier and all trials suspended until further notice.

"The bombs don't know we're here. No one knows we're here right now."

Ralph turned and studied the man in the opposite cell. This one had hardly breathed during all this, sitting hunched forward on his bunk, staring at the backs of his hands.

"Pssst."

Ralph whirled. Franz held his chin up in the air as if here a high-minded professor looking down his nose at Ralph. "Don't pay attention to him."

Franz informed Ralph that he was from Bavaria. It wasn't clear from his story what precisely landed him in jail but he was friendly and made an earnest attempt to be helpful.

"There's a library here by the way. You can ask for books. Reading is a good way to pass the time. Do you read?"

"People who don't read are no different from animals," Ralph said coldly, but his heart was warmed by this prospect of having access to books.

Late in the afternoon there was a commotion at the end of the hall. It turned out to be the food cart. Two uniformed Germans delivered a small plate of potatoes to each cell. When Ralph saw how small the portions were his stomach churned.

One of the Germans seemed to pity Ralph when he noticed how he hobbled. Ralph addressed the officer in German. "Any news from outside?" His name was Martin.

"No one believes what they're saying on the radio. The only thing we know for sure is that there will probably be more Allied planes tonight."

"And less food tomorrow," the other said. He was a large, barrel-chested man named Steffen.

The following day Ralph acquired his first stack of books, including Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. By the end of the week there was another book he strove to acquire, a German-English dictionary.

CONTINUED

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