Saturday, September 8, 2012

Uprooted: Part XXII

On Saturdays I have been sharing serially the story of the peoples of Estonia through the eyes of a man with a crippled leg name Ralph Kand whom I met two decades ago on a beach in Duluth. The book, if completed, will be called Uprooted. 


One day without warning, a half dozen German soldiers burst into the corridor. With a loud clanking of keys they began unlocking the cells, shouting, yanking prisoners from their cells and escorting them out. "What is this?" Ralph asked Franz quietly. There was a scuffle with one prisoner but then a more jubilant tone was being passed along down the row of cells.

"We're being released," Franz said.

Upstairs Ralph and the other prisoners were ushered to a makeshift desk where German police processed their release papers, then escorted them to a room full of shelves where their belongings had been stored. The process was tedious and Ralph complained.

“Don’t be a brute. We’re a civilized people,” the Nazi police officer said. “Keep your head.”

The officer led Ralph into the cage, which was now half emptied. His pack was small but there were valuables he hoped to hold on to, most importantly the photos of his family, mother, cousins, brother, and Eitsi, his lost love. He searched briefly along the back of the room then scanned the compartments above, recognizing it as soon as he saw it. His head jerked back and his mouth opened as if to utter some ejaculation of surprise and joy. But there was no sound other than the internal sigh of relief.

The officer took firm hold of his arm. “Is that it?”

Ralph nodded, turned and left the cage. Moments later he was on the street. He stood watching the chaotic scene of prisoners dispersing in various directions. There were some with nowhere to go, and others bound for home.

Across the square he saw the shattered courthouse. He could see other building had been smashed during the past months of bombing as well.

Franz jogged over to him and put his hand on Ralph’s shoulder. “I’m off to Munich. Looks like the war’s nearing an end. Good luck with the Americans.”

Ralph listened. Franz explained that the Nazis were clearing the jails so that the police could help in the fight and not be bogged down with feeding prisoners and cleaning cells. The Allies were on the ground and heading this way.

Ralph perked up at this last bit of news. The two men walked down the stairs to the street.

“Auf wiedersehn,” Franz said as he gave Ralph a bear hug.

“Auf wiedersehn.”

Ralph turned and began making his way west. Within the hour he was in a rural area sprinkled with farms and rolling hills. It was spring and green, and at times easy to forget about the war. Here and there he saw small groups of people walking along the road with their own packs, or occasionally suitcases.

Mid-afternoon as he limped westward along a stretch of winding road the German army suddenly appeared, marching directly toward him on the same road. He kept walking on the shoulder as the soldiers marched briskly the opposite direction, almost frantically. There must have been 400 men or more, urgency compelling them to march as fast as able, the sound of boots slapping pavement breaking the peaceful quality of the countryside.

Suddenly, a cannon fired in the distance, the shell colliding with the column of men who immediately parted in a wild rush to the left and right sides of the road, opening Ralph’s vision to what was really happening. An American tank and accompanying soldiers was wending over the next rise around the bend.

Another shell crashed into the field and Ralph panicked. He was in the middle of a battlefield. A farmhouse across the way beckoned him and he ran as fast as he was able in the direction of the rural home. When he arrived an old German farmer stood in the door inviting others into the house and directing them to the basement. The gunfire and tank shells tore up the field where he had just been.

"Where are you from?" a woman said in German.

They were all seated on the floor around the perimeter of the room, about a dozen in all. "Czechoslovakia," a portly man said in a gravelly voice.

"Estonia," Ralph replied when she looked in his direction.

"You're a long ways from home."

"This is true," Ralph replied.

The skirmish outside lasted only a short time but no one dared move.After a while they heard noises upstairs. Doors opened, floorboards above their heads creaked. The door to the basement opened and Ralph could see a soldiers boots, legs then rifle entering their hiding place, a second behind him.

The American studied the group huddled there. They were searching for German soldiers, and when no one here fit the description the snapped the safeties on the guns into place and relaxed. "Speak English?" the one American said.

At first no one responded. "I speak a little English," Ralph replied.

"Ein bischen?" the American said with a laugh that broke the tension in the room. "Tell them their free to go. We're just looking for soldiers," he said, addressing Ralph.

Ralph explained this to the others in German. They each climbed to their feet and, led by the soldiers, made their way upstairs.

From the porch Ralph surveyed the damage. Quite a few bodies lay out on the open field. The farmer invited everyone to stay for a meal and spend the night if needful. The Americans left to catch up with their company.


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