Saturday, September 1, 2012

Uprooted: Part XXI ~ Time Passes Slowly

On Saturday mornings this blog has been devoted to the serialized telling of the Ralph Kand story. Kand, a young man with a withered leg, fled Estonia when the Red Army began its westward march in autumn 1944. When he reached the westernmost tip of Austria he attempted to escape to freedom by going over the mountains, an ultimately absurd venture. This plan was thwarted by Nazi soldiers and Ralph was jailed in Germany.

Time Passes Slowly

Within the first few days of his placement in the jail Ralph learned several things about his new confines. First, that the reason his cell was vacant was because the previous resident had died there. Second, that the people being held were all awaiting trial, but that because the courthouse had been bombed no trials were being conducted. Third, that due to the war, food is being rationed and the prisoners here are continuously hungry.

"Essentially, we've been forgotten," Franz said through the gunmetal blue bars one morning.

Ralph gave a menacing look but said nothing when his small plate of potatoes was delivered by the vacant-eyed guard that morning. And despite his animosity toward potato peelings his plate was clean when he later handed it back. Everything now reminded him of the freedom he lacked and longed for. This made the time pass even more slowly.

One of the evening guards seemed to take derisive pleasure in mocking Ralph for studying his German-English dictionary. Perhaps the guards were as unsettled by the nightly bombing raids as Ralph and the other prisoners were.

One night when the lights were out for blackout, the prisoner in the adjacent cell hung himself. The next day was a somber one for Franz, Ralph and the others.

"He said he had a family in Munich," Franz told Ralph. "No one knows why he was here. He kept to himself."

Ralph, who had harbored resentment at the man's coldness toward him, grieved for the man. He wondered where his own mother was now and who would tell her that he died if this jail were bombed.

Between stints with studying English he read avidly, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain being his most intimate companion. It examined the roots of existence, probed the essence of life, and stimulated an aesthtic that in certain moments lifted him out of this cell which now seemed man's condition. Mann, like Ralph, rhapsodized about Beethoven. Mann, like Ralph, found music to be an inexplicable gift.

Ralph had marked numerous passages as he read but he found this one underscored even before he reached it the first time. “He thought what a fine thing it was that people made music all over the world, even in the strangest settings – probably even on polar expeditions.” Even here in the jail there were a few men who liked to sing. The evening guard would have none of it, but the other guards let it go.

After the suicide incident the evening guard took special pleasure in mocking Ralph for trying to learn English. "You're never going to get out of here. You might as well off yourself like this fellow.," he said, gesturing with his head. The prodding only sent Ralph deeper into his studies.

One day without warning, a half dozen German soldiers burst into the corridor. With a loud clanking of keys  they began unlocking the cells, 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.

It had only been months, but it seemed like years.


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