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  • Jane

A Long Story about the Nazi Hiding in the Attic


Mum's stories also have their own life-cycle. She told them to me, I recorded them, and now I'm passing them back onto her (and occasionally to my grandkids). My recounting of this story went on for a bit too long today, and half way through I think mum had enough . But I persevered to the end.

The time is May 1945, immediately after liberation by the Red Army. Now free, mum and her fellow inmates went on a rampage hunting for food. Unexpectedly, Mum found herself face to face with a German soldier. His uniform displayed the skull and crossbones of the SS, the most terrifying unit of the Nazi Reich

The following is mum's recollections of this event:

When our small slave-labour camp Halbstadt was liberated by the Russians in 1945, they told us women we could do whatever we wanted for 24 hours -- to take revenge on the Germans and loot their properties -- but we were so hungry, all we wanted was proper food apart from sugar and tinned meat. Our camp was in a small German town. We tore out into the streets and soon came to a stately manor. We tried to go inside, but the doors were locked. Above the doors were small stained-glass windows with one slightly open. I was thin and athletic, so the others hauled me up. I climbed through the window, jumped down inside and unbolted the door. The crowd outside entered the house like a wild mob hunting for something to eat. Rich rugs, valuable paintings and ornaments decorated the house, but we could not find a kitchen anywhere.

I ran outside into the quiet, orderly street and entered another house. It was empty and abandoned. I went out the back where there was a washhouse with the first washing machine I had ever seen. I opened the lid and saw it was loaded with linen completely covered with water. I realised later this was how the woman of the house had hidden her good linen from looters. I noticed a passageway with a ladder leading up to a manhole. Maybe there was food stored up there? I climbed the ladder, pushed the manhole open and in the dim light found my way into an attic full of straw.

I pushed the bundles aside one by one hoping to find some food. Behind the third stack I was shocked to see a German soldier hiding from the Russians. His uniform displayed the skull and crossbones of the SS, the most terrifying unit of the Nazi Reich, responsible for the genocidal murder of the Jews of Europe. He sat cowering behind the straw, staring at this scrawny Jewish girl who had discovered him and had power over his destiny.

I was not scared. ‘Hände hoch!’ (Hands up!) I screamed at him in German. Suddenly, me, a tiny little worm, a nothing, had the courage to shout at a high-ranking Nazi officer. He stood and raised his hands.

‘Brot!’ (Bread!) I ordered. He looked down towards a beam where there was a tin sandwich box. Inside were perfectly-cut sandwiches. I grabbed one and sank my teeth into the beautiful soft bread.

I looked up at the soldier and recognised something of my father in his eyes. The Nazi’s eyes showed the same fear and desperation as my own father who had died of starvation in the ghetto. I ordered him to sit down. ‘Setzen Sie Sich’ I commanded.

‘Ich bin auch hungrig’ (I am hungry too), he whispered to me. I tore the sandwich in half and shared it with him. We sat together munching the bread and we both started crying. I cried in sadness and happiness; for the loss of my family and for finally being free. He cried for his lost freedom; the loss of his Fatherland, the Third Reich, that had such big plans to ‘rule for a thousand years’. I remember the smell of the straw. in that attic

By now I could hear people downstairs. I could have called out and the revenge from below would have been swift. Instead, I left him there, closed the manhole, climbed down the ladder and joined the others.

I was haunted by this experience and for many years I questioned my behaviour. This Nazi could have been one of the murderers. Why didn’t I take revenge for the robbed years of my youth, for losing my greatest love — my mother — and for the memory of the face of my father dying from hunger? Was it an instinctive act of goodness?

I thought back to Auschwitz when a woman returned a piece of bread that she had stolen from me. This unexpected act had restored my faith in humanity.

Many decades later, I finally felt at peace with myself. I had not killed or robbed anybody of their special life.

Face to face with the Nazi in the attic.

'I was not scared. ‘Hände hoch!’ (Hands up!) I screamed at him in German.'


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