19. The Fiancee's Story

    Upon my husband's return, he was a stranger, a man hardened by troubles and sick in spirit. He was also still extremely ill physically, and ed by the fact that he would have to spend the joy of his return was marred another month in the hospital before he could actually come home.
    He rarely spoke of his war and imprisonment experiences, neither to me nor to our two children. After his homecoming, he asked me only not to question him about all those times.
    He returned to his parents' house soon after his release from the hospital, but would not be fully recovered until some three months later. He did, however, take some time to visit the families of two of his comrades, to relay their last greetings and the circumstances of their deaths.
    We did not marry right away. Indeed, for a time after his return, we seemed to be strangers to each other. It took us the better part of a year to truly come to know each other once again.
    That we would eventually be together, however, was a foregone conclusion in my mind. Fate had always steered us towards each other and would continue to do so. On the first night that we met in (what year?), introduced by mutual friends at a county fair, we had been paired off in a contest, and had won a small salt-and-pepper shaker set as a prize. At the end of the evening, he entrusted this set to me, saying that I should guard it well, as we would surely have the chance to use it together in our lives one day.
    At that time, he was already a soldier. Rather than take a dead-end job with the German Railway upon graduation, he had joined the army in 1938, signing up for 12 years of service, simply because he wanted to make a better future for himself. Although he participated in campaigns in Poland, France and Russia from 1939 on, he always hated the war, but felt he had to remain silent as a member of the Wehrmacht. He was never a member of the Nazi Party, nor was he an admirer of Hitler in any way.
    The last time I saw him before his imprisonment was in autumn, 1942. On leave for several days before having to set off towards Stalingrad, he asked me to marry him. I promised myself to him, but could not bring myself to acquiesce to performing the ceremony right away. We parted then as fiancees, never suspecting that the separation would be so interminably long and so full of bitter hardships.
    Indeed, just a month after his parting, on Nov. 1, 1942, I received a postcard from Stalingrad. The card stated that he was going to stay only a few days to arrange payments for his troops, and would be returning immediately afterwards. But after spending the night in Stalingrad, he and his driver were no longer able to get out the next morning. The pincer troops had already closed in around the city.
    That was the last I heard from him until three years later, in November 1945, when we received his first postcard from the Russian coal mines. Never for a minute had I doubted that he was alive, however, and that he would return one day. And never for a minute had I ever wanted another man as my husband, nor even remotely considered marrying until he returned.
    The reason for my conviction stemed from a dream that I had had one night. More of an image than a dream, the sheer weight of its realness convinced me that it was a sign. In the dream, a bear, thin and tired but healthy, emerged sadly from a hole in the earth. Naturally, I was having my own troubles during those three years. Upon a request for information by my husband's father, we received a terse letter in 1943 from the war department saying simply that his son, my fiance, was missing.
    At that time I was working as a seamstress in Lothringen in exchange for food. Times were hard, and this was the only way I was able to keep my parents fed. My own father passed away in 1944, and I thank God that he never had to know hunger. Later, I worked at tending gardens and breeding pigs until the return of my fiance.
    The rest of the story, of course, is set down in this book, which was written in the winter of 1948-1949. My husband was encouraged to continue this task by his cousin (Franz Bergmann?), who was then working with the Saarbruecker Zeitung newxpaper.
    In actuality, however, he needed little encouragement. He realized himself that setting the story down in words would give him a chance not only to redeem in part the sufferings of all his comrades who had not survived, who had died tragically and ignomiously, but also to purge his own soul of some of the trauma and shock that it had endured for so many years.
    He wrote every day that whole winter long, and the book appeared in print just a few short months later. Even in those times, when people were still struggling to piece together their own lives, the book sold relatively well. Because of this, we were able to acquire a bit of money to use as a nest egg to build our new life together.
    We were married in February 1950, almost a year and a half after my husband's release. We only began to live together in July of that year, however, because...?
    After the book was finished, he decided to try to enter the police force. Unfortunately, his weakened heart ruined his chances for acceptance, and he instead found work as an agent for an oil company in Saarbruecken, where he stayed until his retirement.
    This position, the royalties from the book, and a stipend of 300 German Marks for his injuries were to be his only consolation for his 6 years of imprisonment in Russia. He never received any compensation or payment for the labor either in the coal mines or on the Kolkhoz. Not that he expected any from the Soviet government \ his hatred for the Communist system remained with him until the day he died in 1975. It was possibly just as strong as his hatred of the Nazi political system in Hitler's Germany, which he blamed fully, completely and all his herat for bringing on the war and all its woes in the first place.