The recent anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz has given me cause to reflect at some length on the Holocaust and those responsible for it, so I’ve spent my free time over the last few days watching a few episodes of The World At War, as well as reading about some of the monstrous individuals who took part in what they described as The Final Solution.
As just about every commentator has observed, the human imagination struggles to grasp the enormity of what happened during the Second World War under the auspices of the Gestapo and the SS, so I was interested when a friend of mine by the name of Lee sent me a photo of two of the badges the unfortunate Jews were forced to wear during that time.
The photo was originally sent to Lee by one of his friends, while the badges belonged to this man’s mother and grandmother, both of whom miraculously survived their time in Auschwitz. Lee pointed out that while he was of course aware of this extermination camp, the fact that there was a link between Auschwitz and someone he knew made a notable difference to his perception of the place, something that reminded me of an encounter I had nearly a quarter of a century ago.
In the summer of 1991, I was touring Austria with a mediaeval jousting tournament and it was my fourth consecutive year of being a knight abroad. We were performing during the day in some castle, then when the tournament was finished, our costumes were packed and the horses were stabled, we’d spend the rest of the evening in a bar, drinking and letting off steam along with the friends we’d made in the town.
One night, I was in the open air courtyard of an inn, sat at a table and enjoying myself no end by surrounding copious amounts of beer and schnapps. The year before, we’d visited Russia, a land I’d come to regard as my spiritual home because of the wonderfully warm reception I’d received there from all the Russians I’d been privileged to meet, and one of the many pleasures of my time there was being taught Kogda Ya Pyan, a Russian drinking song.
At some point, I decided to regale my fellow knights and my new Austrian friends with what I’d learned, so I burst into raucous song, but the whole place fell deathly silent when an old man calmly walked over to me, formed the fingers of his right hand into a gun then shoved it into my forehead, forcing my head back before making a noise that made it unmistakably clear that the gun had been fired and I was dead.
I stood up and asked him fairly bluntly what his problem was, but he responded with a superior smile and informed me equally bluntly that he was a former member of the SS. To do our exchange full justice, as well as detailing all the many other relevant parts of my time in this town would require a long, carefully written essay, so I’ll concentrate on a few points for now and leave the full story until another time.
It was nigh-on impossible to talk to this man directly, as he spoke just as little English as I spoke Austrian, so one of my friends translated for us both, although it was clear he was deeply uncomfortable with the position he found himself in. It wasn’t lost on me that the crowded bar remained silent and that the small group comprising myself, the former SS man and our translator was at the centre of everyone’s attention.
In essence, I learned that this former SS man had spent part of the war on the Eastern Front and he claimed to have shot and killed many Russians during that time. I was at something of a disadvantage because I’d had a fair bit to drink and because I was amazed to have encountered an SS man in person, having only seen them in books and documentaries before. He was proud of what he’d done and he said as much, but when I told him I was British, not Russian, and had just been singing a song, he repeated his gesture with the gun and smiled, then invited me to join him and some of his friends for a drink.
I was becoming angry by this point, so I was going to pointedly decline, but the look of quiet desperation on my friend’s face persuaded me that this was an offer I’d be extremely unwise to decline. So, we both wandered across to a table that evidently held pride of place, where my antagonist and his friends held court and I accepted a drink from them with as much grace as I could muster.
The meeting didn’t last long. I explained via my interpreter that I’d travelled to Russia the year before, that I’d loved the place and that it was where I’d learned the drinking song; I also said that I liked what I’d seen of Austria, with the exception of someone pretending to shoot me. None of the men seemed at all interested by what I’d had to say, so it crossed my mind that my interpreter had supplied them with a bland, highly edited version of what I’d said. They asked me about being a knight, so I told them how I’d travelled around Europe, Russia and Scandinavia for the last four years, but they seemed to find this highly amusing and told me about how they’d done very much the same thing fifty years before, but with tanks and machine guns instead of horses and swords.
Not long afterwards, I made my excuses and left the table to return to my friends, although my gaze was frequently drawn to where the old SS men sat and drank together. I have no idea what crimes they’d committed, nor do I know if they’d ever served any time in prison, but by their own admission, they had once belonged to one of the most feared and despised military units in history.
They were proud of what they’d done and they’d made it clear to me that they had once effectively been the Lords of all they surveyed; as silver-haired old men, they were contentedly living out the twilight of their lives, dreaming rosy dreams of what had gone before with not a care in the world and certainly with no regrets. And at least one of them, upon feeling affronted by my Russian song, had felt confident enough to wander across a crowded bar to pretend to shoot me, while he’d had absolutely no qualms about explaining precisely why, either.
To be continued.
Photo at top of post courtesy of Das Bundesarchiv.