Obergefreiter Walter Berger, Panzergrenadier-Regiment 10, 9. Panzer-Division
It lies deep in the ocean of time,
Almost like a legend, as old as man’s fate,—
But it suddenly takes on life and form
And reaches towards us from infinity.
And it enters our dreams nightly and cries
And shows faces, stiff and pale and cold,
And things long forgotten take hold
Of our sleepy daily routine.
And voices rise from the depths; surge
Into our ears as a pressing command,
To talk for them and to bear witness, loudly.
So that you know how men once stood
For you in ice and fire, night and death,
For you as a wall, built out of flesh and blood.
WE WERE IN THE WAR
For those of us who felt the icy breath of strange worlds,
We will never completely return to you.
A piece of us remains behind with our dead,
wherever our army restlessly ranged the land.
In our dreams we still breath in the ice-laced
crystal air; in our glance is still
The white broadness, where fate abruptly
Matured half boys into men.
And it’s always as if time
Suddenly turned:—shots in the distance,—
We creep through enemy territory as a patrol.
And dark shadows stand in the walls of fog,
Causing the sinews to tense, and the hands
To clench tightly around invisible weapons.
A SOLDIER’S HAND
You, my hand
On the wall of the trench!—
Clawed into the soil and animal like,—
Like ghostly figures
The creases and folds,—
Stiff from weapon oil, clay and soot,
From chunks of soil, from rounds fired!—
And you dream of treasures that have long been denied:
You play with blossoms, with colorful crystals;—
All by yourself among all the others
You still continue to dream.—
You, my hand
On the wall of the trench!—
Covered by cracks and crevices
How are you so rough and coarse and hard,
Did you bury this one or that one tonight!—
And yet still dream of miracles, of things special:
As if you were lying on dark silky hair,—
You’ve been dreaming it for years,—
How many more?
Road, fences, carts disappear in the snow,
The sky and the countryside drown in the snow,
Blood and steel and fire disappear in the snow,
The listening, the peering, the waiting drown in the snow.
The sneaking, silent snow ghosts fool you:
The fox hole, the stretch of trench disappeared;
Where there had been someone next to me the day before,
Who fell—I didn’t need to bury anyone.
The entire gray army sinks into the snow,
And the hard whiteness swells without banks
With its merciless star-like glittering.
The world is cold and hopeless and empty;
Just the bullet that is looking for me is hot,
And only death is gentle and warm and dark.
The icy wind grovels around the corners of the houses
And chases the snow into spraying white banners
Along the hard-frozen gray rutted routes and
Along the village and over fence and hedge.
The guards, freezing, attempt to cover themselves
And pull in their shelter halves tighter.
Aren’t those voices outside?—Partisans?—
What can be hiding in these white drifts?
In disrepair, a house cowers at the edge of the village;
The straw roof rustles, black from old smoke,
And its dead windows glare threateningly
Out into the frost frozen empty countryside.—
Now lurking behind huts, tree and bush
Of the cold countryside are greedy ghosts.
A hole, churned up in clay-like yellowy soil
And half filled from the last downpour,
And vegetation and a tepid river up front,
Which washes up against the bank, sleepily gurgling.
The dew has cooled my hot forehead
And the smoking bolt on my rifle.—
Still twitching in my heart, shot upon shot,
Death, which I felt a hundred times today.
Oh, how the gunpowder smoke stung!—
I still feel how I ran, jumped and crawled
Solitary through blood and fire along my path.—
A thin blade in God’s broad mountain pasture.—
A bit of luck that in the same hole next to me
There is a second one squatting now—a comrade!
OUTSIDE OF OREL, AUGUST 1942
“Defensive Fighting in the East”
Was printed in the Wehrmacht Daily Report back then.
Endless days and nights;—
But you don’t know any of that.
The Shisdra, a loamy water,
Brush and morass and sand;—
And like an insatiable glutton
Death devoured its way through the countryside.
We over here—and the Reds over there—
Sinking our claws into furrows and roots;—
And between us were the dead lying
In the Kolodesny Woods.
We squatted in dreck-filled holes
And chewed moldy bread,
And rain poured down all around us;
Death was monotonous and gray.
The descent of the artillery shells was monotonous;—
The Russians did not aim well,—
But even after hundreds of flashes
The next one sends your blood racing.
The position remained unbroken;—
Ivan attacks daily.—
When relief came after five weeks
We were but seventeen men.
We went back and reported;—
They hung something on our chests.—
Back then, we were all heroes
And didn’t even know it ourselves.
We weren’t rewarded with the rush of victory;
The front in the east had frozen up!—
I don’t know how many are lying there,
Buried under in collapsed trenches.
I don’t know—the ones who fell there—
Are they to be considered today as idiots or heroes?—
If every one of us were to stand like that,
Then the world would be harder—and better.
The rain was cold and the sky was gray,
We brought him there; carried
Through trenches and craters and wire entanglements,
Wrapped in a bloody shelter half.
The ground was black and the earth was heavy,
And the clods of earth stuck to the shovels.
The water dripped from helmet and rifle
On rounds and hand grenades.
No psalms and no prayers, no pious hymns,
No murmuring chorus and no blessing.
Only the organ-like sound of muffled rounds in the distance
And the monotonously rushing rain.
A foxhole, water in the clay shaft.
We sank him silently into the depths.
From up front, the battle grumbled and growled,
As if its voice were calling out:
The voice of the God of fire and steel,
Who created the worlds in wrath.—
The sky was dead and the earth was barren,—
And we hastened silently back forward.
LATE FALL 1943
The world has turned endlessly wide and gray,
No ray of sunshine lies on our path;
The puddles in the ruts glisten palely,
And the great frost beckons threateningly from the north.
The wild murdering of humans is becoming monotonous,
And the dull agony presses ever more;
The blazing sign of our belief
In our martial order has sunk to ashes.
We stand stubbornly at long lost outposts,
Clammy fingers on the trigger,
Our perpetual gaze directed eastward.
A hundred thousand mounds in the countryside in front of us,
On which the helmets rust, row upon row,
The crosses rot and the birches take a beating.
WE OLD SOLDIERS
We old soldiers stand closer to
Death and the dark powers,
Have become harder and more tenacious
In God knows how many battles.
We are familiar with the choking dread
Of a thousand hammered-apart hours
Of bodies, shredded and chopped up,
And gaping, twitching wounds.
We no longer consider ourselves heroes
And do not dream blessedly of victories;
No Wehrmacht Daily report needs to announce,
Where we lie, dead and living.
We have nothing but callouses and claws
From shooting and hauling and shoveling
And damn it all, we’ll fall
Without a “Hurra” on our lips.
We curse and binge and swear:
“They’ve sold us down the river and betrayed us!”—
We stand at lost outpost’s
And know in blazing fires:
At some time, out of decay and rust, the world will
Regenerate itself in a soldier!