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My grandfather is 95 years old and doesn’t have long left in this world. There’s nothing but a mess of tubes and wires to tether him here with us. It’s difficult for him to speak, but each rasping whisper carries a severe weight that cannot be interrupted. My family doesn’t talk about things like death though, so whenever I visit with my dad, we tend to spend most of the time sitting in near-silence.
“What a news week, huh?” my dad might say.
“Mmmm,” Grandfather will grunt. “Crazy world.”
Then silence again. Small talk seems almost disrespectful to the gravity of the situation, but no-one wants to be the first to broach the irrevocable goodbye. When the silence gets too loud, my dad will start to fidget with his phone or pull out a book until one of us makes an excuse to leave. That’s how it went yesterday, with my father mumbling something about a dentist appointment and hurrying out the door almost as soon as we arrived.
“You’ll stay though, won’t you?” my grandfather asked when we were alone in the room together. “You’ll listen to an old man’s last secret?”
This was it then. The end of the road was in sight. “Would you like me to call Dad back?” I asked.
Grandfather shook his head as far as the oxygen tubes would allow it to turn. “I’d rather he didn’t know.”
I already knew some of the story he told me. It began when my grandfather was 20 years old living in Nazi Germany. He’d been working forced labor on a farm, but managed to smuggle my grandmother and infant father out of the country, hidden in a grain shipment. He’d been caught almost immediately and sent to the concentration camp at Buchenwald where he endured the next two years until he was liberated by allied forces.
“You don’t have to tell me what happened there if you don’t want to,” I told him. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the gruesome details. He was unusually animated and persistent though, promising it was something that needed to be said.
He wouldn’t have survived the ordeal if it hadn’t been for a friend he’d met there. One of the Nazi officers, a Rottenführer squad leader, had taken a special interest in him because of their striking similarity in age and appearance. The two would sit on either side of a barbed wire fence and swap stories about their childhoods. My grandfather would talk about my grandmother, how beautiful she was and how he wouldn’t give up until he found her again.
The SS officer had gone straight from the Hitlerjugend (Hitler youth group) to the army and had never been intimate with a woman. He became enraptured in my grandfather’s tales of romance, and the two became close friends despite the circumstances. The officer twice spared my grandfather’s name from work assignments that meant certain death, and he’d often slip extra rations through the fence, which my grandfather would then distribute to other prisoners.
“It wasn’t a good life, but it was life,” Grandfather said.
Things changed as the war began drawing to a close. The Nazi officers became increasingly paranoid and desperate as the allied forces moved in. It became common practice for lower ranking officers to be held as scapegoats when impossible work orders were not met. Besides that, the rumor that the Rottenführer was protecting my grandfather put him in a dire position with his own officers.
Faced between protecting my grandfather and his own hide, the Rottenführer signed the order for my grandfather to be sent to a nearby armaments factory. Eighteen hour work days, starvation rations, no medical attention — the factory might as well have been a death sentence. The three month survival rate was less than 50%.
In the name of love, my grandfather pleaded to let him survive to find her again. She was waiting for him in America. The Rottenführer was moved, but his decision was final. His only compromise was to record the address of where she went and send her a letter to let her know what happened to him.
“So how did you survive?” I asked. “Did he change his mind? Were you rescued from the factory?”
“Shielded from the worst of the camp by the Rottenführer, the transition to the factory proved too difficult for the young farmer. He didn’t last the first week.”
“What do you mean, ‘didn’t last’? How’d you get out?”
The exertion of the long story was taking its toll on my grandfather. He coughed and wheezed, struggling to draw breath for several seconds before clearing his throat a final time.
“On April 11th, 1945, the Buchenwald camp was liberated. Many of the Nazi’s had already abandoned their position and fled into the country. Others decided to lock themselves inside, pretending to be prisoners themselves so the allied forces would have mercy on them. This was especially convincing for those who had taken the time to get to know the prisoners and could assume their identities. When the SS officer gave the information and address of his lost love, he was allowed to board the next transport ship returning to America to be reunited with her.”
The gears in my head were turning. Turning. And then stopped.
“Your grandmother was suspicious at first when I met her, but she accepted that the war had changed me. Besides, I knew so many stories about her that she couldn’t deny our shared history. I raised his boy as my own, and lived the life he dreamed of every night until his death. Do you think your real grandfather would forgive me if he knew?”
I didn’t have an answer for him then, and I didn’t get another chance. He died in his sleep that night after a long and happy life that wasn’t his.
CREDIT: Tobias Wade
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