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A Hanukkah Gift, Part II

A wounded German soldier and a Jewish girl hiding from the Gestapo save each others' lives.

After a long time when the colonel said nothing Hans asked, “And what is the bad news?”

The colonel smiled slightly with an expression of complex appreciation. “Private Rickmers, you are a credit to the German Army. You know how to smile at death.”

The colonel continued, “All letters to German soldiers are read. Your girl friend should not have signed her name as ‘Ruth Cohen’. 

“I lied about my age so I could serve in the last war as an enlisted man like you. My father was a colonel like I am now. As long as there is any historical record, my ancestors have fought the enemies of Germany. There is no record we have ever offended against harmless civilians. There are things going on that I do not like.

“Unfortunately, at this time Germany has no choice but to keep fighting and hope for the best. More important matters concern me than your love life. We need every soldier to stop the Allied invasion. You will be one of them. I am taking risks by doing this, but I am covering this up. You make me think of my son, who will be seventeen forever beneath the grass of Italy.”

The colonel motioned to a chair. “Sit down Private Rickmers, please.”

When Hans complied, the colonel opened a drawer of his desk, removed Ruth’s letter, and handed it to Hans. “Write a response to her. I will see that it gets past the censor. Invent the name of a Gentile French girl, and tell her to use it. Write to her in French. When this war is over, find her. Marry her. I do not expect to outlive the Third Reich. The two of you will be needed to help rebuild the world.“

The colonel reached into the drawer of his desk, and brought out another envelope. “These are your orders, Private Rickmers. You are fortunate. We expect the invasion to be at Calais. You are to go to Normandy.”

Hans awkwardly stood in front of his colonel, gave the Nazi salute, and, and said, “Heil Hitler.”

“Do you belong to the Party?” the colonel asked.

“No sir.”

“Neither do I. We belong to the profession of arms. Military courtesy discourages saluting indoors.” The colonel stood up, walked over to Hans, and shook his hand. His voice broke slightly when he said, “Be safe, my son.”

Two days later, Hans went to the nearby train depot to get a train to his new destination. He was early, so he stopped at a small inn to get something to eat. There were Christmas decorations. A phonograph was playing “Silent Night.”

 A middle aged German couple was saying goodbye to their son in uniform. He was about Han’s age, and was trying to look brave. His mother was crying. The father was the right age to have fought in the First World War. He was sitting in a wheel chair. Both of his legs had been amputated.

Finally the train came. Hans picked up his rifle and duffel bag, and found a seat next to a window. Beside him was an older soldier, who must have been in his thirties. His uniform showed the evidence of much sun, and many washings. Two less discolored areas on both shoulders gave evidence of where sergeant stripes had been. He also wore an Iron Cross.

The soldier wanted to talk. “My mother died in child birth,” he began. My father died when I was your age. The Army has been my family ever since. I have worn the sergeant stripes and lost them twice. Drinking and fighting. That is my problem. Drinking and fighting. But when we push back the invasion, there will be lots of promotions. I will be a sergeant again.”

The older soldier held his Iron Cross with his fingers, and said, “This is one thing they can’t take away from me no matter how much they try. Do you know what this is? Of course you know. But do you know? This is the Iron Cross, that’s what it is. I got it on the Russian front. Believe me it wasn’t easy.”

Another soldier, who was in his twenties turned around with an amused smile. Several other soldiers were watching. “You’re not going to tell him that same old story about the Russian front, are you?”

“Now you hold your tongue! You hold your tongue I say. He hasn’t heard it before, so it is not an old story for him.”

When the older soldier did not continue, Hans asked, “How did you win the Iron Cross.”

The older soldier smiled, took a deep breath, and began, “The Russians had us surrounded, do you understand?’” Then he looked at the amused expressions on the faces of several soldiers. “Oh, never mind,” he said, “Ask one of them. They’ve all heard it before.”

Hans decided to ask the older soldier about it later, when they were alone together. He sat back in his seat, and looked out the window. The sun had set in the west, where they were going to the bunkers on the beaches at Normandy. In his mind’s eye, on the horizon he saw the face of Ruth, and heard the strains of “Lili Marleen,” the German song that came to be loved in every army fighting in Europe:

 Literal English translation

Lili Marleen  

In front of the barracks,
In front of the main gate,
Stood a lamppost,
If it still stands out front,
So will we see each other there again,
By the lamppost we'll stand,
As before, Lili Marleen.

Our two shadows
Looked like one.
That we were so much in love,
Anyone could see at a glance.
And everyone will see it,
When we stand by the lamppost,
As before, Lili Marleen.

Already called the guard,
“They’re blowing taps.
That could cost you three days!”
“Comrade, I'll be right there.”
Then we said farewell,
How much would I have rather gone with you,
With you, Lili Marleen.

It knows your footsteps,
Your beautiful walk.
It burns every evening,
Although it forgot me long ago.
And if a mishap should befall me,
Who will stand by the lamppost,
With you, Lili Marleen?

Out of the silent space,
Out of the depths of the earth,
Lifts me as in a dream
Your beloved mouth.
When the nocturnal mists swirl,
I will be standing by the lamppost,
As before, Lili Marleen.

Conclusion, as sung by Marlene Dietrich:

When we are marching in the mud and cold,
And when my pack seems more than I can hold,
My love for you renews my might,
I'm warm again, my pack is light,
It's you, Lili Marleen,
It's you, Lili Marleen.

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