Authors: Catrin Collier
The commandant of the prisoner of war camp telephoned her. He told her it was necessary to replace the guards because every experienced soldier was needed at the Front. She knew it was useless to argue with him and didn’t even try. It wasn’t as if she had liked the old guards, but they had lived at Grunwaldsee for so long she had become accustomed to them. When their replacements arrived she had looked back fondly on the three corporals and thought of them almost as friends.
Two of their new guards were vicious, bitter amputees with artificial legs. Both enjoyed whipping and humiliating the prisoners. One was a boy too young to shave, but deemed old enough by the authorities to carry a gun. And there was a fourth. A painfully thin consumptive who never stopped coughing and spent most of his days standing looking out of the window of the lodge kitchen, watching every move she, Brunon, Marius, Minna and Martha made. And whenever they looked back at him, he made a point of writing in a notebook.
It was obvious he had been sent to spy on them. But in those dark days of the dying summer, there was one consolation – Sascha. Even after everything that had happened afterwards to cause her to doubt Sascha’s motives, that summer she had truly believed that Sascha had cared for her and their coming child.
Taking the diary, she left the balcony, walked back to the bed and kicked off her shoes. She lay back on the pillows and remembered.
Blue skies, long hot days working in the fields, followed by warm summer evenings spent closeted behind bales of new-mown hay in the tack room. If Brunon had wondered why she had ordered so much hay to be stored there instead of the barn, he had never questioned her orders.
And Sascha – Sascha who had worked like the slave he was during the days, held her close through every stolen evening; burdening himself with her grief for her lost father, brothers and friends, sharing it, and promising to help her search for Irena and the girls after the war.
She had only to smell new-mown hay to be transported back to that time, which, for all its sorrow, anguish and uncertainty, had been the most passionate and intensely lived of her life.
TUESDAY, 17 OCTOBER 1944
Germany is in mourning. Field Marshal Rommel is dead. The radio and newspapers reported that he was killed three days ago when his car was strafed by RAF planes, but Brunon heard rumours in Allenstein that he too was involved in the von Stauffenberg plot.
The matron in charge of the hospital in Bergensee asked me to stop visiting after Wilhelm was executed. She had obviously been ordered to do so by a higher authority. She was embarrassed the whole time she spoke to me, and even said that if it was up to her she would still allow me inside. But the corporal in charge of admissions overheard her and told me bluntly that the authorities didn’t think it appropriate for the sister of a traitor to be allowed to visit a military institution.
I don’t go into town often, there is little point when the shops have virtually nothing to sell, but when I do, people cross the street so they won’t have to greet me. Girls who were in school with me, the mothers of boys who were in Paul and Wilhelm’s Hitler Youth group, even the doctor and his wife, who have been good friends of Papa and Mama’s ever since I can remember, are afraid to speak to me in public.
So many have been arrested and executed – generals, colonels, officials; all respected, aristocratic, clever, able men Germany can ill afford to lose. Now I wonder if Papa really died of a heart attack. The Führer hates Freemasons, and so many people knew of Papa’s youthful indiscretion as well as his criticism of the war.
When Papa died, I believed that losing him was the worst thing that would ever happen to me. Now, not even four years later, I am mourning not only Papa, but Wilhelm and Paul. Only Mama, Greta and I are left, and although Mama’s body may be here, her mind is with Papa and the boys.
And Greta … a year ago I thought I couldn’t dislike her any more than I already did. Now I hate her with every fibre of my being.
It is seven weeks since Wilhelm was executed. There is still no official word about Irena. I know Papa von Letteberg has had to work very hard to keep Erich, Mama and I from being taken away. He drove to Grunwaldsee from Berlin to tell me that Wilhelm was dead because he did not want me to hear the news from a stranger.
My brother wasn’t even accorded an officer’s death by firing squad. They hanged him like a common criminal.
I begged Papa von Letteberg to tell me everything he knew about Wilhelm’s death. He had talked to a soldier who’d witnessed Wilhelm’s execution, and everyone who was present agreed my brother died bravely. I never doubted he would, although the thought of any strong, healthy young man, let alone my darling, beloved brother, being deliberately killed in the prime of life sickens me.
One minute alive – the next, nothing.
Wilhelm refused to name his fellow conspirators and insisted until the last that no one other than those men who had already been executed knew of the plot to kill Hitler, and no women, not even his wife, mother and sisters, had an inkling of what he and the others were planning.
Shortly afterwards Greta wrote to me, a letter that had been opened in the mail, as are all the letters that are delivered to Grunwaldsee now. In it she enclosed a copy of the letter she had sent to the High Command, denouncing not only everything Wilhelm had done, but also Wilhelm himself.
As no one has demanded that I should write such a letter I can only assume she wrote it of her own volition in an attempt to distance herself from what she called ‘Wilhelm von Datski’s treasonous crimes’. But Greta always has had an over-developed sense of self-preservation. As Paul used to say, Greta places Greta first, second, third and so on, right down to last.
In her personal letter to me she said that, as Paul and Wilhelm are both dead and have left no legitimate non-criminal heirs – as if poor little Marianna and Karoline can possibly be criminals - Grunwaldsee is now hers by right, as Papa’s eldest surviving daughter, and she and Helmut will move in and live here after their marriage.
I was so angry I burnt both letters. I hope Greta has the sense to stay away from me and Grunwaldsee. I will not be responsible for what I do or say to her if she tries to set foot in the house. If the estate belongs to anyone it is Marianna, Karoline and – if the child Irena is carrying is a boy – Wilhelm's son, and I intend to see that his heirs inherit the estate, not Greta and her lapdog of a fiancé.
I didn’t need Papa von Letteberg to warn me that all the roads around Grunwaldsee are under surveillance. If I could send Erich away I would, but to where? Mama von Letteberg is the obvious choice, but I know from her last visit that she worries more and more with every rumour of further arrests. She is terrified that Papa von Letteberg will be detained next, and if he is, neither she nor anyone living with her will be safe. I can’t bear the thought of losing Erich as I have lost Marianna and Karoline.
I try not to think about what the girls will be like after months or years in a camp or State orphanage – that’s supposing they survive and I find them after the war. After seeing Claus briefly for a day and a very necessary night for the child I am carrying, before he went to the Eastern Front, I am convinced that he wasn't involved in the conspiracy, even if his father was.
Papa von Letteberg insisted the Russian Front was safer than Berlin when he arranged Claus's transfer immediately after Count von Stauffenberg's execution. But I know from hints in Mama von Letteberg’s guarded letters that he is now having second thoughts. I am not surprised. From what Brunon has heard, there is no more Russian Front, only a Polish one, and the Russians are actually massed on the borders of East Prussia and Belorussia.
I wrote to Claus at the end of September to inform him that he is going to be a father again. At the same time I telephoned Mama von Letteberg to tell her that I am carrying her second grandchild. She pretended to be glad, but I sensed my news only gave her one more reason to worry. Pregnancy makes me more vulnerable, another pawn that could be used against Papa von Letteberg should they find evidence to implicate him in the July plot.
Brunon told me it is rumoured that thousands of relatives of the conspirators, including old people, children and babies, have been taken to prisons and camps. I only hope that Irena, Marianna and Karoline are alive, and that conditions are not too harsh for the women and children. But with food scarce for civilians, I dread to think what the prisoners are being given. The guards’ rations have been cut in half, although there are four not three of them now, and it is months since we have been given anything at all for the Russians.
Little wonder that the commandant of the Russian POW camp telephones me every week to ask if we need replacement prisoners. Brunon says it is official policy to starve the Russian POWs to death. The new guards insist the Russians can survive on only one bowl of watery soup a day. Every day I am grateful for the trap-door, although we have to be very careful. It is obvious from the appearance of Sascha’s men that we are feeding them extra and the guards search the stable loft at all hours of the day and night to try and catch them with food. So far we have been lucky.
If she is alive, Irena will have had her baby by now. I do so hope it is a boy, then there will never be any question as to who should inherit Grunwaldsee – that is, if there will be anything left to inherit. Nearly all the animals have been taken by the army. Brunon has hidden a few horses around the neighbouring farms, including Elise, because we are convinced that they are being taken for meat.
Brunon, Marius and I killed three pigs secretly, at night down by the river, so the guards wouldn’t see us doing it, and we could wash away the blood. We salted the quarters and hid them behind Papa's wine racks in the cellar. If we hadn't, we would have nothing to eat. The weekly bread ration was cut by another 200 grams yesterday. It is bad enough for us, but even worse for Sascha and the prisoners. We have so little for ourselves and the children on the estate, it is getting harder and harder to find anything to smuggle into the loft.
I could not have survived the last few months without Sascha to love and comfort me. Night after night he has held me in his arms while I have cried my heart out – for Papa and Mama, for Paul and Wilhelm, for Irena and her babies, and for us.
I have never known an August to be so hot. At the height of the heatwave, Sascha and I sneaked out of the tack room in the early hours of the morning. We stole through the house and went through the woods to the summerhouse to bathe in the lake. It was insane to take such a risk, but after what has happened to Wilhelm and Irena, our time together is all the more precious. Who knows how much longer we have left? And the danger didn’t seem to matter as much as spending every possible moment together while we can.
Now I have memories of swimming under the stars with Sascha, of lying naked in his arms on the bank, and watching the moon sink slowly in the skies. I will never forget that night, nor, I think, will Sascha. It was almost as though we actually succeeded in freezing time. For a long while nothing moved. There wasn’t even a breeze. Everything was so still, so silent, I could almost believe that we were the only living creatures in a paste and cardboard world.
Nothing existed outside of us until a bird began to sing and a current of air ruffled the surface of the lake. The bird broke the spell but even then I wanted to stay until dawn, although Sascha was concerned, not for himself – never for himself – always for me.
We climbed back into the house through the ballroom window, and I led him down the passage to the tack room. All the while I couldn’t help thinking what would happen if one of the guards should see us – these new ones insisted on being given keys to the house. They use them any time they choose, day or night, and they always carry their guns. I think that they would shoot Sascha first and then me.
My childhood terror of death seems odd now. Plagued by nightmares, I woke screaming night after night in the weeks following Oma’s death when I was five years old. Papa and Greta lost patience, even Mama didn't understand my fears – or did she? Perhaps everyone secretly feels the same way. Terrified by the thought of your body being eaten by worms and insects, of falling into a black nothingness
where you can no longer even think.
I believe Wilhelm and Paul understood what I was going through. Now, after everything that has happened since the war started, I think of death far too much for my own or Erich’s good.
I do hope there is something after death. A life of sorts, even if it is not as we know it here on this earth. And that the twins have been reunited with Papa and Maria, and Peter and Manfred, and that someday I will see them again. But I do not believe for one minute that if there is such a life it has anything to do with an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-forgiving God. No God would allow the terrible things to happen that are happening to innocent people and children all over Europe.
If a guard should shoot Sascha and me, would death be quick? Is a bullet in the head as painless as soldiers insist it is? Supposing it doesn’t kill right away and that, after you’ve been shot, you feel immense pain. Are you aware of death coming minutes before the end? I don’t want it to happen, but I wouldn’t want to live without Sascha. He insists that, if the worst happens, I must carry on because so many people rely on me. That I have responsibilities to Erich, the child I’m carrying, Irena and Wilhelm’s children, Mama, Minna, Brunon’s family – and to him. The more the baby grows within me, the more Sascha insists that we have a future together. But I am not so sure, and I am too afraid to ask Sascha where he thinks it will be.
THURSDAY, 19 OCTOBER 1944
Yesterday, all the able-bodied men between sixteen and sixty were called up to form a Home Guard. The Führer himself made the announcement, at the same time condemning all our allies for defecting. He made it clear that Germany now stands alone against our international Jewish enemies.
I was devastated, not at the confirmation that the war is going badly – I have suspected that for months – but at losing Brunon. I cannot imagine running the estate without him. He has already received his orders and a travel warrant for Königsberg. Martha is distraught. I promised Brunon that I will take care of her and Marius; I only hope that I will be able to I only hope that I will be able to keep this promise, unlike the one I made to Wilhelm. Thank God Marius is only thirteen!