"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ach der lieber! It's Robert Stermscheg!

My guest today, Robert Stermscheg, does something I can't even imagine being able to do: he translates books from German to English. Specifically, he is translating the works of Karl May into English. He's got two finished, and is working on a third. Because he wasn't busy enough, he wrote a memoir of his father's life, from his childhood through his confinement in a German POW camp, and his subsequent life in a corrupt post-war Yugoslavia. POW#74324 is available on Amazon, in Kindle format.

Robert has offered up the prologue to POW#74324 for my readers. It isn't often someone stops by to tell us a story, so please enjoy:

* * * * * * PROLOGUE - POW#74324 * * * * * *

"Attention! I need six volunteers," a voice shouted, interrupting the quiet morning.

Under ordinary circumstances, that might have been a harmless-sounding statement, yet what followed was anything but harmless, or ordinary. The reality of the situation was that the sergeant wasn't asking for volunteers. It certainly wasn't a request, judging by his sharp, cutting tone. I was used to taking orders, having been trained in the Yugoslavian military, so these shouts sounded strangely familiar, albeit for one thing—they were in German.

"Macht's schnell!" bellowed the guard, telling me to make it quick. That brought me back to reality. I realized, along with the rest of my barrack mates from Blockhouse G, that the German sergeant didn't care who the six volunteers were, or how they were selected. We knew all too well what would happen if we hesitated too long… He would absolve us of the chore and pick six random faces.

Life as a prisoner of war(POW) in a German Stalag was no picnic, despite how Hollywood depicted the experience through a weekly dose of Hogan's Heroes. By now, we had become used to little food, crowded living quarters, and hard labor. The rewards were one more day to live, followed by more of the same.

An opportunity to 'volunteer' for a job was a reprieve from the daily grind and sometimes proved beneficial. If luck was on our side, the work detail would take us out to one of the nearby farms. The work would be just as arduous, but perhaps we would be fed real food for a change. I stepped forward with five other men. As I did so, I could nearly read the faces of those around me: He's young enough. Hopefully he'll survive what the Germans have lined up today. I'm glad I don't have to go this time.

The camp was situated on the outskirts of the city of Greifswald. The main building, an unfriendly and cold concrete steel structure, had been transformed from a former military warehouse that at one time had been used for the storage and maintenance of tanks. The inside perimeter of the structure was subdivided into smaller units. Each compartment was separate, divided from another via concrete and steel. I suppose this was done for safety reasons. With the presence of machinery, fuel, and other volatile liquids, even ammunition, a fire could be contained and prevented from spreading. The tanks were no longer there, but the space had been allocated and converted into a camp for housing military prisoners. Where at one time tanks, machines, and spare parts had been kept in storage, row upon row of bunk beds, stacked three-high, now housed flesh and blood people. In the center of the vast warehouse were rough-hewn chairs and tables, where we would eat our meals.

Next door to this huge concrete mass, and separated by a manned barbed-wire fence, was a two-story administration building. Placard signs were placed on the fence at 50 meter intervals in the five main languages—French, English, Russian, Serb, and German—warning us that any prisoner approaching the fence would be shot. The camp Kommandant's office was situated on the second floor. The rest of the buildings were out of our view and, of course, inaccessible to prisoners.

By 4:30 in the afternoon, after working hard all day to the point of exhaustion, we were released from the work site. Our guards marched us back to camp, situated near a railroad yard. Around 5:00, we arrived hungry and exhausted, only to learn that the evening 'meal' had already been distributed to all the barracks. Everything had been consumed, right down to the last crumb. We were told that it was customary for prisoners on work details to be fed on site, and so they had assumed this was the case with us.

The news hit me like salt being poured into an open wound. A couple of my co-laborers complained, and one man even ranted about the unfairness of it all, while the rest collapsed onto their bunks. What could I do? The food was gone and no amount of pleading or cajoling with the sergeant would bring about a change of heart. Famished, exhausted, and despondent, the others withdrew and crawled into their bunks, angry, yet wiser for the experience. As for me, I was more than disappointed. I sensed such a feeling of injustice rising up within me that I couldn't ignore it. I decided to take matters into my own hands and left the safety of the barracks.

I hadn't formulated a plan. All I can remember is that I was driven by an inner determination that went beyond reason: Hunger! Our barracks were situated near the administration building, and a short wooden gangway connected them to the perimeter of the compound. In the center of the massive fence was a narrow opening, fortified by razor sharp barbed wire, and complemented by an alert and armed sentry.

I approached the German guard and called out that I wanted to see the Kommandant. This in itself was a risky endeavor, since a prisoner didn't just walk up to a sentry unannounced. The Germans were sticklers for rules and regulations, and breaching them was dealt with harshly. The guard watched my approach and challenged me right away.

Halt! Geh zurück!" he ordered.

Although I am fluent in German, I ignored his command to stop and go back. I kept walking. The soldier removed the rifle from his shoulder and pointed the attached bayonet at me. Thinking back on it later, I realized what a foolish decision this had been. He had every right to shoot me. I repeated over and over, in German, that I wanted to see the camp Kommandant. Perhaps my German stopped him from shooting me in the head.

"Halt! Mensch, bist Du verrückt?" The guard's eyes widened in surprise when I stood my ground. "Man, are you insane?"

Not about to be deterred, I repeated my request. The sentry motioned with his bayonet for me to back up. I don't know what came over me. Perhaps it was the futility of my predicament or my feeling of injustice over the way we had been treated—in any case, I simply reacted. I grabbed the bayonet, ignoring his instruction, and committed myself to an uncertain outcome. This act in itself should have been ample justification for the guard to have me shot. As bizarre as this was, the sentry didn't fire, but tugged back, trying to retrieve his bayoneted rifle from my grasp. I hung on with all my strength, now realizing that if I let go, he probably would shoot me. We were now in a sort of tug of war, with both of us shouting at each other. The sounds of the ensuing commotion drifted up to the open window of the nearby administration building. I didn't know it at the time, but the open window led to the Kommandant's office.

By sheer providence, the Kommandant was not only in his office, but must have heard the verbal exchange. He poked his head out the window for a better look. At this point, I let go of the bayonet and came to attention. The guard, relieved to have his weapon back, presented arms for his superior.

"Was ist los?" the Kommandant, a major, called out austerely. "What's going on?"

The guard was duty-bound to reply. "Major Zimmermann," he replied, in German. "This prisoner has gone mad. He insists that you listen to his complaint about food rations."

"I will come down myself," the major said.

While the Kommandant made his way down, the guard looked at me with an air of finality. "Mark my words, you are a dead man." There was the faintest trace of pity in his voice.

When the major arrived, he was in full uniform, which included his forage cap and tunic. Even though it wasn't the dress uniform, his pants were clean and pressed, the boots had a high gloss, and his tunic was immaculate, decorated with pilot wings and the iron cross with oak leaves. He made a formidable impression as he approached with a slight limp. Although he was only in his late thirties, he was known to be a no-nonsense officer. It was rumored he had been shot down in his Messerschmitt, which explained how such a young officer had come to be a camp commander and was no longer 'in the field.' The major, though not ruthless, didn't put up with incompetence from any of his men, his officers included, and was thus feared by all.

I saluted and waited for the major to address me. He looked me up and down, as if deciding whether or not he was going to make short work of me.

"Your number?" Zimmermann asked.

"74324, Herr Major," I replied in German.

Perhaps hearing his own language, spoken by a prisoner, softened his approach. "State your complaint," he ordered a little less gruffly.

I related my story, short and to the point, without laying any blame on the guards or embellishing my part. He seemed to listen attentively, and a furtive smile crossed his lips. Once I had finished, he turned to the guard and ordered him to fetch the subordinate in charge of the work detail. Not two minutes later, a sergeant came running. He stopped in front of the major and saluted smartly.

Feldwebel!" Zimmermann addressed him, pointing at me. "Was this man in your harbor detail this morning?"

The sergeant, well aware of the officer's penchant for authority and discipline, assumed I was about to receive some of the same. "Jawohl, Herr Major! He was there, one of six men assigned to the task."

"Did they work all day, and to your satisfaction?"

"Yes, Major."

"Were they fed?"

"No, Major. They received only water."

"Why only water?"

"I don't know, sir."

The Kommandant turned to me and said. "You, come with me."

The sergeant's mouth dropped as he stared at me in disbelief. Taken aback, I followed the major directly into the officer's mess. He approached one of the cooks, startling him by the impromptu visit.

"Get two pails and fill them to the brim—no leftovers," Zimmermann instructed the cook. He then addressed the sergeant. "Make sure this man gets the pails, and then escort him back," he instructed. He then turned and abruptly left the mess.

I stood there mesmerized, watching as the cook followed the order. Once I had my two pails, filled with what smelled like heavenly cuisine, I was escorted back to the gate. The former sentry, not believing his eyes, this time allowed me to pass without a challenge.

"Mensch, Du has ein Schweinsglück," he murmured incredulously. "Man, you don't know what luck is!"

In the meantime, the nearest barrack house had emptied, the men having been alerted by the earlier commotion. I walked back to my barracks, amongst the shouts and well wishes of all. I entered our blockhouse, heralded a fool by some and a brazen hero by others. Naturally, I shared my newfound rations with the other five men of my detail. I still remember dozens of arms reaching out toward me, hoping to get a small morsel from the pail. Naturally, I gave much of it away.

For once, there was ample food for the starving men of German Stalag IIIC.

 * * * * * *
Gayle again: Thanks for sharing, Rob. That was great stuff. You can find Rob's books on Amazon. His author page is http://www.amazon.com/Robert-Stermscheg/e/B004C2RIWA/, which will lead you to both this stunning memoir and his translations of two of Karl May's books. You can also visit his website, http://www.robertstermscheg.com/. I'll be visiting his site this week, talking about the differences of writing historical fiction and writing in the contemporary age.
Rob's Bio:
Robert Stermscheg, born in Europe in 1956, was exposed to many wonderful writers – Edgar Rice Burroughs, Alexandre Dumas, and of course Karl May. He appreciated how they opened up a whole new world to our imaginations through their portrayal of life. His parents were of Austrian descent, and as a result of his father’s occupation as an electrical engineer, he moved several times in his early childhood. His father kept a steady supply of books to broaden his son’s education, including a repertoire of Karl May books.
The entire family moved to Canada in 1967, eventually settling in Manitoba. Robert was involved in chess, hockey, flying, but always kept up his interest in the German language. His passion to share the works of Karl May, largely unknown in North America, resulted in the search for English translations. After retiring from a satisfying career with the Winnipeg Police Service in 2006, he had the opportunity to pursue his dream—translating one of Karl May’s novels into English. His wife, Toni, embraced his dream and encouraged him in the writing process. She supported him in this new venture by being a proof reader.
In 2006, Robert consulted with Nemsi Books, a publisher willing to take on new authors, and embarked on his first book, The Prussian Lieutenant, based on an earlier work by Karl May. His first book was well received, encouraging him to continue with the sequel, The Marabout’s Secret, and then followed up with Buried Secrets. This third book, shifts back to France, enveloping us with tension, as the ruling authority under Napoleon III prepares for a war with its neighbour, Germany. A highlight for Robert has been to collaborate with his father, a former POW during WWII, and write his memoir, entitled POW #74324.
Robert resides in Winnipeg and is currently working on his fourth book, Captain Richemonte.

1 comment:

Helen Ginger said...

An amazing story. This memoir sounds like something that could be made into a movie.

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