Friday, 27 February 2009

Going home to Hegenheim

Hegenheim is a village in the Alsace region of France, just outside Basel in Switzerland. Germany used to claim Alsace as its own, so when the German army arrived without so much as a by your leave in 1940, Hegenheim found itself part of the German Reich, an honour it had never sought.

The men of Hegenheim were granted a further honour. Viewed as German citizens, they were liable to conscription to the armed forces of the Reich.

Now Hegenheim matters to me because it is where my wife Danielle was brought up and where much of her family still lives. That includes her maternal uncle. Let’s call him René, since that’s his name.

René’s elder brother took off soon after the invasion. Later tales have him leading a heroic existence in the French resistance, though the reality may have been somewhat more comfortable. The German authorities made clear to his relatives that another disappearance would be viewed with disapproval, swiftly followed by the deportation of the rest of family for the ultimate – probably terminal – honour of serving the Reich at forced labour.

So when René was called up, he offered no resistance but reported for service. He became one of the tens of thousands of Alsatian ‘malgré nous’, the ‘despite ourselves’, who fought for the Reich without enthusiasm and only because the alternative was even worse.

René was no fool and he had an intelligent plan. He joined the Luftwaffe as ground staff, and set out to do as much as was necessary to avoid being sent off to any of Hitler’s killing fields, but as little as he could to be of any actual value to the Reich or any nuisance to the Allies. He took all the exams he was required to, and always contrived to get a mark just good enough to pass and avoid the Russian Front, but too poor to be promoted. The Reich was keen to see men from Alsace become officers and endorse their reincorporation into the fatherland. René was keen to avoid giving them that satisfaction.

René's programme worked fine until early 1945. But then the fuel ran out and there weren’t many planes left. It was hard to justify having an air force at all. René’s worst nightmare was realised: he was sent to the Russian front.

Specifically, he was sent to Königsberg. Today it’s called Kaliningrad and is an enclave of Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and the Baltic republics. Once it was the city of the philosopher of the categorical imperative, Immanuel Kant. It also gave birth to a famous logic challenge, itself at the source of the study of topology, the Königsberg Bridge problem:

René got there just in time to witness the collapse of German resistance to the Soviet Advance. He was in combat for just eight hours, the worst eight hours of his life. Then the German line broke and men began to stream towards the rear.

That’s when René came up with his personal plan for emancipation from the Reich. He turned to his friend, with whom he’d been assigned to operate a heavy machine gun, and told him ‘We’re going to Hegenheim’. It was 1200 kilometres away. They decided it was a good plan. I suppose that, once again, the alternative had little to commend it.

For some reason, they couldn’t bear to part with the machine gun. They weren’t planning on doing any more fighting and they hadn’t any ammunition for it anyway, but for some reason they kept carrying it with them.

It will come as no surprise that the journey was far from uneventful. At one time, they reached a farmhouse in a forest clearing as night was falling. The farmer was away in the forces, and his terrified wife told them they could sleep in the barn. The place was already inhabited by several German soldiers. In the morning they were awoken by the sound of shooting. Outside they saw Russian soldiers coming across the clearing, shouting ‘hurrahs’ and firing at anything that moved. René found himself stumbling behind the others as he struggled to get back into his boots while zig-zagging to avoid the Russian bullets.

The fate of the farmer’s wife doesn’t bear thinking about.

Some days later they reached one of those desperate lines of last defence, manned by sixty and sixteen year olds. The local commander was delighted to acquire two men of military age, with a machine gun to boot, and immediately pressed them into his service. This didn’t fit in at all with René’s plan of going to Hegenheim. Fortunately, a little later they were ordered into town with a sergeant to collect bread from a bakery. As they emerged, a little behind the sergeant, René said to his friend, ‘come on – we’re going to Hegenheim’. They put the loaves down on the pavement and headed again for the woods.

A few days later they woke to a day with no sound of guns. René turned to his friend and said, ‘It’s over.’

They walked into the nearest town and surrendered. By good luck, the second Allied soldier they saw was French, and René was able to explain to him who he was and where he was from. The Frenchman looked after them and made sure they got into the custody of an American unit.

From there he was sent to Paris, where he was held in the cycling stadium, the Vel d’Hiv′ where so many Jews had been assembled before being shipped off to their fates in the extermination camps. But when he was there, the gates were open, and he was able to walk out and around the town, something he found strange in his German uniform. But no one challenged him.

Finally, he was shipped back to Alsace. He arrived in the market town next to Hegenheim, St Louis on 14 July, Bastille day. He had to push through a crowd celebrating the French national day, with speakers proclaiming their patriotism, where his uniform made him feel still more out of place. But he got through and walked the last few kilometres to Hegenheim.

His family had given him up for dead and thought he was a ghost, thin as he was. They nearly killed him as they overfed him in the following days, trying to fill out his emaciated frame. But he survived, and survives today. And he was home.

He had got back to Hegenheim.

For the sequel to this story, see:

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