So far today, die Monstren—the monsters—had left him alone.
Fifteen-year-old Edwin Horst, his German uniform dirty and torn where the Americans had ripped away the insignia for souvenirs, cowered alone with his back to the railroad car window, oblivious to the verdant fields of Michigan sweet corn rolling past outside. He was exhausted, terrified, and bored. His eyes twitched back and forth beneath half-closed lids, scanning the car filled with other prisoners and the single guard, watching and waiting.
Edwin’s thoughts again drifted to his mother, alone in their apartment back in Düsseldorf. His father had died of tuberculosis six years before, his older brother Stefan was serving on the Eastern Front, and just four months ago, when the call came for volunteers as young as fourteen, Edwin had enlisted.
He had left his mother alone in a time of war.
Edwin squeezed his eyes closed as tight as he could, willing himself to suppress the tears he feared would come, trying to remember a happier time. Last year, when Stefan came home on leave, he let Edwin look through his army field glasses, and when Edwin squinted, he saw his own eyelashes pressing in from above and below, grazing the eyepieces.
Stefan had long eyelashes too. Both brothers had blond Aryan hair and hardly any beard. But Stefan was solidly built; he looked like a man, like an ideal German soldier. With Edwin’s curly hair, thin frame, and slightly rounded hips, he knew his long eyelashes only added to his girlish appearance. If he could find some scissors, he could cut them. Maybe that would help.
He wondered what had happened to Stefan’s field glasses. Were they buried in a snow bank outside of Stalingrad? Maybe one of Stefan’s Waffen-SS comrades had them—or some oaf of a Russian soldier.
With a start, Edwin realized that he wasn’t watching, guarding himself against the monsters he knew were all around him. His eyes popped open and he saw a large man, another prisoner, looming over him. Throwing up his hand and waving it back and forth, Edwin said, “Go away,” trying desperately to sound tough and confident, and knowing at the same time that he was failing.
“My name is Henri Gelbert,” the man said. “From Zwenkau. You know where that is?” His German was formal, educated. “It’s near Leipzig, where my father went to university. You are wondering why I have a French name, yes?”
“Go away,” Edwin repeated. He stared up at this Henri. He was older, perhaps nineteen or twenty, and at least two meters in height. He wore small eyeglasses with thick lenses that made his large head look even larger. The stubble-covered skin under his chin hung loosely, making Edwin think that he’d once been fat.
“And why should I do that?” Henri asked. “You’ve got this whole seat to yourself. If I want to sit here, why shouldn’t I?”
“Sergeant Spinkel says I can have this seat.” Spinkel was the German sergeant the Americans had put in charge of this car. He sat up front, next to the sleeping guard.
“Spinkel! And why should I care about him?” Henri shrugged dismissively. Then he leaned down a little, peering at Edwin through his tiny eyeglasses. “My mother was French, you see.” He paused for a second, and then refocused on Edwin. “So, where were you captured? And what unit are you from? Me, I was in Battalion 999. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?” He cautiously slid down onto the far end of the seat.
Edwin tried to push himself back farther into the corner, ready to yell, ready to jump up and try to somehow get away. Beneath his fear, he remembered that Battalion 999 had been created to get military work out of men who couldn't be trusted as regular soldiers. “You’re a communist!” he whispered, trying to sound superior. Then he winced, regretting he’d said anything. He had to avoid getting into a conversation with this Henri.
“A communist? Ah, and what’s a communist?” Henri’s eyes brightened with enthusiasm. “The Nazis think anyone who doesn't love that Austrian paper hanger Hitler is a communist. Now—”
“Be quiet!” Edwin hissed. “They might hear you.” He pointed toward Spinkel and the guard.
“So?” Henri asked loudly. “Do you fear the Nazis here?” He waved his hands around, gesturing toward the windows and the passing farmland outside. “In the middle of America?”
Edwin peered over the seat in front of him and saw that Sergeant Spinkel had turned around to look at them. After a moment, he turned to face forward again.
“Listen!” Edwin said, “I don’t care about politics. Leave me alone!”
Henri didn’t leave. Instead, he slid fully onto the seat and stared dolefully straight ahead.
Edwin pulled up his legs so his knees were tucked under his chin and hugged them tight. He wanted to look out the window, to turn away from this Henri, but he dared not. If only Axel were here.
Axel Schmidt had been big, taller than Henri, and heavier. They grew up together in the Carlstadt district of Düsseldorf, where Axel’s family lived in the apartment directly below Edwin’s. On Saturdays, they went to the cinema, greatly preferring the American horror movies with Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney. They’d enlisted together and stayed together during training, and to their mutual surprise and relief, they’d been assigned to the same artillery battalion. Axel, so big and strong, had been his protector. He’d kept the monsters away.
“You think you’re a tragic case?” Henri said suddenly, still staring straight ahead. “Everybody on this train has a sad story to tell. Perhaps the American airplanes have bombed your family out of their home. Or your best friend died in your arms in a filthy bunker in France. You haven’t heard from your pregnant wife for many months. We’re all on our way to some miserable prisoner-of-war camp. In America! It’s all very sad. When we were aboard ship, there were so many unhappy men jammed into such a small place, it must have been the highest concentration of wretchedness that the world has ever seen.”
Of course Edwin remembered. The American guards had called the Walter S. Mitchell a “Liberty Ship” and claimed that hundreds were being built for the war. After carrying troops and supplies to Europe, the Mitchell returned to the United States with nine hundred German prisoners. The bunks in the deep holds stood six-high, so tightly packed that if there was a man in the bunk above him, Edwin couldn’t roll over from his back to his stomach without having to slide out first. Barbed wire had been welded across the portholes.
There had been showers onboard. After three weeks in a hellhole prisoner camp in England, and after being sprayed with DDT powder as they boarded the ship in Liverpool, Edwin had been desperate to get clean. The DDT itched like fire, but he didn’t shower. He didn’t take off his clothes and join the other naked men when his turn came. Because he was dirty and stank and didn’t care, the monsters stayed away; and because they thought he was crazy, it was almost as good as having Axel with him. When the ship docked at New York City, the guards finally forced him to wash. But in his heart he knew he would never truly feel clean again.
Edwin peered over at Henri. The man sat with his shoulders slumped, his hands on his knees, still staring straight ahead. Edwin had noticed him on the ship and on this train; it was hard not to because of the man’s height. Henri liked to talk, and Edwin would like to talk to someone. Could he trust Henri? He had probably bored all the other prisoners with his stupid conversation, and now he had set his sights on Edwin. Maybe that was all there was to it. Still, if he were wrong …
A shudder passed over pretty, fifteen-year-old Edwin Horst.
Thirty minutes later, the train came to a stop at a small, stone-built station with a sign above the platform that read “Ann Arbor.” When the American guard gestured to Sergeant Spinkel that they would get off, both Henri and Edwin stood, and as they waited, Henri bent back down and looked out the window, past Edwin.
“Look!” Henri whispered. “Girls! American girls.”
Edwin looked. Standing on the platform next to the station doorway were two young women, one with dark hair and the other with fiery red. They were pretty, Edwin thought. And Henri said they were American girls. Well, of course they were.
A moment later, as the prisoners stepped off the train, Sergeant Spinkel ordered them to fall in, pointing to an open area next to the station building. As Edwin automatically moved to obey, he saw Henri suddenly stop and turn, a glint of excitement in his eyes. He scurried across the short distance to the station and stood in front of the two girls. Watching Henri, it seemed to Edwin as if he were back in his Düsseldorf schoolyard, and he yearned to go stand next to Henri and talk to those pretty girls.
Henri seemed to be doing well. One of them—the brunette—giggled, and the redhead smiled. Both the American guard and Sergeant Spinkel shouted at the same time, and bidding a quick farewell to the girls, Henri hurried back to join the formation, falling into line next to Edwin. Both Sergeant Spinkel and the guard stood in front of Henri, Spinkel yelling at him even as he wrote in his notebook. The guard said nothing, merely nodding with approval. Watching through the corner of his eye, Edwin saw Henri’s face twitching as he struggled to suppress a smile.
Fifteen minutes later, Edwin and Henri sat next to each other in a chartered city bus as it rumbled down a dirt road leading out of town. Edwin stared at Henri, but the big man said nothing. Finally, Edwin could contain himself no longer. “What did they say?” he asked.
Henri looked at him and grinned. “So now you want to talk to me, eh?”
“Come on, Henri. What did they say?”
Henri shrugged and said nothing more. Edwin glared at him for a moment and then turned away, his eyes drifting toward the front of the bus where the guard stood chatting with the civilian driver and where Sergeant Spinkel sat alone in the front seat. Spinkel was certain to punish Henri once they got to the camp, but Edwin guessed that Henri would consider his short conversation with those girls to be worth it. Spinkel stared ahead out the front window, and it occurred to Edwin for the first time that even he was worried about his future, about this new camp.
“You know the remarkable thing?” Henri asked.
“What?” Edwin asked eagerly.
“The dark-haired one. She spoke German.”