Archive for January, 2008

War Veterans

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Codex Manenssist is really surprising the questions people ask out of the blue to initiate a conversation with a stranger. Here is the last one somebody tried on me a few days ago: “Are you Indian?

It was in a plane while getting comfortable in my seat and preparing myself for the flight. I don’t really enjoy flying, and the time between getting on board and taking off is the worst ever. That’s why I try to get into my book or my magazine as fast as possible hoping for a quick doze… but that old man didn’t give me any time for it. He shot the question right away, like if my birthplace were important to sit down in that part of the plane.

I don’t normally like having long conversations with strangers in planes either. Sorry, it’s not that I am asocial or something, Unknown, The Haguebut I often have a lot of work to do and I don’t want those hours to be a waste. Someone told me that the best way to keep conversations short is to say “I am a pig slaughter in a butchery house” when the conversation turns into jobs. Especially if you pose a tick on your shoulder, move your head sideways, and slightly close one of your eyes while you say that. If you let the corner of your mouth drop a bit and some saliva falls down, then you have granted yourself hours of silence and tranquility until landing. :-)

Despite the fact that the question was weird and he obviously had a big perception problem -I don’t look northern European for sure, and the 700 years the moors were in Spain left a mark on the country… but come on… me? Indian? -, the thing is that the old man seemed really nice. So we talked for quite a while and it turned out that he was a World War II veteran. He was in his mid eighties, but his memory was very good (or maybe he made up everything he told me… who knows?) Unknown, The HagueHe was so willing to talk about it that I didn’t have to pull his tongue much: he’d been enrolled in 1943, traveled to Africa and been part of the American forces that freed Italy. He’d been the second on board in a Sherman tank and after all those years he could still describe how those tanks were internally operated by their crew. I didn’t understand much of his description because I am not really familiar with the English vocabulary for a tank (I probably missed class that day) but I enjoyed the conversation anyway.

He also told me many things about the German Panzers: “They were awesome machines, much better than our Shermans. The only way to really damage them was with a good shot from behind. Our Shermans were faster though, so in open combat our only chance was to outnumber them and attack them from different sides at the same time. It was like a dog pack attacking a bear. German panzers were fantastic… I never thought something could be so beautiful yet so deadly and dangerous at the same time…” He did not spare any detail about the every-day things of a war: hunger (”we smoked two packs a day in order not to be hungry“), sadness (“friendship is deep but short in war”), or terror (”There is a point where you don’t think anymore. Your spine takes over your brain’s duty and you turn into a robot. But that is the best way to avoid fear“).

 “Those were hard times”, he said, “but the only thought that kept us moving on was the certainty that the Germans were probably under worse circumstances”.

I did not tell him but I had already heard the German version. A few years ago I had to spend 3 nights in a hospital in Munich for a little eye operation. My room mate was a short, sweet very old German who had a horrible scar in his left forehead and wore an eye patch. He was is his mid eighties and his only eye had started suffering from glaucoma… He’d be blind very soon and I couldn’t help feel sorry for him. I did not even have to ask about the scar and the missing eye -as the majority of the old people, he started telling me about all his problems, the medicines he had to take, the operations he’d gone through… and all of the sudden, there it was, his story as a Schutzstaffel veteran, the famous nazi SS organization.

His memory was excellent, and his storytelling skills as good as thay can get when you are 85 years old. Of course he could have made up everything he told me… but then again, why should has he?

He was enrolled as soldier for the Belgium campaign and then promoted as a SS member for a small special assault squad. He fought in France against the Maginot Line and then marched to Paris, where he was a direct witness of France’s capitulation. “Der  glücklichste Tag meines Lebens”, he proudly said. Unknown, The HagueI could hardly believe that this little, sweet, almost-blind old man had just told me that the happiest day of his life was the day they brought France down. “Belgium was easy, but the French front was a joy. The French did not know how to fight.” I tried to imagine him sixty years younger with a SS black uniform and the famous skulls in his hat and the neck of his jacket. I just couldn’t. “We waited for Britain to fall, but they were more intelligent than the French. Those months in France waiting for the invasion order were absolutely marvelous. You know, we were young, and restless…we thought nobody could stop us. But then the Russian campaign started and everything changed”. The horrible pictures of the crimes committed by the SS during the war came to my mind and gave me the shivers…

Russians were tough but crazy fighters. One day in the winter of 42 we were taking a rest in the trenches, trying to fight the extreme cold, when the sirens went off and our machine guns nests started shooting. The Russians had started storming the open fields with no protection at all: no artillery cover, no tanks, no nothing… in the day light! Hundreds, maybe thousands of soldiers were running towards us in the open field, shouting, screaming like crazy. We could not believe that they were plunging into such a certain death. God, it was a butchery… they fell like puppets when you cut their strings. But they kept on charging, coming towards us, stepping on those who had already fell, shouting like hell. A few of them did make it to our position, but they were so exhausted after such a long charge that did not pose any danger. When it all was over the snow was red and the fields between trenches was all filled with death bodies. Eventually we advanced to their trenches and when we got over there we saw uncountable empty bottles of vodka everywhere… It was sad to think they had charged so careless because they were drunk.

He was injured in the battle of Unknown, The HagueStalingrad. A grenade exploded in front of his squad and killed them all except him and another guy. He lost an eye and part of his forehead. Barely alive, he was translated to Viena where he spent almost one year in a hospital due to several complications from the operations he had to go through. When he was recovered, the Russians were not longer retreating and the German armies were not longer invincible. “Those months in the hospital made me reconsider a lot of things. I did not want to go back to the Russian front, so my only eye got me a job in the hospital until the rest of the war. The end of the war was hard, but the beginning of the peace was harder… it all went up in smoke”.

The interesting thing about these two guys is that they were totally willing to speak about it. My two grandfathers fought in the Spanish Civil War, but I never heard them speaking about it. They did mention the hunger and the missery they suffered as POWs is Franco’s prisoner camps… but the war itself was a taboo thing. Sure, I was a kid when they were alive and war is not an ideal topic to talk to a child… but still – the war was something to forget, it wasn’t worthy to talk about it.

I really wonder if this is the way it’s meant to be. Shouldn’t the voices who have gone through those atrocities speak lauder and more often just to remind us how fortunate we are? Shouldn’t we be more willing to listen to what our elderly people have to tell us about those times?

PA. 

Gormaz ya es un ciberpueblo

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

Codex Manenssis

provechando el tiempo libre que dan las fiestas Navideñas y tras un par de noches quijotianas (de esas de mucho leer y poco dormir), finalmente he puesto en funcionamiento el Codex Gormacensis. Siempre me pareció que el mejor pueblo de España merecía un rincón digital a su altura, y con esas miras he diseñado la página. Naturalmente queda la parte más difícil de crear una página web: el obtener un contenido interesante. Pero para ello cuento con lo mejor de Gormaz: su gente. Así que si esta pequeña aldea soriana significa para tí tanto como para mí, escríbeme y hazme partícipe de noticias y anécdotas sobre ella, mándame fotos o cuéntame historias y costumbres que te gustaría añadir al legado digital de tan insigne joya castellana.

Feliz Año,

PA.