Thursday, September 21, 2006

One Leg by Barry Gifford

In September of 1965, when I was eighteen years old, I traveled from London, England, where I was living, to Hamburg, West Germany, with my friend Carl Jurgen Kurtz. Carl was twenty. We’d met at a boarding house in Chelsea I’d lived in for a few weeks after I’d first arrived in London, and where Carl still resided. He was apprenticing at a coffee company, learning the business from an associate of his father’s, who was a coffee importer in Hamburg. I was writing music and working for a publishing firm. Our holidays fell at the same time, and he invited me to accompany him to his home in a small village just outside Hamburg.

We traveled by train and ferryboat. Carl’s parents welcomed me warmly. Carl’s younger brother, who was thirteen, showed me a framed photograph of John F. Kennedy hanging on a wall in his room. Ever since Kennedy had made his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, he had been a heroic figure to the youth of West Germany. After his assassination, in 1963, Kennedy became something more on the order of a saint.

In Hamburg, Carl and I visited the offices of his father’s coffee company and walked around the city, which reminded me a great deal of my native Chicago. We took a boat ride on the inlet that led to the North Sea. Even though it was only September, the air was cold. I recall thinking that I did not want to be there during the winter.

One evening after dinner at the house, I asked Carl’s father about his participation in World War II. He said that he had been a major in the German army, stationed for much of his service at the Russian front. About the concentration camps and the mass extermination of the Jews by the Nazis, he said he had known nothing until it was too late. I asked him what he meant by too late, and he told me that by the time he understood what was happening the end of the war was fast approaching, the German forces were in retreat from Russia, and there was nothing to be done, at least by him. Frau Kurtz said that before the war they had advised some Jewish friends to leave the country. So you knew the worst was coming, I said. Nobody could have known how terrible it would be, she replied.

My friend Carl, I could see, was becoming uncomfortable with the conversation, so I stopped asking questions of his parents. Later, however, I asked him if when he was in school the Holocaust had been discussed. No, he said. We were told only that a great many innocent people had suffered, as always happens during a war.

The next afternoon, Carl took me to visit a neighbor, a Swiss woman who lived on a large property populated by hundreds of songbirds. She was very old and had lived on this estate, she told me, for more than sixty years. Her first husband, she said, had been the Kaiser’s right-hand man. He was killed in the Great War, as she called it. After him, there had been three more husbands, all of whom she had outlived. Now I have my birds to serenade me, she said. On our way back to his house, Carl told me that her next-to-last husband had been a high-ranking official in the Nazi party. My father says it’s the only reason she survived, said Carl. What do you mean? I asked. She’s a Jew, he said, not really a Swiss. Her husband protected her. I’ve seen photographs of her when she was young. You can’t imagine, looking at her now, how unbelievably beautiful she was.

Carl and I took a bus from Hamburg to Berlin. This meant that we had to travel through Communist East Germany, which was occupied by Russian troops. I was the only passenger on the bus who was not a German national. When we stopped at the East German checkpoint, the authorities made me get off the bus and questioned me as to my purpose for traveling to Berlin. I told them that I was a tourist, visiting Germany with my friend. After twenty minutes or so of discussion among themselves, the officials made me pay for a special visa, filled a page of my passport with stamps and signatures, and allowed me to get back on the bus. The other passengers eyed me with suspicion. This was the height of the Cold War, and everyone was paranoid. Unlike Carl, who was upset that my presence had caused a delay, I was more amused and interested than annoyed. They only wanted money, he said once the bus was again on its way toward Berlin. My father is angry that Germany has been divided, he continued, that a part of it is controlled by the Russians. He doesn’t dislike the Jews, said Carl, but he hates the Russians.

After exploring West Berlin, Carl and I decided to visit the eastern part of the city. The wall forced us to enter by different routes. Being a West German citizen, Carl had to pass through Friedrichstrasse, while I chose to walk in at Checkpoint Charlie in the American sector. We agreed to meet at a particular place in East Berlin, but somehow we missed each other, so I wound up exploring the mostly rubble-strewn city by myself.

That night I went into a bar in the neighborhood where the writer Bertolt Brecht had lived. More than thirty years later, after Berlin was unified and the wall had been torn down, I had dinner in Brecht’s house, which had been turned into a fancy restaurant. In 1965, however, East Berlin was a very gloomy place. In the bar I met a one-legged man who told me that he was an ex-Legionnaire. He’d left the majority of his left leg, he said, in North Africa. I asked him why, if he was a German citizen, he had joined the French Foreign Legion. I was living in Belgium, he told me, in Antwerp, and I had to kill a man who tried to cheat me in a diamond deal. I was completely justified in doing what I did, but I didn’t want to risk a trial, so I skipped to France, took the oath, and got sent to the desert. I was stationed on the outskirts of Oman and was doing well enough. Everyone in the Legion is a pervert of some kind, at least they were then, but I could take care of myself. The war came, and suddenly I was in Morocco fighting against my own countrymen. I got captured, and when the Germans found out I was their kind, instead of murdering me like they did the rest of our bunch, they shot my left leg full of holes, left it dangling by a thread. One leg, they told me, is all half a German deserves to have, and they stranded me in the desert.

Arabs found me, got me up on the back of an ass, and took me to a British field hospital, where a doctor took off what remained of the limb. Half a German, they called me. Now we are all of us half Germans, the country split into pieces. They should have shot me to death, as they did my comrades. Vous soyez jamais seuls, we say in the Legion. You’ll never be alone. My right leg is alone. He misses his brother. If I could get out of here and get to America, perhaps I could work in a factory. Is there a job in America for an old man with one leg?

The next morning, I crossed back into West Berlin and found Carl walking back and forth in front of the bus station. He knew I would go there eventually. Carl asked me where I’d spent the night, and I said I’d stayed up in a bar talking to the one-legged ex-Legionnaire. On the bus back to Hamburg, I told Carl the story the man had told me. I don’t believe it, Carl said. Did he ask you for money? No, I said. In fact, he bought me several beers. He did ask me if I wanted a girl, though. The bus was passing through a beautiful forest. Carl, whom I would last hear from a few years later when he was working for a coffee exporting company in Mombasa, said, Maybe he wasn’t lying, after all.

Copyright © Barry Gifford


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