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Graves of the Danube

In those days, death lurked just around every corner, all the time. The nazi killing squads swarmed the city unchecked. One time, while forced to join one of these squads on one of their daily forays, I witnessed what I had only heard about before.

We were marching around, keeping close to the walls to avoid flying shrapnel and exploding shells. Ahead of us, we saw two figures disappear through a doorway. Suspicious, our leader rushed after them. There, behind the door, huddled in the corner, was an elderly Jewish couple. They couldn’t produce any papers and after being slapped a few times, the old man confessed that they had escaped from the ghetto.

This time, there was no on-the-spot execution. The leader told us, grinning, that these victims would be “sent to have a swim.” We surrounded the couple and marched them to a nearby party house, which served as a collection centre for captured Jews and other “criminals.” The couple was literally kicked down the stairs, into the cellar. The gang leader received praise from the local head man for his alertness. Then we were told that they would need people for the next morning’s “swim,” and that we should stay around for the night. Luckily, I wasn’t carrying a firearm and had a good excuse for not participating in the “action.”

We were woken early the next morning and handed a cup of ersatz coffee–or rather some hot black water trying to pass as coffee. Then the prisoners were ordered to climb up from the cellar. Out came an assortment of people, mostly elderly, some bleeding, limping and supporting each other. Although none wore yellow stars, they were likely all Jews. I stood away from the victims as much as I could. They were tied together with ropes in groups of three, and marched towards the Danube river. I stayed back at the party house.

I found out later what happened, from the foul mouths of the returning heroes. This is the story my “kameraden” told upon their return…

On the way to the river, everyone was silent as they walked through the semi-dark, deserted city streets. It took a long time in the cold winter morning to reach the river. They knew what was going to happen, but all of them, victims and murderers, just walked on, without a word. Near the river, someone joined them, also carrying a rifle. It was a priest dressed in a black cassock. As they arrived at the quay of the Danube, the priest stepped aside. The younger Nazis were told to stand back and wait.

None of the victims were hit or abused any more. These people were condemned to die at the hands of their captors and that fact seemed to dampen the usually crude behaviour of the gang. The victims were quickly lined up along the edge of the river. The ropes were checked and tightened. (It was at this point in the story that I realized what the ropes were for: in case some of the victims were not killed by the bullets, they would be pulled into the river with the others and drown anyway.

Next, the older Nazis walked away from the group, and away from the river. They lifted their guns and began shooting. No orders were given; it was just a slow, almost lazy process of execution. The bodies jerked as they were hit, then fell backward under the impact of the bullets into the river. The executioners could hear the heavy thump of the bodies as they hit the ice.

It lasted perhaps one minute. The last body disappeared over the edge of the quay, the last rifle was lowered, the shooting stopped abruptly, and a deadly silence descended over the river’s edge. At that moment, the man in the black cassock, Father Kun5, stepped forward. Raising the large wooden cross that hung around his neck, he began to pray. Some of the Nazis in the group knelt down to receive absolution from this representative of the Catholic Church.

I never found out who the victims were. Finding myself on the other side caused me tremendous grief and a deep sense of shame. I had been afraid to look at the victims, remorseful for witnessing their humiliation and for being so powerless to do anything, to stop the murders, or at least alleviate their suffering. And I had been afraid to look at my nazi “brothers,” worried that my burning cheeks might give me away.

After the shooting, the killers walked to the edge of the Danube and looked down. The ice was littered with the dead bodies, still bound together. None of them moved. The ice was slowly floating downstream and after a minute or two, the bodies started sinking into the water that opened up between big ice floes. A couple of minutes later, the victims had completely disappeared. One of the ice blocks, still stained with the blood of some of the murdered, got caught in an ice jam and the red blotches of blood remained visible from the distance. The rising sun was already washing over the hills across the river.

Some of the murderers went up to Father Kun and kissed the cross hanging from his neck. The Church instantly absolved them of the crimes they had just committed.

When one of them recounted this episode, deep inside, I hoped that our society would not absolve them and that they would meet justice one day. In the meantime, I had to pretend they were my “brothers” and join in in the merriment, which now broke out unfettered. It was time to celebrate a job well done.

These murderers were used to all this, as this was a routine visit to the Danube. One of them casually remarked that they had just wiped a few more vermin off the face of the earth. That’s all, just a few vermin!

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