The dead in your backyard

I grew up in a very pretty village in one of the more picturesque parts of (then) rural Germany. It did have a small factory, but the overall vibe was agricultural. The farmer a couple of streets down would sell you a liter of fresh raw milk for one Mark, and our house was surrounded by parsley and chive fields, the products of which were diligently manicured and bundled by a gaggle of ladies seated downstairs from our apartment. I spent many hour seated next to these women, listening to their stories, many of which were about the war, about those that had ‘fallen’  in battle or had been imprisoned by the Russians and returned. “Behave or The Russian will come and get you” was still used as a threat to small children.

Parenting was not taken very seriously. School finished at noon and after a quick lunch kids would roam the streets, building sites, local pool and fields for the rest of the day until called home for dinner six hours later.

It seemed like a place far removed from the anxious Germany of the 1970s with the lingering effects of the 1968 ‘events’. Wanted posters for the Baader-Meinhof gang were ubiquitous however. Some of the terrorists were quasi locals, a getaway vehicle had been found in our town, and a pair of minor members had a fatal accident just a couple of miles away. I visited the spot with my bike, and found their blood dried on the asphalt of our country road. Moreover, the place where Ulrike MeinhofAndreas BaaderGudrun Ensslin und Jan-Carl Raspe killed themselves was only a few towns away.

We also happened to have an American Nike missile base, decorating the town’s perimeter with a strange Bucky Fuller dome and a barracks encampment. We’d see Americans in trains and around local bars, chewing gum and talking loudly. Occasionally a local girl would follow one of these Americans to some place in Ohio or Indiana, returning only rarely and with a heavy American accent.

I learned very early not to trust the idyll that my town was eager to project.

And yet, there was more.

Behind the village, a couple of kilometers away, between fields and a small forest was a small cemetery called the “Russian Cemetery”. It wasn’t a place ever mentioned or visited. It was assumed that it had something to do with the war.

It consisted chiefly of numbered stones that looked like this:

It turns out that before the Americans built their base, there had been another kind of camp on the outskirts of town, created during the Third Reich. Billed as a camp for sick it was in fact a camp for the dying. Prisoners from other camps – many Russian forced laborers, male, female and children – were brought here when they could no longer work, tuberculosis and typhoid ran rampant, no doctors (but two informally operating internees) were there. It was a horrible place to die, surrounded by glorious rolling hills and vineyards. There are particularly wrenching details to this camp that I cannot get myself to write. Many were killed during an attack on the small airport that was right next to the camp. There was nowhere for them to take shelter.

When I was born – in the late 1960s – the dead had not been dead very long. The Third Reich might seem very far away for many, an era that has already slipped into history, a place reassuringly far away. It isn’t for me. I can’t help visiting this little cemetery, I can’t help looking for the foundations of those buildings. I try and imagine names and faces behind the numbers. It still seems very, very close and real to me.

For more information there is an extraordinary book, privately published and hard to find. It is filled with rage, an obsessively detailed accounting of what happened in that region, who was responsible, who turned a blind eye, who benefited, and who lied. The local library had one copy, with no signs of reading or borrowing.