The Man Who Feeds the Swans
‘Life can only be understood backwards;
But it must be lived forwards.’
Sὄren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
|Stadelheim Prison, Munich|
In Germany they used to call prisons Gefängnis or Knast. Later, they became known as Justizvollzugsanstalt, which, roughly translated, means ‘institute for the execution of justice’, known simply by their initials, JVA. However, to the gaunt, elderly prisoner waiting in the draughty, echoing corridor outside the Governor’s office on the cold, late October day in 1978 such semantic niceties were of scant interest. Some of the later inmates had expressed their view that compared to the jails of old, this place was a hotel. Yet to the lone waiting man, a prison was a prison, an encirclement of impregnable walls where life ebbed away and liberty remained as a cherished daily dream.
In Giesing, just south of Munich, Stadelheim prison had cast its brooding shadow over Stadelheimerstrasse since 1894. Many of its inmates knew what they needed to know about Stadelheim’s history. Dark places breed curiosity. The area is surrounded by two fences: a 3 meter high outer wall to prevent break-ins, and an inner fence to prevent break-outs. On each corner is a watch tower. In 1,210 cells all manner of miscreants have spent their time. Rowdy drunks from the annual Oktoberfest, paying for their excess with a vomit-stained night, a fine and a stiff lecture; burglars, fraudsters, murderers, misguided political extremists, and others, long-time internees whose records were far more complicated. Like most penitentiaries, Stadelheim exceeded its official capacity for inmates. Those with the privilege of a single cell were problematic prisoners, and the character in the corridor, one of the long term ‘complicated’, was one of these.
Today was a day he had long dreamed of, yet he wondered, after 20 years, how he would handle the sudden break in his daily routines. Breakfast served at 6.30am, white bread, butter and marmalade. Lunch at the unorthodox hour of 10:30am and dinner between 3 and 4pm, everything washed down with watery tea. Lights out at 10pm. Way back in 1958 he could never have imagined that this manner of incarceration could be his fate. Things had gone too well. Yet a man’s past is like his shadow; it never leaves him. He’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those distant days still haunted him.
Now the undercurrent of cold air wafted around his ankles as he stood patiently at attention outside the Governor’s office, waiting to be called in. The dullness of the iron grey late autumn sky outside had made Stadelheim’s interior seem even more dark, bleak and doom-laden than usual, yet he was relieved that the cold harshness of the night-time fluorescent lighting was absent. He hated those faintly humming lights, their stark, inhuman, economic functionality, and the way they made him feel as if life was being spent in a warehouse full of bankrupt human stock. Other thoughts ran through his head – if this is the day I have dreamed of, then what will the rest of the dream – the unwritten, obscured chapter, be like? What was life like out there in Germany? Could that alien, gaudy landscape he’d seen on television, that place where strange rhythmic music pulsed, where girls now showed their thighs, where outlandish men in peculiar clothes had shaggy hair, offer him anything at all? How would he cope with the sudden end of the unrepentant dull rhythm of Stadelheim life? Who would provide the white bread, butter and marmalade?
From his cell window he had been able to see the stark, skeletal dark treetops surrounding adjacent cemetery in the Perlacher forest. With its neat rows of tombstones and carefully tended graves, all accessed by a latticework of radiating paths, the cemetery seemed to go on forever. He saw it as a symbol; perhaps his cell was God’s waiting room; perhaps there wasn’t any Germany out there at all, just that forbidding graveyard. Maybe he was in some kind of paranormal borderland between what had once been life, with all its hopes, joys, past and potential future, and that waiting desert of death beneath the groves of spidery trees. The cold fingers of other dark thoughts often encircled and gripped his mind. Prisons were also places of exit. Although there had been unforgettable times in his life when the daily possibility of sudden death in a blaze of glory had seemed invigorating, the thought of an anonymous end within these walls seemed to offer the ultimate insult. His only consolation was that the ice-cold, churning world of his distant past had softened. It was a small comfort to know that his would not be the fate of many who had met their end here. He had had the time and the curiosity to learn about them all. He had immersed himself in history, yet the deeper he delved the more he agreed with Voltaire; “History is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play upon the dead.” And the dead were all around him, their ghosts not only in the prison confines, but roaming in their eternal grief across Europe.
Stadelheim’s cells were the bloody pages of a grim chronicle compressed between brick and concrete covers. It had been here, from June 24th to July 27th 1922 that Adolf Hitler was imprisoned for breach of the peace. Stadelheim had also loomed prominently on the so-called ‘Night of the Long Knives’. In cell 70, Hitler’s brown shirt comrade, Ernst Röhm, former Sturmabteilung Chief of Staff, refusing to commit suicide, was shot on 1 July 1934. Career Nazi Peter von Heydebreck was imprisoned and murdered by the SS here during the same ‘Röhm-Putsch’. Hans and Sophie Scholl, both members of the anti-Nazi White Rose resistance movement were guillotined on 22 February 1943.
The man waiting in the corridor knew all their names. He often thought about what that day in 1943 must have been like. Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Kurt Huber, Willi Graf, all sadly misguided members of the White Rose. How could these kids have been so naïve to think they could stand in the path of the juggernaut which was the Third Reich? He knew that some of their graves were out there beyond the perimeter fence. As he stood in the corridor, shifting his weight from foot to foot, he recalled the previous year, 1977, when Ingrid Schubert of the Bader-Meinhof gang had hung herself in her Stadelheim cell. Despite his own dread of an incarcerated death, he had vivid memories of how her suicide had inspired him. Her expectation of Germany was so empty that life itself had no further value. He had no sympathy for her cause, yet envied her courage and the utter sense of release her death must have brought.
The office door opened, causing him to flinch from his reverie back to reality. The guard looked him up and down and gestured with a wave of his hand.
“He will see you now. Enter.”
The prisoner was familiar with the Governor’s office. The broad, oak, leather-topped desk, the green filing cabinets, the electric typewriter, the telephones, one green one red, the hefty glass ashtrays courtesy of the Lowenbrau Brewery, the collection of pens in an old Bavarian bier stein. The previous governor, Herr Gluckmann, was old enough to understand the plight of this quiet lifer. It had been Gluckmann who had arranged the few extra comforts of his cell, and helped with his charge’s academic rehabilitation. He’d even allowed him a TV set, and praised his woodwork in the prison workshops. Yet the new governor, Franz Drecker, was too young to appreciate the history of the silent figure standing before him. Drecker was one of the new Germans, born in 1943, not in the greater Reich but to emigrant parents in faraway Canada. The Drecker family’s heritage was light years away from that of his older prisoners. Astute, ambitious and highly educated, the new governor’s lofty moral grasp of his parents’ homeland’s history set him bitterly at odds with the morose individual who had entered his domain. The prisoner was tall, square jawed, blue-eyed, with thinning steel grey hair and a two day stubble. His shoulders were broad and Drecker wondered what this man would have looked like three decades earlier. Today, as if to impress the governor, with admirable discipline, he stood to attention as rigidly straight as he could. Drecker studied the prisoner’s file, a bulky manila folder containing many pages of yellowing documents.
“You may sit down.”
The man dragged the tubular steel chair into position and sat there quietly waiting as Drecker traced a well-manicured finger across lines of typed text. He looked up.
“So. Your day has come. How does it feel?”
The prisoner shrugged. “I feel nothing. Not yet.”
“Not … yet?”
“How will I know what I feel until I am free? I am still sitting here, in Stadelheim. My feelings are the same as they were when the bell rang at six this morning.”
The governor looked bemused and nodded slowly.
“And what are your plans?”
The man shook his head.
“Plans? What plans can a man of 71 have after twenty years in this place?”
“Well, you are educated now. For a man of your age, I’m impressed with the amount of time you’ve spent in the gym. You are remarkably fit. You could enjoy another 20 years and make something of yourself.”
With an edge of bitterness, the prisoner laughed gently.
“The optimism of youth. ‘Make something’ of myself? What – a vegetable in a wheelchair? I am old, Herr Drecker. The only exercise which has kept me supple has been within the confines of Stadelheim. I know how long it takes, how many steps, to walk from one end of the compound to the other. But out there the roads go on forever. I am old and I feel it. I relish neither aspect of the future; the slow march to death in here, the slow march to death out there.”
Drecker shook his head and sighed.
“Such unwarranted negativity… this is a land of opportunity. We have found you a hostel, and your rehabilitation officer will help you to find ways to run your life. Surely liberty is something to be celebrated?”
The prisoner looked past the governor through the large barred window, where a hefty black crow was hopping along the top of the high perimeter wall.
“Yes. As you say, liberty is a cause for celebration – that is, of course, if liberty is the reason for this meeting.”
With a lop-sided grin, Drecker shook his head.
“Ever the damned pessimist. You know quite well it is.”
Drecker snapped the file shut, stood up and walked around the desk, then perched on its edge looking down at the morose figure before him.
“I suppose you heard about Peiper?”
“Yes. I heard.”
“Does his fate concern you?”
“No. It was justice of some kind. Cruel but inevitable.”
“What do you think now, looking back over your life – has it been wasted?”
The prisoner bridled at what he regarded as sanctimonious moralising.
“No more than yours.”
A flash of annoyance passed over Drecker’s face.
“But we are not here to discuss my life. We’re here to establish your release. What about your family? Do you have someone to contact?”
“I had a brother.”
“Are you in contact? Do you know where he is?”
“No. I’m really a kind of outcast. I don’t even know if he’s alive. Even if he is, I doubt if he’ll give me a warm welcome. It’s been what … over thirty years since we last met.”
“Why haven’t you kept in touch?”
“How do you mean, ‘shame’?”
“He was ashamed of me. And rightly so. Now please, don’t go on about it any longer. Suffice it to say I have no-one. It might sound sad, but I’ll have to live with that.”
Drecker took a packet of Pall Mall cigarettes from his pocket and offered one. The prisoner took it eagerly and they lit up. The blue smoke swirled around the room, inducing a more relaxed atmosphere. Drecker exhaled, went back around the desk, sat down and opened the file again.
“I see they released you from your first imprisonment in 1948. You were very lucky. Not many came back. I see you were free for almost nine years. It must have been quite a blow when they arrested you again. Surely, during that time you were free, you must have developed some friendships, some acquaintances. Are you in contact with anyone from that time?”
“No. I don’t know anyone. ”
“No-one? There must be someone, some person who’s occupied your mind.”
“Forget it! Of course there’s people who ‘occupy my mind’ but that’s about it. I no longer know them, who they are, what they’re doing, so I know nobody, so leave it.”
Drecker sighed and closed the file again. He sat back, took a long draw on his cigarette as he regarded the taciturn man who was once again staring past him at that persistent crow on the wall.
“In a few minutes you can go down to the main office and collect your belongings. They’ll provide you with some funds and the hostel’s address. Your rehabilitation officer is a nice woman – Helga Lorenz. She’ll meet you there.”
The prisoner savoured the cigarette and tried to imagine what lay ahead. A woman, trying to guide him to rehabilitation. It all seemed like a pointless exercise. Drecker leaned toward him and with narrowed eyes said
“Of all the cases in this establishment I have always found yours one of the most fascinating. I suppose, in the final analysis, you only had the good of Germany in your heart of hearts.” The prisoner stared long and hard at the governor, stubbed out his cigarette in the Lowenbrau ashtray and gave a sardonic chuckle.
“Huh. Heart of hearts … I only had one heart, unfortunately.”
“But, misguided or not, you gave it to Germany.”
“What could you possibly know about Germany, growing up in Canada? Your parents must’ve been crazy, bringing you back here.”
“Well, the fatherland is always the fatherland.”
The prisoner wondered if there was a hint of sarcasm. Worst still, was this some kind of misguided condescension? He turned his head to one side and grimaced as if he’d smelled something bad.
“I’ve heard that somewhere before. The ‘fatherland’. Hah! Some father. Some land. Look where it got me.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ve had time to reflect on it all and twenty years adds up to a lot of redemption. But before you go, I’m curious; looking back, how do you feel about your former life and your incarceration? Do you still have any guilt?”
The man stood up and pushed the chair away, then leant on the desk, both hands spread out on the rich leather. He looked long and hard at Drecker.
“You remind me of a little kid who looks at a racing car or a helicopter and thinks ‘how does that work?’ You think that people like me are some kind of workshop manual to help you discover how the history machine functions. Well I’m not. I’m a piston ring, a carburettor, maybe a spark plug, a cog in the works. Can a cog feel guilty? Oh, yes. Does a spark plug experience remorse? Damn right I do. I was in the wrong engine, the wrong vehicle, on the wrong autobahn. But I wasn’t driving. Guilt? Guilt? You have no understanding of the word.”
Drecker interrupted with a shake of his head and a short laugh.
“Ah, I can predict the next line. I’ll bet it’s something to do with ‘I was only obeying orders’, eh? You ‘weren’t driving’ … yes, that gives it all away.”
The prisoner threw his head back, closed his eyes, then opened them, leaning forward with his hands still on the desk.
“What do you fucking well know? You’re a prison governor, not a judge. I’ve been judged, thank you, and I’ve paid for that judgment. So don’t even think you can secong-guess my situation. You weren’t here. You were filling your diaper in the fresh air of Canada when I was filling my pants on the Eastern front, with only seconds separating us from death. You have no idea of the tidal wave of bent politics that rolled over us before you were born. You’ve learned it from books, son. I lived it! How dare you judge me. You’re not qualified. I’m giving my guilty heart to the world on a platter. I was wrong, yes, Germany was wrong. But you? You? You probably feel guilty if you fart in company, or steal someone’s parking space. But that’s not guilt. Real guilt is toxic, corrosive – it eats into your heart, it shreds your conscience, steals your sleep. The cardinal points of my life’s compass were branded upon my aching brain with a hot iron - youthful stupidity and crass ignorance whilst you were still cosy in your crib in Toronto. Yet there were others with much more guilt than mine who have not paid this price. They’ve had abundant lives behind their smokescreen of re-invented history. Take a careful look up the chain of command - there are those who even pay your wages whose consciences are buried under a layer of denial, compromise and good luck. Ask them the same question and see what answer you get. Now – issue my release documents and let me get away from here.”
Drecker regarded him for a few moments, rolling his tongue around in his cheek like a gardener pondering over which branch of a rosebush to crop next.
“Such eloquence. You express yourself with some articulation. It would appear you’ve gathered some erudition from all those books in your cell.”
The prisoner sneered.
“Erudition. Huh! An open mind and a pile of books – is that how you see it? Let me tell you, governor, ‘erudition’ in here is like keeping a spider in a matchbox. By the time you’ve stopped being scared of it, it’s dead. So, I’m just the dried husk of an old tarantula. Open the box and tip me out!”
Thirty minutes later the heavy gates of Stadelheim opened and the tall figure in an ill-fitting, dark blue double breasted overcoat, carrying a leather hold-all, stepped into freedom. He glanced at the buff card the warden had given him. Helga Lorenz, 148b Jacob-Geld-Platz. Catch the U-Bahn from St. Quirin Platz to Candidplatz. These were civilian activities he’d only seen on his TV screen.
The oppressive October sky had cleared, and he stood on the pavement casting a long shadow in the bright autumn sunlight. He flinched at the passing traffic, his mind awash with competing emotions. He began to feel like a drowning man. Old and deeply-buried memories were materialising. His past, sealed away, locked down and subdued in his prison cell, now began a steady cranial parade which he could not stop. He sucked in the free Bavarian air. Was this the same air he had breathed as a young man? Perhaps, yet it contained the spores of other lands, and with each breath dark, forgotten flavours intervened; France, Belgium, Greece, Russia. Guilt. Did he have guilt? It weighed him down like a ton of concrete. Why this torture, why now? With each faltering step forward, his heart raced. Above him, high on the wall, the crow was still there; it made a cackling sound, as if some evil witch was casting a spell. He began to walk a little faster now, as if to escape his own conscience, and then realised; despite the card and the instructions, in the greater scheme of things, he had no idea where he was going.
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