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English Translation of the Story
THE SOLDIER, HANS VON HOFER
Translated from Italian to English by Nina M. Morgan
This story is dedicated to my dear friend, Juan Ruiz Garrido
This is the tale of an extraordinary event that began on a cold day in December, 1975.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon on the last day of the year when I decided to go out with Rick, my German shepherd and faithful companion, for our daily walk. We took the same route every day, along the unpaved road that separated the vineyards from the olive groves. Scattered here and there were a few of the old farmhouses left in the small hamlet, or borgo, of Santa Maria, but only one was situated right beside the road, the home of my friend, the farmer Cesare, a seventh generation Tuscan in the true sense of the word. At the ripe old age of eighty, he appeared to be in perfect health and was still capable of caring for his grapevines and tending to his barnyard animals. For Rick and myself, this stop had become an obligatory ritual for two reasons: first of all, the excellent glass of Vin Santo, holy wine, graciously offered to me by our host and secondly, the tasty morsel which always materialized for Rick. The truth is, however, this stop was important to me because of my fondness for the Tuscan manner of speaking - more accent then dialect – an auricular return to the past, made of long ago memories mixed with irony and clever banter. I felt so fortunate to have made a friend of this gruff old farmer who not only entertained me with his ramblings and stories, but was also a virtual font of knowledge and information regarding local characters and the surrounding area, because Cesare was born in this very same house, having left it only once, at nineteen years old, when his country called him to arms, in 1915.
What appealed to me most of all about my friend’s stories were the meticulous descriptions of people he had known, directly or indirectly, and the way he embellished them with his own whimsical exaggerations. I relished his story telling like a good meal!
On that last day of December, the beginning of this remarkable story, a gelid north wind blew with such fury as to take ones breath away, so I had put on my worn woolen cap and the down vest my wife, Marta, have given me for Christmas.
After crossing the road, Rick and I found ourselves in the open countryside among the grapevines, from which a few dry leaves still resisted, having thus far survived the attack of the freezing winter winds. I like the Tuscan winter. It brings frigid days of dry cold which force me to take my long walks at a brisk pace, and when I feel the blood rushing throughout my body and my muscles invigorated by my quickened gait, I know I am being rewarded for my efforts.
But it’s the arrival of spring that fills me with the greatest joy, when nature suddenly changes her attire and becomes a grand pallet of vivid colors and shades. Vibrant stirrings fill the air, and I experience an overwhelming desire to live and enjoy the beautiful Tuscan landscapes. I wouldn’t willingly miss spring for anything in the world.
On the day I am about to describe, the wind was so cold that I was not tempted to reflect on the beauty of the countryside, and while I forced myself to maintain a competitive pace in order to reach Cesare’s as quickly as possible, the words Marta said to me as I left the house continued to ring in my ears: “You’ll see, with the wind blowing like this, you won’t make it to the end of the drive. Try not to over do it – you might get sick – and remember, you’re not a spring chicken anymore!”
Of course, I paid no attention to her advice, since, although she was right, I was, at that moment, offended by her words, and so decided to spend a little longer than usual with Cesare. When we finally arrived at his home, he was sitting in the poultry pen, plucking the feathers from a gangling hen, seemingly indifferent to the cold.
“Oh! Where do you think you’re going in this cold, City Boy?”
The old man addressed me with his usual booming voice, like that of a rusty trombone. I had known him for twenty years, but my venerable old friend continued to call me “City Boy” because of my urban origins.
“Cesare, you know that for me walking means keeping both my muscles and spirit in shape,” I responded, trying to imitate his Tuscan cadence. “I intend to arrive as far as the old nursery school
at San Martino and then, northerly permitting, I plan on seeking out some new and interesting trail to follow.”
“Ahhh, then I will plan your digression today, if you don’t mind, that is. Listen: when you get to San Martino, leave the road and on your right, you’ll see a small, abandoned, old farmhouse – we used to bundle hay for the animals there years ago. Behind it, there’s a path leading up a hill; it will be covered with weeds and brush now, but you keep following the path for about a kilometer. You’ll see a hillock covered with oaks – can’t imagine how much they’ve probably grown by now; it’s been at least ten years since I was up there. Cross to the other side of the oak grove and you’ll see the main road, only about a twenty minute walk to your house. It’s well worth the effort, believe me, and I am sure you’ll like it, explorer.”
While Cesare was giving his directions, I tried to remember where the old farmhouse was, but couldn’t. And yet, I thought to myself, I’ve walked up in that area so many times, how is it possible I’ve never seen it?
“How long is this journey of yours, Cesare? I’ve no intention of hiking all the way to Arezzo on foot.”
“Oh, City Boy, listen to me: who’s ever measured the distance? No one, either before I was born or since. If you’d like that job, I’ll give you a stick a meter long and when you’ve finished, you can tell me - that way we’ll be the first two fools to know! ‘That OK with you? When I used to walk that tract, in boots with three centimeter soles, it took about an hour, but with those city slippers…it’ll probably take you more than two!”
He delivered this discourse with mock distain, and then suddenly changed the subject, as was his habit:
“What if we were to wet our whistles with a good dousing of Vin Santo before you go, hmmm? What would you think about that?”
“Cesare! It took you long enough, but you’ve finally had a good idea! Actually, a great idea, and I will do you the honor, just to see you suffer, and it will serve you right,” I answered, in an equally mocking tone in hope of imitating his native cant.
From that cavernous, nearly toothless mouth escaped an uproarious, sincere burst of laughter at my weak attempt at vernacular Tuscan.
When Rick and I finally left to continue our walk, I had the impression that it was even colder than it had been when we had stopped to visit our friend, but it may have been a reaction to leaving the warmth of the wood burning fireplace, combined with the 18° alcohol, in contrast to the biting
cold of the wind. I practically ran along the road in search of the farmhouse, and this time, I found it.
It was completely wrapped in briers and creeping vines which seemed to suffocate the ruined external walls of the building. Emerging from that disorder, almost like a lone periscope, were the remains of a weather-beaten chimney, missing bricks and eroded by the thick overgrowth. I circled the place, but didn’t see even the suggestion of a trail leading to the oak grove, which I could just make out in the distance. Only Rick was able to guide me through the chaos and confusion of shrubs and weeds, since he was in the habit of lunging off before me without waiting for my command. When we eventually reached the edge of the small forest, I noticed the remnants of two paths – one decisively more used that the other, probably by wild animals. I wasn’t sure which to follow, then decided to take the one that seemed to lead most directly to the little hill of oaks.
We headed along that path for about twenty minutes, and had almost arrived at the top when Rick stopped abruptly and pointed, presumably at something he perceived ahead.
It was the first time I had seen my dog assume the classic “point” position, standing solidly on three legs, muzzle tight and ears pricked in attention to discern even the slightest movement. Suddenly, he threw himself flat on the ground, with his head lowered against his front paws. I realized he was afraid, but of what? I hadn’t seen or heard anything at all.
“Let’s go, Rick, come on!” I urged him to follow me, but he wouldn’t budge; he continued staring ahead, whimpering anxiously. I walked on, thinking that seeing me leave, he would certainly follow, but I was wrong. He stayed where he was, motionless, and continued to make little whimpering sounds.
While pondering this strange behavior, I imagined I saw someone seated at the edge of a knoll, partially hidden by the trunk of a large oak. Curiously, I could see the figure clearly one moment, but it seemed to disappear the next.
Probably a hunter, I thought, and I approached him with the intention of asking an explanation for my dog’s unusual comportment. The man, who had a thick blonde head of hair parted on the left, sat with both arms wrapped around his knees at his chest, his head resting on his knees in a relaxed, yet alert position. His gaze, though basically impassive, had a somewhat uninviting expression.
I would like to add here that often, during my excursions around the countryside, I cross paths with hunters and farmers, mostly locals, and I have always been the first to greet them with a cheery “good day,” stopping to exchange pleasantries regarding the weather, or the hunt, or whatever the encounter calls for. But on this occasion, the stranger spoke first, and in German: “Entlich!” “Finally!”
Surprised, I asked him in his own language, “Are you German? Do you need assistance?”
After this curious reply, he stood up, put on a burnished, steel helmet and, picking up a machine gun from the ground beside him, came towards me.
I stood completely still, trying to figure out who this character was. A wild boar hunter, no matter how original, was unlikely to be carrying a machine gun, and what was the meaning of that helmet? I looked at it more carefully, and realized it was the same headgear worn by German soldiers in the Wehrmacht division during the war. But as far as I knew, there were no military training camps in the area.
At this point, he was almost in front of me and I continued to observe to his attire: he wore a light-weight, summer uniform, similar to those used by German soldiers, a pale green shirt with the
sleeves rolled up his forearms; trousers of the same color though darker in tone, tapered at the bottom and tucked into black leather military boots. A long ammunition belt studded with pointy bullets fell from his left shoulder and ended at his knee. I addressed him politely: “Buon giorno.”
“Gud day to you,” he responded with a notable accent.
“What are you doing here? Are you lost?”
“Nein! I am waiting.”
“Wild boar?” I asked.
“Nein! I am waiting for you.”
Both astounded and suspicious, I stared at him while hurriedly perceiving the thought that my wild imagination was trying to communicate to my power of reason: I had come across an escaped patient from the psychological ward of some medical facility.
Although his accent was strong, he spoke my language and seemed calm, which reassured me.
“Please, sit,” he instructed, indicating a spot on the edge of the path beside him where he was now seated himself. I did so, only because I couldn’t think of an excuse not to, and he began his tale:
“I am German soldier. My name is Hans von Hofer. I am in Italy for very long time and want to return to my country.”
“But Herr von Hofer, the war has been over for many years. Why are you still wearing your uniform?”
“I know war finished. Now I tell my story.”
“Please, do!” I insisted. “Maybe I can help you.”
“It begins when I am on guard duty with my companion, Werner Brunner, very close to here. Our duty is to control road and bridge ahead. Bridge very important for our supplies. One morning, Werner goes to bridge to get fresh water, and while he’s there I hear loud BOOM and he kaput.” The sound of the explosion was accompanied by flailing arms in a charades-like fashion.
“For long time, I am alone. Our radio kaput and my companions not return for me. Then I see them all go away, north.”
“Because they were retreating, “I interrupted him. “Why didn’t you follow them?”
“Because I receive no orders from my command. I am still on guard.”
“How long did you stay at your post?”
“Long time! No water. No food. Planes come with bombs and no more noise – no hunger, no thirst - just night and big silence.”
One thing became clear to me immediately: Hans was very vague when it came to explaining the duration of events. I had the impression that the passing of time - years, months, days – could only be described by him with that very word: time. But this was not the only surprise of our meeting; I realized that I had not once seen Hans move his lips, although we conversed easily. We were communicating quickly, comfortably, yet telepathically. I asked myself, how was this possible? But our “conversation” continued in much the same way.
“And what can I possibly do to help you get home? Why did you say that it was me you were waiting for?” I asked.
“Because I need person who knows my country and my language. Here, no one comes. I always have to stay here!”
“Because I am on guard duty.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I am KAPUT. MORTO. DEAD.”
Having said this, Hans disappeared, only to reappear a few seconds later at the head of the hillock where he stood indicating a precise point on the ground with his index finger.
I could barely believe my eyes, and it all became even more incredible when he returned, walking right through the solid trunks of the oak trees. Then somehow, we were once again seated beside each other. I felt the blood freeze in my veins, and I began to tremble uncontrollably. At that moment, I was aware that I had come across something, someone, truly remarkable, extraordinary. I felt the urge to reach out my hand and touch him, verify his corporal existence, but I didn’t dare.
I understood, though, the motive behind Hans’s disappearance, and subsequent appearance at the top of the hill: he wanted to make his ethereal, unreal presence clear to me, without having to explain it in words. I was petrified, shocked. My mouth had gone completely dry, and yet I was seated beside him. I saw him.
And if it was all a figment of my very fervid imagination? I had always fantasized encountering some strange and unworldly figure during my wanderings – a wood elf, perhaps, ducking and hiding from passers by. But this delusive embodiment, appearing from nowhere and armed to the teeth, was a far cry indeed from the innocuous elf of my previous fantasies.
In December, the days are short and light gives way to a precocious, eerie darkness. On this particular evening, the sight of a human figure dissolving like fog, yet clearly visible in the dark, and who actually spoke to me, was more than enough to get the better of my already fragile courage. I hurried to the main road, all the while asking myself if this were possible. When at last I crossed the threshold of my own home, the confused and shocked expression on my face surely made it clear that something very unusual, something beyond explanation had occurred on that very last day of the year.
As in most homes on this special evening, preparations were well underway and guests were expected at any moment, so I decided not to mention what had happened for the time being. Fortunately, Saint Sylvester’s, New Years Eve, is an occasion of good cheer and joviality, and the clamor and commotion of the guests was endless, so no one noticed my bewildered state. For my part, hard as I tried to distract my thoughts with trite conversation, it became impossible to put aside the diaphanous vision of the soldier and especially his request for my help.
Perhaps my memory was playing tricks on me, but I remembered having heard from someone, or having read somewhere, that if the spirit of someone who has died appears to you in a dream, the soul will not rest in peace until you have fulfilled whatever it has requested of you. Where or how I came about this information, my memory refused to disclose, but the thought became so overwhelming that it eliminated any chance there might have been of enjoying the party of the year. I knew I had to do something to resolve this quandary, and soon.
The next day, January 1st, I made my way to my friend Cesare’s house, with the excuse of bringing New Years greetings from myself and my family. After the conventional salutations, I went directly to the point of my visit and asked, “Cesare, you’ve always told me you know everyone and everything about this area, right?”
“Of course! That is very true. I was born in this house which was built by my poor grandfather, same house my poor father was born in, and when he married my poor mother, this is where they spent their wedding night, and this is where my brothers and sister were born after me: Angelo, Tommaso and Maria Gabriella. Then, one at a time, they all went to meet our maker in heaven. So I find myself alone now, my only company my eighty years and, to tell truth, they are beginning to weigh on me. So you can well imagine I have seen it all, starting from before the First World War.
“But why, City Boy, this question today of all days? You don’t by chance think the New Year has sucked the brain right out of my head, do you? Oh, grullo! Foolish man!”
“Listen, Cesare – I need to pick your brain, in the hope that the termites haven’t already picked it to death. What I need to know is this: as far as you know, was there a bridge in this area before the war?”
“Of course there was.” I saw the corners of his mouth turn up slightly at my reference to termites. “It wasn’t very big, but useful, that yes. It was called ‘Il Ponte della Sassaia,’ The Bridge of Stones, because is was full of stones and rocks of all shapes and sizes, and when it was necessary to build a house or a wall, the stones were gathered from the river bed, which were not only of good quality, but free to boot! The bridge was destroyed right at the end of the war, but it was never established whether by American mortar, by partisans trying to block the German escape, or by the Germans themselves at the onset of their rapid retreat. Because those yellow-bellied bastards slithered off like snakes in the middle of the night!
“Before it was destroyed, though, there were many German soldiers in the area and they conducted constant house to house searches, gathering up people and deporting them to Germany. Even I was forced to hide in the woods, waiting for them to leave. At that time there were only old folks and children left, children who had nothing to do with what was happening, but who felt the anger and hatred of the adults growing stronger and more ferocious every day. Have you ever seen anything so sad as a child who doesn’t laugh? Well, not only did these little ones not laugh, they’d lost the will to play, to run in the fields! It was as though life had stopped breathing. Terror reigned everywhere and in every living thing. What is it that makes you ask me about the little bridge, City Boy?”
I lied to him in response, telling him that I was born with a curious nature and wanted to know everything about each place I had come to live in.
“And it’s a good thing, too, because the only thing most young people today know how to do is run around like headless chickens!” answered the old man laughing, again showing the toothless grin that went hand in hand with his advanced age.
After these last words, I left Cesare seated on his bench in the barnyard, surrounded by feathers and numerous cats hoping to snatch up any fallen scraps.
And so, I thought to myself while walking slowly towards the woods, there were, in fact, German soldiers camped here during the war and it’s quite possible that this is where Hans met his death. But where? He said he wasn’t at the bridge the day it exploded, but he was close enough to have heard the blast.
I was so taken up with my own thoughts that I arrived at the spot where I had met Hans for the first time without even realizing it. And he was there again, this time standing up and without his helmet. He looked about twenty four, no more than twenty five years old. He stared at me impassively, looking directly into my eyes, and said, “You Italiani, always afraid. I see many soldiers run away, but you are not soldier. Why do you run away?”
“Because it’s not everyday one comes across a German soldier with a machine gun and bullets around his neck strolling through the forest!” I answered. “The war has been over for many years!” Correcting myself immediately, I added, “We’ve been at peace for a long time, Hans.”
“I have no peace! I have peace only when I return to Germany.”
“But how can I help you? I need more information. For instance, where are you buried?”
With that he disappeared again, reappearing at the summit of the hill beside a group of young oaks. Once again, I was shocked to see him pop up from nowhere, but he ignored my consternation and began to speak:
“There,” he said, pointing to the ground.
“Underneath this oak?”
“No, under this ground,” and he pointed to a spot to the right of the tree. “Here is our post. You can’t see it. Dig.”
Examining the area in question, I realized that there was, in fact, a slight swelling in the ground, covered by weeds and brush.
“You dig,” Hans repeated.
“You know, Hans, I am going to need some tools to move the earth here, and mine are all home.”
Ignoring my explanation, he continued:
“When you find my body, you must take important things: military tag, and, inside pocket, letters to my family. Military tag is to prove my identity as German soldier in Italy.”
“But Hans, even if I do bring your military tag to the authorities in Germany, they will never believe that I’ve spoken to you or that your request to be buried in Germany is real. They’ll think I’m crazy, or that I’m looking for attention. And if for some strange reason they did believe me and came here to retrieve your body, they’d bury it in a military cemetery here, along with the other soldiers who died in Italy. “
“Nein!” was his categorical response. “I don’t want that. You find my family and tell them about me. When they see tag and letters, they believe you.”
“OK, but I’ll have to find your family first. Germany is a big place and has been completely reconstructed. Millions died during the war and the Germans who survived worked hard to rebuild it, but many of them moved from one city to another, or emigrated. Finding your family will be no easy task…”
“They are in Germany! If you don’t find them, I stay here forever!” The soldier ended his discourse, frowned and disappeared. This time, for good.
Maybe he thought I didn’t want to help him, and yet all I had done was tell the truth.
I didn’t hurry home this time. I was no longer afraid of Hans. Our conversation had been comfortable and easy and I was no longer preoccupied with his intangible presence. I am sure that had anyone seen us together, appearing to chat about nothing in particular, they would have simply thought us two friends passing the time of day.
The following afternoon, I trekked back up the hill, this time accompanied by Rick. He resumed his usual prone position when he realized that we were once again headed toward the oak grove.
I had brought a large shovel and a pick with me. When I caught sight of Hans in the distance, he was sitting beside the knoll, completely motionless. I noticed, however, that his eyes never left me, not for even a moment.
“Here I am,” I called out to him, “I’ve brought my tools. It will take a while to remove all that dirt, but I should be done just a few hours.”
“Ja,” he responded dryly.
It was a long and tiring job, especially for someone like me, unused to such labor, but all of a sudden my pick fell upon something solid which turned out to be the reinforced cement cover of the bunker.
“I think we’re there, Hans,” I called out enthusiastically, turning toward the place he had been sitting, but I was disappointed to see he was no longer there. I looked all around but realized I was alone. I wasn’t overly surprised; I’d gotten used to these unearthly comings and goings, so I resumed my shoveling, removing the dirt along the circumference of the cover to get a better idea of where the entrance was. I would have liked to have shared this discovery with the interested party, but since he was absent, I settled for shouting, “We’re finally there, Hans, not much more to go!”
I shouted in the hope that Hans would hear me, and then with fresh vigor and enthusiasm, I got back to work. I felt I was on the verge of discovering buried treasure rather than a grave of sad human remains.
In the meantime, darkness was falling, so I decided to stop work and continue the next day. I hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight with me which was indispensable if I expected to return home in the dark, not to mention see anything inside the bunker once I entered it.
Heading back, I found Rick waiting in the same place I had left him. He jumped up happily and, leaning his large front paws on my chest, licked my face earnestly.
The next day, I arrived at the bunker early, determined to finish up the work that very morning. I was pleasantly surprised to find Hans there, waiting for me.
“Good day, Hans! I found the entrance and hope to get in this morning. And I brought a flashlight so I’ll be able to see once inside.”
“You go in. Take what I said.”
“I will. Remind me what I’m supposed to bring out besides your military tag?”
“In my pocket. Letters to my family.”
I began working again vigorously. I was surprised to find, however, that the entrance to the bunker was obstructed by an improvised “door” made from wooden boards, perhaps with the intention of keeping out the damp night air, but at the same, keeping the dirt from falling in. I broke through it quickly with the help of the pick and then, armed with my electric flashlight, entered the bunker.
I was greeted by the strong and disagreeable order of a room deprived of fresh air for a long, long time, and was forced to cover my nose and mouth with a handkerchief. I then shone the beam from the flashlight around the room.
Hans’s body was seated on the ground, his back leaning against the wall. At that moment, I understood his previous statement, “I am still on guard.”
After his death, Hans had remained on guard duty, guarding his body, and now he wanted me to ensure its safe return to his own country. Due to the particularly dry conditions in the bunker, the body had not putrefied, but was well preserved. Only the tattered clothing showed signs of the passage of time and, alas, mortality.
I stumbled quickly out into the fresh air in an attempt to overcome the shock of what I had just witnessed. Hans was waiting outside the door. He glared at me severely, and I retorted breathlessly, “You look like you’re asleep in there. I was almost afraid of waking you.”
Hans did not respond. He had known that particular reality for a long time.
I took several long, deep breaths to clear my lungs and mind before re-entering the bunker, wondering where I was going to get the courage to put my hands on that “sleeping” body. My hands trembled so that the beam from my flashlight flickered around the room uncontrollably and I was forced to hold it with both hands. When I was able to fix the body clearly, I noticed that the hair was fair in color, the eyes barely closed, and wrapped around the right hand was a chain from which hung the military identification tag. It appeared the chain had been hung that way on purpose so whoever might enter the bunker couldn’t avoid seeing it. I lifted it off delicately, then patted the trouser pockets and reached into the one that felt somewhat fuller than the others. I cautiously removed the contents – the famous packet of letters to be delivered to the soldier’s family in Germany. The packet was quite bulky, carefully wrapped in a piece of wax-cloth and secured with thin copper wire. A scrap of paper was attached to the packet, with the words “Fur meine Familie” written in gothic print. Before leaving the bunker, I glanced around the room once more to check if there might be something else of importance I should take with me, but noticed only an old, metal ammunition box. I left the bunker, replaced the make-shift door, and covered it with shrubs and weeds to prevent visibility from the outside.
Hans was waiting there and, as soon as he saw me, his gaze fell on the small package in my hand. He asked me to open it and to take out the top letter, the only one addressed directly to his family, to be delivered to his sister, Christine. All the others were for someone else, tied together separately with a faded red ribbon and addressed to Fraulein Gertrud Bauman.
“Listen to me, Hans. Now that I’ve found the letters, I’ll need more information about you and your family. I’ll have to contact the Ministry of Defense in Germany and it’s possible, if not probable, that your documents were destroyed during the last days of bombing.”
“Ja, it is possible. Now I tell you my story.”
--- If you want to read the full story, please contact me ---
--- If you want to read the full story, please contact me ---