A full moon, alive with boundless light, spills onto rippled sand of the Tunisian desert. It inspires private Stephan Jurgen to dream of possibilities he long ago abandoned when he was forced to join the German Army. His war is over and for the first time in thousands of days he clings to hope. How different things are from just a week ago when his 23rd birthday passed as just another desolate day. There were no cards or pictures or care packages from home. He’s not even sure his parents are still alive. In a strange battle of senses, his desert-parched mouth can taste the rum-soaked punschkrapfen his mother used to bake for him, yet he despairs that he’s forgotten the sound of her soft voice. There were no birthday candles. The only fireworks were provided by the advancing Americans who lit up the sky with a barrage of mortar fire that left his ears ringing long after the artillery assault was over.
Maybe someday his birthday will be enjoyable again, but the only milestone important to him is today. Because right now he is still alive. Because yesterday someone up the chain of command finally had the guts to surrender. And while the war he has known for nearly four years is far from over, Stephan is facing a different conflict further removed from the battlefield. Stephan Jurgen is now a prisoner of war. He is not afraid of what that means for his safety. He does not dwell on the warnings of how he will be treated and tortured by his captors. He is actually relieved. He never wanted to die; especially for a Nazi regime that he has quietly come to despise. He doesn’t dare share his anti-Nazi feelings. Must be more careful than ever -- knowing many of the men marching to his left and to his right would kill him right now if they knew. They scare him more than the Americans.
It is a relentless fear for Stephan, ignited in basic training. First, an innocent remark to a fellow recruit about his homesickness for Vienna. Then, a decision to share his distrust of ardent Nazis within his regiment. The consequences were furious. That same night, he awoke to the full weight of a pillow pressed violently into his face, covering his eyes, no chance to see his assailant. His arms were pinned down. Somebody was sitting on his legs. How many are there? He finally understood terror. He was going to die. Battling to breathe, waiting for his heart to explode, then the panic, followed by the beer-infused whisper in his ear, “the next time we will kill you.” I’m going to live. He remembers the moment the pillow released. Grabbing instinctively at his throat, sucking precious air into his lungs. Laying there, alive but crushed. No one daring to help him. Afraid to surrender to sleep.
He never knew who attacked him, but he quickly understood the reason why. They call that pillow of death the “Holy Ghost.” It happened to others too. There were often variations, each equally terrifying. Sometimes a pillowcase was forced over your head and you were beaten to whatever degree the terrorists wanted to inflict suffering and deliver their message: fall in line or else. Some, like Stephan, heeded the warning and survived. Others chose to challenge the Nazis and their fate was much worse. Like another Austrian in his unit who was bludgeoned beyond recognition with a pot from the commissary. He was sent to the infirmary and Stephan never saw him again. Was he brave or stupid? He could have been a survivor like me.
Stephan moves along with men who need very little motive to bludgeon him too. He watches the silhouettes of Arab locals atop their camels against the brilliant moonlit horizon. Their pace feels synchronized with his -- slow, rhythmic, undisturbed. In most ways, he blends in with the soldiers who share his journey. Enlisted men wear standard-issue desert uniforms, originally olive-drab but long ago faded to khaki. Cotton tunics and shorts with built-in belts. Some wear chocolate brown overcoats. Officers wear tunics of olive, khaki, or mustard-yellow cotton. Regardless of rank, most marchers wear boots that were once despised for their knee-high design but have now been cut down to ankle length. Soft-cover, peaked hats are almost universally worn. Stephan’s disheveled blond hair peaks out from below his fading olive-drab cap, lined with loosely-woven red cotton fabric for more protection from the sun. The long visor shields his hazel eyes, more green than brown. Since he left home the thing that has changed most dramatically about Stephan is his length. When he first joined the army, he was considered average for his height. Now, as he strides through the desert, it is his 6-foot, 1-inch frame that stands out among the sea of faded khaki.
Now, his survival has been lengthened by the surrender of thousands. Now, the only orders he has to follow are from his American captors. With the obvious language barrier, most “talking” is done with gentle shoves and pointed rifles. Right now, all he has to do is march. For as far as he can see, there are prisoners, stripped of their weapons, following the directions of their captors, waving their rifles like traffic batons. Stephan joins this parade of the vanquished, marching like a good soldier, pressing on to a nameless destination.
From his right, an agitated whisper, “more dreary days with these morons.”
The words yank Stephan away from his mindless marching. In the middle of the column, a prisoner considerably shorter than Stephan struggles to make eye contact. The jittery man, swallowed by his tattered uniform, looks up at Stephan and laughs, “you want to beat me up too?” He whips his arms wildly, revealing stubby fingers and pudgy hands that wave at the men marching around them. “Get in line. Take a number. You’ll have to wait your turn until Hitler’s finest finish me off.” He nervously nibbles his fingernails, eyes darting everywhere.
Stephan shakes his head emphatically, “no, no, I have no desire to hurt you.”
The prisoner stops chewing his raw fingers long enough to extend his hand. “I’m Hugo and it’s your lucky day. You don’t have to march next to a Nazi.”
Stephan is reluctant to answer, afraid his response might attract attention from fellow soldiers he already fears. He awkwardly shakes Hugo’s hand in silence while staring straight ahead. His hesitance to openly acknowledge what Hugo is brazenly expressing tears away at his fragile conscience. I don’t even have the courage to tell him my name.
He continues to march, wondering if his nightmare is over or just beginning. Praying it’s not too late to see his family again, whatever price he must pay. He instinctively presses against his inside left breast pocket. There it is. The reassuring shape he has felt so many times before. His mother’s small bible, still there, still comforting him. Her words carefully written in the margins next to passages she knew he would visit.
The wind is picking up. It seems to capture the murmurs of his comrades up ahead as word spreads back through the ranks that the Americans are souvenir hunting. He touches the bible again. Heart pounding. He races through a quick inventory of everything he has to offer. Money clip. Belt buckle. Canteen. Anything but his bible. The line is slowing. Maybe they are just stopping for the night. An American soldier younger than Stephan uses his rifle to stop his progress and force him from the line. He is frisked roughly. It doesn’t take long. The American’s hands stop over the bulge in his uniform, poking it with his index finger. Now he glares at Stephan and beckons with four fingers – the universal gesture for “give it to me.” Stephan’s heart is tearing through his chest, beating against the bible in his breast pocket. His trembling fingers unbutton his field jacket. For a second he thinks about resisting. He holds the black leather-bound book in both hands pleading “no” with tortured eyes. The American rips the bible from his grip, while Stephan’s empty fingers now press against his pounding temples. This can’t be happening.
The thief shoves Stephan back into the moving column and keeps pace alongside the marchers as he inspects his souvenir. He frowns in disappointment, glances sideways at Stephan and tosses the bible onto the hardened sand. Cold eyes defy the prisoner to make a move. Stephan almost trips as the marchers push him forward. He looks back one last time to see another American pick up his cherished connection to home and pound off the dust. He makes one last fruitless gesture, walking backwards, raising long arms to claim ownership of his plundered keepsake. Somebody spins him around and shoves him forward. Again, just another mindless marcher, emptier than before.