Site of Hitler’s Berghof, Obersalzberg, October 2018 © Will Stone
Below are three poems from Will Stone’s most recent collection, The Sleepwalkers (Shearsman). Notes on each poem follow at the end.
In Memory of Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen (1884-1945)
Genickschuss – a bullet in the neck improvised methods improved, the cause inked into the columns as he slept, the black pack ice drifted in and finally reached Friedrich Reck. One of the last, he whittled an existence on the reducing floe, Reck in his wood glancing around him, a silhouette with his hands in the earth, digging, as the creatures looked on, the light failed. Reck, who found a fawn torn by a dog and cradled it as it died, ‘with tears in its eyes’ fraught with confusion and then Reck remembered the laughing whaler, the mother, vainly trying in her bloody throes to protect her doomed infant. Every night he interred his growing offspring, the makeshift shelter against insanity under which he crouched, sending language past the indifferent eyes of owls, or struggled into Munich on stinking trams his head swaying amongst the dolls, fighting his way through the hollow men to our time where the remains were scattered and disguised as something else. All the useless forms that passed his cell, the dark eddies competing behind the dam and Reck pacing, drawn down, as the sand timer bows to the thirst of the sand to build its glitter dune. No one comes, only once the sun forced its tiny pale hand through the grille. Sprawled on the shingle of prayer the future finds him, a last flare then everything stops.
The Gang’s All Here
The happy date drew near. They checked a fresh team was on hand to replace them, set off for the site of relaxation. Sleepy following the welcome feast the accordion player roused them, had them pose for a snapshot above the rustic bridge of boughs. They assembled awkwardly the off duty gentlemen, stiffly ranked like an amateur male choir in the club uniform. Their mouths involuntarily open because the brass on the bridge urges them on, for the team song. Cigars for the bosses, the sharing of managerial gossip, a bawdy joke. Refreshment sustains the glowing filament of shared conviction. Time to unwind, time away at last from the tired gait of the shop floor, the dull assemblage of materials, recycling and sensible exploitation of the offcuts that litter the yard day in day out, a welcome break from eleventh hour improvisation, from the sudden roving inspection, the pressure to meet targets. Giggling typists and telephonists look flirtatiously on from a sunny glade. Some whistle, some wave, they are just doing what comes naturally, for they are young people with dreams riding their float through the carnival, lips stained with the blood of blueberries.
The final storm has not yet passed and the air hangs uncertain in the ark. They lead them out, the exotic beasts strike their rumps and shout 'Raus!' And the upward flame that reflected in their eyes offered the future its frost.
Flower meadows bloomed there, because they were sown and watered where farmers squabbled long after, crows, beak stabbing for coins and jewels how easily they tore through a million souls as greed calmly reset its rifle sights and the elders blew open the graves.
Between here and the Black Road they built the zoo, those men assigned set to work on park and menagerie, awash with ideas, ripe with creativity. It took them a week on and off during pauses in their other tasks. On the roof cooed the lucky doves and stripped branches of silver birch formed an ornamental balustrade.
They trawled the surrounding forest for exotic beasts, creatures were led into dark compartments, and sank nervously on fresh sawdust. Some had straw. Unprepared inmates of the enclosure confused performers yoked for diversion, their amber eyes followed the keepers as they set down each feeding bowl.
They heard the practice drill, the unrolling wire of laughter, the loco whistle to them was a repeated danger call from a stranger. Someone looked after teeth, hooves and fur, someone held the gaze of the deer in dim light and with a rush, the empty trough was filled.
On fine days the keepers touched glasses at rustic tables arranged out front made from branches of silver birch. Each formed a relationship with an exhibit and sometimes took them special food. The zoo was meant for idleness, relaxation, and in the bakery they bought their bread.
Then came a different day, roars and flames taut chains and glistening ropes, yelling of passing men, terror, sweat and stampede, a dash for the forest away from the heat and a return to the old lust for hiding. Then gazing back at the burning, blinking at the clearing, where they planted lupins, where now archaeologists dig with trowels and gamely hold up muddy combs.
Reading Reck: Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen (1884-1945) was a Prussian aristocrat and novelist, who met Hitler in 1920 and reviled him from the first. Reck opposed the rise of the Nazis, and during the war he kept a diary detailing life under a dictatorship, his growing revulsion towards the regime and his despair at the loss of the old Germany. Reck kept the diary buried at different locations on his estate as a precaution. As a known dissenter, he was arrested in the aftermath of the July bomb plot in 1944, imprisoned in Dachau and shot in February 1945. The diary was never discovered by the Nazis and was published in Germany after the war. A full English translation is now available in various editions as Diary of a Man in Despair.
The Gang’s All Here: This title was taken from the caption ironically awarded to one of the photographs in the so-called ‘Karl Höcker Album’, owned by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. This remarkable album of 116 photographs, discovered in 2006, had belonged to Höcker, a key SS officer at the camp. The images featured life for the SS personnel in the camp itself and also at a nearby rural ‘retreat’ named as Solahütte, which provided a periodic break for the SS from their extermination duties at Birkenau. Höcker arrived at Auschwitz in May 1944 and most of the snapshots were taken over the next six months, before the camp was liberated in January 1945. During the summer and autumn of 1944, 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered at the camp.
The photograph in question shows a gathering of the ‘top brass’ including Commandant Rudolf Höss and Dr Josef Mengel, enjoying themselves at the Solahütte retreat. Here the consortium of killers is shown as one, the swaggering bosses in the first row and the faithful lesser executioners ranked up the slope behind them. Meanwhile, thirty kilometres away, thousands of human beings are being gassed, shot, or, when numbers of arrivals exceeded capacity, thrown alive into firepits.
After the war, Höcker spent only seven years in prison and then returned to his post as cashier in a bank until he retired in 1970.
Treblinka Zoo: The Nazi death camp at Treblinka, situated fifty miles north-east of Warsaw, was the site of the most intense human extermination in history. In almost total secrecy, Treblinka operated between July 1942 and October 1943, little more than a year, but in that period consumed hundreds of thousands of victims, the vast majority of them Jews.
The camp was relatively small, a fraction of the size of Auschwitz. In the living area for the SS and Ukrainian guards a ‘zoo’ was created, within a small park area designated as a place of relaxation for the SS. Here Himmler’s finest would unwind after their labours, bathed in the murmur of gently cooing doves. However, the Treblinka zoo was short-lived. Following a desperate uprising by prisoners in August 1943, and with the majority of Poland’s Jews now eliminated, the SS razed the camp in an attempt to destroy all evidence of their crimes. The land was ploughed to bare earth, planted with meadow flowers and a benign-looking forester’s hut installed.