Caught in no man's land

Not many people can say they once found themselves in no man's land - stretches on the face of the earth we envision as bleak, empty terrain under the flag of no country. I experienced just that 60 years ago.

I didn't move into no man's land; no man's land moved across Germany. Like the shadow of a storm cloud, it fell on the hamlet of Kalkvitz. It was the end of World War II. This tiny community was home to eight families; most of the men were absent. My mother, two sisters, and I had been invited to stay with one of the families. Their duplex stood on the dirt road that turned left just outside the front hedges and came to a dead end.

We, along with millions of other refugees, had formed a wave washing toward central Germany, pushed by the receding eastern front line. Would the advancing Russian Army arrive at this Pomeranian speck of a place? Tiny, rustic Kalkvitz seemed so out of the way, so far from the events of history, that we felt the Russians might pass us by.

The official radio news, which we knew was several days old, made the rapidly deteriorating situation seem not quite so dark. We were told of the "heroics" of guerrilla-type units in isolated instances. The news through the grapevine painted a much more somber picture of the overall situation.

But we children, who came from a city, were discovering the joys of country life. We made the acquaintance of our hosts' cow. We helped feed the chickens and plant the vegetable garden. We saw fish being smoked after being caught in the nearby Baltic Sea.

My newfound buddies and I, unencumbered by school and homework, roamed the fields around Kalkvitz and played war games. We sang the patriotic songs we heard in propaganda broadcasts and kept busy carving toy hand grenades and antitank weapons out of tree branches. We hurled them at Arnold and his sister, children who had become separated from their parents and were stranded in Kalkvitz. Soon after we ran out of ammo, we accepted Arnold into our circle.

In the meantime, the front line crept closer and smiles became rare on the faces of adults in the village. Then one day at the end of April, a small band of German soldiers shuffled into Kalkvitz. They looked bedraggled, nothing like the soldiers we were accustomed to seeing on posters or marching in the streets back home. The group was traveling light, carrying little more than their carbines.

We asked them how far the Russians were from us and what we should do when they moved in. We learned from the soldiers that the Russians were not far behind, and we were told to put out white flags as a sign of surrender. Nobody dared ask the men where the rest of their unit was or what their mission was. We answered their questions about the lay of the land and gave them sandwiches hastily prepared by the women. Then this remnant of a platoon headed toward the sea. We never saw them again.

My friends and I were struck by the demoralized state of the men. It belied the stories we'd been fed, the pictures we'd seen, the message of the songs we'd been singing. It dawned on us that, propaganda broadcasts with their rallying cries notwithstanding, the end of Hitler's regime was near.

With the soldiers gone, Kalkvitz shifted into the space between the receding border of the Third Reich and the line of the advancing Russian forces, a geographical no man's land. We had also slipped into a no man's land between two historical eras.

Uneasiness spread. With the arrival of the Russians imminent, we asked ourselves: What would the invasion be like? Would we be safe? How would we communicate? What about our belongings? We had already buried the silverware and other valuables in the garden. We had slaughtered the pigs, turned some of the meat into sausage, and hidden the rest.

Everybody stayed close to home. Change was imminent, and we didn't know what to expect or how to behave. Women searched for white pillowcases to serve as flags of surrender. White signaled the transition from the swastika to the hammer and sickle. In its nondescript way, white was also the right color for our no man's land.

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