Immediately after the end of WW 2 Germany was occupied by Allied forces and divided into 4 zones. The eastern quarter was given to the Russians and later became East Germany; the Americans occupied the south, the French had a tiny section to the south west, while the British were allotted most of the north.
It was exciting, therefore, to discover among a cache of ephemera at Jot HQ, a notebook issued to soldiers by the Stationery Office in which one soldier had recorded his brief visit to Altenau, a ski-resort in Lower Saxony in the centre of the British Zone, a few miles from the Russian Zone.
Little can be discerned from the brief journal, dating from the 6th to the 14th November 1948, concerning this anonymous soldier, who intersperses his entries with postcards of local scenery, apart from the fact that he seems to have been on a furlough for these eight days. When he is not relaxing at the ‘Holiday Inn’ in Altenau, sipping port and reading, he is exploring the local countryside. One of his aims seems to have been to penetrate the border into Russian occupied territory. He certainly appears to have regarded the Russians with a mixture of fear and curiosity, born perhaps of the stories that emerged about their cruelty and barbarity towards the Germans, both during the war and immediately afterwards. He regards the Germans themselves with less fear, although doubtless aware that the resentment felt by them towards occupying forces might be a source of danger, particularly at night. For security reasons all soldiers in the British Zone were under strict orders not to converse with any of the natives—a rule which our soldier assiduously observes.
The journal shows considerable literary qualities, which suggests that the soldier, who may possibly have been born in the early 1920s, might have become a writer or journalist at some point in the future. Take the entry for Saturday 6th November:
Ober: 2.15 p.m.
The blue dusk hid everything but the lights of the town and the black masses of the hills.
Tourist-like I climbed down the carriage-steps on to the six-inch platform. Where were all the other tourists ? In utter solitude I crunched down to the sub-way.
A waiting- room, its atmosphere thick with the smell of German humanity. One large T.C.V. ---one small sergeant. Was I to be alone at Altenau? Utter & sublime solitude?
My reflections were stopped as we shrieked through the velvet blue. Pines. Valleys. Rushing torrents. In single embrace , the road and stream clung to the depth of the ravine. Diving from the summit, snowy stairs joined their parent flood.
Altenau. Shops gleaming cosily. A butcher’s new-fangled scales shining prominently. Up, up from the village. Up in der kleinen Ober. A scent of pines.
The Holiday Inn. Noisy, rather cheap, not so luxurious as Winterberg. Why didn’t they welcome me as the solitary arriver? Room one ? Meals? Nothing to pay? One other to come in the room? A meal in solitude. A cold type in pullover order reading a letter. I followed the cold type to the reading- room. No speech. Stendhal begins to comfort me. A beer and a port over my novel.
9 p.m. I venture out. I should have brought my cap. What would Mother say? Down to the village; up to the left. Curse these hair-pin roads. When will I have civilisation?
Forest at last. This a road? Now, my lad, you’re coming back before you lose yourself. “Nabend” Wozzat! Oh! “Guten abend!” A girls’s shriek of surprise and amusement to her lover, realising she had greeted a soldier. Like some stoat in the wild-wood, a metallic German voice rapped out a few words close by my side, from the ditch. I began to hurry. All those marks. Don’t show them you’re scared. Whistle! A bit feeble. Brahms 1st . That’s the thing. Good & strong. How did it change into the 9th ? Oh my God! Walton. They won’t have heard that here. March to by-byes.
A few seconds through the hall and up the stairs. A hard bed. Will any-one else come? Better put that wallet under the pillow. An uneasy night, troubled by lights.
He was educated too. How many soldiers read Stendhal? Evidently he was familiar with Wind in the Willows judging by the reference to a stoat in the wild wood. His German is sound and he may have been reading Stendhal in the original. Both French and German may, of course, have been picked up in the field if he had fought in France. But we are guessing. He was acquainted with the music of Brahms and Walton, which may not mean much, but it is suggestive.
The following day he begins to explore the forested areas as far as Hedwigsblick, a few miles away. Back in his quarters he enjoys a film –‘The Way to the Stars’ featuring Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood . At tea he speaks to the ‘ cold type ‘ he had noticed earlier and their conversation turns to ‘ Politics, Marx, Rugby, R.A.E.C and Berlin ‘ He discovers that his companion comes from Ilkley and that his father was a wool merchant in Bradford. All of this is recorded in the same lapidary style.’ Queer and cool ‘ is his verdict on his fellow soldier.
To be continued…
Monday 8th November
Read in bed. Back after a lone breakfast. Rain. Snow. Read. Trip into village after dinner. Post-cards. Children out of school. Church. Onion spire. A barn with plain windows. An organ playing. Tea and doughnuts in the café.
Meet my friend at tea. Talk. Philosophy, art, politics. Port. Film-show at 8.30. “ Road to Rio” Superb. Trick-cyclist mangled in fall. Jerry Colona to the rescue.
Tuesday 9th November.
A perfect day. Blue, crisp, clear. My project to the frontier. Burst the Iron Curtain or at least sniff it. Up the same way. The road. Hedwigsblick. Ah! The Brochen . Well inside the Russian zone. All planning going well. Snow. Christmas cards. Turn right at the main road. A couple of miles, then left. What’s this. This can’t be it so soon. Let’s look. Ten minutes wasted. Still no left turning.A village. Oderbruck. Turn back. You were right the first time. Carefully does it now. You’re getting near the Russians. Who’s this? Coloured epaulettes. Coloured cap. Star badge. A Russian !! Friendly greeting. A salute in return . “ Sprechen sie Deutsch “ “ Ya!” . Faltering conversation.
Here are the Russian police. Are these Russians? No, dammit, they’re speaking German among themselves . My bloke is a British zone policeman. Chocolate all round. The frontier. A sign board. Well at least a few yards into the zone. Return with my policeman. Pidgin German conversation on politics, music, education and Germany. Soldiers’ cemetery. Bacon sandwiches at Hedwigsblick. Biscuits on the march. Straight down to the village for a snack. Two teas! “ Scarce lugged his footsteps up the hill”. A bath and tea. An evening’s read.
Wednesday 10th November
Not so fine. Up to the ski-cross. Where’s the map. Fairly simple. Colder than ever outside. Mind this ice. Who’d expect marsh on a mountain. Easy does it! Snow. Which way? If all paths go to the Ski-cross, more and more should join this; it should get broader. But no, just the opposite. Aha, a sign on a tree ( diagram here). That’s it. When will I reach it. Mind the marsh. Mind the ice. Mind the stones. How can they ski down here? No view from the cross. Over to the Wolfswarte. Still more marsh. The Brochen. A cairn. A disused look-out hut. Lowering clouds.
Return. Hurried descent . Right leg calf high into the marsh. Curses heaven high. Hurry, hurry! Descent in 45 minutes. A hot bath and dry socks and shoes. Dinner. My friend once more. Natter, natter, natter. Down to the village for a snack. Tea. Natter. Philosophy. Psychology. Religion. Telepathy experiments. An utter failure.
Final farewell at 11p.m. Ten hours together . Funny, I still don’t know his name.
Thursday 11th November.
Learn name of friend---John Heron. Write and stooge till dinner. The clouds are among us. We are alone. Through the village . Up to the woods. Up, up. In der grossen Ober. Leaping water. Smooth stone gatherer. Path entwined with stream . Up the bank to nowhere. Return. Tea and doughnuts.
Settle at last to some more reading. Film show at 8.30. “The Hucksters”. Port and biscuits. Is this not luxury? Trowelled emotion. The epitomy of the adapted American best-seller. Nice Deborah Kerr. Forthright Clarke Gable.
Friday 12th November.
A stranger is among us. RAF sergeant, circa 40, affable and man-of-world. Knock & entrance after brekker. Greenfield’s ideas imposed. Walk to ?Hammersteinhlippe projected. Through village and winding road. Accounts dept., Gutersloh, Canada, Czechoslovakia, holidays and leave-centres. Up, up. Snow fences. Hammersteinlippe. How nice! It was worth it, wasn’t it? Mmmm.
Return. Short-cut? No. Home by the tortuous Dammgrabe. Artificial water contour. Hurry up please it’s time. Yes, I do think we’ll get back in time for lunch. Hurry up---they do keep it on---please it’s time. How nice to be back. A nice walk. I don’t think Bad Hargburg this afternoon. Perhaps all day tomorrow.
John. Stabilising, cool. Slow, flow stroll is easy . Pong at the hour of muck-spreading. Round the village. Back for ?shale short-cake at the café. Aristotle and aesthetics. Up, up in der kleinen ?dusk. How can I escape them all? John would suit, but am I tiring him?. How can he be so aimless?
Let me read. 150 pages more. I can’t do it all tonight. But can I ? What a fool Julien is! What fools they all are!! Biscuits from the bar. No, not drinking. Nice fellow that paratroop fellow.
Saturday 13th November
Breakfast early. Curious, here’s the RAF. Escape imperative. Gloves off, he will think I’m just going downstairs. Just one rush; good—no pursuit. Along the Dammgrabe---around the contours from where we stopped yesterday. Waterfall climb. On to Magdeburger Wig. Thrilling. A little farther to the road than I expected. Damn the mud. Ah, here’s the road. Back a few yards to the Wolfswarte path. Oh my GOD ! The road’s twice as wide as it should be. Metre stones. Where am I? Wireless masts. Must be Torfhaus. Here we are. The Brochen. Back to Hedwigsblick. Up to Wolfswarte by the back door. A frozen view. The Ski-Cross. A challenge. Wozzat. Only the paratroops. Round my detour—a smaller Dammgrabe, back of another ski-run. Down again with little feet wetting . Watch must have stopped. Dinner, then out again to Hargburg on ration truck. Broken down in Goslar?
Sunday 14th November
Start ‘ Friends & Relations ‘ in bed. Mozart after breakfast. Out with John. Family talk over dough-nuts. Natter, natter, dinner, natter, natter, tea, natter, natter. The clouds were on us and the rain fell easily. We did not desire to stir. I had been told the truck left at 7.30 p.m. At 7.10 I heard a truck depart. Might as well check with the office. What! That the truck. Phone to the ( ) on this. Goo’bye John. Hope Cambridge. See Ilkley. Goo-bye. Cheer’oh. Lagging German carrying my grip. Scramble in truck and away. Dismal ride in T.C.V. thinking of John. Wait at Ober stamping up cold platform. The future once more swamps the past.