Papa loved the people and their culture. Although they were poor and had to work hard to make a living, they knew how to celebrate. After they brought in their harvest in the fall, or when they gathered at a wedding banquet or welcomed a newborn child into their community, they made good use of these festive occasions. Many of the songs Papa was so fond of listening to come from the Balkan Roma, the people once called Gypsies.
If one grew up on a steady diet of Western pop music, Balkan melodies take a little bit of getting used to. While many of the tunes use familiar rhythms, including the driving rhumba beat, some Balkan tunes add spice using asymmetrical meters. The music tells only half the story. The dancers, prompted by the intoxicating rhythm and the ever-increasing tempo, suddenly emerge from the cheerful crowd. The steps in the Balkan dances can be delightfully simple or maddeningly complex. Most are line dances; they rarely occur in couples. What does the music sound like that Papa loved so much? It depends on where you go. In Croatia and Serbia, there is the tamburica tradition of plucked-string instruments. But the musicians are also using accordion, violin and woodwinds. Add to this the wailing melodies delivered by wedding bands that play songs popular across the entire region. Now we will understand Papa’s fascination with the Balkan people, their music, dances, and customs.
When it came to alcoholic beverages, nothing would appeal to Papa’s taste buds more than the famous Slivovitz. Orchardists have been producing the sweet, velvety plum brandy for hundreds of years, primarily in Croatia, Serbia, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. Late-summer plums are the most commonly used: deep purple, ovoid and freestone, such as damson and Italian prune types. The fruit is pierced, covered with sugar and alcohol and stored in a cool, dark place for months. The most exquisite and complex slivovitzes age in casks, like wine or bourbon.
Only once did we get to know the Soviet air force. A ‘Rata’, an awkward looking, slow airplane, was shooting at the trek on the road leading to the West. Near us a woman lost her infant, whom she carried on her arm. We quickly looked for cover to evade further attacks. Once we had a chance to hitch a ride on a hauling truck, which pulled a huge artillery gun. At close range we could observe how the battery moved into position at dusk. We stayed nearby in order not miss a possible ride later on. Then it became clear what was going to happen: a tank attack in the immediate vicinity. I still remember the howling of the tank engines and the noise of the chains. In the flashes of the gun barrels I could watch the gunner load, how he slid the big, heavy shell into the barrel, stopped his ears, waited for the recoil, then picked up the next shell, about three or five times. To the right in the background I saw exploding tanks. The gun towers all-aflame flew up and to the side. The remaining tanks turned and withdrew into the night. Later on I found out that night aiming devices were in existence. I also have been contemplating, as to why I can still visualize so vividly this scene. It was the unshakable calm of the gunner and steadiness of his movements: industrial work at the machine, prepared by ‘Refa’. We were not fast enough; the battery with its three or four artillery guns had disappeared during the night.
In one of the next days and nights we stayed in a more westerly located village. I observed a group of our soldiers, who were giving someone a lecture. One asked, “Where do you have your gun, Frenchman?” One needs to know that very many western Europeans under German occupation volunteered to be enlisted in their own units to fight against Bolshevism. The fear of being overrun from the East since the revolution in Russia was great. Almost all countries east of Germany developed into authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, Germany of course also and even more so. Thus, French people entered the German army. The scenario makes me ask: Was it German arrogance or realistic assessment of the French fighting spirit?
A short time later at the same spot we listened, as a battle at close range developed with the Soviet infantry. When tracer bullets were shot over our heads, we threw ourselves behind a manure pile, and we could see now close to our left and right the trails of light flashing by. The Russians were shouting “Hurrä”; in the counter offensive it was responded to with Hurrah. A German soldier lost his nerves. For several minutes he was dancing with his gun in his arm from one leg onto the other. Much later, sitting in relative safety in the train, I retold my observation to another refugee. Thereupon a sergeant severely reprimanded me, “One does not talk about these things in such detail.” The aforementioned attack therefore was repulsed. My brother and I were looking for better cover in a trench. An officer brandishing his pistol startled us and asked us to identify ourselves. He was a so-called hero-nabber (Heldenklau), whose job was to get after cowards and deserters or simply to bring the scattered bunch of his soldiers together again.
The military operations were pushing us again to the coast. Coming out of the dunes we saw an endless tapeworm of people moving west, military personnel as well as civilians, whom we joined. Soon we saw on the left the ruins of a church in the dunes. The village of Hoff lay ahead, a distance of 15 km to the eastern branch of the Oder river, the Dievenow. My grandmother had a picture of these ruins hanging in the hallway, which I had always looked at with great respect. I had spent the first two grades of my schooling in Stolpmünde. Now I saw the remainder of the church that had been destroyed by storm tides in previous centuries under such circumstances before my eyes.