Nine railway cars tethered to one another sat on a weedstrewn siding bordering a meadow on the eastern outskirts of Frankfurt. The cars were very old, all sleepers, whose chalky green paint and immaculate yellow script had been eaten away by rust and neglect. A few letters were still visible: a flowery "D"; a faded "B"; the word "bahn".
At first glance, the cars looked abandoned, their place on the rails sacrificed years ago to troop transports, flatbeds and the unsparing commitment to "total war". But a closer look testified to their resilience. Wooden stairs and a handrail descended from each doorway. An American flag drooped from a makeshift flagpole and a brace of military policemen bustled from one car to the next, climbing the stairs and pulling open the doors.
The railroad cars constituted one of seven "separation centers" in Frankfurt where members of the German armed forces could turn themselves in to be processed out of the military and returned to civilian life. Each man was promised ten marks, a half-loaf of bread, some lard, cigarettes and a one-way ticket home. Seventy-odd days after the end of hostilities, the flow of soldiers had slowed to a trickle.
Judge held Ingrid's hand as they walked across the clearing. If anyone asked, they were husband and wife. A day and a night together and already they wore the easy familiarity of a long-time couple. In dribs and drabs, men approached from all corners of the field, gathering in front of the first wagon in line. Ingrid tugged Judge's hand and pulled him close.
"Stop, Major," she said. "Look at these men, how they're walking, how they are carrying themselves. You have to walk like that, too. Slow down a little. Drop your head. Pretend you don't want to be here."
"I don't," he said. "Believe me."
Ingrid crossed him with a stern look. "You are humiliated."
Humiliated. The word sent a jolt of revulsion right down his spine. Judge stopped in mid-stride, newly aware of his prideful gait. He watched the Germans filing across the field. He wouldn't say they looked beaten, just tired; their step hesitant rather than directed. Posture all but forgotten.Humiliated. And he realized he was seeing the physical manifestation of their survivor's penance.
Judge let go of Ingrid's hand and moved off toward the railway cars. Tucking in his chin, he viewed the world from beneath the protection of a wary brow. He let his back slump and his chest sag, not overdoing it. He kept his stride even, but unhurried. After a minute, they reached the sparse assembly gathered near the lead car.
He was dressed like the men around him – which is to say as a civilian and poorly. He wore black trousers and a gray plaid workshirt. The garments were threadbare and filthy, and he was beginning to suspect the pants were ridden with lice. He'd bought the outfit off a man living at theGuterbahnhof for a dollar and a pack of Lucky's. Another dollar convinced the man to throw in his shoes. As for socks and underwear, Judge would keep his own. To hell with the risk!
A shrill whistle pierced the air. "I want one line starting here," shouted a private from his perch at the head of the stairs. "Single file, if you please, ladies. We are now open for business."
The shabby gathering fell into place reluctantly, like children heading back to school after summer break. A few of the hardier types hustled back and forth among them, barking out commands to straighten the line as if addressing a platoon standing for inspection. Military tradition died hard.
Judge drew Ingrid aside. "I don't know how long this will take. Find some shade and get some sleep."
"Still remember what unit you served in?"
He touched a finger to his forehead. "Don't worry, it's all up here."
Ingrid gave his arm a confident pat. "Then, Feldwebel Dietrich, I suggest you get moving."
Judge joined the line and in a matter of minutes was swallowed up in its ranks. No one looked at him oddly. No one questioned his presence. Why should they? Hair unkempt and greasy, beard working past a stubble, he was just another German who wanted to get home.
He was the enemy.
"I'm sorry, I haven't got it. It's lost."
The sergeant looked up at Judge from behind a broad walnut desk, his lantern jaw and low brow twisted into a frustrated knot. Shaking his head, he plucked a form from an overstuffed tray, wrote the name Karl Dietrich upon it, then stamped it twice. "Another one ain't got his papers. Jesus H. Christ. Betcha he doesn't know who Hitler was either. Der Fuhrer, huh? Ring a bell?"
Judge was standing inside the cabin of the first railroad car. The original furnishings had been ripped out compartments, sofettes, the works – and replaced with a line of identical desks, cabinets and unsmiling clerks. The place had all the charm of an induction center on Staten Island.
"_Hemd auf_," ordered the sergeant. Shirt off.
Judge unbuttoned the plaid shirt and placed it on the table, only to have it flung back in his face a second later. "Get that piece of garbage off my desk!" the sergeant screamed. "Friggin' kraut. Just cause he's got fleas, wants to give 'em to everybody else. Alright, Fritz, raise that left arm up high, let Uncle Sam see if you've been a naughty boy."
Raising his arm, Judge followed the sergeant's gaze to the flank of his bicep. He was being checked for the blood group tattoo given to members of the SS. All down the cabin, Germans stood in similar poses, an unintentional parody of the HitlerGruss.
He was the enemy.
"You're clear." The sergeant stamped the form again, then handed it to Judge. "Take this to the next car. Give it to the doc.Schnell! Schnell!"
Judge picked up his shirt and made his way to the second railway car. A sign above the transom read, "Medical Examinations. Please remove your clothing." Some wiseacre had drawn a line through the word "examination" and written "experiments" below it. Judge scooted down the passageway, taking his place at the end of a line ten deep. He removed his trousers, shirt and undergarments, rolled them into a tight bundle and tucked them under his arm. A quarter of an hour passed and the line didn't budge. More and more men filled the passageway. The space grew cramped, the smell rank and overwhelming. Momentarily, there was a commotion at the rear of the wagon. A voice yelled from behind him, "Move it! Coming through! Doc's here." A paunchy corporal snapping a leather riding quirt to his thigh passed by. He walked slowly, prodding the naked men in their genitals with the tip of the quirt, gifting each with a rude remark. "I seen bigger balls on a Chihuahua. That bratwurst or a knockwurst? Can't tell the difference myself. Would you look at that cannon cleaner? Heil Hitler, indeed!" Spotting the disgust darkening Judge's face, he flicked the quirt at his rear, raising a florid welt. "Probably like that, don't you?"
Judge felt his every muscle tense as a prelude to snatching the quirt and shoving it down the obnoxious corporal's throat. Yet even as his neck flushed and he rolled forward on the balls of his feet, another emotion eased his rage tempering it as a dash of bitters softens gin – and he realized he wasn't angry at all, but ashamed.
A firm hand squeezed his shoulder. "Calm down," whispered the soldier behind him. "Yourpersilchein will do a lot more good than beating up that prick."
Judge turned, saying only, "_Ja. Danke_."
He was the enemy.
Just then, the doctor arrived. He was a German, like Hansen from Camp 8. A local recruited to do the American's work. Soon after, the line began to move.
The examination took less than two minutes. A peek at his throat and ears. A stethoscope to his chest. "Breathe deeply. Again." And a few questions. "History of tuberculosis? Gonorrhea? Syphilis?"
Judge answered no to all of the above.
"Fine, then," the doctor said, giving him a wink to go along with the red stamp on his papers. "Off to the front with you."