Watch What Happens By John Means

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Why did life have to be like this?  I had been through one relationship after another, mostly parting as “friends,” and I did not get it–on a train to nowhere, stopping at stations.

With Jeanne we stopped once a year.  I could want her all I wanted, and that was all.  I could hear in my head that French song she always played for us to dance to as she sang verses in my ear–“No, I won’t believe your heart is cold/ maybe just afraid to be broken again,” then something about touching, then “Watch what happens.”  Two days every August it happened.  Then she was gone, and I was cold again.  Why was it like this?

I had met her at one of Jim’s parties, back when he was married.  Jim and I had been friends since the late-Sixties.  He was my American Lit professor for three different courses at a large Midwestern university.  One seminar was Henry James, and I had no idea Jim’s name was Henry James Miller.  His father had been a prof, too.

I did not learn this until the mid-Eighties when Jimmy and I went to the vintage sports car races at Watkins Glen and tent-camped over in the state park.  After the day at the track, we set up the campfire, lawn chairs, cans of beans, and Jimmy’s half-gallon of Scotch.  Jimmy sober was a quiet man, but after alcohol, he opened up.  I was hoping to learn more about his World War II experiences.

He had told me a few things.  He had joined the RAF in 1941 as an aerial photographer in an old Bristol Blenheim and been shot down in December of that year near Brest, a port in the far west of France, just after he had photographed German heavy cruisers in port.  Without Jimmy, there would be no Jeanne in August, and without Jeanne there would be no Jimmy.  Still a school girl, she and her father and his “friends” in the Resistance had found him in a forest west of Quimper in Bretagne.  It was the German Occupation, and Jeanne’s father hid Jim on their farm for months.  Jeanne spent hours teaching him French.  That was all Jim had ever told me.  I sensed there was much more.

Jeanne had flown from France every August since the early fifties to visit him.  I did not know if they were lovers, but in the late-Seventies, she made me her lover.  Jim went camping for two nights and left us in his cabin in the hills.  I did not understand the arrangement, and I did not ask.

Thereafter, every August two days, and then she left for France.  Every summer I cried as if she had died.  Hopeless, again.  “To live without hope is to cease to live,” Dostoyevsky wrote.

Jimmy and I never talked about his or my relationship with Jeanne.  One time when we were both really drunk, I think he said something about being in the Resistance with her, but the next morning I thought I had dreamed it.  It certainly would have bonded them for life.  But how did I get into the triangle?  Maybe it was something French I did not understand.

She was an incredible lover to me.  She freed me from the protocols of gravity, drew essence out from the center of my being and into her.  “You are the French Liberation,” I told her once.  To be with her for only two days was exquisite torture–knowing it would have to end.

We wrote letters every couple of weeks.  After about ten years I confessed that the agony of parting every year was telling on me and that we should probably not see each other next August.  When August came, we came together again.

For three hundred and thirty-three days of each year I lived in the depths of ennui.  That was something French, a sentence to be ended only by death.

One August, after wine, she told me her father and she had found Jimmy in the woods on a nearby farm after he had parachuted.  They hid him.  Every week the Germans came to their farm to buy vegetables and meat.  The Hauptmann was a good man and paid them when the soldiers could have just taken what they wanted.  Their farm was the goose that laid golden eggs.  Jimmy watched the Huns from his hiding place.

Jimmy’s and my camping arrangements had been the same for over a decade.  I brought the tent, sleeping pads, folding chairs and general camp gear; Jim, the food, coffee and booze, always a half-gallon of exquisite single malt.  I was sure it cost a hundred dollars.  But curiously, the evening meal was always the same–cans of beans.  Beans with Scotch?  I didn’t get it.

“Some things more important than others,” he said.

After the last race, back at camp, we started with beers as the beans warmed on the fire.  We talked about vintage sports cars.  As darkness approached we started on the Scotch.  After two glasses, we sat staring into the flames in silence for about twenty minutes.

“Henry Miller was my name through public school, university, and the air force.  ‘Ah, the porno writer,’ I got all the time.  I had read a smuggled copy of Tropic of Cancer, and Miller was nothing of the sort, so I always replied, ‘A distant cousin–all of us Millers are related.’  Also I got, ‘I know a Henry Miller.’  ‘Distant cousin, we’re all related,’ I’d say again.”

“So you switched to Jim Miller?  That’s an even larger population, isn’t it?”

“You bet.  There’s enough of us, the government can’t tell us apart, and I haven’t had to pay the IRS for years.”  Jim had lost his teaching position in the late seventies and was a freelance courier of computer tapes in the Philly area before the internet, always working on a cash basis.  “I got lost in the millions of Jim Millers, and that’s good because I cannot afford taxes.”  That would be the single malt.

When we were into about our third or fourth Scotch–if counting mattered–Jim got up to put wood on the fire.  He was meticulous at building and maintaining a fire.  I had always let him do it.

“Isn’t fire wonderful?” he said, as he always did.

“When you’re good at it.  When did you become Jim instead of Henry?”

He topped his Scotch and held the bottle toward me, but I declined.  The temptation was great, but if he was going to divulge some details, I wanted to remember everything.

“Do you know who Heinrich Muller was?  There’s an umlaut on the ‘u.’”

“No, I don’t.  That’s ‘Henry Miller’ in German, isn’t it?”

“Yes, one of the reasons they never found him after the war.  Just another Henry Miller.  Last seen in the Berlin bunker, 1 May 1945.  Not the Russians, not the Allies, not the Nazi Hunters ever found Heinrich Muller.”

He stared into the fire, silent.  He carried darkness from the war.  Maybe the campfire was therapeutic.  I waited a good ten minutes.

“Heinrich Muller?” I said.

“Head of the Gestapo.  He was the boss of Adolph Eichmann, head of the Gestapo Office of Resettlement, and we all know who he was.  In occupied France when I told the Resistance my name was ‘Henry Miller,’ one man said I resembled the Gestapo chief–nose, eyes, thin lips, short stature.”

Then he went back to silence and the fire.

“How long were you in France?  What did you do?”  I did not want Jimmy drifting away on me.

“Got shot down–I’ve told you–picked up by the Resistance.  Trevor, my pilot, don’t know.  Lived, survived through the winter on a farm near Quemeneven, north of Quimper, under an outdoor stairwell behind a stack of rabbit cages.  No campfires, no Scotch.  During early spring I was moved out to go with a guide over the Pyrenees and on to Lisbon.  I was riding on a shelf on the underside of a horse-drawn cart full of manure when I heard one of the farmers say, ‘He looks like Muller, the Head of the Gestapo, and he speaks our language with a German accent.  He can be of great value to us, or if they catch us with him, we will all be shot.’  Jeanne had taught me French pretty well but had commented on my accent.  I had spoken German since my Amish childhood–until Father got himself shunned, that is.”

I looked over at Jim, his face orange from the fire.  He had been a writer, a composer of highly imaginative stories, and I was beginning to wonder.

“I’m not making this up, Johnny.”

“O. K.”

“Next thing I knew, the Lisbon trip was out, and I was taken to an isolated chalet and interviewed at length by five different men.  After a couple of days they said I could ‘do important work,’ and they proposed an arrangement whereby I would go undercover as a Vichy functionary working in the Paris Gestapo headquarters on Avenue Foche, a fashionable neighborhood taken over by the Germans for offices, just a short walk from the Arc de Tiomphe and the Champs-Elysees.  I could be placed there and a rumor planted that I was a relative of Gestapo Muller.  I’d go in as a file clerk and records man.  The Germans were obsessed with keeping detailed data on everybody, especially the Jews, and nobody would ask too many questions of a relative of Muller.  If Muller happened to show up, I was dead.  If not, I could eventually work to save lives.”

I stood up and poured a bit more Scotch.

“Working for the Gestapo in occupied Paris?”  Was this why Jimmy had always been silent about the War?  Had I been drinking and camping for years with a Nazi war criminal?

“I was not working with Vichy Frenchmen, not initially, but only with Nazis on Avenue Foche.  I kept to myself, was friendly enough, developed a reputation for accuracy, order and thoroughness when it came to the files for the roundups.”

God!  Jimmy was a gentle, sensitive man, a tender drunk who knew how to enjoy life.  Was this the darkness he carried within?  I had seen photographs of the small wooden crates in which were kept index-sized information cards for the thousands of Jews rounded up in Paris and other cities to be sent off in trains to extermination camps in Eastern Europe.  You could still read names in the photographs.  Had Jimmy been the keeper of the Parisian records of those eventually gassed and put in the ovens?

He raised his eyebrows toward me.  “You think I’m kidding?  Well, remember, I was not working for the Gestapo.  Among them, yes.  I was to establish myself as an efficient, essential worker.  The Resistance plan was for me to get placed in a position where I could work to save some of the Jewish children.”

“How could you do that?”

“The Parisian Jews were not sent directly to Auschwitz.  Most of them were taken to the Paris suburb Drancy, to a dreary, five-story, unfinished apartment building–a detention and assembly camp surrounded by barbed wire.  Hundreds of Jewish families slept on concrete floors, families kept together to keep them ‘calm.’  The rooms had no windows installed, and on the floors lay electrical cable and plumbing pipes.  Washing and toilet facilities were inadequate.  Excrement lay in nearly every room.  Babies cried.”

Jimmy stopped and readjusted a couple of logs in the fire circle.

“It sounds like you were there.”

“I lived it every day for almost two years.  The people were trucked in from the roundups and days later crammed into railway boxcars and shipped out.  Most of them did not know where they were going, but the word “Drancy” eventually came to signify the last stopping place before death.  I had become a trusted employee of the Gestapo, and because of my French and German, they installed me as a Vichy clerk.  I was to maintain my orderly control of files for those entering and departing Drancy.  My shadow role was to “keep an eye” on the many Vichy guards there.  You have to do research to learn that the Vichy French were not squeamish in conducting the Gestapo-organized-and-scrutinized roundups for the Jewish “resettlement.”  France had its own tradition of anti-Semitism.  In the Twelfth Century Jews had been given three months to leave the kingdom; in the Fourteenth, they were banished.  But Vichy guards at Drancy were monitored, as well.  They all knew I had come from Avenue Foche.  My accent identified me as German, so my mere presence was enough to ‘keep the French guards in line.’  Gestapo idea.  My scanning eyes and my random walks about the camp promoted paranoia and compliant behavior.”

“You were a double agent?  God, Jimmy, how old were you?”

“Well, twenty-two in 1942 but I looked older–the Muller resemblance.  In my Vichy police uniform, I sat at a table outside the open gate of the camp with my boxes of cards, registering each person as the roundup trucks unloaded them.  Mothers carried infants.  Small children carried stuffed animals.  One woman said, ‘Oh, look, it’s one of those modernist, high-rise apartment buildings.’  She had not looked closely enough to see that the five stories had no windows.  She could not see that in the rooms lay uninstalled plumbing and electrics.  The war had stopped work.  She did not know they would sleep a dozen to a room on concrete floors among excrement.  ‘All they’re doing is moving us out of Paris into the suburb.  It might be a nice place to live.’  She did not know there would be no “nice place” and not much longer ‘to live.’”

Jim poked at the fire again.  “Now, Johnny, we both know we cannot predict the future, but for us, here and now, we have a modicum of hopeful expectation.  I mean, we’re hoping to drink more Scotch and see some more races tomorrow.  Right?”

I was feeling guilty I had not been a Jew at Drancy.  A weird feeling.  I was going to say that not a one of us could control the time or place into which he or she was born.  Jim had once raced sports cars.  I had once run marathons.  We had both suffered heart-breaking losses and disappointments, but ours were privileged, temporary and artificial, not ending in death.

“Off the trucks men carried cardboard suitcases, some wearing coats and ties.  They had either come from work or felt that they should dress appropriately for the transport and resettlement.  None of them knew what was going on, how or why, but for each I printed a 6×15-centimeter card–nom, prenoms, date de naissance, lieu.  ‘Haftlingspersonalbogen,’ the German resettlement term.  Ah, German-French cooperation.  That was my job, and the unspoken orders were not to ask or think about the humans and never question the purpose of this “solution” of a societal problem.  This was the New Order.  What I did question–as an ersatz Nazi–was why so many men and so much materiel were devoted to this resettlement.  Sure, Germany was a great military power, but it was one nation against several coming at it from every direction, and if it was going to ‘win,’ it would need every man and machine supporting the front lines.”

“My strategy was to get children out.  If I could sneak one out and destroy his card, then as far as the Nazis and the Vichy were concerned, he or she never existed.”

“When it was time to herd families out for the boarding of trucks for the train convoys, I was there with my little crates of cards.  One of the new guards asked, “What’s going on?”  An older guard directed, “Just watch what happens.”  It was all conducted in an orderly process.  There were no distinctions among them except to me.  I wrote the cards and knew the name of each person.”

“A flick of my thumb and forefinger transferred each card from one crate to another.  That re-filing signified disappearance and death, more room for more cards.  I knew the importance of record keeping because I was the relative of the head of the Gestapo.  This was the New Order, and I had to ‘believe’ in the culling of the tribes.”

“An infant, not crying.  A three-year-old clutching a stuffed bear.  A man by himself with a hole in the side of his old shoe.  An old couple who must have worked and saved to make life good for their children.  A teenaged girl by herself.”

“Some of them might have been hopeful or thankful to be leaving the miserable camp.  In the common area, muddy most of the time, they had stood around talking and doing nothing.  What could they do?  One fellow guard said, ‘Look at them.  They’re disgusting.  They’re dirty, they stink, they shit themselves.  They do nothing.  Worthless swine.  It makes me sick to look at them.’”

“Put persons in a pig sty with nothing, take their names away and write them on death cards, and they are soon dehumanized to the swine that the propaganda and indoctrination have taught that they are.  Then you can do your job and feel right.  What could be better for society than to exterminate the inferiors?”

“I saw two uniforms in the streets of Paris encircle an old Jewish man, shove him back and forth until he fell, and then kick him as they laughed.  Three others behind them laughed along.  People on the sidewalks looked on in terror as these bullies did their job.  The next day at the camp gate I registered the battered old man and printed his name on a card–‘Nahum.’  My job.  I was good at it.  The end of Nahum.”

Jim topped off his Scotch, the bottle now beside his chair, and shook his head.

“Such public humiliations were soon discouraged because the larger plan was to escort the Jews in mass through the streets with their luggage and packs as if they were being peacefully relocated, and many believed they were.  The Drancy camp was out of the city, enclosed by barbed wire.  Transport was in trucks and then in closed railway boxcars.  Who along the route would know what was being shipped?  The death camps, the destinations, were not located in France or Germany but far to the east in occupied Poland.  If the Germans thought their “Final Solution” was a cause so righteous, then why were they hiding the exterminations?  I tell you, the Germans knew they were committing the most heinous of sins that a people could commit.  They planned to hide the mass extermination among all of the chaotic movement that was war.”

“I was the accountant.  I did not record the gibes and jokes of the guards, nor the stink and shivering of the Jews.  I was a good German.  A pampered queen, placed in Drancy with no toilet, no bread or water, no bed, would be reduced to swine.  The world was closed to them.  They could work toward nothing, not even hope.”

Dostoyevsky spoke to me again.  I got up and poured water into our campfire pot and told Jim I was fixing a cup of instant coffee.  I did not want to be drunk and not remember what he was telling me.

As I held the pot over the fire with a green stick, I said to Jimmy, “The Jewish camp did not have a fire, did it?  And no coffee, no pot.”

“Not a pot to piss in.”  He shook his head no.  “The Vichy guards had quickly figured I was German, and then from planted rumors that the head of the Gestapo was my ‘Uncle Heinrich.’  They behaved carefully around me.  Also, a Gestapo tactic to divert suspicion was for me to drink on the job, which was not difficult.  They gave me a supply of wine.  I wore a big great coat every day and carried in bottles of wine in inner pockets I had sewn in.  However, one of my Resistance contacts had an even bigger supply–a brother with a vineyard.  It was rotten stuff, but wine was hard to come by because the Germans were drinking it all.  A top Vichy official, a Darquier, the head of the Jewish commission, worked in a boozed state, so I would not be unusual.”

“I drank enough to give myself a ripe smell, began taking orders and selling wine to the guards.  I could carry in four bottles a day in my coat.  Soon business was booming–not a Gestapo plan–and I watched to see who was overdoing it.   A guard getting sloppy or passing out was an opportunity to get a child out.”

I was relieved.  Jimmy was no war criminal.  I cringed at my earlier suspicion.  What he was doing could have gotten him shot.

“A Resistance man near Drancy worked with a network, the OSE or something, which hid and cared for Jewish children.  The guard who was my biggest wine customer sat in a tower in the west corner.  I observed his behavior for several evenings.  I could see him drinking up there, and by nine or ten, his head was down, passed out.  Drinking wine while the Jews were freezing on concrete floors shivering in their own filth.  In a shadow created by the guard house, three evenings I worked for five minutes or so digging a hole under the fence, then replacing sod on top to hide it.  That was the easy part.  I was going to pass an infant out.  I could not walk into one of the rooms or the muddy yard and announce, ‘Looking for an infant to pass under the fence to save from the death camp you are all going to on the train.’  How was I going to find a child?  It had to be a child scheduled to leave the next day, and I would have to tell the mother they were all going to die.  Dangerous and impossible.”

“Then a woman came to me.  ‘I have been watching you.  You are not a real guard.  You are not French.  I am German, too.  We came to Paris in the thirties to escape the Nazis, but that did not work.  I know we are going to die.  I beg you, can you get my child out, a German child?’  She was holding an infant wrapped in an old coat.  It could be a trap.  ‘I will never see her again, but her life is more important than her mother.’”

“What would you do, Johnny?”  Jimmy stirred the fire, tottering, drunk.  “Risk your life for people who are going to die regardless?  If I was caught in the act, the infant would be shot with me.”

Jimmy looked at me with bleary eyes.  I put my palms up and shrugged my shoulders.  A French gesture, maybe.  Risk my life to save a child, or just follow orders to get through the war?

“To win in war you foil the enemy’s plan.  I checked the convoy departure schedule, met my contact and arranged a time for the following evening.  ‘You and the child could be shot,’ was all he said.  The next night I went to the woman’s room, put the infant in my coat lining, went again to my hole under the fence and passed her to an unknown person on the outside.  I did not sleep much the rest of the night.  I doubt if the mother did.  I burned the card of the infant.  Officially she did not exist.  The next day I moved the mother’s card from one crate to another as she boarded the train.  A week later I learned the baby girl was at a house in the country.  I had saved my first life.  Her name had been Shoshanna, and she probably became Suzette and a French Catholic.  This was the beginning.  I was emboldened, kept looking for ways to get them out.  One night another guard got so drunk he left the main gate unlocked, and I marched five teenaged boys right out.  I postured it as a roundup I was conducting according to orders, boys and girls collected from different rooms.  I played God.  Who was going to question Muller’s cousin?  Five cards burned, five families splintered, but life was more important.”

“I could do nothing on a repeated basis but look for opportunities.  I used a different method of escape each time–no pattern.  In the years after the war I learned that nearly 70,000 Jews had passed through Drancy on their way to death camps.  There was one little boy who had lost his parents in the mass being loaded up one day.  He was crying.  I grabbed him and hid him in a nearby pile of clothing and shoes, ordered him to lie still, be quiet, wait for the next group.  That evening, I pulled him out and marched him with me openly through the streets as one we had missed in a roundup.  You remember “The Purloined Letter”–hidden out in the open.  He had to stay by himself in my flat for two days before I could pass him on to the OSE.”

“Of the 70,000, I got seventeen out.  All I could do.  By 1944 I was getting paranoid.  Did the Gestapo have Vichy guards watching me?  Time for me to disappear.  It was back to Jeanne’s farm and the rabbit cages.  I stayed there until the Americans came through.  Unbelievable.  Freedom for Jeanne’s family, France and me.  What would happen at Drancy?  Mass slaughter?  I found out later that the camp was simply abandoned by the guards.”

Jim lowered his head and shook it from side to side, then drank again.

“Those seventeen, where did they go?  To lives of loneliness and loss?  In search of mother and father?  I lectured myself not to dwell on what was past.  They had been able to go somewhere else–that was the important thing.  They had escaped by calculated chances through the cracks of the banal bureaucracy of the meticulously executed Nazi pogrom.  They did not have to live the finality of the dark, crammed boxcar.  I had joined the RAF on a lark, young and stupid, had no idea I was taking chances riding in the nose of an obsolete, sitting-duck aeroplane with my camera.  The Messerschmidt out of nowhere changed all of that.  Then Jeanne and her father risked their lives to save me and hide me.  She taught me French every day so well that I was made ready to take chances to save others.”

Jimmy was drunk and slurring.  I hated seeing him in that state.  Would he remember in the morning?  He moaned up out of his chair and weaved toward the fire, unsteady, swaying.  I thought he might fall or pitch himself into the coals.  I stood up, took his arm, led him into the tent, pulled off his shoes and rolled him into his sleeping bag.  He could be hidden from the darkness of his war and be safe for the night.

I went back out, poured a healthy Scotch and sat back in front of the fire.  The bottle was fuller than I had thought.  Jim was getting old, could not hold his liquor so well.  Or perhaps reliving his years in the camp had worn him down into drunkenness.

He had taken me to a Nazi camp I had never known existed.  How many persons today would know one thing about Drancy?  What percentage in a public poll?  In America?  In a local high school?  In France or Paris?  I had watched documentaries about the death camps but had never heard of Drancy.

Could a person or an activist group “do something” to prevent the development of unknown detention and death camps in the future?  Or would good persons again do nothing but watch?  The worn-out cliché was probably true–history did repeat itself.  Surviving Jews had vowed, “Never Again.”  Survivors had written detailed accounts.  Hitler had propagandized The Big Lie, in his time with only theatrical personal appearances, newspapers and radio.  A leader today had so much more at his disposal, could even tweet a big lie.

I was tired and maybe a little drunk.  Jimmy had not stirred in the tent.  I wanted to dream of Jeanne.  I wanted to see her again next August and watch what happened for two days.

Two days.  Some Parisian Jews were trucked to Drancy, detained for two days, shipped away, never seen again.  Seventeen young ones were brought in for two days and then taken away–somehow–by Jimmy, to be seen somewhere else.

If I saw Jeanne in August she would be a very different person to me now, but chances were that after two days I would never see her again.

The fire was still warm, but there was no hope it could last.  Jimmy was dead to the world.

“Drink all of that Scotch, and we won’t have any tomorrow.”

I froze, then swiveled back.  Jimmy behind me with a strong, sober voice.

“Not showing off, Johnny, just wanted to see if I could still do it.  They were all doomed to die, and I lost my nerve.  Didn’t save a soul in the last six months.”

A few weeks later I was driving a country road that paralleled a railroad track when I caught up with a short train of boxcars.  I slowed to match their speed.  There was no way to know or watch what was happening inside the dark cars.

“Watch what happens,” played in my head–a direction or a song?

Ah, Jimmy.  Ah, humanity.

###

glasses

John Means

Means did three post-graduate degrees back during the Triassic, including a computer course when you programmed with stacks of punch-out cards.  He taught composition, English lit, American lit, technical writing and geology for 35 years at a two-year community college.  He is currently a dinosaur.  He has been scribbling for 55 years and has received over 300 rejection notices, as recently as yesterday.  His 428,000-word trilogy written from the viewpoint of a teenaged German Jewish boy during 1931-32 was queried to over 150 agents and publishers, and not a one read one word.  He scribbles on.

His geological guidebooks have sold OK in the States.  He continues to climb around on rock wherever he can find it.  Even though a Yank, he has climbed rock in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  He does not do social media.  He prefers the rock.

You can find more of John’s writing and other works here:

A Nice Man, 2017, Copperfield Review–novel excerpt with a cameo by Adolph Hitler

355.0217, 2017, Cold Mountain Review

The Entertainment Center, 2020, Oyster River Pages

Old Mary, 2020, Gray Sparrow Journal

In My Cabin, 2020, Fiction Fogey

Polecat, 2021, Deep Wild Journal

Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Parks, 1995, McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company

Roadside Geology of Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D. C., 2010, Mountain Press Publishing Company

Image by Jordan Holiday from Pixabay

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