Lament of the Loon
Virginia Lee Bliss
Dead leaves, caught by a moaning gust of wind, swirled in the half-light of the November afternoon. Shadows shrouded the winding woodland path in mystery. Bare, black branches reached up as if to touch the sky—like hands grasping in desperation for divine assistance.
Except for her own footsteps, Maria heard no sound. Yet she sensed the presence of something—or someone—beside her. She looked about. Nothing—only the ghostly gloom of the leafless woods.
Her friend, Frieda, had told her the way. “Take the train from Düsseldorf. When you arrive in Wuppertal, take the No. 616 bus, but only as far as Öhde. It is a walk from there, but better than someone seeing you getting off the bus near the place.”
Maria had walked from Öhde one and a half kilometers east along Beyenburger Straße, looking only straight ahead as Frieda had cautioned. She had come to the dirt road on the left leading into the woods and followed it north to the woodland path leading eastward. Frieda warned her the path would be lonely and desolate, “but, dear friend, you are unlikely to be spotted.”
As she continued up a rise, she heard what sounded like the distant howling of wolves. She remembered the words of her history professor: In our land, they may no longer be, but in Germany’s soul, the wolves remain
. That was exactly two years ago—her last year at University; she graduated six months later in the spring of ’32. Professor Schumann’s teaching remained in her heart, lighting the way as darkness fell upon the land.
This past April, the government had passed the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service. The ruling decreed that all non-Aryan professors and teachers must be dismissed. While the other Aryan professors rejoiced in the ousting of their Jewish colleagues, Professor Schumann refused to participate in what he termed a “great madness.”
Maria returned her attention to the present. The noise she thought was her imagining became louder. Not the cry of a wolf, but the mournful wail of a loon. There must be a colony of them on the Wupper River that flowed adjacent to Beyenburger Straße. The bird was likely calling in hopes of rejoining its mate.
She came to another dirt road. “Turn right to head south. Stop at the top of the hill,” Frieda had directed.
She arrived at the crest and looked down.
Beyenburger Straße 146. Formerly an abandoned textile factory, the ugly gray building was now surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. She could make out an SA guard patrolling the grounds.
Against all reason, she prayed for a glimpse of Christian.
Christian Kellerman had been a teacher at a Grundschule
in Düsseldorf. He and Maria were to have been married in September.
On Friday, April 7, the day the law requiring the removal of Jewish teachers and professors was passed, she had been visiting Stefan and Agatha, her brother and sister-in-law. Their son, Roland, was one of Christian’s pupils. When the boy arrived home from school, he cried, “Mama, Herr Kellerman said—” He paused for breath.
“Dear child, what is the matter!” cried Agatha.
Maria felt an icy wave of fear wash over her.
“Herr Kellerman said the Nazis were wrong to dismiss the Jewish teachers. But I heard the other boys and some of the teachers say it is right. Mama, Aunt Maria—who is right?”
Before Agatha could speak, Maria cried, “Roland, Herr Kellerman—my Christian—is a very brave man. You must believe that.”
“Maria!” Agatha’s hand flew to her mouth in horror.
When Stefan came home, his wife told him what happened.
“Maria, if the boy tells anyone, we are all in danger.” Stefan stood helplessly, shaking his head.
Maria clenched her fists, her dark eyes blazing. “Is that the way you wish to raise your son? To let him think it is fine to persecute innocent people? Why do you bother to attend mass anymore? Did you not hear the words of Father Himmelreich last Sunday?”
“Father Himmelreich is a fool. Did you
not see the SA Truppführer
in the church? After we filed out, I looked back and saw him speaking to the priest. I am sure he was not seeking spiritual guidance.”
“You will allow them to have Roland?”
“Roland is already theirs,” Stefan answered bitterly.
A week later they received word that Father Himmelreich had been taken to Dachau. Then Maria learned that Professor Schumann had been found dead in his apartment, beaten to death—probably by SA thugs. She begged Christian not to speak out any more.
“Dear Maria, I cannot keep silent. But I will leave Düsseldorf. I am no longer welcome at the Grundschule
. I will find other work.”
“But our—we were to be married.”
“It is only for a short while, my love. The madness cannot last.”
“Where will you go?”
“It is best for you not to know. But I will get word to you that I am safe.”
In May, she learned he was living somewhere in the Wuppertal area under an assumed name.
In July, the state passed the sterilization law “for the prevention of genetically diseased offspring.” A group of Catholics, both clergymen and laypeople, opposed the law. The state moved to suppress all Catholic political action by rounding up and imprisoning participants.
Maria felt certain that Christian had been among them. He would not have kept silent in the face of such a ruling.
* * *
It was Frieda who told her that Christian was in a concentration camp.
“Dachau?” Maria whispered.
“No, Maria. Kemna.”
Kemna? It cannot be
Throughout all Germany, no camp was spoken of with more horror than Kemna.
“How do you know, Frieda?”
“From my cousin, Karl. He knows one of the guards there.” Frieda often visited her cousins in Wuppertal—that was how she knew the area so well. “And another thing Karl said. The SA is placing at Kemna guards who grew up in the same neighborhoods as the inmates and know them personally. Preferably guards who carry old grudges.”
“Are any of the guards from Düsseldorf?”
“Karl said there are some.”
Protestants and Catholics in Düsseldorf mostly respected each other. But there had been others—early members of the Hitler Youth who had mocked Christian and other members of the Catholic Youth League. These thugs had grown into brutal adults; with the Nazis now in power, they were allowed to give full expression to their hatred.
She tried not to think of the things she had heard about Kemna. Prisoners locked in cubicles so small they could only crouch while the guards blew cigarette smoke through the air holes…men thrown into the cold waters of the Wupper and afterwards made to stay in their wet clothing…beatings with rubber clubs, whips and sticks by drunken guards…all this and worse.
Although released prisoners were sworn to secrecy, the truth about the camp leaked out because severely injured prisoners were sent to nearby hospitals. That and the fact that the screams of the tortured men could be heard by those who lived and worked nearby. And by those like herself who came with vain hopes.
The eerie call of a distant train whistle echoed her despair.
And then she heard it. Emanating from the camp, a piercing scream more terrifying than anything she had ever heard. Another and yet another scream followed, each more horrible than the one before.
In her horror, Maria forgot to keep undercover. She ran down the hill, past the camp, and across Beyenburger Straße towards the Wupper. She stood on the riverbank and gazed down at the black water, relentless in its turbulent flow. For one awful moment, she imagined herself jumping into that cold November current. A heartbroken wail escaped from her throat, and then all went black.
* * *
Maria lay facing the sky on a bed of brown leaves. In the fading daylight, she made out the features of the young soldier bending over her. He was not an SS man or a Brownshirt; his uniform identified him as a lieutenant in the German Army—an organization that still counted among its ranks a few decent men.
“Fraulein, are you all right?” His handsome features were drawn with concern.
“I heard you cry out. Then you fainted.”
“Oh—” Maria sat up and stared in the direction of the camp.
“Your fiancé is in there?” he asked, glancing at her engagement ring.
“There was a mass release of Kemna prisoners in October. Was he not among them?”
“As far as I know, he is still there.”
“Fraulein, I may be able to find out something. But you will need to give me his name.”
What if this man—what if it’s a trap
“It is your decision to trust me or not. But if he is still in there, how could things get any worse for him?”
She wrote down Christian’s name, as well as her own and her address in Düsseldorf.
“Come, I will walk you to the bus station.”
He waited with her until the bus arrived. “I will do my best,” he promised.
“I do not even know your name,” she said.
“Call me ‘Hansi Engel’. Grüß Gott
* * *
About a week later, her doorbell rang. An envelope had been shoved under the door. The note inside read, “Marien—Franz Schumacher”.
Within twenty minutes, she was at Düsseldorf’s Marien Hospital. She approached the information desk. “I wish to see Franz Schumacher.”
The clerk consulted the registry and then paged Dr. von Albrecht.
A solemn looking gray-haired man appeared. “Fraulein Maria Strasburg?” he whispered.
She nodded. How does he know my name
He led her to a patient room.
Christian lay very still, his face marked by beating. He had lost an eye. She took his hand—now claw-like—in hers. “Oh, Christian, what have they done to you?”
He smiled, showing the gaps of missing teeth. “It does not matter, my love. You are here. I can look upon your face one last time.”
“It is a blessing to see you just once and to have spent my last days in relative comfort. Hansi Engel—that was his codename—he was one of us. He helped me to escape.”
“He is dead. They caught him. Dr. von Albrecht is his father.”
“Dearest Christian, I cannot go on without you.”
“Maria, listen to me. There is no time to lose. You and Stefan, along with Agatha and little Roland—you must leave the country. Austria will take you—your mother was Austrian. But do not remain there—Europe is no longer safe. Go to America.
“Maria, our resistance work must go on. Myself and Hansi Engel and the others—let our deaths not be in vain. Go where you are safe, then spread the word. Tell the American people what is happening here. Promise me.”
“I promise, my darling Christian.”
Tears brimmed in Maria’s eyes as Christian let out one last breath and died in her arms.
* * *
Author’s Note: Kemna Concentration Camp was a place so horrible it shocked even some Nazis. Fearing that German public opinion might turn against them, as well as the effects of bad publicity abroad, Nazi officials closed the camp in January 1934, barely six months after it opened.