In the spring of 1940 I was a private in the German uniformed police or Schutzpolizei. I had received my basic training at the police school in Kiel immediately after finishing my year of obligatory national labor service. I had no interest in serving in the Wehrmacht in wartime, and volunteering for the police guaranteed I would not have to. I had grown up around too many men who were missing limbs from the previous war to have any desire to follow that path.
The idea of actually losing a limb in combat was the only thing in life that truly frightened me. I would be a cripple, and a cripple is dependent on the charity of others. I knew from firsthand experience that the milk of charity that flows from my fellow man is a thin gruel indeed. The possibility of this actually happening disturbed me so much that it haunted my dreams. It became a recurring nightmare whose details never changed.
I would dream, especially during the period when I was performing my labor service and knew I would soon be eligible for the draft, of a man standing in a field, shirtless with both arms gone. All that remained was short stubby appendages like fins. Attached to each arm was a wooden prosthesis with metal claws on the end. Together they looked like lobsters claws. The entire apparatus was tied to his body with sweat grimed white straps. His chest was pale an emaciated from the inability to exercise and the difficulty of eating like a human being with those clacking silver claws.
The dream would always end in the same way. The man would turn to face me, a broken toothed grin in his scar of a mouth, and I would wake up shaking and gasping from stifling the scream that I so wanted to give voice to. Why the terror? That face was unmistakably mine. I would lie there afterward in my narrow wooden bed clenching and unclenching my hands into fists and then hugging myself to reassure my panicked mind that my arms were still attached and functioning. No, the army was definitely not an option.