I clearly remember standing there pretending to listen to the Major while observing the SD officer who stood behind him. I had seen him before, usually accompanied by others of his ilk. He stood there, about three paces behind the Major, and to his right. He was short, stocky, and while still young he had already began to develop some very impressive jowls. He did not cut a dashing figure in his uniform, except for the SD diamond with its silver piping on his sleeve halfway between the cuff and the elbow. That got my attention.
At this point we had not had many dealings with the SD, but I knew whenever they appeared something was going to happen. That “something” was always political, and political was never good. Political was dangerous. Political meant the regular rules of our daily life no longer applied. The shit no longer ran downhill in its nice orderly little channels. Instead it could come streaming out of nowhere and woe to those who screwed up the new distribution plan. Political meant that screwing up would not lead to kitchen punishment detail but something worse. Something that would make a bullet in the back of the head seem merciful. When the SD showed up everyone paid attention.
He watched us while we pretended to listen to the Major. No, I am sure some the men were actually listening. Hell, Hans ate these speeches up with a spoon. I bet he stored them up in his head and played them back when he was all alone in the dark with his picture of Adolf. Myself, I learned early on that a good soldier could doze while standing up. Not this time though. I watched the SD officer watch us as we listened to the Major. Watching and weighing us to see who might be a problem. Who might mess up the new flow of shit.
The Major finally shut up, and the First Sergeant stepped up and got us moving in order to the waiting vehicles. I quickly ducked behind a truck and relieved myself on a tire groaning in relief. We clambered aboard, uncharacteristically silent except for the usual grunts, as burdened with gear we pulled ourselves up and into the back of the truck. Our equipment clattered as we got ourselves seated on the wooden benches that lined each side of the truck and we readjusted our gear for the ride. With the usual grinding of gears and backfires we headed for the town of Paprotnia which was about twenty miles away. Doesn’t sound very far does it? Just a quick little jaunt that took us almost two hours over the usual crappy Polish excuses for a road. Roads that in a year would be fondly remembered after we had been driving on the cow paths they called roads in Russia.
No one who has never ridden in an Opel Blitz truck without any functioning shocks, while sitting on a wooden bench wearing an iron pot on your head, and traveling over a highly rutted road will realize how uncomfortable it was. Traveling like this was not usually conducive to conversation, as the muffler was like the shocks, something the Wehrmacht considered nonessential had decided to pass on fixing. On later actions we would sing, but that was usually on the way back when the alcohol and the adrenalin were still flowing from what we had just completed. That is what we called operations like this, an ‘Action.’ This one was a small Jewish action. They came in two official sizes, large and small. I never figured out if it was small because of the number of victims or was it because of the number of troops involved?
One thing I do know that that none of the ones that I participated in were the same, and yet in the end they all were. Most of the names of the towns we visited ended up forgotten as soon as we left, if we ever knew what their names. If we were to talk about them later then they were usually remembered by an event that had made them stand out from the others. For instance, the action in Konstantin was usually referred to as “The pumpkin head action.” As in “Remember that town with the Jew we shot seven times and he still kept walking towards the Lieutenant? Yeah! We had to pop his head like a pumpkin before he would sit down and stay down.”