I met Dan Blum the other day at Peet’s Coffee Shop in Wellesley, Massachusetts, a small commuter town west of Boston where we both live.
On any given day Peet’s is populated with Wellesley College students, laptops agape, looking like they’ve been pressed into studying for their next exam, folks in flannel vests and sensible Birkenstocks wander in trying to look unstudied, and then the bicycle crowd arrives on two- wheeled, carbon-fiber machines that cost more than my car and weigh less than a box of Dunkin Donuts. You don’t have to look up to know they are there. Their pedal cleats clomp whenever they amble up to the counter, ordering foamy green chai lattés.
Dan and I ordered black coffee, dark roast in China mugs and sat at one of the small round wooden tables along the wall where we talked about our lives as authors—the usual banter: advances (how much did you get?), agents (an untrustworthy lot), publishers, book promoters (useless), but mostly we talked about how we had both written novels about what it is like when war comes to an end.
“Escape from Saigon” takes place in 1975, during the final days of the Vietnam War, Dan’s novel, “The Feet Say Run” is about the way World War II ended in 1945 for an ordinary German soldier who, by fate, wound up on the wrong side of history. Strip away the place names, the dates, the nationalities and cut to the core of human emotion—the despair and fear of what’s to come next and our stories are not much different at all. In both “The Feet Say Run” and “Escape from Saigon” a soldier strips off his uniform to hide among the hordes of refugees wherein lies the most heartbreaking and overwhelming sense of loneliness..
“The Feet Say Run” opens with our German soldier Hans Jaeger stranded with a small band of survivors on Illyria, the last island not mapped by modern GPS. This is where he begins the tale of his life in Nazi Germany, the Jewish girl he loved, and his years fighting with the Wehrmacht. It’s the story of all the madness, irony and horror of the modern world—and the story of one man who finds redemption only when there's nowhere left to run.
Here is an excerpt from Dan Blum’s, “The Feet Say Run”
I started moving West at dusk, stopped in more farmhouses and scavenged bits of food and eventually came to a house with some civilian clothes that fit me tolerably. I changed into them. Then I realized my pack would still give me away as a soldier, and I found a little duffle I could sling over my shoulder, and moved everything from the pack into it. Best look like a civilian if the Russians saw me. I would find a uniform to change back into if I made it back across the line.
I walked for days like that.
Finally, I reached a main road, and again, there were civilians streaming along it, and I did my best to melt in with them. I was shocked when a group of Russian soldiers pulled up alongside us, letting us pass. Soon a Russian tank rumbled by. Reinforcements. Supply trucks. Even horse-drawn wagons. Sometimes the Russians seemed on edge, suspicious, and then I kept a distance from them. Other times I affected a limp to better blend in with the sea of refugees. Only where were they all coming from? This never-ending train. Just as I had seen before. I struck up conversations with some of my fellow travelers and learned a little.
They were from all over Eastern Europe. They were German Poles. German Czechs. German Slovaks. German Hungarians. Some barely considered themselves German. Did not even know the German language. Only they had German last names. And all through Europe there was a rage, an uprising against anything German. And so they were expelled from their countries. Fleeing reprisals in the wake of the great German defeat. Driven off their land, and leaving their homes with only what they could carry.
Some had even fought against the Germans, fought for their own countries, and were now expelled for being German. Just as Sylvia had been persecuted for her father’s Jewishness, even though he had fought for the Germans. Is there any other moral, in history, but that the world is completely mad?
In Czechoslovakia they were massacring German women and children by the tens of thousands. Rounding them into camps. Torturing in ways that showed how ably they had learned from their enemy. Committing their own counter-atrocities against people who had done nothing, to avenge other atrocities against people who had done nothing.
This is why I say I have no politics – even if, perhaps, it is not entirely true. People are animals. Let them do what they will to one another. Fuck all of them.
I caught glimpses of the first days of Russian occupation, passing from town to town. It was all just chaos. Sometimes the Russians pillaged and massacred. Sometimes they gave little
bits of food to German children. They arrested German males of fighting age, questioned them, shot them or sent them off to slave labor camps, or, sometimes, apparently depending on their mood, just ignored them. They drank and raped at night, and then in the morning, in a wave of sobriety and guilt, they gathered wildflowers and candies to offer to their victims. And then they raped again the next night.
The women hid in attics and under beds. They cut their hair and covered their faces with ash to look old and ugly. They painted on rashes and blemishes to imitate diseases, much as a harmless animal may evolve to look like the poisonous one, in hopes of being mistaken for something toxic. And, at least according to the rumors, they committed suicide.
I slept in barns, or sometimes on the bare ground. I fell ill and lost track of time. I would awaken covered in sweat, disoriented. And then I was asleep again. Chilled. Looking for more hay to cover myself with. Was it three days that had passed, or four? How long had I been in this one spot? As though fastened to this same bit of earth until I came to know each separate clump of grass. How long since I had eaten? I came out of my fever to see the mass of humanity heading West was still flowing. And when I was well enough, wobbly still, faint, but able to put one foot in front of another, I rejoined it.
Signs on the road began to name familiar places. Places close to home. Arrows pointing to Leipzig! Had Edelburg fallen already? Would anyone be left there when I got there?
There were stories of the concentration camps that had been opened, clothes and shoes and human hair piled up by the ton, emaciated bodies stacked like cordwood. Was one of those piled bodies you, Sylvia? Were you one of the nameless corpses, buried somewhere in the middle? Or were you, just possibly, one of the survivors who were also whispered of, living skeletons, grown men and women weighing sixty pounds, too weak to walk, yet, somehow, still alive?
And then one day there was a different kind of rumor. Shocking and unbelievable in a different kind of way.
Hitler ist tot!
“Hitler is dead. That’s what I just heard.”
There had been such a rumor once before. But this time it seemed like there were details. It was on the wireless. Everyone was saying it. Confirming it. The piece of garbage had killed himself!
We would not even have the pleasure of hanging him from a tree. Why, O Fuhrer, if you were going to kill yourself, could you not have done it fifteen years before? What would the world look like now, had you just taken that one life instead of all the others?
But that was it. It was over. Done.
Every German male of combat age was to surrender to a Russian unit. That was the next message that went up and down the road. But what did the Russians want? Were they just looking for Nazis? SS? Or were they dumping everyone in prison camps? I decided it would be best to walk the rest of my journey – wherever it would take me – at night. I was not surrendering. I knew by the road signs I saw that it was just two day’s walk to Edelburg now, and the thought of it made my heart beat faster, focused me toward that one objective. There was no way I was surrendering now. I needed to make it home.