Thousands of miles away from my home, a long dirt road filled with bumps, small holes and scattered rocks, brought me to Odoje, Poland, once known as Nickelsberg, East Prussia. My first impression was that it seemed like a place that barely looked marked by the passing time.
It didn’t resemble in any way the bustling city I was from, filled with a plethora of diverse people, businesses, and paved crowded streets and limited trees or other natural foliage. And it didn’t feel frantic, busy and over-run with the choices of how I spent my daily-allotted time.
Once the movement of the vehicle came to a stop and the engine was shut off, the minor jostling and bouncing my body had experienced en-route, ended. I freed myself of the restraining fabric seat belt and the confining interior of the car. Once my sleepy feet hit solid ground they tingled as they awoke. It felt great to be outside.
I was met with a serene scene on either side of the road and an obvious silence that I welcomed as well as the pungent and earthly smell of dirt and animals. My eyes traveled to the afternoon sky, somewhat overcast but frequently broken by patches of blue before momentarily resting on the small gray home. Lace curtains graced its few windows, and the face of a young smiling girl momentarily peered out. Beyond the house was a yard scattered with farming equipment, a barn, a few wandering goats and nearby cows. My mind worked on absorbing the new reality of a place I’d only previously heard about or saw in pictures.
The opposite side of the street was bordered by a narrow fence it’s spaced wooden slats barely marring the sight of a meadow covered with thick green grass interspersed with clumps of brightly colored wild flowers. There were several grazing cows and rolling hills in the distance and the view looked like it could have been a painting, hanging in a simple art gallery of a small country town.
My eyes re-focused on the house, my thoughts recalling the stories I’d learned of its past, some, which were now hard to imagine in the current surrounding peacefulness, yet still were indisputably a part of its history. It was the home of my German grandfather by marriage.
In September of 1939 he had been drafted into the German Army when the Germans invaded Poland. His military career originally started on the Polish front as a reporter, simply because he owned a motorcycle. The plan was to have him relay news and pertinent information back and forth among the troop lines even though by trade he was a skilled carpenter. But, later he ended up being reassigned to basic training with a panzer (tank) unit. As the long months of the war dragged on and progressed into years, pulling in many countries, he remained in that assignment.
When the dramatic and fateful for many D-Day invasion began he was quartered at a local Farmer’s house a few kilometers away from where his company was stationed at a military base near Carentan on a high hill, southeast of Omaha Beach. Cherbourg was to the North, on the edge of the Cotentin peninsula. The troops had been forewarned that the invasion would come, but they didn’t know when, and it had actually been expected the year before when it finally came.
Hitler had thought an attack would come from a distant coastline city, Calais; where the English Channel was much more narrow so its borders were fortified more strongly. Omaha Beach, the one Wilhelm was closest too had its own natural defense, shoreline which rose up to 100 foot high bluffs which had been equipped with carefully placed machine gun nests. His unit had spent six months being taught the use of “Firlingstak”, the artillery used to shoot down enemy planes, before finally their expertise was tested.
His unit’s tent had been set-up in a farmer’s garden, their canons located in two places nearby, guarded by soldiers that rotated every two hours. Wilhelm’s shift that time was just after midnight. His hungry stomach growled in protest as he sat up, already dressed except for his well-worn boots. He pulled those on over his aching, dry cracked feet, barely protected by thin wool socks that were badly in need of repair.
He hadn’t gotten much sleep anyway because his blankets spread across the floor of the canvas tent had been directly above what felt like jagged boulders. During the short night they continually stabbed the tight flesh of his back and shoulders as he had tried without much success to rest comfortably. After he was ready he exited tent noiselessly, his five foot eight slender frame lean, but strong.
In just moments he reached his assigned post and approached his comrade, the previous guard who had been standing at duty, nodding to him that his shift was over. They saluted each other and the former man left to get some rest. Wilhelm took his place and looked up at the dark sky, at the glow of a full moon, which cast pale light on the field around him, extending his view behind the cliffs of the coast and the water at low tide.
The day previous had been stormy, the winds and rain carried across the Channel had hampered his company’s maneuvers, but if the current condition was any indication morning should be bringing a better day, at least weather-wise. But without warning the very early morning sky on that fateful day that stole so many lives was lit like a Christmas tree, as if burning candles gracing each evergreen branch suddenly fell to the earth.
His thoughts were rapidly jarred to the present as he stared at first in fascination, mesmerized by the scene in the heavens close to the beach coast. Then a sick realization hit him full force as he saw enemy aircraft dropping paratroopers like crazy, just inside the German lines. Adrenaline surged through him in a rush, fully awakening every cell in his body, swelling it with energy mixed with fear. As the parachutes began to open in the distance he was jolted into action, quickly waking the other men in his unit to inform them of the latest attack…
His faith was tested repeatedly as he witnessed first hand the far-reaching consequences of a war that took away any sense of normalcy or security. Forced divisions and cruel senseless deaths tore families apart because political dictators wanted to create their own dream of “utopia”.
Many times during his war experiences, he had been amazingly spared and protected, sustained by spiritual promptings that came to him from a higher source, which he unquestionably knew was a direct result from living his life true to his deep religious convictions.
My thoughts returned to the present.
The little girl’s face I saw at the window had become a complete person, as she and two older women joined her outside the house to talk to us. They were part of the Polish family living currently in mt grandfather's former home and were warm and welcoming as we tried to communicate despite the language barrier. Eventually they invited us inside.
Their home was humble, and small, but clean and the feeling of becoming even more connected to the past, grew. In the small front room of the home was a trap door in the wooden floor, normally kept covered by a faded rug. It was opened and the light from the room illuminated the darkness below. It was a cellar of sorts, used to store food. But once it had been a hiding place, where a frightened family huddled in the dank stillness. They hoped the loud pounding of their hearts and rapid breathing wouldn’t give them away to the searching Russian soldiers above whose cruelty ended many lives.
I tried to imagine how it must have felt to be crouched down there full of fear and praying silently for protection. I shuddered inwardly, feeling even more appreciative for the freedoms and safety I’ve been blessed with and so often take for granted. I was grateful for the important reminder that afternoon, thousands of miles away from my home, in a small town in Poland, of how lucky I really am.