The Return

Joseph Lanzon
August 1945. The Armistice was signed; the war was over. From all over the battlefields in Europe and those beyond the Pacific, the fighting men were now returning home to embrace their eager mothers, wives and children. From all over these battle-scarred places they streamed, back to their country, back to their homes, back to their loved-ones. 
For five long years they fought hard, courageously, gallantly and with a patriotic sense that makes men heroes.  In the last year they suffered hell, defeat, humiliation and tasted the bitter effects of occupation. 
Yet not all that went away to fight their country’s cause were now returning home. Some still lay there, buried beneath the soil of battle in a foreign land; these will never return home, will never cry at the sight of their mothers. Their duty done, they now sleep peacefully in the ruins of Stalingrad, El Alamein, Arnhem, Kursk, Berlin and other battlefields. 
The big troopship had berthed safely and silently alongside the other ships at the port of Cologne. The troopship brought human cargo, soldiers of the once great Wehrmacht Army from the Western Front, from the Pacific Isles, from the far-flung Eastern Front. 
They lined the deck of the ship, some five thousand of them, and gazed eagerly at German soil after five long and bitter years in strange foreign lands. The hard steel helmets, the shining smart rifles, the up-to-date battle equipment were gone.
They all wore very light army caps and dirty battledresses.  These men were being escorted by equally tired Army officers. These soldiers were the vanquished, they were German soldiers. 
One by one they walked down the gangway guarded by grim- faced Allied soldiers. They walked silently, their proud heads erect as ever, catching the fresh air of their German homeland. 
On the shore, held at a distance by the victorious Allied soldiers, were a multitude of people. They were not ordinary people these; they were wives, mothers and children  waiting eagerly and anxiously for the first glimpse of a husband, a son, a brother, a father. 
Some will be lucky enough to see him, some will shudder at the sight of a battered war-torn face while some, less fortunate than the others, will walk away dejected, resigned to the melancholy depression of a dear loss.
Franz Huber longed to see his own loved country again; he longed to see how his beloved Cologne had resisted the onslaught of Allied bombing. He was still on the ship, waiting his turn to set his feet on native German soil. 
He looked over to the shore; there the eager people were waving excitedly and expectantly but, at the same time, in a solemn way. Nobody knew whom they were waving to. Laying aside the fact that they were close relatives of the returning soldiers, Huber thought, there was nothing to wave about. 
It was his turn now to walk down the gangway; his turn to leave the ship and touch the sacred ground of Germany. As he walked down he noticed how the dejected German people greeted the defeated soldiers of the Rhineland – with warm fervour and excitement. 
As his friends walked down before him they were embraced and hugged by their mothers and wives. They had to wait hard and long for that embrace, that warm hearted kiss. But now the mother and son, the husband and wife, were together again, now nothing mattered, not even the grim-faced presence of the victors. 
Somewhere deep down there, in the crowd of fervent patriots, there must be his own Jean. She must be there waiting eagerly for his long-awaited return, anxiously anticipating the tired yet affectionate embrace of a lonely soldier. 
His mother had written to him some few months back and told him that his beloved Jean was still alive in Cologne and, she added, lonelier than ever. 
Franz Huber and Jean Schmidt were engaged to each other just before Franz was posted to the Eastern Front. He loved her as much as his heart would let him; he was young and so was she, but there was nothing immature about their love affair.  
It was very different from the common love affairs pushed forward by the robustness and eagerness of youth. He knew Jean well and always thought that she would be his perfect wife and lifelong companion.
He would have married her before his departure had his mother not told him to leave it until he comes back. Well, he was back now and the first thing he wanted done was to marry Jean  Schmidt. 
After three long eventful years of cruel separation he failed to forget her delightful and inspiring memory. Jean was not a typical daughter of the Reich; she was neither fair nor of a stature to fall under that category. Jean’s hair was dark, falling in long lovely tresses on her shoulders. Her complexion matched her hair rendering her a beautiful girl. Yes indeed, Jean Schmidt was lovely! And he kept that inspiring thought all through the cruel and brutal stages of the war. Her photograph was always close to his chest.  
Franz did not like fair haired girls, detested their arrogant and often vulgar bearing. He always thought, contrary to what the Reich encouraged and expected of its Aryan citizens, that such girls would never make good, loving wives.    
Their inclination to flirt would never enable them to settle down devotedly to happy married life. But he liked the type of girl who would stand by him in all his troubles and tribulations. Faithfulness and sincerity were the characteristics that he always sought in a woman.
His avowed love for Jean was indestructible. It was kept alive while all around him he witnessed scenes so brutal and ugly that would have made his love towards Jean, even towards mankind, shake its very foundation. 
He witnessed poor brave soldiers of the Fatherland fall gallantly in the face of battle all around him, uttering their last dying sound of death; he saw buildings fall and crumble on their innocent tenants, burying them alive with their meagre possessions; he saw the desolation and plunder in the wake of the enemy’s retreat into the heart of Russia; he saw the brave proud armies of the great German Republic sweep victoriously onwards, marching deep into the enemy’s lands. 
War……..hate ………guns…….flames……..death! These did not shake his love for Jean. He was a good soldier still, was young Franz Huber.   
He was on German soil now. The sound of the enthusiastic people around them was instilling pride and honour in the hearts of the returning soldiers. 
The German armies were defeated. The soldiers were returning home. He was free now, free to wander wherever he wished, free to go back to the delightful places he knew so well before the war, his old-time friends, his Jean, his mother. 
This was repatriation day and he was extremely happy. Now he was just Franz Huber, no longer Corporal Huber of the Second Battalion of the Reich.
He waited there among the people, jostled with them, and wandered the place to find his Jean. All along he saw soldier friends who had formed part of his defeated company being kissed and hugged by their wives and girlfriends. In a few minutes he too will forget the troubles and sufferings he had endured during the last five years. He will be in Jean‘s arms. But Jean was nowhere to be seen, nowhere. 
He walked away dejected and headed to the place he knew so well – his home. He remembered how he used to play in this street, how he often used to meet his friends here. It was now deserted, lonely, and miserable.
A large part of the houses were destroyed by Allied bombing. Some, the remains of which were still visible, brought pity to his heart. Others were totally ravaged and not a sign of their existence was left. And yet some others were still towering over this absolute destruction. Of the long line of houses in his street that once was the pride of the city of Cologne, only a few still remained as if to bear witness to such desolution.  
Cologne was the fourth largest city in Germany. Her famous cathedral, Germany’s most visited landmark, the seat of the Archbishop of Cologne, was one of the finest in the whole world. It is the largest gothic church in Northern Europe and it has the tallest spires and largest façade of all the churches in the world. The cathedral, although heavily damaged, was not destroyed by the bombings. The University of Cologne is one of Europe’s oldest and earliest places of learning.
But the city suffered terribly. On the night of 30/31 May 1942 more than 1,000 Allied bombers hit its heart. More than 150,000 of its 700,000 inhabitants fled the city after this terrible air raid.  
Franz hurried his steps. He must find No 68, he must; it was his mother’s home; he was brought up in it; it had so many memories etched in his mind. Then he saw it, practically alone and still erect; No 68, his dear old home, still defying the Allied bombers. He was happy.
He looked on both sides of him bringing familiar memories with each wayward glance; the beer house where he drunk late with his student friends; the cinema was supposed to be there; the little park where he and Jean met every other day. Jean…..he must know about her.  
He went up the few steps leading to his mother’s house and knocked hard, impatiently. His poor long-suffering heart was beating rapidly. The door opened and in between its frame, a stout elderly woman in a black shawl appeared …..his mother!
The woman stared at him. “Franz” she exclaimed emotionally. In an instant both mother and son were in each other’s arms. A mother holding her soldier son back from the war; a son embracing his suffering mother. She knew he was safe now and he will never leave her. She couldn’t believe that her son was not dead when so many young men of the German Army did not return to their own country. 
“Mama, where is Jeanny?” shot Franz as if she was all that mattered in the whole world. His eyes flashed. his face grew pale, he willed his mother to answer. 
His mother’s face grimaced; will she tell him the truth and see her son face yet another ordeal? Will she keep silent, as if she did not know? But he will know eventually and will have to swallow the pill of disappointment nevertheless. She will tell him, she will. “Franz, Jean‘s not here anymore, she’s run away, she will not return to us!”
For one little moment he could not think. Then he fell heavily on his knees and cried bitterly like a child. He loved Jean so much, so sincerely. He never dreamed that she could do that to him; she told him that she loved him; that she would never leave him; that she would wait patiently for his return from the war. But now she left him!
He run out and went for a walk around the blitzed city. The iron bench behind the cathedral, where he and Jean used to sit in the evening, was still there, overlooking the river that once used to be so busy with all kinds of boats. 
He sat there and reflected on the unfortunates of his love ……unfaithfulness of women …..Please God, please help me …….. He opened his buttoned shirt and tore away a silver locket, holding it in his hands and thinking deeply on his fate. His brown deep eyes spoke pity; He swung his hand and threw the vile object away. The still water stirred as the locket touched the surface, a number of concentric circles enveloped it into oblivion. 
With one last look at it, he stood up and went his way. His heart, like that of Cologne, was totally devastated. Like his beloved country, he will have to start from scratch.