I wrote this for a competition where the theme was “fake news”; a subject relevant to today’s headlines, although its setting is far from contemporary. It didn’t win a prize, but the judge gave it a special commendation.
It was a baking hot day in high summer. The terraces outside Pflaummenwald’s village inn were packed with revellers. Heidi Gerber was in high spirits, but her lifelong friend, Elsa Schwartzmann, was another matter.
“Aren’t you worried at all, Heidi?” sighed Elsa. “We’re only just 40 years old and Germany’s at war for the second time in our lives! Don’t you ever fear for Lutz, Klaus or anyone else? There’s still everything to play for.”
Lutz Gerber was Heidi’s son, a 19-year-old private in Germany’s freshly victorious Sixth Army. Heidi had been quicker to settle than Elsa, whose son Hermann was only 12. But then, unlike Elsa’s late husband Dieter, Klaus Gerber (currently a reservist in the Volkstȕrm) had been eight years his wife’s senior.
“Elsa,” Heidi laughed, “The war’s as good as won! Poland’s beaten, Norway’s been taken and the French lasted less than two months! And just listen to the radio these days! London’s a wreck, the U-Boats are thrashing the Atlantic convoys… we can’t lose!”
“I just hope you’re right, Heidi,” Elsa replied coolly. She sipped her wine and sighed again.
The trouble was, no-one in Pflaummenwald shared Elsa’s scepticism these days. To them, she was a just a cranky old widow, bitter and lonely, her parents long dead and all her other relatives too far away to visit often. Some of them suggested she secretly hoped she’d say the wrong thing. After all, that could be fatal these days…
Pflaummenwald lay in the south-west of Baden-Wȕrttemburg, about half way between Freiburg (where Elsa worked on the production line in an electronics factory) and the Swiss border. Elsa was satisfied with her job, but the factory manager, Herr Gottleib, was stunned by a concern she raised with him one afternoon.
“We should be making more practical things, Sir!” she protested. “All our radio sets are for homes! We should be making radios for the Wehrmact, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine! They’re the ones who really need them!”
“Rubbish, Elsa!” Herr Gottleib retorted. “The Fȕhrer would order more radios for the troops if they were needed! Unless you think the Fȕhrer is an idiot?”
Elsa quickly shook her head. She knew better than to disagree with that.
All through 1940 and 1941, Elsa kept quiet and got on with her work, as endless triumphant rhetoric resounded throughout Germany. Crete was captured, the Balkans fell and Field Marshall Rommel held off Wavell’s forces in North Africa. Then, having flattened the Poles two years before, the Axis armies began moving East in earnest…
“Mutti,” Hermann asked one morning in the autumn, “What are Papa’s old skiing clothes doing by the door?”
“I’m giving them to the troops in Russia,” Elsa explained. “I don’t think our boys are equipped to fight through the winter.”
“I’m sure that not true, Mutti,” said Hermann, after a telling hesitation.
1942 arrived. Russia held and America entered the war. Elsa chuckled to herself on the day when, at the government’s insistence, Herr Gottleib retooled his factory to produce radios for the armed forces. He let all his workers have one of the surplus home sets as a gift.
As the year wore on, the residents of Pflaummenwald noticed Elsa become much happier, but also turn into the most ludicrous and insufferable gossip. She scoffed that carpet-bombing Malta had done nothing to damage the Allied campaign in North Africa. She joked that the U-Boat fleet was losing track of shipping convoys in the Atlantic. Heidi even stopped talking to her for a while, after she insisted that the troops’ cheerful Christmas message from Stalingrad was faked.
Elsa understood. It would be hard for Heidi to accept rumours that the Sixth Army was cut off and couldn’t break out. Lutz was over there with them.
But sure enough, early in 1943, the Axis troops at Stalingrad surrendered. Heidi came to Elsa’s doorstep that same night, ashen-faced, shoulders slumped, eyes red and hollow. Once seated in the lounge, she explained why.
“Klaus has shot himself. He’d heard today that Lutz has been taken prisoner by the Soviets. Elsa… I don’t think Lutz is ever coming home.”
All through the evening, Elsa tried to comfort Heidi. She listened to, and accepted, Heidi’s apologies. Finally, Heidi took Elsa by the shoulders and fixed her with a piercing gaze.
“On my son’s life, I will not repeat it to a soul,” she intoned, “But tell me where you get your information,”
The next day, Elsa drove Heidi south of Pflaummenwald, to a hillside that lay within sight of the Swiss border. She and Dieter had taken walks there while they were courting. Here, in a hollow at the base of an old dead chestnut tree, Elsa had stashed Herr Gottlieb’s complimentary radio set, wired to an old car battery. For months, she had come here to listen to Swiss radio news, then pass it on to others, claiming it was merely rumour.
Elsa knew how risky this was. The penalty for listening to foreign radio was 30 months in jail.
“But I couldn’t stand only ever hearing one side of the story,” she explained. “I preferred to risk prison than live free and ignorant.”
“Elsa,” Heidi smiled, “You’re braver than I’ll ever be.”
1943 wore on. Field Marshal Montgomery, newly in command of Allied troops in North Africa, decisively beat Rommel back. Russia began reclaiming lost territory. Mussolini’s Italy crumbled, dams were bombed on the Ruhr and even Germany’s vaunted U-Boat fleet was humbled. Throughout the year, Elsa and Heidi listened furtively high in the hills, wise to the facts while other Germans marched to a false tune of hope.
One October evening, Heidi gazed south to where Switzerland lay.
“We should flee, Elsa,” she said, “You, me and Hermann. The Allies will be at the gates any day now. We need to get out before that happens.”
“Wise words, Heidi,” Elsa smiled, “And isn’t it remarkable that you were the one to say them?”