Eric Grunwald

Writer, Reviewer, & Translator

"Tomo"

(Published in Prick of the Spindle, Fall 2012, Print)

March 24, 1987
~35,000 feet
I close my eyes and can feel myself in the Messerschmitt’s cockpit, moonlight reflecting off the tips of my wings, whitecaps visible along the jagged Scottish coast below. Three hundred and fifty miles to the south, German fire rains down on London, but here it is deceptively serene. I am a man of destiny, at the crux of past and future. History lies on my shoulders, and I undertake this singular mission not for myself but for my country and my Führer. My actions may determine the course of history for the next thousand years.

Or such must have been his thoughts. But is my own “mission” not similar? I, too, travel by plane, if a passenger jet rather than a fighter. I, too, am bound for the U.K., although from the other direction (both literally and politically) and although I do go on to Berlin (also now politically reversed). I, too, despite the passengers around me, go alone and secretly. But a man of destiny? Just possibly. This journey is my destiny, that seems certain. As for history, we shall see. I bought this journal in SeaTac Airport to record my thoughts and observations about the prisoner and his history—and nothing whatsoever about P.—and I hereby christen it over the carpet of purple clouds that seem to stretch out endlessly in the sunset beneath my DC-10.

First, the basics:
- Hess (Heß), Rudolf Walter Richard, sole surviving prisoner in Spandau Prison, Berlin;
- b. 26 April 1894, Alexandria, Egypt, to wealthy, patriarchal, puritanical German merchant;
- Schooled in Germany, shines in math and physics, wants to be physicist or engineer, father won’t allow; studies business;
- University interrupted by WWI; serves in army and meets Hitler; shot through chest (!);
- Joins Nazi party after war, helps in Beer Hall Putsch; in jail, assists in writing Mein Kampf;
- Becomes head of Party, Hitler’s confidante, Deputy to the Führer; only one to use informal “Du” with him; coins phrase “Heil Hitler”;
- On the night of May 10, 1941, unbeknownst to Hitler, commandeers a Messerschmitt Bf 110 and flies to Scotland, alone, without enough fuel to return, to try to make peace with the British so Hitler can turn on Russia with his back covered—or, as Hess claimed later, to spare thousands of German and British lives;
- Churchill rejects offer, Hess a POW for rest of war; at Nürnberg, after feigning—or not—amnesia, sentenced to life in prison, while most hang;
- Prisoner No. 7 in Spandau since 1947; Nos. 1-6 (Speer, von Neurath, Dönitz, et. al.) released or dead by ’66; Hess alone there 20 years.
- 92. Could die anytime!

Questions to ask:
- Did Hitler truly not know of the mission?
- What was Churchill like in person?
- Did you really have amnesia at Nürnberg?
- Why do you remain a Nazi after all this time, after all that you and your people did? Do you feel that history or God have forsaken you?
- Why did you really make the flight?
- Are you Rudolf Hess?

March 25, 1987
My first day in Berlin has been an eventful, if frustrating, one. Haven’t slept since Spokane, not even on flight, but not tired. After checking in to hotel went straight to Spandau by cab. Standing before the wall of red stone, so old now it’s the color of dried blood, I could hardly believe that just two days ago I was teaching in modern America. Not to mention our game three years ago against FC Spandau, half a mile from the Prison (P. making the game-saving slide tackle). I took a deep breath of the cool air to clear my sudden dizziness and nausea and saw above me a guard tower on the corner of the prison from which a khaki-uniformed soldier was staring down on me. I moved toward the front gate, some 50 yards to the north, thinking that somewhere on the other side of this wall, perhaps within feet of me, sat or walked or slept Rudolf Hess, who half a century earlier had stood at Adolph Hitler’s very side. Dizzying again.

It’s actually three gates in one. The outermost comprises a white booth and red-and-white-striped toll bar. On either side are huge metal doors that can be slid back to let wider vehicles pass. Fifteen yards in is an iron-bar gate at least 20 feet high at its center, framed by two immense stone pillars, next to each of which is a guard tower, light blue, each with a single guard. Beyond that is a courtyard some 30 yards deep, ending at a stone wall and two green wooden doors some 30 feet high, braced with ornate iron bands. Again, guards on either side of the doors, rifles barrel-up alongside their legs.

At the outer booth, a little white square box, I stood looking at the guard sitting on a stool inside, reading. He glanced up, gave me a once-over, and went back to his book. The cover was in Cyrillic; on his lapel, a small red pin bearing a golden hammer and sickle. When I saw he wasn’t going to stand, I said, “Entschuldigung.”

“Ja?” he said, desultorily turning a page and not looking up.

“Ja, guten Tag,” I said, and in my best German, asked how I might get in to see Hess.

“What?” he said. I repeated the question.

He shook his head. “Don’t understand.”

Had my German fallen that far? It was never fluent, and everyone at the airport, in the taxis, even here at the hotel had spoken English to me when they’d realized I wasn’t German. But I think he did understand, because even then I thought I saw the hint of a smile on his lips. I repeated my wish, or thought I did, and he said (I thought), “You have a prison?” He spoke fast with a thick Russian accent.

“What?” I said, and we went back and forth for a minute like some Abbott and Costello routine until I realized I’d confused the word Geheimnis (secret) with Gefängnis (prison). I chuckled and corrected myself, but he acted (I’m now sure) like he still didn’t get it, so I asked, “When are the Americans coming?”, meaning when would they take control of the prison again.

“Americans are coming?” he said, raising his eyebrows.

“The American soldiers.”

“American soldiers are coming?!” he exclaimed, sitting up and feigning alarm.

You know what I mean, you fucker. “Do you speak English?”

“No, do you speak Russian?” he smirked.

Unable to take any more, I blurted, in English, “Of course not, you asshole!”

Now he stood, resting his hand on the grip of the pistol holstered in his wide black belt, and I understood his next question quite clearly: “Are you crazy?”

“No.” And you know it. I withdrew across the street and leaned against a tree. He sat down and, with another smug smile at me, resumed reading.

So I must reassess my strategy. Probably have to write a formal letter of request anyway, but can’t do it until control of prison rotates to the Amis or Brits, which should be next month if Bird book still correct (12 years old). If the Frogs take over I’m screwed. Have to find a Wohnung, anyway—can’t afford to stay in a hotel too long. Erst must get to library and find more Bücher on Hess so as to plan my interview thoroughly. (Mein Deutsch bubbling up on its own!)

March 26, 1987
Douglas-Hamilton (Motive for a Mission) calls Hess in his twenties “a fanatical young man in search of a father-substitute and a cause.” Who isn’t, at that age? All the biographies claim Hess found the first in Karl Haushofer. Perfect: professor, former general, militaristic, opinionated, with strange, mystical ideas about restoring Germany’s greatness after World War I and gaining Lebensraum—“room to live.” Hess found the cause, says D-H, in Hitler. But were the two really so separate? Haushofer also gave him a cause, and was Adolph not like a father, too? Domineering, militaristic. Both took Hess under their wings, Haushofer calling him “my favorite pupil.” Of course he also thought Hess’s “heart and idealism greater than his intellect.”

It must have been exciting, though. Heady. Like the U.S. of the 1960s. In jail, the country in chaos, the economy in shambles, the government corrupt, Nazism an outlet for his anger, a cause to get behind and fight for—literally, in the streets and beer halls. A dream of the greatest empire in history, one that would last a thousand years. Can anyone really blame him for, if nothing else, wanting to escape the monotony and banality of everyday life? And then to go in a matter of years from obscure thugs to the leaders of a nation, even if they were racist mass murderers. But the sheer power. And I thought the adulation of my players was exciting.

Worth the price, though? To spend the rest of one’s days alone in a cell, hated by the majority of mankind (and fighting the suspicion they’re right), forsaken even by your idol and closest friend? But how could he have done anything else? Character—which I interpret in the broad sense, as personality—is destiny. Not to mention forces greater than himself. Ask him!

Had my own dream last night in which I was the one in Spandau.

March 28, 1987
No luck on apartment. I’ve discovered there’s a housing crisis here—few spots, exorbitant rents. I was hoping that with the good exchange rate and a low rent I could make savings last three or four months if need be, but . . .

Also been looking in secondhand shops for a typewriter. I finally found one: manual, metal, heavy as iron (I think it is, actually), and looking old enough to have been used for Mein Kampf. The z and y keys are juxtaposed and there are keys for the ä, ö, ü, and ß. Brought it home and set about writing practice letters. Want to include details that will get me in but avoid setting off alarm bells about neo-Nazis, etc.

March 29, 1987
Finished rereading The Murder of Rudolf Hess, Hugh Thomas’s book claiming that the man in Spandau isn’t really Hess. Sounds crazy and impossible, but evidence is compelling. A British Army doctor, Thomas was assigned to the British Military Hospital in Berlin in ’73 and examined Hess there. He’d seen many a bullet wound while stationed in Belfast, and Hess’s World War I records said he’d been shot through the chest in the War. Naturally should have been scars both front and back, inside and out, but Thomas found none. Later examined X-rays—nothing.

At a second exam a few months later, after they’d given Hess barium and were waiting for it to reach his intestines for another X-ray, Thomas said to him, “What happened to your war wounds? Not even skin-deep?” Hess’s face changed instantly from “sunny and cheerful” to chalk-white and he began to shake. “For an instant he stared at me in what appeared to be bewilderment or utter disbelief. Then he looked down and avoided my eyes.” Hess then muttered, “Zu spät, zu spät,” stood, and hurried toward the changing cubicle, leaving a trail of barium and diarrhea behind him. “Too late” to tell them he’s not Hess?

continued...

(To read the entire story, please order back issue from Prick of the Spindle, Fall 2012, print.)

Selected Works

Fiction
Published short story
Published short story
Translations
Translation of Viennese author's short story "Wahrzeichen"
Translation, from German, of Hermann Hesse’s short story “Der Dichter.”
Reviews
Review of Orfeo, by Richard Powers (from artsfuse.org)
Review of Margot Livesey's latest novel.
Globe Review of Dr. Olaf van Schuler's Brain by Kirsten Menger-Anderson
Leonardo Sciascia's The Day of the Owl and Equal Danger (from Boston Globe)
Videos
Prose poem/Performance piece