Kharma According to Werner.
Gideon D. Asche
Back when I wore a stranger’s clothes, I was often in a position where I had to make decisions I had no business making. The rules were blurred, and life was cheap back then, and I won’t try to tell you I didn’t step across the line a time or three. I am sure that I will someday be required to answer for my actions, I can only hope, “Because I loved my country” is sufficient.
In the ‘80s, I was assigned to a multinational operation that included German, American, Canadian, and Israeli operators. I was a newly assigned Team Commander with an 8-person HUMINT team as my responsibility.
In about ’83, I found myself up against a problem that required an immediate solution, but no acceptable solution existed. Yet, I was still required by my position to choose which bad decision would be the easiest to clean up and was the least likely to compromise our operation.
I was struggling with it, the most obvious solution was also the most effective and permanent, but it wasn’t something I would want my children to hear about. It wasn’t a decision most people would understand or be OK with. As I said, the lines were blurred, and the rules were more of a set of suggestions.
Our Facility Commander was the only person besides myself who had the clearance to know what I was up against or discuss it, so I went to him. Werner was A BND officer and our Facility Commander. Technically, Werner held the rank of Oberst (Colonel in American terms) in the BND, Germany’s counterpart to the CIA or KGB. He was also an SS Paratrooper during the war and a secure grasp on the perils of combat command. Werner was my go-to guy when I was in a conundrum. He could always relate whatever issue we were discussing to some wartime experience and help me find an answer.
I shared my idea of a solution with Werner, and he agreed it was a sound solution and would effectively eliminate the issue. He also pointed out that it was one of those things I would never want to tell my mother about. It skirted the lines of morality and honor. He also agreed that it was pretty much the only solution sure to eliminate the problem albeit, with some collateral damage. Werner’s input was useless as far as helping me accept my own decision.
It was the 3rd week of Advent, that was my excuse for inviting Werner to my Apartment, so I could ambush him with my problem. Our business over, we sat and enjoyed a traditional German Advent Coffee. Before too long, Werner went into one of his unsolicited stories of the war. I learned to listen when the Old Soldier drifted into storyteller mode. I always heard something that somehow made me a better person.
He started out by telling me it was Advent in Ukraine winter of 44. Werner and his men barged into a farmhouse while the family was celebrating advent. The Germans were in retreat. The war was lost, and the NAZIs were employing a scorched earth tactic on their retreat. Werner was part of the rearguard as the Wehrmacht evacuated Ukraine.
The order was given to search every farm and village for military-aged, or sized men, then summarily execute them so they couldn’t join the ranks of the Soviet Troops hot on the Wehrmacht’s tail. Most of the men were in hiding or gone. Werner hadn’t been in a situation where they needed to kill an innocent non-combatant up until that Advent eve.
I knew Werner to be one of the best human beings I have ever met, and that Werner’s family helped hide local Jews from the Gestapo. Werner was conscripted into the Waffen SS because of his size and academic achievements, he had no choice. What he did have a choice about was what he did while he was in uniform, and that day he had a choice to do right or do wrong, to do something he could be proud of or hide from his own actions for the rest of his days.
Werner kicked the front door in and shouted, “HANDE HOCH,” then pushed the old woman at the door to the ground while two of his men charged into the room bearing down on the old women with their rifles. They could hear rifle shots from a nearby house, followed by the wail of women in mourning.
Werner’s men ransacked the house looking in every nook and cranny for the telltale signs of a man’s presence in the home. The search completed; the trio exited through the front door. Werner caught something odd out of the corner of his eye. Three of the old women were sitting on a couch like piece of furniture. Something didn’t look right, so Werner paused and, using the barrel of his Sturmgewehr, lifted the blanket to reveal a young man hiding under it as if he were part of the couch.
Werner saw pain in the eyes of one old woman and knew it was her grandson. An audible silence overcame the room broken only by another officer poking his head in, asking if Werner had any luck, then bragging he exterminated 2 of the vermin in the next house.
Werner dropped the blanket concealing the boy as the other soldier entered. He looked over his shoulder and shouted, “Hell no, these bitches don’t even have any jewelry worth keeping,” then kicked over a chair in an exaggerated ruckus as he left.
Werner told me the one bright moment he had in Ukraine was the look of gratitude those old ladies expressed when they realized he wasn’t going to take the boy. It made me proud to call Werner my friend… But that wasn’t the end of the story.
The Germans were facing heavy Soviet resistance as they tried to make their way back west, and Werner’s unit was overtaken by Soviet Cavalry. Running on foot, in deep snow, put the Germans in an “Every Man for Himself” situation, and that is exactly how they were acting. Werner was no different than anyone else – running for his life.
He came upon another German soldier, a man he knew. He was wounded in both legs and had been left behind. That wasn’t Werner’s way. He did his best to carry the wounded man to safety, but the Soviets were just too close.
As a last resort, Werner tried to bury both he and the wounded man in a tree-well. He climbed in and pulled snow in on top of the two then waited for the inevitable.
The sound of horse-hoofs and gear clinking told Werner the end was very near. Even without looking, he knew the Russian soldier had found them and was about to dispatch both of them to their God.
He looked up to see a lone soldier sitting horseback, facing Werner and looking directly at him. They made eye contact. Werner made peace with his God. Then a shout came from somewhere to the left, “find anything?”
The soldier responded – “just a dead one,” then raised his rifle and fired into the tree above Werner’s head. The boy turned his mount and rode away. Werner realized he knew the soldier’s eyes, he had seen them once before – hiding scared under a blanket.
Werner ended his story with, “Gideon! – WE DO NOT KILL THE INNOCENT! It is the only thing that separates us from them.”
I hope he was right about there being a separation between them and us.
Cover image – The Scout in Winter, Crow, 1908, Edward S. Curtis