December 15, 1939, the Reichenau Peninsula, Germany.
It was cold, the waters of Lake Constance calm in the dark morning hours preceding the dawn. A boat pulled away from the southern shore of the peninsula. The hamlet, Mittelzell, stood a few hundred yards up the slope from the shore.
The boat was painted black. In the middle, on each side, was painted a large white swastika that any patrolling border guards could easily see. To the south lay Switzerland. The German border guards were not going to let any defectors escape.
On the bow of the boat, in small letters, was written “Karoline.” The stern of the boat was half-moon shaped, adorned by a mahogany wooden tiller. The exterior of the craft appeared to be a single piece of polished wood. The interior flooring and side benches were one continuous work of paneled, polished woodwork. A mahogany steering wheel rose from the center of the craft, complemented by brass rings at its center. The Karoline was unique to any other craft that traversed Germany’s largest lake.
Amalia Auguste Hecht shivered in the morning cold. Her uncle, Karl Hecht, guided the Karoline to a stopping point a few hundred meters from the north shore of the lake. He cut the ignition, dropped a small anchor, and handed a fishing pole to Amalia. “Act like you’re fishing.”
Amalia’s fishing line floated in the water. “I’m cold, Uncle.”
Karl Hecht reached into the forward hold of his boat. He placed a canvas parka on Amalia’s shoulders, and then sat staring at his niece, his grey eyes sad.
Amalia grasped one of his rough hands. “What’s wrong, Uncle? No secrets now.”
He shifted uneasily in his seat, took a labored breath.
“We must flee Germany, Amalia,” Karl said.
Amalia’s eyebrows rose. Her blue eyes searched his face. “We are Germany, Uncle. We’ve lived in Reichenau since the eighth century.”
When he didn’t respond, she pressed on. “You and I have just completed the work you and my father began a decade ago. We’ve created a solution for the diseases and insects that harm our plants. The Hecht formula will make you and Pa Pa famous. I will not leave my home.”
Karl Hecht winced, wiped morning mist from the stubble of his beard. “Amalia, there are sad matters I must tell you.”
Amalia gazed directly into Uncle Karl’s face. His creases were taut. Age will do that. Anguish doesn’t help. “Tell me. No secrets now.”
Karl Hecht grasped his niece’s other hand, moved closer. “I do not believe your father was killed in battle.”
Amalia shook her head. “But he was given the Iron Cross. It came home with his body.”
“Let me finish, Amalia. This is difficult enough without you arguing with me.”
Amalia withdrew her hands from his and stared at the cork floating in the water.
Karl reached into the hold of the Karoline, pulling out another waterproof pouch smaller than the last. “Your father kept a diary during his time in the Army. I will read parts of it. After today, the diary is yours.”
Amalia rested her arms on her knees, gazed at the leather-clad book. “Papa said that we would lose this war, that the mark of Cain would be upon us.”
“Time is short, Amalia. The sun will rise soon.”
Karl Hecht opened the diary and read Maximilian Hecht’s written words:
“September 3, 1939. It is late afternoon. The day is cool and clear. Tank number three has broken down again. The SS captain assigned to the brigade told me to abandon it, leave the crew with it to await repair. I refused, telling our watcher leaving the crew alone with a tank with no power would be certain death for the crew. A disabled tank is nothing more than a steel coffin. The SS captain says the battle plan requires us at Krakow by dusk to attack and shell the city at dawn. I responded we have encountered little resistance so far, did he know the nature of Krakow’s defenses? Our intelligence tells us the Poles are defenseless. He did not answer me, and stormed off to report me to General von Leuchtenberg. The SS despise the army. We return their kindness. The general, like us, is army. He will ignore the SS captain, but I may have made an enemy.
“Dusk is soon coming. My second in command, Lieutenant Zweibrucken, has tank number three on the move. All ten of my tanks lumber through fields like great beasts, crushing farmers’ crops under our treads. We will be at Krakow by late evening. ...It is dark when we arrive at our destination. The bulk of the brigade is already in position. General von Leuchtenberg arrives to inspect tank number three. I stand to attention, saluting ‘Heil Hitler.’ The general responds, ‘Maximilian, save that for Berlin. You were right in protecting tank three and its crew. We are all family here.’ I know during the course of the night the general will visit each tank commander. He is a credit to Germany.”
Amalia’s mind raced as she listened. Where was this going?
The rising sun caused the mist hovering on the lake to sparkle. Diamond showers, her Father would call them. The wind picked up, and the Karoline rocked slightly back and forth. Uncle cocked his head to listen for approaching engines. Hearing none he continued.
“I am writing as the sun comes up over the plain north of Krakow. The fog wisps away ,revealing grasses green, a shiny wet. What I see, I do not believe. We must be in some type of time warp. We have been transported back in time to the last century. Lined up to face us are men on horseback. The horses are spectacular. They are large greys, their flecks of white and darker grey mixed. I learned in academy, when studying plants and livestock, the Poles perfected a strain of Arabian horses that were the largest of the breed, a beautiful gray. Mounted on each horse is a rider bedecked in a royal blue tunic, with pants with black stripes and shoulders with amulets of gold. The riders have drawn sabers sparkling, erect. Others have rifles of the vintage Karl used when fighting Kaiser Wilhelm’s war in France. I see movement. Their black boots knee high, sparkling from recent polish, with pants tucked, urging their mounts forward. My ten tanks cover our right flank as we look to the south toward Krakow. To my left, two hundred yards, away I see the SS captain in argument with General Leuchtenberg. While I cannot hear, I see the general turn and speak to my fellow commanders who occupy the center of our armored mass brigade. Belching flames erupt out of the long cannon from tanks in the center. The rata tat tat of our automatic weapons fire destroys the serenity of the sun’s eruption. My ten tank commanders look to me for orders. I tell them to remain defensive. If we come under attack, we will return fire. I will not participate in this carnage.”
Amalia tugged at one of her uncle’s sleeves. “How could they, how could they?”
“Amalia, we must be quiet.” He turned a page of the diary. “Sound carries on the Bodensee.”
“As the thunder from our weapons’ cease, the scene continues. I hear the anguished squeals of the horses as they drown out the death sobs of their masters. The wounded greys are speckled blood red. The horses, in turn, share their blood with their riders, who now appear a macabre blue and gold streaked red. I order my commanders to maintain our tanks in position and stride into the midst of the carnage to see if any survived. I come upon a horse in the throes of an agonizing death. His rider lies to the side with no evidence of wound. He cannot move. His steed has fallen on him, breaking his back. He looks at me, searing pain apparent in his eyes. I kneel close to him. He rasps, ‘Shoot my horse, friend.’ What is his name, I ask. The rider, in a surge of pride, says, ‘Count Victory.’ He reaches out his hand, grasping mine, and repeats, ‘Shoot him, please. He has been mine since a foal.’ I pull my Luger from my holster, place it against the beautifully formed Arabian head. With one shot the noble animal lay still. ‘Thank you,’ rasps his rider. I must not stop with the horse. I turn and place my Luger to the rider’s temple, but find his eyes locked open in death’s stare, a smile fixed upon his face. Behind me I hear a voice say, ‘God bless you, Maximilian.’ It was General von Leuchtenberg. I turned. ‘My general, today we were the envoys of Satan.’”
Amalia shook her head in disbelief, then focused her gaze on her uncle. “You said Pa Pa was not killed in battle. How did he die?”
“Two reasons, Amalia.”
“What are they? Tell me, please.”
“The first is his last entry in his diary.” Turning to the last pages of Maximilian Hecht’s diary, Karl read:
“September 4, 1939. With the destruction of Krakow’s defenses being so swift, our armored brigade motored into the city by early afternoon. We were given one quadrant of the city to pacify. There was very little to do. I asked Lieutenant Zweibrucken to accompany me to inspect our quadrant. Our quadrant included the Jewish quarters of the city. We walked through the quarters, hearing cries from all around. The SS had preceded us into the Jewish sector. I cannot and I will not write what my countrymen did to the inhabitants of this quarter, especially to the women and children. I am disgusted with myself as a German and a Christian. I pray to God, unleash the archangels, let their swords cleanse the earth.
“There is one event I must write. I am now in fear for my life.
“As dusk came to Krakow, I heard cries of anguish. I went to investigate, saw my SS captain and another SS officer dragging an old man toward the synagogue. The fellow had a long flowing beard, was frail of build. His wife followed close behind, bleeding profusely from her nose. Her face had felt the jackboot I fear would trample more. The man was dressed in black. He was the Rabbi. I heard the SS captain exclaim, ‘We shall make example of you.’ I gazed, repulsed, as they dragged him toward the door. I ran to the door, ordering them to release him. The SS captain refused. I took my Luger out of my holster, placed it to the temple of the SS captain, commanding him to unhand the frail soul. He and his cohort did so, dropping the Rabbi onto the cobblestones, lacerating his head. Once the man was down, I ordered them to leave the square. They left, the SS captain glaring at me, saying, ‘Jew lover, you are no German, the Fuhrer will hear of this.’ As the old man lay on the ground, others came to carry him away. I turned to leave; he reached out to me, grasping my hand. His blood seeped onto my sleeve. I did not care, would it were mine. As his eyes looked into mine, I heard him utter a phrase I did not understand. I stood to leave. His wife approached me, halted, afraid to touch the uniform of the beast. As I write this night, I wonder how many more dark nights will fall upon us and my country before the last dawn delivers us from this nightmare.”
Excerpted from "The Crestfallen Rose" by Michael Martin. Copyright © 0 by Michael Martin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.