This is my reading of Kafka’s short short story “The Next Village”, rewritten.
My grandfather used to say “life is astonishingly short. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village one day and never make it. Not in the span of his fairly normal, fairly happy lifespan.
“That amount of time fell far short of what he would have needed to complete that journey. He set out that morning, on his bicycle, with only one thing on his mind: getting bread from the bakery in the next village. Not exactly earth-shattering, but this was rural Niedersachsen. Everyone made their daily pilgrimage. Sure, we had a bakery in our village, too, but this one was different. You could smell Frau Berger’s Laugenbrezeln from the end of the street.
“So, there he was, making his way over there one Sunday morning – almost everything stopped on Sundays, but not bread. So there he was, nipping down the lane on his Dutch bicycle (the north German plains are very flat), and there’s a roadblock. We lived in the countryside, see, and in the grand scheme of things, the war barely touched us. No Red Army came marching in in 1945, spreading their liberating terror. There were no air raids. The closest we came to that was when an errant bomb landed on poor old Herr Schneider’s barn roof, blowing it to Kingdom Come, as they say. We feared there would be more, but there never were. As I said, the war barely touched us. We were far enough from the coast, and far enough from the East. Our closest neighbours were the Danes to the North and the Dutch to the West, neither known for their tenacity. But it did slowly drain our able-bodied men, local lads who went off to fight for their Führer and either never came back or were never the same again.
“So, there he was in front of the roadblock. A few troops jump out of a van idling by the roadside. Not Waffen SS mind, but the normal lot. The Wehrmacht. They weren’t going to send the big shots out recruiting. It didn’t take much to intimidate some country boys then, and it still doesn’t now. Rustle the bushes at the wrong time of night, and you’ll see what I mean.
“So they say to him “why aren’t you out fighting for the Vaterland, my boy?” Your Uncle Hans replied something along the lines of ‘essential war work’. Up until then, he’d been working in the fields, as country folk do. A nation needs bread and potatoes more than it needs Lebensraum.
“How old are you?”, they ask. He must have been around nineteen years old at the time. It was 1943. The Führer was getting desperate by then. Sixteen-year-olds were already driving tanks, with barely a shadow of peach fuzz on their lip.
“Hans got bundled into the van. They weren’t really asking him nicely. A few others left that day too, conscripted. It’s a polite word for press-ganged. Frau Becker’s son was among them. He never came back either, but for other reasons. He was only seventeen, shamed into fighting a losing war.
“Hans never came back. He never made it to the next village. No, no, he didn’t die either. He just never came back. Somehow, he made it to New York with all the rest. I guess he needed a fresh start, too. I wonder how it must have felt to share a boat, maybe even a cabin, with the Juden. He never mentioned it in his letters. I never believed they were the enemy, but you have no idea what an effect that Party had on the minds of young and old alike.
So, Hans had his Stunde Null. I stayed where I was born, and loved him from afar. He was only ever in the Wehrmacht. Hardly a war criminal. They were having a hard time sorting between soldiers and refugees at that point. So many had lost everything, including their papers. Others with blood on their hands had forged new ones.
“He met an American girl, learned a trade, married. I guess you could call it the American Dream. But he never made it to the next village.”