"One Cold Night and a Rosary"
"This is the last time Iíll ask you to help me clean the attic," my wife
said. "Everything we come upon, you say, ĎDonít throw this away, or
donít throw that away.í Please tell me what we are even up here for."
But I scarcely heard her words as I looked at the old, broken, brown,
wooden, beaded rosary in her hand. For thirteen years, I had thought I
had lost it. I had almost forgotten it and the incident that brought it
into my possession. Yet, there it was, and with it the memory of the one
cold night and a rosary.
It was while I was a Prisoner of War in Germany that it happened. A
group of twenty-five Americans were picked out to leave the camp which
was called Stalag 4B. We were to go north to the small town of
Sandersdorf to work in the coal mines. I was one of the twenty-five to
leave, and the only Catholic in the group.
Upon arriving at our destination, we were quartered in a small building
with a double row of high wire fence around it, between which one guard
patrolled at night only. There were three guards and one Commandant in
charge of our group at night and on Sundayís. During the day, while at
the mine, we had a different group of guards. At night our guards would
take four hour shifts. Four hours on, eight hours off.
As you know, or have heard, the Naziís had no love for the Catholics.
Our Commandant, who must have been indoctrinated by Hitler himself, had
a very special dislike for them. Upon discovering I was a Catholic, he
always managed to find extra things for me to do, and would laugh and
joke and fold his hands, as if in prayer, whenever ridiculing me. I
tried to retaliate by making the sign of the cross whenever he looked at
me. I stopped this, though, when I found out he thought I was doing it
because I was afraid of him.
One Sunday, when the Commandant was supposed to have been gone, one of
the guards, whose name was Herr Engle, called me into his room. Upon
entering, I noticed a woman sitting at a small table. She smiled as the
guard shut the door, motioning me to be quiet and, at the same time, she
handed me a small sugar bowl full of strawberry sauce. Thinking the
world had come to an end, I hurriedly ate them. I donít think anything
tasted as good to me as they did right then.
Then, to my astonishment, she pulled out a rosary and pointed to herself
and the guard and said, "Catholic." I looked at the guard and he nodded
and was all smiles. Just then, the door opened and there stood the
Commandant. Everyone froze. He walked over to the woman and snatched the
rosary out of her hand and started spilling out German a mile a minute.
From the look on the womanís face, I thought she was going to faint
right there. Before either of them could say a word, I stepped over to
the Commandant and grabbed the rosary from his hand, and told him it was
mine. I also told him the guard had no right to take it from me, and
that he should tell the guard that he should leave my stuff alone. He
turned and asked the guard in German if he had taken it from me. The
guard immediately answered, "Yes." They exchanged a few more words, and
then the Commandant ordered me back to the main room.
I found out that night that I was to be punished. Not for having the
rosary, but for being out of the main room when I shouldnít have been.
For my punishment, I was to patrol inside the fence, along with the
guard, with nothing on but my shorts, and the burlap strips on my feet.
It was the last part of March and very cold. I didnít think I would be
able to take it. When the time did come, I stripped and started for the
door with one of the guards when the Commandant called to me. I stopped
and he bent over and took the rosary from my pocket and tossed it to me
and said, "If you pray hard enough, it may keep you warm." I walked,
stamped my feet, slapped myself all over, and even cried. AND I DID SAY
THE ROSARY, OVER, OVER, AND OVER.
When the guards four hours were up, the next guard that came to relieve
him was Herr Engle. The minute he saw the light go out in the other
guardís room, he stripped off his overcoat and handed it to me. He
turned around and let out a low whistle, and Frau Engle came from behind
a building and up to the fence with a big kettle of hot soup. Herr Engle
passed it over to me. Whether any of it was meant for him, I donít know,
but I ate it all myself. They both whispered to me in German, and from
as much of it as I could understand, they were thanking me for what I
did that morning. I went to give her back her rosary, and she shook her
head and folded the rosary into the palm of my hand. She then made the
sign of the cross and disappeared into the darkness. After Herr Engleís
stint was up, I had one more to go. But, surprisingly enough, it didnít
seem too cold.
There was a rosary said on those beads every day thereafter. It was just
thirty days after this incident that we were liberated by the 69th
Division. I was on the boat home when the rosary broke. I put it away in
my duffel bag, and didnít find it again until thirteen years later while
cleaning out the attic. I had it repaired, and am now using it
again. Each time I use it, I wonder about Herr Engle and his wife, and
how they are, for, Sandersdorf was in the Communist zone.
Robert M. Fecht
112 West Second Street
Rock Falls, Illinois