A GIFT FOR BIG NIG
FRED K. JASPERSON
FRANZ MULLER, called Big Nig by the Canadian and other Allied prisoners because he was huge and swarthy, was a civilian attached to the German army. He was in charge of a group of huts in a prisoner-of-war camp in Bavaria in the winter of 1943-44.
On the night of Dec. 20, Big Nig, accompanied by a guard, walked across the central square of the offlag to one of the huts to see if all the prisoners were in bed and accounted for.
He was hungry and bis feet were tired and aching. He had been on them steadily for eight hours. He carried a flashlight. The night was dark and still. The only sounds were his own footsteps and those of the guard and a German soldier coughing from one of the high sentry towers that overlooked the camp.
A searchlight flashed on, swept the wire and went out with the dark closing in again like a wall.
As his huge hulking frame moved along in the night, disturbing thoughts turned in Big Nig’s mind. The prisoners had been very difficult to handle lately. Somehow their mood hung like an ominous shadow over the Christmas leave which the Kommandant had promised him. It was to be the first leave since the war began which would take him home to his farm in the Tirol, to Greta, his pretty wife, and to Freída and Eva, his two little girls.
He admitted, though, that the prisoners had reason to be difficult. The Kommandant had been unreasonably severe lately. Five prisoners had escaped, and, because the Kommandant hadn’t yet found out how they had done ifhe had instituted roll calls and checking of huts on alternate nights. The prisoners hated being wakened with a flashlight in their faces and they hated being turned out of bed to be counted. And on tbe night parades they invariably delayed the count for endless minutes, refusing to go on parade until threatened.
And even after they were on parade they managed somehow to mix up the count so that always there were more men on parade than there were prisoners in the camp. Even the Germans didn’t like the night parades and bed checks because they meant double duly.
The Kommandant had ordered Big Nig to stand for no more nonsense, to use the bayonet. But this Big Nig could not do because there was no hate in his soul for the prisoners. It was from British holiday skiers in the Tirol that he had learned the English that had given him his job as interpreter. The British at war, though, were different from the British who skied. Even their language was
different now. The English he had learned in the Tirol might as well be a foreign language compared to the English he heard in the camp.
He had tried desperately to find out the meaning of these new strange words but no dictionary contained them. So he had tried to make the prisoners think that he knew the meaning of these words, that he understood all that they said and did.
He thought of Greta, the eager kisses of his little girls, tall schapers of beer, his upland farm with its deep-green fringe of pine, the snow-heavy branches and the warmth of his fine feather bed with Greta cosily beside him. It was as if he were already on leave and that tomorrow morning would be Christmas.
Stooping slightly he now stepped into the hut and turned on his flashlight. All was silent. The guard stamped his feet and Big Nig turned and told him to be quiet. The guard replied with a sneer.
Inside the room, while the guard waited outside in the corridor, Big Nig turned the beam of his flashlight on the sleeping forms in the double-decker beds and began to count. “Ein, zwei, drei, vier, fünf . . .” The beam of the light moved slowly around the room. Some of the forms stirred and then suddenly there was a voice.
“Get out of here, you big black—”
The voice was gruff, but the word he knew to be a friendly one. Time after time he had heard the prisoners use it when talking to one another. But because the guard was near and might report him for being too friendly with the prisoners he knew he must say something.
“Chentlemen,” he said, “you must not be so friendly.”
With that the whole room was suddenly awake and laughing. Why this mild rebuke should cause such merriment was beyond his comprehension. He was glad it was dark because he felt his face growing red.
Franz wanted POW’s to like him, but mostly he wanted to go home for Christmas. Read how both dreams came true
“Get out of here, I said.” This time the voice was really angry and commanding. Then a boot whizzed through the air, missed his head by inches and smacked against the wall where it dropped. Panic seized Big Nig. Such acts he knew he could not permit. The guard came into the room.
If only the guard hadn’t been with him. But the guard who already held him in contempt for being soft with the prisoners would undoubtedly report the incident and Big Nig had to protect himself.
Big Nig wrote down the name of a prisoner.
THE NEXT morning at eleven the prisoner was marched before the Kommandant. The charge was read and the prisoner pleaded indignantly that he was not guilty.
Trying to appear very soldierly and severe, Big Nig gave his evidence, but there was little in it to link the accused with the act charged and this the Kommandant was quick to sense. Sitting behind his desk, with jowls bulging out over his stiff collar, the Kommandant turned his cold blue eyes full on Big Nig.
“You haven’t said yet, so riderfeuhrer, that this is the officer who threw the boot. Is he?”
Big Nig knew that all he had to say was, “Yes,” and the matter would be ended.
“It was dark, Herr Kommandant,” answered Big Nig. “I couldn’t see, but I went to the bed where the boot came from.” The Kommandant leaned forward glaring. Big Nig went on. “I used my flashlight. I counted the boots and I saw that one boot was missing from one of the pairs beside this officer s bed. I took the name of the owner of the boot and it was that of the accused.”
He stopped talking, shifting his weight from one foot to the other to ease the throbbing ache.
The fair-haired prisoner, who had listened insolently defiant, spoke. “I didn’t throw the boot. He knows I didn’t. How could I? I was sleeping in
the upper bunk. How could I reach down all that way and grab a boot?”
One thing about which the Kommandant was militarily exact was the completeness of proof against an accused whether he was German or Allied and he knew that the evidence against f ins prisoner was weak. Nor could the guard bolster it any because he had been in the corridor when the incident occurred.
His face purpling with anger the Kommandant asked again: “Is this the officer who threw the boot?”
Big Nig felt perspiration on his forehead. “It was dark, Herr Kommandant—” he began all over again.
“But you had a flashlight, didn’t you?” snapped Herr Kommandant. “Do you identify this officer as the one or do you not?”
There was a pause and then Big Nig answered. “I cannot make it any clearer, Herr Kommandant.''
Silence filled the room. The Kommandant.’s nostrils flared and the buttons on his jacket grew taut against his swelling stomach. The guard’s lip curled contemptuously at Big Nig. The prisoner smiled.
“Case dismissed,” snapped Herr Kommandant.
Big Nig was relieved, as if something heavy had flown straighl out of his chest. The Kommandant’s decision was right. Nig knew if. was right because the officer who had really thrown the boot had not been charged.
The prisoner and escort marched out of ihe room, followed by ihe guard, leaving Herr Kommandant and Big Nig alone.
Nig knew a storm would break and he hadn’t long to wait. In seconds the Kommandant was roaring out his views on the stupidity, inefficiency and incompetence of one sonder feuhrer Franz Muller.
“In all my twenty years as a soldier,” said the Kommandant., drawing in his stomach and thrusting out his jaw. “I’ve never seen a less efficient soldier. The prisoners are making a pig’s fool of you.”
In conclusion he issued his ultimatum. “Tomorrow you will take the parade. And if you do not send the guards in with the bayonet to get the prisoners out promptly-—your Christmas leave will be cancelled.”
The Kommandant paused, then added, “And instead of Ihe morning off
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A Gift for Big Nig
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you will remain on duty. You will escort two British officers whom the doctor has ordered to be X-rayed to the hospital. After that you will be free until midnight.”
Big Nig heiled Hitler, bowed stiffly from the waist and limped from the room. He walked to the censor’s hut, picked up a basket of letters, took them to a room and closed the door.
O LUMPING into a chair he stared O at the letters. Letters—to Canada, Australia, South Africa, England, Scotland ... Why had he tried so hard to be decent to the prisoners? Why liad he deliberately charged the wrong prisoner with throwing the boot? After ail, the only thanks he had' got was a smug, superior smile from the prisoner and liis Christmas leave was in danger. He clenched his great fists and shuddered to think that anger might possess him.
But anger did not possess him. He went back over the incident of the previous night, trying desperately to understand why thè prisoners had laughed at him.. Always they laughed at him. If only he could understand this laughter. One evening during an air raid he had gone through their huts to make sure that all the black-outs were up. When he had explained that the black-outs must be up because there was an air raid on, all they did was cheer and tell him to pull them down. The prospect of bombs dropping in the camp did not seem to him an occasion for merriment.
Again, when the Kommandant had said they must have slit trenches for protection, they had laughed. Laughter, always laughter—when the bugler sounded a sour note, when the Germans ordered a search, when a guard slipped on a piece of ice. Whenever he tried to be soldierly and correct, meaning only to do his job, they laughed.
And this morning he knew they’d be laughing at him over their brews of tea, saying how stupidly he had bungled the case against the officer who had thrown the boot, when all he had meant was to be decent and friendly.
And now his Christmas leave was at stake. He thought of Greta, the little girls, the gaily decorated tree that would be standing by the fireplace, the snow tufted pine beyond the windows. Pie clutched his fists again and shuddered. Then all feeling seemed to drain from him like water from a broken cup, leaving only an empty ache against the war and hunger. He drew a dry hard bun from his pocket and munched it slowly.
Tired and cold he looked at his watch. He yanked his cap down over his tough black hair and left the room. Perhaps if he could just see the prisoners as they were alone he might find a clue to their scorn for him.
He walked to the hut where the incident of the boot had occurred and he stopped at a window and looked in. One of the prisoners had fashioned a rough Christmas wreath. The others sat around their small stove drinking their morning tea. One of them laughed; the others joined in.
Big Nig walked wearily to the gate of the camp to meet the two British officers he was to take to the doctor’s.
He was pleasantly surprised to find the two officers immaculately dressed, a thing they rarely did for the Germans. Their shoes shone, their buttons shone. Their greatcoats and khaki anklets were spotless. The little jaunty black and red forage caps with gleaming cap badges sat rakishly on their heads. Big Nig felt he had been complimented. '
They saluted smartly as he came up. This, too, was a compliment, because the prisoners rarely saluted anything so low in rank as a so n d er feu hr er.
Nig returned the salute and said, “Guten Morgen.”
“Guten Morgen, sonderfeuhrer.”
They left the camp, Big Nig making certain to keep to the road because prisoners were not permitted to use the sidewalks and he knew one of the Kommandant's spieswould be watching. They passed two senior German officers on their way to the camp. Big Nig saluted, nervously hoping the British would too. If they didn’t, he knew there would be a tirade then and there. But they saluted.
When they had passed out of sound and sight of the Germans Big Nig said gratefully, “You are making things easy for me, this morning, chentlemen.”
The British didn’t answer but glanced curiously at each other.
“Bad things have happened,” said Nig. “I am in trouble. I might lose my Christmas leave.”
The British said they were sorry.
“Please, chentlemen,” said Nig, “not so fast, let us walk. With my feet I haf trouble.”
But aside from his tired feet he wanted the walk to last because they were alone, now, where no one could eavesdrop, where the sun was shining and the sky was blue, where he could for a moment enjoy this comradeship. It was a balm to his aching and troubled soul.
The British slowed down.
“Dank you,” said Nig.
The British whispered something to each other which he didn’t understand. He noticed one nod and shove his hand in his pocket.
The next instant Nig was asking them if they were married, if they had children, telling them a bit about his upland farm in the Tirol. It all seemed so strange, the war, the camp, the night parades, bed checks. A thousand confusing questions seemed crowding to be released from his mind. He wanted to tell them about the orderly room case that morning, to say that all he had ever meant to do in the camp was his job. But somehow the right English words wouldn’t come.
He did, however, ask them why they took so long to get out on night parades whenever he was in charge. “Herr Kommandant," he said, “to me has ordered, you must use the bayonet, but this I cannot, not even for Herr Kommandant." He went on awkwardly, trying to say he could not understand why so many things happened, always to him, when so many'British used to come to his place in the Tirol to ski. Finally he said, “I am no good—I am no good.” There was silence.
The British whispered again and this time he heard what they said. “The poor—”
His blood congealed. It was the word that had got him into all his trouble and they were using it again. They were making fun of him. Hot little waves swept up his back and neck.
One of the British, the one whose hand was in his pocket, now brought it out and it was a chocolate bar and a packet of cigarettes. He offered it to Nig.
Nig now saw clearly what they were up to. They were trying to get him to accept chocolate and cigarettes. The penalty for accepting gifts from prisoners was very severe. They meant to involve him further. If he were caught he would not only be certain to lose his leave but he’d be demoted as well.
Angrily he refused the offered gift.
Astonished, the British officer shoved the chocolate and cigarettes back into his pocket.
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Again Nig heard whispered words. “What’s come over the stupid oaf?” Clenching his fists, Nig quickened the pace. He talked no more. He struggled now against the anger rising in him, the anger he did not want to come. But what escape was there from it? He had been a fool. A big, softhearted trusting fool. He had wanted only to be charitable and his charity had been flung back in his face.
Suddenly, opposite the cathedral, it was as if God were looking at him, pointing an accusing finger. He hadn’t been at Mass for days. In this, too, he had been weak because his only reason for not going was that the Kommandant didn’t like Roman Catholics and he hadn’t wanted the Kommandant to know that he was a Catholic.
Penitence now came surging into his body, for he knew that in the quiet sanctuary of the cathedral he could have found comfort. There he could have unburdened himself and become refreshed, once more at peace with himself. Yes, he had been a poor, faithless wretch, with God all but begging him to come. This very day he would go.
“Chentlemen,” he said, humbly, “I did not angry mean to be.”
And he felt better. He had purged his anger.
NOT until late that afternoon, with the cold red December sun dropping below the pine-crested hills of the valley, was Big Nig able to leave the Kommandantur. He started downtown again, to the cathedral.
Inside the cathedral he dipped his fingers lightly into the holy water, impressed the cross slowly on forehead, lips and heart, then walked up the nave. Gothic columns rose above him and were lost in the dusk. Just before the transept he stopped, genuflected and sat down.
His eyes drooped and suddenly he was asleep, his big chest rising and falling.
How long he had slept, he didn’t know, but he was awake now with a horrible oath on his lips, his whole body tense, convulsed. Never had such anger gripped him. At the moment of waking he was slashing at Allied soldiers, hundreds of them.
They were commandos, the terror of the French coast. They had come in from the grey ocean wastes, moving swiftly over hills and rivers with nothing to impede their speed. From his upland farm he had seen them coming, their gleaming knives, their black bestial eyes alight with murder. They had moved through trees and walls as if the trees and walls were no more than fog. And then they were in his home, slashing the tinsel from the Christmas tree. Eva and Freída had run screaming from the house while Greta had clung trembling to his shoulder. Just as commando knives had flashed out he had grabbed an old Bavarian sword from the wall and had set upon them with fury. He was awake, drenched with perspiration and shaking.
That this dream should have come to him in the church was incredible. And yet, it must have come to him sanctified. It must have meaning. Yes, it was God’s voice to him. He had been weak. All these months he had been weak, before the Kommandant, and the prisoners and, much worse, before God. And this dream was the warning; if he were to be home with Greta for Christmas he must be resolute with the prisoners. Yes, tonight he would order the guards to use the bayonet.
There was no need for prayer, now. Resolutely he strode from the church. Fur Gott, den Staat und das Haus, with
the sequence of loyalties no longer in doubt.
Back in the officers’ mess his fellow officers sensed his new determination.
“What is up, Franz?” they asked.
“1 am through with nonsense,” he answered.
“What’s brought all this about?”
“You will see tonight how I will deal with the prisoners.”
“So! Herr Kommandant,” they said knowingly and began to gibe him about the orderly room case.
But Big Nig would not joke. Darkly silent, he ate his supper.
Midnight came. At one o’clock he was striding briskly out to the guard. Already the bugler was inside the camp, blowing for parade. The high notes echoed eerily up the still valley.
To the guards standing rigid as stone Big Nig said, “This time you will use the bayonet. If they do not turn out promptly, on one blast of the whistle from me, you will turn them out with the bayonet.”
Heels clicked and the detail marched off, their bayonets bright against the dark night.
The procedure was to count the prisoners by huts in sequence, for the senior allied officer of each hut to report to the German officer on arrival and then to turn the hut out on parade. Not once had a senior allied officer ever been ready and waiting for him.
He walked to the far end of the camp where he always started the count and was dumfounded to find an officer dressed and waiting. Salutes were exchanged.
Military and gruff Big Nig said, “You will parade at once, at once, Herr Captain.”
Almost instantly the prisoners were streaming out of the hut, quietly, with no muttering, lining up in fives. In less than four minutes the count was complete and correct.
“You may now dismiss,” said Big
He moved on to the next hut and the next, and at each it was the same. Promptly they turned out, were counted and went back to their beds. The feeling of defeat, frustration grew. The very smoothness, the military correctness of it all seemed but a further contempt, making his determination ridiculously unnecessary.
He knew it was not respect for him or discipline that made them act this way. It was something ominous meant to disarm him. Angrily he strode to the last remaining huts. Perhaps there would still be trouble. Perhaps he would still be able to use the bayonets, for reasons quite different from those he had expected.
But no incidents developed. In less than half an hour the whole count was completed and the number correct. Outside the camp, now, he dismissed the guard and he saw a flicker of amusement in their faces.
The duty officer received his report with amazement.
“Finished! Already?” he exclaimed.
“Ja.” Big Nig glared and strode on to his office.
HE SAT for minutes trying to figure it out. What had been their purpose? What were they planning? Then the thought suddenly came to him in panic. Escape! They had wanted to lull him into a feeling of security so they could pull an escape. Perhaps they had already breached the wire. He rushed out to the guard room, collected a patrol and went back into the camp.
All night he prowled around examining the wire, standing outside the huts, listening, but the camp slept peacefully.
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As dawn broke he finally went back to the Kommandantur, tired, defeated, but nevertheless relieved. He had got through the night without incident. And he knew the Kommandant would be pleased. After supervising the issue of the Red Cross Christmas food to prisoners which started at nine he would be finished and the Kommandant would give him his Christmas leave. He dozed for a while then went into the officers’ mess for breakfast.
Everyone congratulated him on the night parade. No one had ever run a night count so smoothly and none of them were laughing at him now. For the first time he felt important, an equal among them.
“How’d you do it, Franz?” they asked.
“Ach,” he said, dismissing his achievement as quite simple. “The prisoners are easy to handle if they know you mean business.”
Then they spoke about his leave, saying he was a lucky devil to be going home for Christmas. But they didn’t envy him his last job of seeing all the Red Cross food being opened. It made the mouth water too much.
“When all we get is potatoes and sausage,” answered Big Nig. “Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes—”
He saw a disapproving look in one of the officers’ faces and closed suddenly like a clam. He had been criticizing, he had been letting this new camaraderie of the mess go to his head. One little tale of discontent whispered to the Kommandant and— “But the food is propaganda,” he added, “Britain is starving.”
No one answered him, nor did the disapproving officer seem appeased any by the statement.
THE three hours spent in supervising the opening of food were indeed a trial, watching can after can, packet after packet in an endless flow—steak and onions, tomatoes, meat rolls, butter, honey, jam, prunes, biscuits, plum puddings, condensed milk, nuts, raisins, on an on, bringing saliva to the mouth, causing him to swallow and keep on swallowing. He tried to think of Greta and Eva and Freida, telling himself that perhaps there would be a goose stuffed with sage and onion dressing.
At twelve he was finished and the parcels officer, who had been assisting, held up his great coat politely for him. “Merry Christmas, sonderfeuhrer.” “Dank you,” answered Big Nig,
then pausing, added, “Merry Christmas to you.” After all, he would leave in the spirit of Christmas.
And now he was standing before the Kommandant.
“I congratulate you, sonderfeuhrer. You have shown resolution. The night parade was perfect.”
With jaw thrust out, Herr Kommandant surveyed Big Nig from head to foot, recognizing him, undoubtedly, thought Big Nig, for the good soldier he was. On the Kommandant'’s desk Big Nig saw his pass.
Then suddenly Herr Kommandant’s eyes became fixed, fixed at the level of Big Nig’s hips.
“Your pockets, sonderfeuhrer—they are bulging.”
Big Nig glanced down and saw that his pockets did indeed bulge. He remembered that the parcels’ officer had handed him his coat. He plunged his hands down into the pockets and felt chocolate, cigarettes, soap and tins. Fright swept over him. He was trapped. At the last minute the prisoners had trapped him. Frantically, he groped for words.
“Presents?” asked Herr Kommandant mildly.
“Yes,” said Big Nig desperately.
“You are very lucky to have little children at Christmas time, sonderfeuhrer.”
Was he dreaming? Did the Kommandant really mean what he said?
The Kommandant sighed again. * “Little children make me sentimental. Here is your leave, sonderfeuhrer. And a merry Christmas to you.”
Big Nig found himself out in the hall, looking dumbly at his pass.
Alone in his room, with the door locked, he dumped the contents of his pocket out onto the table—a bag of coffee, a tin of butter, chocolate, soap, cigarettes—and with them was a note. He unfolded it and read.
“You’re a decent German, sonderfeuhrer. We’ve treated you badly. We know now how you’ve tried to be decent.” And then they wished him a Merry Christmas.
Tears began to stream from his eyes. He thought of British skiers in the Tirol, of the cathedral, the dream, his anger, his walk with the two British officers, his awkward unburdening of trouble to them.
But Herr Kommandant? Had he really thought the articles in his pockets were presents for Freida and Eva? Could it be that the war was but a dream? That peace on earth and good will toward men had ever died? ★