Valdemar Atterdag brandskattar Visby (pillages and plunders Visby)
Source: Nationalmuseum Artist: Carl Gustaf Hellquist
The word "Brandschatzung" exists only in German and in Swedish. There is no English counterpart to it, thereof the title. It means that a conquering army leaves a city open for pillaging and plundering. Such an event is as terrible to the population as the word itself. So why do I bother to write about it this sunny day of May 8. It so happens that I lived through such an orgy of violence exactly 75 years ago.
It was in the last trembling vestiges of WWII. Just the day before, the German Army had capitulated and the war was over. But before that, In Winter and early Spring 1945, the army still nursed hopes of a last defence against the Soviet onslaught, hovering behind a rashly raised Südostwall, a series of helter-skelter barricades ranging from Bratislava South all the way to the river Drava, along the border between the former Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. I was born in a small village (Neudau) just West of the Wall, on 23 December 1944. The four following months were a terrible ordeal for my mother Maria, who was only 22 years old.
At the end of April, the Eastern sky went red and the terrible thunder of bombardments came closer and closer to our village. My mother feared the worst, took me on her back and fled westward over the hills and through the forests, until she finally, after several days' ordeal, reached the town of Gleisdorf, where her parents lived.
This did not help her much. Just after her arrival in what she believed a safe haven, the Soviets caught up with her, having broken through the Wall in a matter of just a day or two. Since the armistice was already in place, the inhabitants took care to arrange a peaceful welcome. In all haste, a red flag was fabricated (without the Swastika!), and Members of the resistance entrusted with the task to welcome the invaders. All appeared well and it promised to be a relatively calm occupation and hopefully quick pass-through by the Soviets.
|Gleisdorf, not yet "gebrandschatzt"|
Unfortunately, a few fanatic SS soldiers had taken a last stance in the church tower. As the Soviet platoon was marching by the main square, they started shooting, trying to kill off the commander. To no avail, and the attackers were quickly annihilated. But, in reaction to this last defence, in fact a breach of the armistice, the commander declared the town open to "Brandschatzung" and let his soldiers pillage and plunder at will for the whole of two days. These days rested forever burnt into the memory of the victims, although none of them ever cared to talk about it.
As a child, I gathered only small bits and pieces of the event. My grandfather once told me an uncanny story: two soldiers had entered their apartment. In the living room they found me alone, playing on the floor. One of them raised me up and was about to throw me against the wall, when grandpa entered, having collected all the watches the family possessed and offering them to the marauders. They of course went immediately for the watches and released me to fall on the floor (without any harm, I am glad to say). Nothing more was said about this. What happened to my mother and grandmother in the mean-time I don't want to even think about.
|Maria, and Child Emil happily unaware of "Brandschatzung"|
I had suppressed this story for many years; Grandpa had told it when I was only maybe six or seven years old. It came back to me, though, when, at the ripe age of sixty, I happened upon a witness report from the event in a book about my homeland, really a catalogue of architecture and types of settlement. The witness described the story as I summarised it above, which gave me the background needed to let resurface and understand the tale of miraculous salvation by two watches.
Ever since, whenever someone wishes to entangle me into philosophic discourses about the value of life, I am able to provide him with a firm and definitive answer. A life, at least mine, is worth exactly two watches.