It was Mai of 1945, just a score of kilometers from the outskirts of Berlin in the small village of Rehfelde. The roads were full with a patchwork of battered military vehicles and exhausted Wehrmacht hastily traveling past each other in opposite directions. Grock stood immobile in his old moth-eaten greatcoat. Like it, he was a fossil of the previous Great War. The same on that eventually had led in its unreasoning conclusion to this one! An old man topping sixty-five in accumulated years, he cut a dispiriting figure in contrast to the passing formations of young Panzer Grenadier’s barely out of puberty. The combined load of machine guns, rifles, and extra ammo dragging down highly polished black straps painfully into narrow shoulders as they strode forth snappily in perfect step to an uncertain future at the oncoming front. Hay wagons pulled by hastily conscripted skeletal dray horses rolled slowly the other way towards Berlin. The overladen flatbeds behind the starving animals piled high with the hastily bandaged dead and dying. Their pitiful assembly composing as many of the remnants of the 9th Panzer army that could be retrieved from this side of the Seelow Heights. Another formations of freshly attired ‘feldgrau’ suited troops marched snappily upon the opposite shoulder wending their way around a growing detritus of burned out and stalled vehicles. The eternally ‘verärgert’ noncoms always making doubly sure that all their eyes continued, “auger front!” and the voices were lustily singing that old popular army marching song, ‘Erika’ as loudly as humanly possible. Some of the Mauser rifles that these fresh faced ‘pothelm köpfigen jungen’ were shouldering could have been older than Grock! More pathetic still was the gaggle of ‘kleine Gänse’ that trailed just behind. Individual tiny bodies struggling mightily under the weight its own ‘panzerfaust’. A small detachment of SS had rounded up these school boys from surrounding local villages earlier towards the beginning of the week providing these new acolytes with poorly tailored recycled uniforms that threatened to swallow each of them whole. Barely a day or two before, these lads had collectively been given a brief demonstration of the tank busting Sigurdgram’s they toted as part of their final lesson in the ‘Volkssturmann’. This same band of black-uniformed party heroes had commandeered an armored Hanomag earlier this morning and beat a hasty retreat to some thickly-walled underground bunker or one of the impregnable concrete and steel ‘flakturme’ back in Berlin. The distant sound of approaching thunder announcing that Lelyushenko’s 20th Guards Russian Army group was quickly rumbling up from somewhere beyond the eastern woods. Their forces descending from horizon to horizon like a pack of murderous dogs Hell bent upon enacting ravenous mayhem on all before them.
Grock had personally witnessed carnage of this sort at Verdun three decades previous. A trench bound young recruit serving as part of the First Army’s 24th Brandenburg Regiment near hill 347 sent out to overwhelm the nearby ‘turtleback’ fortress of Fort Douamont. It took him three months to recover from the shell fragments that had dug deep into his left leg. A few more wasted years on schnapps and opium after the way in the gutter had finally abated when he had recovered his senses through a circus act giving birth to his alter ego of Grock. The thundering sound of massed artillery rolling closer brought him immediately back to the moment. He barely imagine the level of carnage that would be enacted upon the town when multiple waves of IS-2 Stalin and KV tanks rolled passed! He looked down at his left hand tightly clutching the ancient castoff of rusty shotgun that had been dispensed to him along with a small shovel. All the regular working rifles had been distributed to the younger more predictably foolish Hitler jungends. They had no fit ideas bouncing around in their empty heads beyond gaining some greater glory for the Fatherland within the imminent Gotterdammerung that could only promise a fatal baptism in lead and steel. “That verdant broken down ‘Gott und Meister’ Fuhrer!”, he snarled to himself. “Where was that ‘Ölmaler’, hiding out?” “No doubt in some dark hole under his glorious Reich’s Kanizei palace in Mitte!”, he spat his angry face twisting into a cynical smile. A relentless wind was blowing forth as he haphazardly continued to pick at the frozen earth with his tiny borrowed ‘schippe’. The scene behind the extended row of hasty defenses before the backdrop of the town’s shattered ‘holzplattenfabrick’ seemed almost Wagnerian. The continued bombing by twin engine Petlyakov’s had reduced the factory to a piles of rubble. The sections of wall still upright appearing like a giant row of broken rotted teeth.
Standing before this operatic tableau staring forth at that ominous darkness just beyond the treelike, Grock could not fathom how things in his life had turned out the way they had? Why was he entangled in this madness once again? His life in the circus and on stage had led to so much acclaim that it had even some copycats. One in particular made famous by a half Austrian American film directors working here for UFA. His own ‘ersatz doppleganger’ had mysteriously arisen fifteen years earlier upon celluloid gift wrapped in the package of “Der Blau Engel”. That great creative lapse of memory occasioning a similarity of the same makeup worn by the famous American Oscar winning Emil Jannings. “Or?”, he pondered’ “Was it that other ‘filmschauspieler’, Reinholdt Berndt?” He of course had his own share of cinema exposure in several films working with an old stage partner and straight man, van Embdlen. “That old ‘Schmierenschauspieler’!” The endless show dates and publicity had worn their friendship thin. All this seemed like a million miles and a thousand years past as if read in the newspaper from the life of someone else now! The only thing he had left was his face. That sad sour greasepaint laden ambivalent grin that could only approximate a genuine smile. Something that had been along for the ride with him for his career of thirty years. The flaps of his moth-eaten greatcoat blew open for an instant revealing the signature of his absurdly baggy plaid stage pants. He had decided early this morning since it was most likely that this coming day would likely be his last performance, he might as well wear his best suit to the grave. “How did this ridiculous fabric pattern originally come into being?”, he wondered nursing the errant thought. It always seemed to get the biggest laugh from the audience when stumbled on stage at beginning of each act. What an irony that an export of the same British Empire that had tried to kill him as a young man had also helped to provide the perfect uniform for the character that had led to his eventual success? He reached into the lint ridden pocket of the overcoat and pulled out his small silver makeup kit. “Let the others dig their own graves.”, he thought, “My alter ego and I will meet our fate this day together!” A few sets of eyes from others digging furiously beside him peeked up from their ‘stahlhelms’ in astonishment that he was calmly standing straight up rubbing greasepaint upon his face. His long practiced expertise transforming his weary features into that well-publicized iconic expression of professional angst. The crack of a tree limb above them followed by a massive explosion just behind shook them all out of the complacency. This organized rabble of would be’ soldaten’ and old men seemed to quiver as one. The smoldering calling card of a severed bough sending forth a collective adrenalin rush of heightened alert. The newly dug ditch caused by the detonation from that first shell smack through the tree’s mass signaling that the Russian assault forces were now in firing range just across the field.
The slow rise of crunching and creaking noisily from afar bespoke the fact that an insatiably hungry giant insect in the form of the first line of KV-1 tanks was busily smashing through tree trunks. Its din provoked the urgent commands of Oberfeldwebel’s up and down the line before the backdrop of the factory rubble. Two more sudden detonations sprayed the hastily dug trenches with a mixture of clods of dirt and a few body parts that had been randomly ripped from the torsos of hapless defenders. The strident call of “Abfahrbereit!” was answered in kind by a massed chorus of the metal on metal drag and click of rifle bolts echoing back. A report and muzzle flash spitting shells from a 7.5 cm Infanteriegeschütz’s towards the faceplate of the first IS-2 lumbering out of into the gray daylight commenced the start of action. Grock had by this point abandoned his small hand mirror and brush in favor of the bottom of the narrow slit trench. Shell after shell thumped nearby on either side. Sheets of flames spreading overhead signaling a direct hit somewhere near. The sheer quantity of Russian panzers squeezing their way out of the demolished treelike haphazardly banging loudly as they careened into some of their comrades that had been struck and disabled. “Die Kommunisten sind Fäulnis Treiber”, a disembodied voice laughed half-heartedly at the top of their lungs a few meters away. Grock fought the temptation to peek over the edge of the earthy revetment whose dirt was occasionally torn with rifle fire. He knew all to well from his youth when the right time to throw himself up over its shattered precipice to aim that rusty aging blunderbuss and find a quick answer to his doubtful fate. The din of battle was punctuated by the screams of child soldiers between the usual chorus of curses impotently flung by men under heavy bombardment. “Keep your mouth a little bit open!”, Grock reminded himself. “That way your eardrums won’t shatter!” His white face seemed paler now fully committed to the long established theatrical grimace that was the essence of his emblematic stage presence. That comical frozen-face expression parodying the acquaintance of unreasoning animal fear that was the hallmark of his stage career as one of the most famous of all European clowns. The same one perfected in shell-shock trenches with all those others permanently transformed by that earlier bygone once forgotten war. A sudden blast just above him kicking him forth into complete blackness like the wayward impact of a misapplied theatrical mallet upon the top of his head by another inexperienced performer.
That old familiar unwanted odor of cordite mixed with smoldering burned flesh choked his nostrils once again. Grock struggled to open his eyes but could not seem to summon any light. He was awake. His entire body was numb and his limbs felt paralyzed. It was as if something very heavy was physically restraining him from rising. He pulled back his head just enough to see the red piping on the epaulets signifying the great bulk of an Oberfeldwebe pinning him directly underneath. It took a few more instants before he could twist enough to find was that the uniforms owner was now headless. A sense of unbounded horror drove the clown to forcefully push away with all his might. His unexpected vigor dragging both he and the corpse that was smothering him along upward for the ride. The dead man’s torso was clinging about him like a second skin. Its lifeless arms encircling Grock in an unbreakable deathly embrace. That constant sense of ringing of the ears was instantly defeated by his own scream. A small ensemble of Russian voices nearby responded with an explosion of uncontrollable laughter. Grock’s arms flung back and forth wildly trying to dislodge the grip of his disembodied companion. A kapok jacketed Russian sergeant with a PPSH41 slung on his arms was having a hard time maintaining his feet as he was laughing so hard. Two other woolly looking Siberians were bent over alternately slapping each other’s backs in hysterics both trying to regain their breath. “Bozhe moi . . . Chort Vozmi . . .”, the non-com managed to hoarsely choke out between spasmodic loud guffaws. Grock stared back frozen in stunned silence. His wide eyed expression drawing even more raucous laughter from other’s hidden in the gloom a little further away in its darkness. The entire field surrounding him was turbulently disemboweled by shell holes. A Waldorf salad of piles of dead men’s detached parts and shattered implements of war. The battalion of Russians forming quickly around the disheveled clown along with their other other companions in order to share in the joke. This uncontrolled chaos of mirth went on until a stone faced officers appeared in their midst. Like an ill wind, he immediately extinguished its comical fury. The first noncom lazily grabbed across to the drum of his short barreled submachine gun that was slung on his shoulder and motioned at Grock to raise his arms high. The comical prop of the headless corpse fell straight down to the ground as the clown stepped forth tugging his legs free of its encircling embrace. That old great coat now partially torn hanging off one arm of the inadvertent jester discarded behind, leaving him fully revealed in full regalia of his stage costume. Two sets of rough hands secured his upper arms and hustled him forward towards the road. The heads of his captors turned away attempting to regain their composure. The officer beside them waving the ensemble to a small truck within which the deflated clown was squeezed in between two old and disheveled Bauern.