The 750 inhabitants of Herxheim Am Berg have really got their clangers in a twist. The problem is: what to do with the hideous find in the church tower? (below). No, this is not the discovery of skeletons of murdered children. Nonetheless, the find is causing no end of trouble and soul-searching. So what is causing the problem? It seems that there is something unacceptable on one of the tower's bells. This has rung in new years and accompanied innumerable weddings and baptisms since 1934. Unfortunately, the bell bears a swastika on its side and the words: Alles fuer's Vaterland - Adolph Hitler.
At first, the authorities considered closing the church tower. The Central Council of Jews in Germany suggested removing the bell and putting it in a museum. The local council immediately decided not to use the bell for its religious services. In the middle of September 2017, about 10 members of the NDP (right wing) turned up and urged local people to keep the "Hitler Bell."
Around 200 local people countered the arrival of the NDP. The locals bemoaned the negative coverage of Herxheim in the media claiming that their town was not a Nazi village. They also claimed that Herxheim was "adorable" and its people were upstanding and good citizens. In other words, they said, it was a village like any other in Germany.
Unfortunately, the debate over the bell (left) has cost the local mayor his job. Apparently he said that he was proud of the bell and bemoaned the fact that Hitler was only associated with atrocities and not with artefacts that were used to this day. Not long after making these comments, he announced his resignation.
I read this story in the Evangelische Sonntags-Zeitung "Evangelical Sunday Paper" in September 2017. The last news I heard concerning Herxheim was that it had been decided to silence the bell. The whole business might seem ludicrous to many British readers but the debate was taken very seriously in Germany. For me, the story presents endless possibilities for novelists. I had better not discuss these further in case somebody steals my thunder.
I have already used the theme of coming to terms with the past in my novel Lost Property. In the scene below, the protagonist, Monty Brodnitz, meets his neighbour, Peter Lutz, one night in Lutz's cellar. Monty comes face to face with how Peter has dealt with his own father's involvement in WW2. He likes to dress up in his dad's Waffen SS uniform.
It was the word “panther” that leaped into Monty’s head - a vision of lithe blackness tipped with knee-length black boots and a black cap. The boots were polished and sparkled in the light.
“Magnificent, aren’t they?” Lutz said. “A good fit, in fact. They need a lot of elbow grease to get them to shine like this.”
Lutz stood about 10 metres away, his legs apart, his arms akimbo. His eyes were shadowed sockets under a black front peak adorned with eagle and skull.
“That’s right – the boots used to belong to my father.”
In many ways, Peter Lutz was the mystery neighbour. Monty knew Peter was often away. The empty house would bathe in perpetual darkness and the post-box would fill up with flyers until the weekly gardener arrived to cut the grass, sweep the leaves and remove all signs of absence - including the post. Peter’s presence in the house was usually signalled by evening lights, the occasional sound of a slamming door and the beautiful 1970 Mercedes Pagoda in the drive. This meant that the memory of the man, a nervous individual with the quick movements of a blackbird and a penchant for English idiom, was more familiar to Monty than the real thing. The man was confusing Monty now because he seemed so relaxed, so self confident and chatty.
“The boots would go for arms and legs these days,” Peter said, “and so would the visor cap. Hard to get genuine ones; you know, the real McCoy.”
Peter raised his right arm and scratched at the left collar of his jacket.
“The uniform is one my father would have worn. Yes, it’s a 1936 general SS service dress uniform belonging to a Sturmbannfuehrer – or major auf Englisch, oder?”
“Indeed it is,” Monty said.
Lutz slid his hand down across the black tie and back up to the collar.
“Yes, you know that was my father’s rank, don’t you. The four silver pips on the collar patch are the giveaway, aren’t they?”
Lutz stretched out his cheeks in an imitation smile.
“An old dealer like you would want to know its value, wouldn’t he?” Peter said. He pursed his lips and sucked in air with a prolonged hiss. “The whole kit and caboodle?”
While he made his estimate, there was no indication in his voice that he was challenging Monty to disagree. The tone suggested he and Monty understood each other.
“About 25000 dollars I would guess, perhaps more,” Lutz said.
He cleared his throat while allowing his hand to slide from his shoulder, across the black diagonal shoulder strap and pleated black pockets to the black belt next to a black holster.
“Right again,” Peter said. “Yes, you have it. In this holster is my father’s pistol. It’s a Walther PPK as you know - very reliable and popular with the German military, the Police and the Luftwaffe. Did you know that Adolf killed himself with one in the Fuehrer bunker in 1945?”
Lutz puckered his lips and sucked at his cheeks. He then ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth. Monty followed the swelling shift from under his cheek, to the bottom lip and back up the other side of his face before it disappeared again. Lutz then fingered the holster and loosened the leather fastener.
“Look,” he said, “my father’s name is written on the inside flap. I find it all quite moving really. To touch with my fingers that which my father’s fingers once touched - it gives me goose skin, you know.”
Monty shivered. In the presence of the boots and the pistol he felt proximity not only to history but also to horror and that familiar feeling that the objects themselves knew more than they were telling. Lutz wrapped his hand around the butt of the pistol and drew it from the holster. He lifted it over his head and held it there as though it were a starting pistol.
“This one has not been fired for a long time. The shells are still inside. They are the ones my father would have loaded himself. So I would like to keep things as they are. You understand me, don’t you?”