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THE RÜSSELSHEIM MURDERS

I was Gratiano, Bassanio’s pal

in The Merchant of Venice. He ends the play

with an obscene pun. We were an ensemble

of drama teachers performing the piece

in English at Rüsselsheim’s Stadttheater,

the year after the Wall came down – so the pun

was probably lost somewhere in translation.

 

We were a couple of hours from the border.

One of our group became ill. The doctor,

treating her in the hostel where we stayed,

thought at first she was an ‘Ossie’. His rant

against ‘scroungers and beggars coming over

like an army’ was translated for us.

 

The theatre was part of the post-war re-birth.

The medieval centre of the city

had been razed by Allied bombing. Rüsselsheim

was a company town: Opel – making

first sewing machines then automobiles –

a General Motors subsidiary.

The population was ethnic Germans,

gastarbeiters and their families,

and US army personnel, from a  base

lined with tanks parked up for the next war

to be fought across the Great European Plain,

where herds of bison and wolf packs had roamed.

 

It was an orderly place. The stalls

for the weekly vegetable market

in Gräbenstrasse had their places

marked in white along a high, grey wall:

KAROTTE, KARTOFFELN, KOHL. Our hosts

had asked for Shakespeare. Who had chosen

The Merchant… was never clear. It was still

a poignant even controversial choice.

 

After one performance I was slow

removing my make up. All the others

had gone to a bar we had found on the banks

of the River Main. I left the Green room

by the wrong door, which locked itself behind me.

I was in the darkened foyer – all the front doors

locked, and no mobile phones then, of course.

I slept badly on a sofa until the caretaker,

a Turk, woke me at dawn. We spoke broken French

to each other. He mentioned the murders.

One of our hosts reluctantly told me more.

 

***

 

During an August air raid in ’44

on Osnabruck, a US Liberator,

a B24 nicknamed, ‘Wham Bam!

Thank You, Mam’, was downed by anti-aircraft fire.

The nine crew survived the crash – one was

hospitalized, the remaining eight entrained

for a twelve hour overnight journey,

through Rüsselsheim, for interrogation

at a centre near the Taunus Mountains,

north west of Frankfurt. In the early hours

of the next day, the RAF bombed

Rüsselsheim and its surrounding areas.

Frequently, the Americans and their guards

had to leave the train to take shelter.

 

The raid was intended to destroy

the Opel works –  which, in the event,

were largely untouched. Instead, nearly

two hundred were killed, mostly Opel

slave workers – and the Aldstadt was razed.

The raid had also wrecked the railway line

through Rüsselsheim. The fliers and their escorts

left the train, and marched through the city to find

the nearest undamaged rail and rolling stock.

 

The British and American strategies

re the bombing of civilians differed –

the former were for, the latter against –

informed, unsurprisingly, by politics.

The crew of the B24 were thought,

by some of Rüsselsheim’s citizens,

to be Canadians thus RAF:

Die Terrorflieger, Terror Fliers –

nearly half of whom were killed in action.

 

On Gräbenstrasse, a mob attacked them.

Four were shot execution style. The rest stoned

with rubble, from the air raid, littering the streets.

The unexamined corpses were taken

on a hand cart to the graveyard and hidden

beneath brambles. Two were alive and ran –

to be captured later. The rest were buried.

 

After the war, Rüsselsheim became

part of the American sector.

Liberated French and Polish labourers

told of the murders and the burials.

There was a trial of the main perpetrators –

some were hanged, some incarcerated.

 

***

 

That night in the foyer I had dreamt

of how Gratiano had gloated

at the Jew’s defeat and humiliation –

and then how Shylock, learning his daughter

had exchanged a precious stone for a monkey,

cried out, ‘it was my turquoise; I had it

of Leah when I was a bachelor:

I would not have given it for a

wilderness of monkeys’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Copyright David Selzer
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1 Response
  • Keith Johnson
    November 8, 2020

    ‘So it Goes’ – ‘if you think that death is a terrible thing, you have not understood a word that I have said’. Reminded me of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death’ by Kurt Vonnegut’. The work has been called an example of “unmatched moral clarity” and “one of the most enduring antiwar novels of all time”.

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