April, 1945, East Germany
The end was near.
Hands on hips, shoulders stooped, and eyes weary, he stared at a dozen or so wooden crates. He stood before them, as if paralyzed. Body and spirit exhausted. Three years in training camp and on the battlefield—that was how much time this senseless war had stolen from his life. But for him, it was a lifetime of horror no one else could fathom who had never experienced it. Those years were about to end, and yet he couldn’t say he felt relieved. Another life was waiting for him—a life of peace his fellow survivors couldn’t wait to get back to—but he needed a sense of closure for the life of war he was leaving, and had no idea how to achieve it.
Had it only been a day or two since his battalion crossed the border into Germany from Belgium? Among the first to breach enemy territory. Also among the first deployed into the European Theater in 1943, landing in Sicily to fight the Germans. In only a matter of days, the Allied Forces expected the Nazis to surrender.
He was lucky, he was aware of that, having seen too many dead bodies. After a while, it no longer mattered to him what uniforms they wore. They had all perished in service of a mad monster and his cadré of fiendish lackeys.
This morning, the platoon lieutenant informed him he was to lead his squad into a cave on the Harz Mountain. The battalion commander had been informed of precious objects hidden in the cave by a historic medieval church, and his squad was responsible for securing and guarding it. He had been singled out to inspect the condition of the cave, and to inventory whatever contents were found. Why him, he wondered, but for a mere second. What mattered was the end was near.
Arriving at the cave, he posted a couple of his men at the entrance, telling them no one was allowed to enter without his permission.
Inside, he had expected the cave to smell musty and foul. But the air, though it exuded an earthiness he could almost taste, had a lightness to it that made it easy to breathe in. It must help that a cool breeze from the densely-forested mountain outside was streaming through the entrance to the cave.
The light in the cave was diffused, not as dark as he had anticipated. After a few minutes, his eyes had adapted enough to see the wooden crates more clearly. He hadn’t needed a flashlight to see that each had a number on top and on the side written in white paint.
Dull and wearisome as his task might prove to be, away from the midst of the action of wrapping up an unfortunate war, he believed safeguarding this particular bunch of crates was an important and necessary task, if only to show the enemy that, unlike them, Americans were not pillaging marauders. Rumors of Nazi plunder of cultural treasures from the countries they invaded had been circulating ever since his battalion’s deployment in Sicily
He walked around the crates stacked in five groups. Four had three crates each and one stack had four. Sixteen crates. He needed to know exactly what the cave held. In making a list of objects in the cave, he was ensuring that the contents of crates his squad found when they arrived would be the same when they left.
Each crate held a cardboard box he could see through the wooden slats. What those boxes contained might not be priceless artworks like those the Nazis plundered in the European countries they invaded, especially France. But they were precious to the people to whom they belonged. Why else would they have bothered to hide them in this cave? Left in the church, they would have become spoils of war. Or worse, had Allied bombs hit the church, the contents of these crates would have been lost forever. Shattered to smithereens or burned to dust.
He was sure there could be no paintings in the crates. Those would have been secured in their own wooden crates. He estimated the crates to be two feet by two feet at most, inside of which were even smaller boxes.
From history classes, he knew that in wars dating as far back as ancient times, victors harvested with impunity treasures from countries they conquered. They considered what they pillaged trophies of war. Greeks, Romans, other Europeans, Muslims, Christians—all plundered. In more recent times, Napoleon Bonaparte was notorious for ordering the sacking of Italy, stripping it of all the masterpieces his army could find. His subsequent defeat at Waterloo led to the return of about half of his loot, but the rest remained in France, many of them displayed at the Louvre Museum.
In this current war, France could be said to have gotten its comeuppance as Hitler and his rapacious commanders plundered France’s art treasures. He had heard that an untold number of those treasures from France and other European countries Hitler conquered were hidden in mine shafts and caves in Germany.
Some American soldiers also made off with a few things. Mere souvenirs, though, from dead and captured enemies or in houses and other buildings where occupants had fled or been captured and thrown in concentration camps. Inevitable spoils of war whose value could never equal the extravagantly-priced treasures Napoleon and the Nazis took. To these, the military command turned a blind eye. He himself had pocketed some beautiful silverware and ornaments from a house in what used to be a rich Jewish neighborhood—now desolate and empty—in a small nearby city. The house had been abandoned and he hoped the Jewish family had fled somewhere safe.
It was only mid-morning and he was already getting restless. It puzzled him, these attacks of restlessness amidst his exhaustion. After a couple of years in the battlefield, his body had grown stronger and more nimble, attuned to constant, unpredictable stress. Lately, as the war wound down, he found that inactivity, after long periods of high-adrenaline war maneuvers, tired him out more. And yet, while at rest, his muscles could suddenly clench and burn, ready for action.
He looked around for a rock to sit on. Finding none, he eyed the crates, walked towards a corner stack, and eased his butt down to it. A long breath of relief flowed out of his puckered lips. He loosened his hold on the notepad he had been clutching in his right hand and let it drop on the stack of crates next to him.
Staring blankly at the crate on top, his restless fingers brushed against the wooden slats back and forth. Back and forth. A finger poked through the slats. Then he inserted another.
His index and middle fingers touched the box underneath. After the rough surface of the wood, the cardboard box inside was smooth and velvety. Soothing. Warm almost. What did it hold? Was there a reason it was on top? Something fragile and breakable?
Could there be something in these boxes he could take as a souvenir? A token trophy for being on the side that won. A gold-lined silver chalice to hold wine during mass maybe. Something the church could easily replace.
Before he knew what he was doing, he had yanked the top wooden cover and ripped off the tape that secured the cardboard box sitting inside the crate. The uncovering was the work of seconds. The notepad had fallen on the floor.
The contents of the box peeked out of the freed flaps. He thought he saw a flicker of light through the flaps. The glitter of gold maybe? The chalice?
His eager hands swiped the flaps to the side. He stared. And stared. At a rectangular object wrapped in cellophane. Its color tarnished by air, time, and use. Streaks of an antique gold color breaking through the tarnish. Carved figures, possibly gold-plated, encased in a rectangular frame in the middle. Red, white, lavender, green, and blue stones of various sizes embedded in bezels around the frame. Precious stones? Pearls, for sure. Amethyst. Maybe rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. Or colored glass?
A trembling hand lifted the object onto his lap to expose another object, similar but slightly smaller. The cover on this second one was not as elaborate but it also had carved figures set in a larger frame.
He picked up the first one again and, leaving it encased in its cellophane wrap, he turned it over on its edges, its back. A book! Possibly a rare old book that must be several hundred years old, judging from its cover. He examined the second object. Also a book.