Monday 14th November 1983
The Life of Friedhelm Koehler
by Joseph Göttschalk
These are the facts about Herr Koehler that I have gathered over the years.
He was born on the 20th of March 1916 to Chlöe and Heimlich Koehler, two dairy farmers who lived on the outskirts of Griesheim. They were a young Protestant couple who lived in moderate prosperity off the land inherited from Chlöe’s father. Heimlich, a proud and patriotic man, ran the farm until he was sent to France during the First World War, leaving his wife and an assortment of hired help to manage the business. Records show that he was killed by an artillery shell during the Third Battle of Ypres.
Roughly two years after Friedhelm’s birth, control of the Darmstadt-Dieburg district was handed over to the French armed forces. According to some of the townspeople I interviewed, Friedhelm was a sullen and unsociable child in the years that followed. Although he had been too young to remember his father, he was aware of the circumstances surrounding Heimlich’s death and the absence was clearly felt. Because of this, he adopted a hostile attitude towards the occupying forces.
Despite mostly manifesting itself in passive-aggressive behaviour, his hatred of the French culminated, when he was eight years old, in an incident that gained him local notoriety. He and two of his friends were caught breaking into a nearby artillery range, with the intention of stealing one of the cannons and using it to “get rid of the French.” Their attempt was, of course, a complete failure—however, the occupying forces thereafter took notice of Friedhelm, and in fact seemed to view his attempted insurrection as no more than a child’s mischief. Knowing that the boy was no threat, the French forces returned his hatred of them with a kind of fraternal affection. They made fun of his murderous impulses towards them—diving for cover in mock fear whenever they saw him, or challenging him to pistol duels for the freedom of Germany, or threatening to have him sent to prison as a partisan guerilla.
Although initially resentful of their attentions, Friedhelm’s attitude toward them soon began to soften. His animosity gave way to a sense of rivalry which, eventually, gave way to friendship. There was said to be one soldier, Private Jean-Martin de Batiste, who took a particular shine to him–-who ruffled the boy’s hair whenever they met, played football with him and his friends, and was even reported to have taken him shooting once. Some of the townsfolk I interviewed on the subject expressed suspicion that Jean-Martin was having an affair with the boy’s widowed mother, although many others deny this—Chlöe Koehler was said to be a strong-minded woman, and while her tolerance for the French occupiers had just barely allowed for this soldier to form a friendship with her son, it would not have extended to dishonouring Heimlich’s memory by sleeping with the enemy.
Nevertheless, it can be inferred from various accounts that Private Batiste did indeed take on the role of surrogate father to the boy. This ended in 1930, however, when the French forces moved out and Jean-Martin returned home to France. Though this was said to have deeply saddened young Friedhelm, he did not have much time to dwell on his loss: a year later, the dairy farm finally succumbed to the effects of the Great Depression, and Friedhelm and his mother were forced to depart Griesheim. They moved to Munich, staying at the apartment of Chlöe’s sister Anna and her family—husband Max Richter and daughters Ebba and Janina, aged eight and ten respectively.
Although this arrangement allowed for their financial stability and Friedhelm’s education at the esteemed Wilhelmsgymnasium, the close-quarter living conditions became the cause of many arguments and tensions within the household. According to a reference made in Janina Richter’s diary—written post-facto—Friedhelm was unusually calm in the face of these domestic conflicts. Reflecting on these years, she describes him as having had “an air of quiet certainty,” and would frequently reassure his cousins when they became upset by their parents’ fierce arguments: “He would tell us that things would get better in the end, and though he spoke mere words the two of us were convinced by his manner that he knew this to be true, somehow.”
This sentiment was echoed in a report made by one of Friedhelm’s teachers, who notes his “quiet determination and confidence.” Paradoxically, it appears he was easily led by his schoolmates: a willing accomplice to many of their pranks and misbehaviours, although never as ringleader or mastermind. Overall he was described as academically middling, displaying a slight propensity for mathematics but almost none for literature or the classics. He did, however, possess great athletic ability and a photograph from the time shows him to have been an exemplary Aryan specimen—blonde, blue-eyed and of robust constitution.
His school report is the only record I could find from his teenage years, the rest lost to the Allied bombings and various other entropic forces. Friedhelm would almost certainly have joined the Hitler Youth in this time, although I could not find any indication of his personal attitude towards the Nazi Party. The record extends to the year 1933, but beyond this point his exact whereabouts cannot be determined. I have inferred from Janina’s diary, however, that he and his mother moved out from the Richters’ apartment just before Hitler ascended to power, and given subsequent events it is likely they remained in or around Munich.
His next appearance in public record took place on the 4th June 1939. A newspaper cutting details his marriage to one Elsa Bohm, a 22-year old secretary from the accountancy firm in which Friedhelm worked at the time. The article notes their residence in Ingolstadt, and a photograph shows them after the ceremony. Friedhelm towers above his bride, his posture straight and his smile displaying that same rigid serenity that so many of his peers have attested to. Elsa clings to him with her head against his chest, laughing into the camera, and she is beautiful. Of the handful of acquaintances I managed to interview who knew them during their marriage, all have supported the wedding photo in evincing a loving, happy couple. Elsa, they say, was warm and outgoing: an actively upbeat woman nonetheless prone to mild bouts of depression and mania. Her changeable behaviour, then, was well-matched by her husband’s easy stoicism. They were often observed to take walks along the Schösslande, looking out over the river and talking with a cheerful intimacy. By all accounts, they were active members of the community and were spoken of fondly by all who knew them.
We now approach both the end of Herr Koehler’s story, and my reason for telling it. I present to you now my own personal account of our convergence, having thus far written exclusively from second-hand sources.
I saw him only once, at Dachau, in 1945—he an SS guard, myself a kapo. The details of my capture and internment are superfluous to the incident in question, and my impressions of the camp have lost all capacity to inform anew given the deluge of similar accounts of life in those horrific facilities. No doubt the informed reader already possesses an image of the conditions in those camps from a mental collage of photographs, films and writings. The mud, the squalor, the stench, the desolation. I have nothing new to add to this and no adjustment to make to the archetypal image. I wish only to highlight a repeat occurrence that holds direct bearing on the event in question.
The man behind this occurrence was our Block leader, an Unterscharführer by the name of Drescher. He was, I believe, of a rare character among the SS within the camps—although I am far from certain of this, for most of my days in that dread place were spent trying to avoid contact with the guards. He differed from the others mostly through sheer temperament—he was a vicious man, a drunk and a tyrant. His appearance was noticeably more unkempt than that of the other ranking officials, and whereas they treated the inmates with a ruthless, warped rationality, Drescher was open in his hatred of them. Most SS officers looked upon the prisoners with a distant superiority, like a bug exterminator would look upon a nest of insects. Drescher, on the other hand, seemed to have a violent contempt for each of the inmates, and took sadistic pleasure in personally crushing their spirits. It was hard to say where this stemmed from—although I suspect he had a personal motive that supplemented the discharge of his duties with the thrill of vengeance. It was a matter of policy that no SS officer would ever be punished for harming an internee, even on a whim—but that his undisciplined conduct and unpresentable appearance did not get him reprimanded is curious. It deviated him from the conduct expected of a high-ranking SS officer, and that he was allowed to stay in charge is testament to the means-ends justifications of the National Socialist government.
One of the ways in which Drescher’s temperament manifested itself was a ritual of his, that came to be known amongst the inmates as the Todtheater. Every Saturday, at ten o’clock, he would have all the idle officers in his command line up along one side of a square muddy patch of ground, behind the prison barracks. Any remaining SS guards would gather all the prisoners of our block into the square. Of these, Drescher would select a single muselmann at random, drag them into the middle of the square patch of muddy ground, and execute them. Or not—sometimes it would satisfy him merely to pace around the selected haeftling, tormenting them by priming his sidearm, raising it up to their head, then lowering it with a laugh. Or slapping them, or kicking them, or forcing their face into the mud with his boot. He particularly enjoyed it when they wept, or soiled themselves. Once the poor wretch was sufficiently degraded, he would stroll off with a final laugh, without even bothering to dismiss the officers lined up before the scene.
More often than not, however, he killed them. And on occasion, he would invite one of the SS in his command to take part in his sick pasttime.
On the morning in question, Drescher selected a gypsy woman from the crowd of prisoners. Being healthier than the usual prisoners he selected, and still possessing that lingering scrap of vivacity so absent from the other muselmanner, she immediately began pleading with him in loud, shrill cries. He dragged her out by the arm into the middle of the patch and forced her to her knees. She slumped back, weeping with all the restraint she could muster. I could not see her face clearly, for she was wrapped head-to-toe in a filthy grey shawl, but I believe her to have been middle aged. Though in the centre of the yard, hunched over and racked with despair, she resembled little more than a trembling pile of rags.
Drescher paced before his officers for a minute or so, studying the pathetic figure, his sidearm drawn and hanging by his side. After a long time he turned abruptly to the officer behind him and held out the gun.
“Private Koehler. If you will.”
Koehler remained at attention. Although he was a fair distance from where I was standing, I felt I could make out all the details of his face. His eyes darted from the gun, to the prisoner, and then moved into that neutral space adopted by soldiers at attention: staring directly ahead, neither at Drescher nor away from him.
“No, sir,” he replied, with a quick shake of his head.
The blockführer responded as though he hadn’t heard properly.
“Execute the prisoner, private.”
Drescher seemed to realise what the young private was doing, and was momentarily stunned. “Private Koehler! I order you to shoot the prisoner!”
“I will not shoot her, sir,” he said, firmly.
“The punishment for disobeying a commanding officer is execution, Private!”
“Then I will die with a clear conscience, sir!” Koehler barked, looking his superior in the eye.
Perhaps the thought occurred to Drescher to ascertain the motive for Koehler’s insubordination—why this sudden ideological shift, a sudden resistance to the forces around him. But the momentum of the situation, and his own need to appear in control, seemed to sweep him up. He took a step back from Koehler, whose eyes followed his own. He raised the Luger to Koehler’s nose. And he fired.
A sharp report, a burst of crimson, and Koehler fell to the ground. Several of the SS officers flinched at the gunshot, and one or two dared to break stance to look over at the corpse of the young Private. Drescher ran his free hand through his hair, staring at the body in front of him. The despair of the gypsy woman had waned during the altercation, and she chanced to look up from the ground. In a snap, Drescher turned to her and raised the gun. She screamed and held up her hands, and he emptied the clip into her. She slumped forward into the mud. And that was it.
Koehler’s body was dumped in a mass grave alongside the deceased internees. About a month after this incident, Allied forces liberated the camp, rescuing myself and the remaining survivors. By this point, Koehler’s body had decomposed and was unrecognisable. Drescher, meanwhile, had fled. He was arrested by Interpol agents two years ago in Puerto Madryn, Argentina.
Those were the facts of Herr Koehler’s life. And as I near my own end, I offer you this document as a paltry tribute to the man, and as his sole legacy.