His name was Hans … and he lived next door.
I didn’t really know him at first. I just saw him as an old man – good-looking, his hair still full – as he did chores around his home.
I rarely saw his wife. I would find out later she had Alzheimer’s, and was in a home. Hans basically lived alone.
I had a young wife and a baby then, our daughter Rica, who was just about a year old. Like most young couples, we were stretched thin. We needed two salaries to survive in Calgary, and my job at the Calgary Sun newspaper didn’t pay well.
I can’t remember exactly how we broke the ice. Maybe I was walking to my silver Jeep Cherokee, which was parked in back of the condo.
Somehow, we ended up chatting, and when he found out I had a Ukrainian name, he invited me over for a drink. I said for sure, let’s do that.
Hans was respected in our neighborhood – always a smile and maybe a joke, always willing to help if needed. An infectious grin, which hid more secrets than you could imagine.
Before I take this any further, let me just say, my dad’s cousin, Mike Makichuk, died on Juno Beach during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. We believe he stepped on a mine, either in the water or on the beach, we’re not sure.
I’ve been to his grave twice – each time sprinkling holy water from Canada on his well-kept gravestone, at Bény-sur-Mer, France. I even got four French speeding tickets on the road to and from Paris.
Should have never rented that Alfa Romeo turbo.
As we approach yet another Remembrance Day in Canada, let the story turn back to Hans.
I did indeed show up for a drink, and Hans liberally poured the schnapps … he was, in fact, in the German army during the Second World War, and he had many great stories to tell.
I don’t know why, but I felt a deep friendship with this man. I wanted to think he was a good man, who just went to war for his country, like so many others did. But the truth is, I was captivated. When he spoke, it was like history re-lived. I was on the edge of my chair, for most of it.
He was especially proud of capturing a radio station outside Paris, in a commando operation. All the while, a photo of the Desert Fox, General Erwin Rommel, still proudly hung on his wall.
I looked up and thought, “Oh my god … it’s Rommel.”
That handsome visage of German heroism, still held in reverence, after all these years.
Hans would continue … for a while, he was stationed in Berlin. Because he was an electrician by trade, they ordered him to work on the artillery batteries that fired at the Allied bombers, in a sequential fashion. He explained to me in detail how this was done.
The guns were set up to sway back and forth, creating a wall of flak that the aircraft had to fly through. God help the men who died in that hellish fire.
Then he ended up on the dreaded Eastern front – yes, the place where men died, in such a cold, terrible, unforgiving fashion.
When he found out I was Ukrainian, he felt an instant kinship. He said the Ukrainians saved him from the Russians, many a time. He talked about being na kachka, hidden on the second-floor ring of a traditional Ukrainian grass hut, which formed a circle.
It was the only reason he was still alive, he said. That, and a tortuous escape in mid-winter, across a giant frozen lake. It would bring him back to Germany, and an Allied camp for German prisoners.
After that, whenever Hans saw me in the backyard, it was the same response: “Dave, c’mon over … we’ll hang a few and shoot a few.”
It was his joking way of saying, let’s have a drink and talk. I think he liked me, and he liked telling his stories to me.
Something he probably never did with his co-workers at the CP Rail yard, where he was an electrician for many years, before his retirement.
I never asked him how many men he’d killed, or if it bothered him. Hans had the eagle-eyed look of a warrior, and I assumed he did his fair bit of damage.
I did ask him once, who was the toughest group he ever came up against? Hans thought carefully.
“Yes,” he said, “the Americans had the better materiel … the Canadians, the British … ” his voice trailing off, as he looked aside.
They feared the Russians most, he said. Not only were they fierce … they didn’t take prisoners. This was generally known by the German troops in Ukraine.
Eventually, we moved away from that rented condo. We bought a small house and moved on.
But I always regretted not keeping track of Hans. He was a good guy, he just fought for the wrong side. I sure as hell am glad I never came up against him.
Last I heard, he had found a new love in his life, sold his house and moved somewhere south, living in a seniors’ home.
In his kitchen, we laughed, told jokes, drank schnapps. Not once did he ever say anything offensive about anyone or anything. He just wondered why Canada didn’t develop its resources more. He thought our country had great economic potential.
Farewell, Hans. It was good knowing you. I hope you are in a good place.