Ghost story

A meeting with a former SS man leads the author Paul Watkins to the Ardennes forest at dead of night. There, among the ghosts of long- gone soldiers, his life takes new and sudden shape. Photograph by Jan Hardisty
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This is a ghost story, although not your run-of-the-mill, chain- rattling, jump-out-and-say-boo variety. It is more sinister, more personal. It is about how I came to be haunted by the story of a man who lived through a period in history that most people struggle to forget. The event he described took place exactly 20 years before I was born, at the end of the Second World War, in a forest legendary for its silence and its spirits, of which this man had become one, without even the luxury of dying first.

I was eighteen years old, and in the final week of a stay as an exchange student in Germany, having already completed one year of study at Yale university. My host family lived near Hanover. They were Prussian aristocrats who had fled from the advancing Russians in 1945, abandoning everything but their titles. They lived, predictably for Prussians, a regimented life. Having only just learned to relax the extreme notions of discipline, punctuality and politeness that I had cultivated in order to survive at the Dragon school in Oxford and Eton, I now found myself rehearsing those old codes so that I could keep pace with the lifestyle of the Siegel family.

I was afraid of Mr Siegel from the start, and he knew it. My own father had died some years before and I had been without one long enough not to know what to do with a father figure. I didn't grudge Mr Siegel his aloofness. I was struck with the notion that he cultivated it more for my benefit than for his, as if he were hiding something that he was afraid I might see if I came to know him any better.

His eyes were the kind of blue you normally only get from an electric current. He combed his once-blonde and now grey hair straight back on his head each morning, but, as the day wore on, it would turn spiky, each strand like a splinter of ivory. Although he stood well over six foot, Mr Siegel seemed to be a man compacted into a space much smaller than his frame allowed. His compactness lent him an air of muscularity, as if he had been designed for a life of hard physical work which fate had chosen to deny him. Despite this, he never embarked on exercise more vigorous than the family's Sunday walk through the nearby woods, but those walks came every Sunday without fail, at the same time, for the same distance and always with Mr Siegel alone at the front, hands in pockets, trailed by his two sons, his wife and myself. I studied him from this safe distance and yet, by the time I was due to leave, I knew little more about him than I had done when I arrived.

On that particular day, I was packing my bags. I was unsettled: I'd only just grown used to the rhythm of life in this family and now I was leaving. Carefully, I rolled presents for my mother and brother in pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine. When I glanced up, Mr Siegel was standing at the entrance to my bedroom, filling the door frame as though he meant to block any attempt at escape. He was watching me, as if to repay all the time I had spent watching him. My first thought was that I had done something wrong. I felt the familiar locking of my jaw and liquid sensation in my joints which I remembered from the Dragon School, where I had specialised in breaking rules without knowing they existed. Mr Siegel came into the room and closed the door.

He had no gift for small talk. He came straight to the point.

"I want to tell you something," he said, "that I haven't yet told my own children." Before he said anything, however, he undid the cuff button on his left shirt and began to roll up his shirt. He twisted his arm, revealing the pale flesh of his inner bicep. "Do you see this?" he asked, his eyes catching mine and then looking away.

I saw a tattoo. It was not a normal tattoo. Not a girl or a ship or a name. Instead, it was a letter A and a short series of numbers.

"Do you know what this means?" he asked. Before I could answer, he told me. "It's a blood group marking and a military serial number. When I was your age, I enlisted into the Waffen SS. Do you know who they were?"

I said I did. Every schoolboy grows up with comic-book pictures of jackbooted SS men in their sharply angled helmets and their strange, splotchy camouflage which looks somehow alive, shifting before the eye like the swirls and shadows that inhabit the border of dreams.

Mr Siegel explained that he had been in the 12th SS Panzer Division, whose members came mostly from the Hitler Youth. They were sent into the Ardennes forest, on the Belgian-German border in the winter of 1944, in a last desperate attempt to turn the tide of the war. He recalled the days they hid in the woods, waiting for the attack to begin, while snow settled thickly on the branches of the trees. No fires allowed. No talking except in whispers. No smoking. No hot food. Wild boar, grey like smoke, ran down trails too narrow for people to pass in the perpetual darkness of the forest. The pine branches clung so thickly together that the sky was blotted out. Before dawn on the morning of 16 December, German artillery began to pound the American lines. The air was filled with cordite smoke. Mr Siegel watched the shells exploding in the hills where the Americans were hiding. The night sky lit up, flashed into darkness and then burst into colour again. Siegel saw the faces of his friends huddled together and clinging to the ground, their fingers knotted in the tall grass, while they waited for the order to advance. For hours there was nothing but the sound of the guns. It made them all deaf, so that after a while all they heard was a ringing deep inside their heads.