Hans hands over hams to pay debt

AMID THE slaughter and confusion of the battle of Normandy, it was a trivial enough episode: the kind of incident that most people would have forgotten decades ago.

A starving 19-year-old German soldier, retreating before the D-Day invasion force, stole a ham from a farmer's wife.

Hans Kupperfahrenbergcould never forget what he had done. Haunted by guilt, he went back to Normandy last August to search for the farm. He brought a large ham with him in the boot of his car.

After more than half a century, his memory failed him. Despite help from local people, he could not find the farmhouse. Eventually, he presented the hunk of meat to an old people's home, before making an eloquent little speech about Franco-German friendship and the cruelty of war. "Please remember that not all German soldiers were bad men," he said.

An article in the local newspaper reported his failed act of contrition and stirred faint memories. The correct farm was identified but only after Hans had returned to Germany.

On Monday afternoon, Mr Kupperfahrenberg, 74, will be back in the rolling countryside south-east of Caen where he almost starved to death 55 years ago. The farmer's wife from whom he stole the ham is still living, although she has only the vaguest recollection of the incident. He will present her with not one ham but two: an Italian parma ham and half a German Schwarzwalderschinken or Black Forest ham.

"They symbolise a united Europe," Hans said, chuckling, during a telephone interview from his home in Essen.

Mr Kupperfahrenberg was a trooper in the 21st Panzer Division, retreating before Allied troops who were breaking out from Caen in July 1944. He and a dozen other men, who had not eaten for two days, took refuge in a farm house near Argences. The farmer's wife pitied them and gave them eggs and milk, even though she had little food of her own.

As the soldiers cooked the eggs, the chimney caught fire and a flaming sack fell into the hearth. It contained a smoked ham, which had been hidden in the chimney. "We ate the lot. It was like a big party in its own way. I've never forgotten that moment. For me it wasn't a trivial thing even though people tell me, `Worse things happened in the war'," Mr Kupperfahrenberg said. "I felt really awful about it. I can't call it a small thing. It is not easy to go back, but the farmer's wife was willing to meet me and so I agreed to go."

Soon after he stole the ham, Hans was injured in the chest by a grenade. He was invalided back to Germany but sent to fight in Italy the following year. After the war, Hans worked for the German state railways as a manager.

His experience in Normandy marked him for life. In memory of all the young comrades he had lost, he threw himself into youth work. In memory of his own brush with starvation, he raised more than a million German marks (pounds 300,000) for poor and hungry old people and children in Africa.

And he never forgot the ham. At a ceremony at the Argences town hall on Monday afternoon, Mr Kupperfahrenberg will hand over his hams to Marie-Louise Marie, who is now 84. With her will be her husband, Amand, who was a prisoner of war in Germany when Hans and his comrades were stealing her ham.

What will he say to Ms Marie? "I will say, `Sorry, but I was only a boy and there was no other choice but to fight during the Hitler dictatorship'."

Ms Marie seemed a little bewildered by the entire event, when contacted by phone. "Really I can't remember much of what happened at that time," she said. "It was all a long time ago. But if he says he took the ham, then I suppose he did. If he wants to give me another one, well, that is fine."

Mr Kupperfahrenberg believes Monday's ceremony will be all the more poignant because of the present conflict in the Balkans. "Between French and German people today, there are no problems," he said.

"I believe that a united Europe is a very good thing indeed, I would like Western Europe to set an example to the rest of the world, for example to the current governments in the Bal-kans. Western Europe was once so divided, and so much blood was shed, but now it is united and peaceful."

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