The way she would look at me was something straight out of a romance novel. She barely understood a word I said when I found myself muttering in English but she still smiled and her eyes still lit up. I knew what we were doing was wrong and I knew that every second that passed was a second closer to us getting caught. When I found her I should have done the right thing and informed my commanding officer. Instead I hid her in the abandoned barn that a few other soldiers and I were using for shelter. I didn’t know how long I’d be in the area and I told her that. She didn’t mind. She just wanted to be with me for as long as she could be.
I’m not sure when we fell in love. I barely knew her for an hour before I was kissing her soft pink lips. As I look back on it now I still don’t know if it was actually love or lust, but at the time it was the closest thing to love that I had ever experienced. Her name was Mae and she was a Jewish girl. A nice Jewish girl. My mother would have been proud if I had the chance to bring her home.
The day I found Mae, half of my battalion, including myself, were supposed to be infiltrating what we believed to be a building full of German intelligence officers. We needed information on the army and their positions and someone told us this was the building we’d find it in. They were wrong. The building had been abandoned by the Nazis long before we got there. The only thing left was rotting food, rodents, and my dear Mae.
She was crouched behind a table shivering from pure fright. No one else spoke German in my company. I was usually the translator and this was the first time that I actually didn’t mind it. I asked her what her name was and the only response I got was a shake from her head. Her dark hair fell around her face, hiding every feature that I would later know by heart. The men behind me began searching the place for any information that would be helpful, food, and valuables. When the place came up empty they told me to forget about the girl, that “we had to go back.”
I got halfway across the meadow and she was still in my mind. I couldn’t forget about her. I signaled for the men to go ahead without me. It just didn’t feel right. She was so young and hungry. I saw in her eyes the same thing I saw in the eyes of my men everyday: defeat. Defeat and a sense of hopelessness. I could help her. I knew I could. Maybe that’s why we fell for each other. She needed someone to save her and I needed to be a hero. God only knew that nothing I did in my many years of serving for the US Army counted me as a hero. It was all a fallacy. We wanted to be in love…therefore, we were.
She accepted my peace offering of water and crackers. She told me her name was Maya, but I called her Mae for short. She had been in the building for about two weeks now. How she survived that long I will never know. On the way back through the meadow we talked about small things, such as the weather and what kind of fruits were in season. The more we talked the more she smiled. The more she smiled the more I felt at home.
When we got back to the barn two soldiers were waiting for me, Private David Beaumont and Corporal Anthony Vitali. Beaumont was cleaning his rifle and shoving his mouth full of rations. Vitali starred at the opening of the barn, his gun cocked and ready to fire at anything suspicious. Upon seeing his gun I gripped Mae’s hand tighter and muttered the password before I ended up with a bullet in my chest.
“You should save those rations, Beaumont.” I eyed him as I cautiously stepped in the darkened building that smelled of old hay.
“Who’s the girl?” he asked, looking up from his rifle and ignoring my suggestion.
“Does it matter to you, Private?”
“No, but it matters to me.” Vitali slung the strap of his gun over his shoulder and led me away from Mae, “What are you doing?”
His hushed tones told me what I already knew. This was a bad idea, but for some reason I couldn’t talk myself out of it. I answered him with silence. Vitali eyed me before sighing and giving me a short nod.
“Major Brady wants Sergeant Levi to stay behind and keep a lookout here.” Vitali directed his words to Beaumont. Looking back at me he continued, “Make sure no one in the Kraut army reenters that building, and if they do get as much information from them as possible. I Company should be meeting up with you in a week at the most to relieve your position. Let‘s hope there won‘t be much action in this area until then.”
Silence fell around us quickly as the men left to join up with the others back at camp as I set up the barn as my own. That’s where I stayed for four whole days, four glamorous days with Mae. I kept an eye on the shack across the meadow in between teaching Mae to fire my side arm and sleeping with her. I’ll be the first to admit that Mae was a distraction but at that point in time I couldn’t have cared less. I knew no one was coming back to that shack. There was nothing there. So I used my time to talk to Mae about her family that was now in a camp or dead. She knew nothing about their fate or her own. She asked me almost everyday what she was going to do when I had to leave. I promised to help her. But that’s the thing with promises: they usually get broken.
I had two days left before I Company would arrive, only two. I woke in the night to hear scuffling outside of the barn. One good thing about being in the war is you learn to sleep light in fear of dying. My gun was in my hand in a second as I looked around, my eyes adjusting to the black mass of the night. Mae was nowhere around me. I panicked. I didn’t do a long sweep of the barn, as something told me that she was outside.
My gut was right. As I exited the building I saw two shadows about fifteen feet from the entrance. One shadow was Mae, her skirt blowing in breeze and my side arm clenched tightly in her hand. The man across from her I quickly recognized as an SS soldier. He grabbed her hand and gestured behind him. I couldn’t make out what they were saying but I heard the tone of his voice. He was in love with her. I could tell he was. The way he talked her was the same way I whispered to her over the course of a week. My heart skipped a beat. She was leaving me.
She suddenly pulled her hand back and yelled, “Nein.” Her feet scurried backward, wanting nothing else to do with him. She held the gun up; her hand was shaking as she aimed at his face. I began heading towards them, her name on the tip of my tongue, but I was cut short. The sound of a gun firing rang out through the air. I was expecting to see the soldier drop, his body crumpling to the ground in a pool of his own blood.
Instead the body that lay in the meadow belonged to my precious Mae. My finger instantly coiled around the trigger. The soldier was next as he too hit the ground with a thud. I couldn’t make my feet move or my lungs work. I held my breath praying, hoping, that Mae would raise to her feet. That the bullet only skimmed her or hit her in the arm. But she never moved.
I had seen men fall dead around me. Their blood often splattering and painting my face in the most gruesome of war paint. I never missed a beat then. I continued on track, only heading for my target, doing what I had to do to survive. The sound of exploding bombs, the dirt and body parts that flew up when one hit the ground, shaking my body to the core, none of it stopped me in my tracks. It was all just noise, like a train on a railroad track or children screaming in a nearby courtyard. But seeing her frail crumpled body, surrounded by grass and weeds, made me stop in my tracks.
I have no idea how long I stood there before I forced my body to move. I didn’t want to see her face. I didn’t want to see the blood that once kept her alive that was now dancing around her body. But she deserved to be buried instead of being left on the battle field like so many men before her.
The next day I could hear I company making their way across the meadow. They would soon find the dead soldier and rush to the barn to make sure I was still alive and I was. I was numb but I was still breathing. I finally felt the tears roll down my cheek, cutting a path through the dirt that seemed to stain my face.
“Levi! Sergeant Levi!?”
I looked up to see a boy who was barely eighteen enter the barn.
I muttered the password before he even asked for it. “Caesar.”
“Thank God. You’re still alive. How many of them were here?”
A second man entered, stating that he checked around the barn and everything seemed clear.
“If there was just one then who’s buried out back?”
I stood and slung my rifle over my shoulder. My pack was already on my back and I wanted nothing more than to just leave. I wanted to get as far away from that barn, that country, and that shitty war as I could possibly get. I pushed past them and started heading towards the meadow back to camp. I never answered that private’s question. I felt like I didn’t have to. The only person who knew about Mae was me and me alone.
The shit storm you call World War Two lasted for one more year and I never forgot about Mae. A lot of people today ask me if the war was worth everything we went through. I never give them an answer. To me the war was just another job. A duty I had to perform to protect my country. But when people ask me if I thought all the death and bloodshed was worth it, I can only think about Mae.
So yes, the war was worth it.