sandgrains: last letters XII: letting go

The final word.

What would your final words be if you had to write one last letter to your beloved.

How would you start the letter?

What would you say?

how would you end it?

It all seems so final doesn’t it? Never writing another word. Never seeing them again. Never looking into their eyes again. Never holding them again. The agony of that final separation. Permanent separation.

Our soldier begins his letter by writing the words he never wanted to ever write, “Now I shall write just once more, and then never again. There I said it. For a long time I thought about how I should formulate so fateful a sentence so that it would say everything and still not hurt too much.” 

The reality of his situation is no longer deniable. Hope has disappeared. The end is nigh. And so he resorts to the matter of fact. Never again.

But the pain doesn’t end there, for our soldier takes a moment to think back, to recall to remember the times they had together, the love they shared and the life they built. And in this moment the sense of loss is acute,

” Our whole life together is there for us to see. We have honored and loved each other, and waited for each other now for two years…and time will have to heal the wounds of my not coming back.”

But the poignancy and loss does not end there, for our soldier does not just look back at the love they shared but he looks forward too, and in his imagining he sees a world for his beloved without him, but with someone else. In his love and concern for his partner (who is “beautiful” and still only 28) and their two children (Gertrud and Claus) he exhorts her to find someone else to love and marry after just a few months of his death. This is his dying wish for them

“Children forget quickly, especially at that age. Take a good look at the man of your choice, take note of his eyes and the pressure of his handshake…”

How must it have felt to write those words? To imagine your beloved with someone else? To see in your mind your children with a different father. To know that you will never see any of them again.

Only occasionally does he let slip the heaviness and despair in his heart as he faces his inevitable death. And at the end he exhorts her to tell the children as they grow up that their father was never a coward. That he faced his death with honour and without fear.

This is a letter about letting go. And letting go of the people we love, of the future we hoped for, of the dreams for our shared lives, of the hope that we had of seeing each other again.

Letting go – like waiting  – is probably one of the most profound, most pure, most selfless expressions of love. For in the act of waiting and in the act of letting go, there is nothing self-seeking. When everything seems lost and when there seems to be no hope, love waits. It waits and it waits and it waits. It waits patiently because of the deep longing to see the beloved just once more.

And in letting go, the beloved says to the beloved: go and live and find love and happiness without me.

So, in the midst of this painful, destructive, barbaric war we come across these examples of pure, unrefined, selfless love.

Moments of light in an abyss of darkness

sandgrains: last letters XI: losing faith

Some losses happen quickly.

Some happen slowly.

Losing faith in, well, everything, happened gradually.

And loss of faith was difficult to talk about with your loved ones who so desperately needed to believe in something – anything – that might bring them a tiny shard of hope. Something to hold onto. But for some of the soldiers, the experience of Stalingrad had rendered faith in anything almost impossible.

So it was with Letter XI. Our soldier recounts the letter he has received from his loved one back home, in which she relates how,

“…a human being like you , who loves animals and flowers and does no harm to anyone, who loves and adores his wife and child, will always have God’s protection.”

But how do you respond if that is no longer your reality? No longer how you feel about the world? About faith? About God?

What we are witnessing here is distance at work. And not just the geographical distance and separation of lovers in war. No, this is distance caused by the two different worlds they were now inhabiting. The world of the soldier – one of unimaginable trauma and suffering and pain and violence – and the world of the civilian back home struggling to keep life as normal as possible. The world of war was impossible to understand to those back home. The physical distance was now an emotional and spiritual distance, as a gulf had opened up between them.

 Tragically, they now no longer believed the same things about the world, because he had been changed, and there was no going back now. Both literally and spiritually. Too much had been seen. Too much felt. Too much loss. Too much destruction. It was becoming impossible to make any sense, any meaning out of what had happened to him.

He now knew one thing for sure: he no longer believed,

I am a religious man, you always were a believer, but this will have to change now if we accept the consequences of the conviction which we held up to now because something has happened which has overthrown everything in which we believed…I don’t believe any longer that God can be good, for then he would not permit such great injustice. i don’t believe in it any more, for he would have enlightened the minds of those people who began this war and always talked of peace and the Almighty in three languages. I don’t believe in God anymore, because he betrayed us.”

Betrayal.  Such a strong word, with all it evokes of love and loyalty and the fracturing of trust.

You see, this is what war does. It changes circumstances of course. But it changes people too. It transforms you. makes you different. It strips life back to its very basic elements and causes you to reassess everything you believe. When nothing is certain. When death is your ever-present companion. When you see the very worst and the very best of humanity. When you long and yearn for the simplest things – a hot shower, food, a few hours sleep – yet are denied them. Then you begin to see the world in radically different ways.

He knew he wasn’t going back,

This will be my last letter for a long time, perhaps forever…The situation has become untenable. The Russians are within three kilometers of of our last airfield, and once this is lost, not a mouse will get out, not to mention me. of course hundreds of thousands of others won’t get out either. Bit it is small comfort to have shared your own destruction with others.”

He was trapped.

There was no escape.

No hope at all.

And now no faith.

sandgrains: last letters X: the name on your lips when you die

Do you ever wonder whose name you will cry out as you take your last breath?

Whose image will appear in your mind’s eye?

What will be your last thought as a human being?

We – in the modern West – have a deeply problematic relationship with death and mortality. We deny it, ignore it, repress it.

But for troops in the front-line its not something you can do, even if you wanted to. You were surrounded by death. You heard it. Saw it. Smelt it. Touched it.

The sensory experience of battle – its sights and sounds and tastes and noises – rooted you in the present moment. Survival. Fear. Anxiety. Adrenaline. The desperate struggle just to live another minute. Anything to breathe one more breath.

But afterwards the shadow of death touched everything.

Stalingrad became this breeding ground for the collapse of belief, and the disappearance of hope for these German soldiers. They had marched in with a sense of invincibility, certain of their superiority. But the shelling and shooting, the firing and hiding, the bombs and bullets were all to no avail, and the deaths of all their comrades now weighed heavily on those trapped inside the city.

Existential angst was rife. Why were they there? Why had their leaders abandoned them?

For our soldier, this existential angst brought two deep emotions: despair and doubt.

He writes -so poignantly – “Now you know I shall never return”.

Those words must have been so difficult to read, and so tough to write. The finality must have been crushing.

I. Shall. Never. Return.

And with the despair comes doubt. Doubt about the whole damn project. Doubt about the leaders, and guilt about the doubt too. He had been a true believer in the Third Reich and the Fuhrer. But now he feels the despair, and the uselessness of his former beliefs.

Where were all those people he had trusted and put his faith in when he most needed them?

He goes on to say,


“No one can tell me any longer that the men died with the words ‘Deutschland” on their lips. There is plenty of dying, no question of that; but the last word is “mother” or the name of someone dear, or just a cry for help. I have seen hundreds fall and die already, and many belonged to the Hitler youth as I did; but all of them, if they still could speak, called for help or shouted a name which could not help them anyway.”

And so amidst all the painful, traumatic, constant death of friends and comrades comes another death. The death of hope and belief, and the death of meaning, for everything you gave your life to turns out to be meaningless and empty.

And so as you die, you cry out the name of your loved one.

And maybe that is the only thing that makes any sense in a world tearing itself apart in violence and killing and hatred.

And maybe that is the only way these things will ever be stopped.

If we choose love over hate.