Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484
A Belgian named Claeys, temporarily attached to the British army on a civilian mission, is riding in Germany with two officers and a driver two months after the end of World War II. He is a teacher who has volunteered to assist in the rehabilitation of the enemy. He is traveling to one of the camps of displaced persons, mostly Slavs, from a German forced-labor camp.
The car drives through a verdant landscape, where vegetation is already camouflaging the evidence of war, burying the carcasses of abandoned war machines in grass and vines. However, there is also a bombed-out town that is quite dead, grim evidence of humanity’s power to bring a total disorder that at least temporarily defeats every effort of nature to restore life.
As the car approaches the area of the labor camp, the riders hear a chorus of men singing Slavic songs and a large group preparing, apparently, to march home. The driver advances cautiously with a hand on his gun; there has been trouble recently between the former inmates and a former German soldier returning to his farm. However, expatriates generally respect the English military. Claeys says that he wants to speak to these men and asks the driver to leave him there alone, drive out of sight around the bend, and wait.
The expatriates approach Claeys, uncertain about who he is and what he wants. Claeys smiles and speaks to them in English, but they obviously do not understand. Then he tries French—again no response. He breaks into Dutch, which comes more naturally—this time there is some interest and arguing among the men, even some menacing gestures. Then he thinks that perhaps some of them might have learned German and reiterates his friendly overtures in that language. Now, the ranks close around him, the looks grow darker. Though they evidently recognize the language, they still do not seem to understand his now desperate “Bitte ein Moment . . . ich bin Freund, Freund.” Slowly he raises his hand in a plea for order and understanding. A man steps forward and swings a scythe, cutting him down. The others close in, shouting and kicking.
Shots from the two officers bring a halt to the mob action, bringing down two of the attackers. Claeys, now dying, tries to speak to the officer who kneels by him but can only gasp out “mistake!” Claeys lifts his right arm to shake hands with the officer, then gestures to his attackers. The officer, believing that he understands the dying man, walks toward the group of watchers extending his hand. Because it is now bloody, however, he first wipes it, then shakes hands with the Slavs as a sign of peace. The displaced persons do not know if he is vicariously offering the hand of the dying man in friendship or, by wiping his hand first, expressing a repudiation of the man they killed.
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