The Tank Commander
About forty years ago, it fell to me to question a former Nazi tank commander who had been in Berlin in 1943 when Europe was in the Hell of World War II. A chess tournament in Berlin attracted the eye of the tank ommander as it had that of complete chess unknown, Rudolph Wolf. Wolf entered the tournament and drew the eyes of everyone as he moved from one level to another, ultimately capturing the championship. Unfortunately, the Gestapo investigated him and discovered that Wolfwas, said the tank commander, a “submerged Jew”, for he had “Jewish blood” in his history. Wolf was promptly imprisoned in a concentration camp.
The tank commander, in relating the story to me, seemed to re-enter the war as if he and I were in a holy place. He painstakingly described Berlin in detail, the eternal fires, the dead everywhere, many of them hanging in apartment closets in which they had hidden. One could see them, he said, hanging like mannequins in the upper floors of buildings whose walls had collapsed. His voice almost became inaudible as, in relating the details of mass destruction, his arm ever so slowly moved up and down and sideways as if he were conducting an orchestra of the dead.
He said that Wolf survived the camp and in 1948 Wolf became his client. He told Wolf that he had watched him playing in the tournament and that there was an eerie quality about him, as if he were playing calculatedly with the air of a nobleman. No, said Wolf, he naturally felt the anxiety in running the risk of discovery, but it all dissolved when his chess skill enveloped him, gently taking possession of him and making him oblivious to the world about him. “My chess art”, he said, “made a self-destructive move in me that I could not have foreseen.” “What of the record of your championship”, asked the tank commander, “It was destroyed by the Gestapo. How did that make you feel?” Wolf looked at the tank commander and smiled. “They gave me a better record of what happened. Germans are born obsessives. They make a record of everything. They leftarecord of the fact that they had destroyed my record.”
I was so taken aback by the tank commander’s story that I briefly left the room. I needed the space in which I could recapture the facts behind my interrogation, facts that had absolutely nothing to do with Wolf, Berlin, its forgotten dead, all of whom had been incanted by the tank commander. When I returned to my room, I found the tank commander not in the seat where I had left him but standing in the far corner of the room, his only arm extended over a table on which I kept a chess set. He looked up, holding a chess piece, and said, “I like this chess set you have, Mr. Reynolds. Where did you get it?” “From someone in Moscow”, I said. He smiled sadly, pointing to his empty sleeve. “I almost reached it”, he said. “I know”, I said, shaking his hand, “My Russian mother told me when I was a boy.”