Her memory of the first time she saw the prisoners is still the most vivid: It was early in the autumn, late in the war, a morning in the middle of the harvest. They were at breakfast when Wendelgard von Staden heard the strange sound, a rhythmic shuffling. She and her mother went to the window to see what it was. They saw a ragged procession of gaunt faces, shaved heads, stooped figures shuffling along in wooden clogs. "What sort of prisoners can these men be?" her mother asked. "They look like they've just stepped out of a madhouse."
Soon her mother had a large pot of potatoes cooking on the fire to feed the starving men. She had barely announced that the potatoes were ready when the men in their frenzy knocked the kettle over and clawed and fought for the steaming potatoes in the dirt, crawling on the ground to find them and shoving them, dirty and still hot, in their mouths and then fighting for more. "What kind of people are these, anyway?" her mother asked.
"They are Jews," one of the guards said. "Subhumans. You can see that for yourself."
"I've had the feeling since the end of the war that those experiences were like an iceberg that wouldn't melt, that seven-eighths of it was below the surface," Von Staden says now. "That all experience that followed would be flat and never be of equal importance." She is blond and elegant in a matter-of-fact fashion, her face is serious and intent. It is her eyes that fill with the horror and the history and the guilt, eyes that seem to be able to look past the last 30 years as a diplomat and a diplomat's wife, past the time spent in sophisticated colloquy in the capitals of the world, straight back to the last mad months of World War II when she was a young girl and her family discovered that the buildings in the pleasant little valley that was a part of their estate was a concentration camp for sick and dying prisoners from all over Europe.
The sound of wooden clogs has haunted her dreams since then, sounding as if "they were opening up the gates of Hell." She has written a book, "Darkness Over the Valley," to help exorcise the memories. In the beginning, she had not intended to have the memoir published, meaning it instead to be a way of explaining to her children what that nightmare in her country's history had been like to live through. A trip to what had once been the family estate near Stuttgart changed her mind.
"I walked down to the little valley," von Staden explains in her preface. "There an industrious contractor had already laid the foundations for new houses. And the old dirt road was now a wide paved street. I crossed the little creek, which still ran through the valley, and went up the hill. There I found a big new gate which led into a cemetery that had not existed before. Rows of headstones stretched along the crest of the hill -- simple stones with numbers carved on them. They looked oddly lost in the fog, belonging nowhere, to no time, no place. I could make out names on a few -- 'Saul Silvermann, born in Radom, died here in 1945' -- but on most there were only numbers . . . It was then that I decided to give in to the publisher's request, for, otherwise, who would remember why those stones were there?"
Von Staden remembers. The tears spring to her eyes and her voice catches as she talks about Camp Wiesengrund as the German officers called the bleak structures behind the barbed wire. Her name was von Neurath then; she was the daughter of Baron Ernst von Neurath and was the niece of Hitler's first foreign minister. She was 11 years old the first time she saw Hitler, a young girl growing up among the sweet splendor of life on a farm, her father a disillusioned and near bankrupt military officer, her mother a spirited intellectual with a Cassandra-like gift for prophecy. She was 14 when the war began and her childhood ended. By the time she and her mother had discovered the horror that blighted their valley, she says now, they had long been disenchanted with the grandiose, malign dreams of the Third Reich and of its leaders.
As a way of trying to keep some of the prisoners alive, von Staden's mother arranged with the camp commandant to have a detachment of prisoners come every day to the farm to help with the work needed to fill the camp's ration demands. "They were Jews from Poland," she remembers. "They were wild, belligerent, they wouldn't take too much. They had no hope, they had seen so much, they had nothing to lose." The prisoners told her about the other camps, about Auschwitz: " 'They are giving soap and also towel,' " one prisoner told her in his broken German. " 'They are making thumb up or down, there is child and woman and man, they are standing in rows many hundred deep, they are going through big gate and big hall, they are making gas on, then is dead, woman and child and man . . .' "
Soon von Staden became obsessed with the camp and its inmates, with her mother's attempts to devise a plan to save them, with the horror and the ways in which her sense of German idealism and the mystic beauty of its culture was shattered. "It was as if we had embarked on a path through a moonscape," she says. "You didn't care anymore. All you knew was the extreme of the human condition. If everything else went to pieces, it didn't matter. Everything around us could be smashed as long as the men in the camp were saved."
It was only after the Allied tanks had rolled into sight and the countryside had become occupied territory that the women discovered how desperate the dream of saving the men in the camp had been. The mass grave at Camp Wiesengrund contained 2,000 bodies; hundreds more of the prisoners had been evacuated in boxcars before the French troops marched in. There were only 1,300 survivors.
One of them was a prisoner von Staden calls Jakob in the book, and with whom she had fallen in love. When the war was over they talked of her coming to America with him, but in the end they saw it was hopeless. "You've got to leave him alone," her mother told her. "You've got to let him start his life again." Still it was years before she could think of marrying anyone else, and it wasn't until she met Berndt von Staden that she fell in love again. Von Staden finally saw Jakob again several years ago. "I thought he would be fat and balding by now," she said, her eyes shining with a soft light. "He wasn't."
The war ended long before von Staden was able to come to terms with the horror she had witnessed. "I am probably the only German who had come so close, who had seen so much before the war was over," she says now. For years afterward, she says, there was a schizophrenia about it. "I hated everything German, I was wrestling with the values that had been so much a part of me before the war and then had come to this."
After the war she went to Paris, one of the first 10 Germans accepted to the Sorbonne, and the experience helped her to come to terms with her hatred. "I was put in the role of fighting against the collective guilt that everyone felt, of trying to explain that what had happened had been a catastrophe for Germans as well."
After Paris, she received a scholarship to the University of Southern California and fell in love with America and the values she perceived as predominating, although it did take some time to understand the notion of the pursuit of happiness, "after being raised with the idea that always the goal was to get beyond the ego." Back in Germany, she entered the foreign service, and was stationed in Bern, Paris and finally Washington, where she served as first secretary at the German embassy. In 1961 she married, and in deference to the rules governing women in the foreign service at the time, gave up her post to be a wife and mother. In 1973, she returned to Washington when her husband was named German ambassador. They live now in Bonn, where he serves as state secretary.
Writing the book has been a catharsis, says von Staden, the memories have been laid to rest. Gone, too, is the sense that what happened in Germany in World War II constituted the end of history, the end of time. "Finally, I can see what happened as imbedded in the flow of history -- things continued, people did survive, some of them, and life went on."