A Totenkopf’s tale


Every summer our company rehires laid-off workers temporarily, to cover the shortfall due to vacations taken by the regulars. These rehirees come in for 3 months and disappear again, till the next summer. Like comets, blazing across our skies.

They don’t have to be trained as they were here before and know the job, except maybe for recent changes & updates in systems and software. They do the best they can, all the while hoping that they’ll be made permanent after the 3 month recall period is over. Unfortunately they are rarely asked to stay back.

This summer we have Titus with us. Titus Kastner, 49, is a swarthy first generation Canadian from Crete, with a perpetually flushed-red face, mirthless deep blue eyes and a sneer that seems to say to you, “You can go f— yourself, I don’t give a s—.”

His personality however completely belies his looks. Just about the humblest person I’ve known, Titus does bring a lot of dedication to the job. And the sneer is actually a scar, the result of a fall from his maternal grandparents’ farmhouse rooftop at Arkadi, Crete, during a vacation when he was 10. His grandfather, then a big time orange & citron grower and exporter, also owned a sizable enough head of cattle to be an established Mizithra cheese exporter.

Titus sometimes brings for lunch, a freshly baked roll of brown bread and a block of Mizithra cheese from his family farm. He lays the cheese on the lunch table first, patting it this way and that to make one side of the block exactly parallel to the table edge. Then he carefully extracts from his lunch box, a hunk of home baked bread, wrapped in aluminum foil. He unwraps it and proceeds to align the roll co-axially with the cheese, lightly tapping it in position till it looks like the Saturn V, 1st stage engine. Two solid fuel boosters (pickled gherkins actually) soon appear and are gently laid on either side of the cheese, exactly equidistant from it. All this is accompanied by satisfied grunts and giggles.

Titus is the only guy I know who giggles at his food.

Titus Kastner came over from Crete in 1976. A Kastner from Crete? It’s like the VHP being headed by a guy named Lashkar Kumar Toiba.

Let me explain.

Titus’s father was SS Hauptscharfuhrer Franz Kastner of the SS-Totenkopfverbande, the Death’s Head Unit of the Waffen-SS, a sledge hammer-like division within the SS during WWII, which dealt with town folk as the German armies marched through conquered lands.

Following close behind the regular Wehrmacht forces, units of the Totenkopf SS set up extermination camps where they rounded up and massacred selected portions of the populace. Forefathers of the rendition units of today’s CIA.

20yr old Franz Kastner was a member of a Totenkopf SS squad that was parachuted into a field 20kms north of Arkadi, Crete, one winter’s night in 1941. Leaping from the Luftwaffe Junkers-52 paratroop transport at 11000ft, Franz and his comrades drifted through the highly humid, still air for a while. He always enjoyed this part of his job, the jump and the roller coaster-feel of the fall, no sounds other than the rush of the wind.

While the others were floating down pretty much bunched up together, Franz got carried further north by a sudden freaky gust and landed at a spot roughly 10 miles from the rest of the squad. 10miles on hilly terrain can be a very long distance to cover, especially when its pitch dark and you’re blundering over jagged rocks and can’t switch your flashlight on.

Staying put till daybreak would invite capture by the partisans. Instead, he found his bearings and began picking his way through the rocky valley floor, when his right foot snagged under something, snapping his ankle in two.

With a shattered ankle, Franz dragged himself for days, slithering beneath rocky ledges at night for shelter. He was found under a rocky overhang on the fourth night, delirious from the onset of gangrene, by a 15yr old girl who half carried, half dragged him to the nearby farmhouse where she lived, with her parents and brothers.

Her name was Lorenza and she promptly proceeded to nurse the blue-eyed, flaxen-haired German back to health.

Franz hid inside that farmhouse till the allied forces took back Crete. Then, when the time came, he gave himself up to a passing British patrol and was incarcerated for 6 months, before they let him go.

Late 1945, as he was making plans to go back to Hamburg, Franz got news that both his parents had been killed in the allied bombing, their house completely destroyed. He stayed back in Crete, and began working in Lorenza’s father’s orchards.

I’d love to tell you that Franz and Lorenza, Titus’s parents, fell in love, married and lived happily ever after but that didn’t happen. Not right away at least. It took a few years. And many tumbles in the barn. On Titus’s grandfather’s hay. Since it was a given that they’d eventually marry, Lorenza’s parents and brothers didn’t mind all the barn sex. The Cretans in fact are a very lusty people. (Wish I had been a Cretan. Lord, I said I wannid ta be a Cretan, with an ‘a’ in there, not an ‘i’. What were you thinking?).

When they were bored with all the tumbling, Franz taught Lorenza to make franzbrötchen, a pastry that his mother would make on Sundays before the war, and frikadelle, meatballs made from pork, beef and onions, then popular in Hamburg. Lorenza began adding spicy pickled zuchinis to the frikadelle. Franz loved it. As he did, her Apáki, a kind of marinated, spicy BBQed pork, and Tzatziki, a Turkish yoghurt with cucumbers and garlic peppers.

There is this titbit Titus shared with me when we were the only two at the lunch table.

First, a background. The Totenkopfen were hand-picked and then underwent extensive training. To disable all macros such as emotion, remorse, pity, empathy, from within. This was important for them to be able to function normally and carry on in their day-to-day lives, go home, play with the kids, water the roses. That sort of thing.

The Totenkopfen had to be able to switch from the Satan to the dutiful husband in the course of 24hrs, when they were posted at their bases. Or, when in the field, enjoy a leisurely late evening smoke with kamarads and laugh at some silly joke about how fat the base commanding officer’s wife was. Right after they’d butchered children by swinging them around, holding them by their feet and smashing their heads against the trunks of trees.

The young Totenkopf, Franz, was probably no different. As she nursed him back to health, Lorenza paid no attention to his mirthless blue eyes and lack of any humor. He did everything like a well-oiled machine.

One day, when the delirium of gangrene had passed and Lorenza was wiping the sweat from his face, Franz reached out and grasped her wrist. Pulling her close till her bright, lovely hazel eyes were inches away, his blue eyes brimmed over.

“Why?” he asked, his eyes frantically surveying her, for a moment disregarding the pain in his ankle, “Why you help me. I’ve done nothing good my entire life.”

“Funny,”she replied,” When I look at you I find nothing bad.” She smiled. She couldn’t see the Totenkopfen in Franz.

Parachuting and paragliding were a passion for Franz and so it was natural that he opened a club and operated it profitably, for tourists who were in Arkadi to visit the famous orthodox monastry there. Just a few days shy of Titus’s 11th birthday in 1973, Franz went for a practice jump. His chute didn’t open and he was found just a few feet away from the spot where he’d landed 30yrs prior, as an SS Hauptscharfuhrer.

Franz was laid to rest right beneath the same rocky ledge where Lorenza had first found him.

Hey, I know what you’re thinking. I swear on my last case of Stella Artois, most of this is true. Titus Kastner does exist. And he’s preparing to get laid off again, come September.

The other day he brought some frikadelles and a loaded Mauser to discourage us from grabbin’ at them. When he brings Apáki and Tzatziki for lunch, his eyes turn into green slits and he sidles down the lunch table, out of reach.

I was kidding about the Mauser and the green eyes. See? I always let people know it, when I’m kiddin’. I’ve got the frikadelles to acknowledge my quirks, y’know.

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