The Adventure of the German Prisoner
In this Sherlock Holmes parody/pastiche, Holmes reveals to Watson how he discovered the true identity of a German POW in Norway. The story is based on real events.
It was the summer of 1931 and at the invitation of my friend Sherlock Holmes, I had gone to Sussex to stay with him for a fortnight. “If memory serves,” he wrote, “London at this time of year is stifling, and if I know my Watson, you will do much better here on the Downs than in that cauldron of heat and sin.”
As usual, we devoted much of our discussion to reminisces of our old cases and then to his newer exploits. Though he rarely bestirred himself to leave the oasis of peace that he had created for himself in Sussex, he was, I knew, still frequently consulted by the police.
“Oh, there has been very little of late,” he said in response to my query one afternoon. “Sometimes, Watson, I despair of the caliber of the contemporary London criminal. However,” he went on, “perhaps it is just as well. I would not fancy my chances on that ledge at Reichenbach today.”
For a moment his gaze grew distant, as if he saw the thundering falls rather than the placid downs before him. Then he spoke again. “Do you remember that I was unable to meet you for your birthday several years ago because I had left for Oslo in conjunction with a case?”
“Yes, the Fearnley diamonds, was it not?”
“Indeed. After I had cleared up that affair, another puzzle awaited me. It is one of my lesser cases,” said he, “more of a conundrum than a mystery.”
“I should be glad to hear it nonetheless,” said I. “That is, if you are happy to share the details.”
“Naturally,” replied my friend. “Perhaps the public, too, will enjoy this diversion — if you are so inclined to present it to them.”
“I am all ears,” I said, and with a smile Holmes began his tale.
“In June of 19— I was contacted by Mr. Olav Hohle, an official of the province of Oppland in Norway. He had come to Oslo on an unrelated matter and when he heard that I was in town he called upon me at my hotel. You see, Watson, you have made me famous even in the Scandinavian backwaters! He was quite convinced that my involvement would end all his travails, and nothing would sway him from this belief.
“It was case of paternity, he said, which I must admit did not excite much enthusiasm on my part; and yet I was already in Oslo, and Hohle’s little problem might, I thought, provide a few days’ amusement, so I consented to take it on. Anyway, the Fearnley affair was cleared up within a week, and then I found myself free to devote my intellect to this new dilemma.
“The facts were thin. Hohle told me that a German sergeant by the name of Walter Ramensky had spent time in Oppland as a convalescent during the war; you may remember, Watson, that the neutral kingdoms of Scandinavia, wishing to make themselves useful to the belligerent powers, took it upon themselves to care for particularly badly wounded prisoners of war. It was in this capacity that Ramensky had come to Norway from a camp in Russia, and subsequently fathered a child with a local girl. He had then returned to Germany before the child, a boy named Oddvar, was born. Hohle wished to find Ramensky with the view of extracting his financial support for mother and child. I confess that I do not quite understand why Norwegian officialdom wished to involve itself in this matter when the family clearly did not — but I am getting ahead of myself.”
“Where in Norway was this?” I broke in.
“Vestre Slidre,” my friend replied. “I believe that I sent you a card, though I neglected to mention that I was there in connection with a case.”
“I have it still,” I said. “A magnificent view over the fjord.”
“Indeed,” said he. “A more idyllic place one would be hard-pressed to find, and yet, as I have mentioned before, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside. But that is a topic for another day. Well, Watson, I had intended to begin my search in Oslo, where I thought the national archives might shed some light on the men who had had the good fortune to live out several months’ of wartime captivity in this country of fjords and mountains. As I learned then, they are a peculiar people, the Norwegians — very straightforward and friendly when one gets talking to them, but with a sort of collective amnesia when it comes to the war, and none of my overtures could compel any local officials to lend me the slightest assistance.
“Thus thirsting for data, I took the train up to Vestre Slidre. It was here, according to Hohle, that the boy had been born and his mother — a Miss Ragna Rebne — had worked at a hotel there during the war. But there was no trace of either of them in the village; the inhabitants were either loathe to reveal local secrets or had let the mists of time cloud their memories. Miss Rebne had vanished just as if she were a hulder, Watson: a sort of fairy creature in whose existence those mountain people still very much believe.
“The hotel, however, is still run by the same couple who were there during the war, and Mrs Arneberg in particular provided me with numerous anecdotes about the men who stayed with them during 1917 and 1918. Understandably, her recollections have grown hazy in the intervening years, and she could say nothing of this Ramensky, save that she cursed all Russians and would never again allow anyone from that country to ingress her hotel. Before I could explain that Ramensky was in fact a German, she launched into a monologue on the barbarous manners of Russian émigrés and it was only when her husband intervened that I was spared.
“When she came to her senses, she told me quite apologetically that she did not remember any Walter Ramensky. Miss Rebne had left an equally vivid impression on her, which is to say none at all. Yet Mr Arneberg recollected that one of their maids, a heretofore reliable girl, had left their service just as the summer season began. Hardly evidence, to be sure, but not wholly irrelevant. You will remember that the child was born in November of that year; by June, Miss Rebne might have been in no condition to continue her employment.
“In the meantime, correspondence from the continent had begun to trickle in, addressed to me at the hotel. The news from Berlin and Vienna, however, was quite disheartening. No relevant Ramenskys were to be found in the casualty lists; nor any Raminskys or Kamenskys or various spellings thereof. Nor did my agent in Copenhagen find any trace of the man in the archives of the Danish Red Cross; it was the Danes, you will remember, who amid the political and economic chaos of Russia at that time took it upon themselves to care for German prisoners in that country.”
“Perhaps this Ramensky gave Miss Rebne a false name,” I suggested.
“The same thought crossed my mind,” admitted my friend. “Yet Hohle, when I questioned him again, was quite adamant that the information was correct. I could not be so certain; for although the German casualty lists are not infallible, it is quite a feat that a captured and wounded man should so thoroughly evade even a single mention.
“What of the family?” I asked. “And Miss Rebne herself? Could you not speak with them directly?”
“According to Hohle, Miss Rebne’s family lived in the nearby village of Eina. He had been out there and got nothing out of them, or at least no more than the name of Walter Ramensky and the child’s date of birth. Nevertheless, I went to see them.” Holmes sighed. “Watson, I fancy my Norwegian is not terrible, but it was fairly impossible to understand the dialect of those country folk and they seemed to meet with the same trouble when trying to decipher the speech of this Englishman. She was not home, they eventually gave me to understand, nor was she due to return.
“Well, by the by I came to see that she would never be home for as long as I persisted. Quite likely I did myself no favours by dredging up memories that they had rather forget; but what else could I do? I had promised Hohle to look into it, and the thrill of the chase was upon me again. It was nothing like our pursuit of Jonathan Small when we sought to recover the Agra treasure, or even those tense hours spent in the dark as we awaited Colonel Sebastian Moran, yet I knew the feeling well.
“Nevertheless, I knew that I could accomplish little else in Eina. Thus I returned that very afternoon to Løken and spent three days walking the stony heights, boating, and fishing in the fjord. Mr Arneberg accompanied me several times, pointing out the prisoners’ favourite haunts and generally proving quite a companionable fellow. I must say, Watson, that the rural folk in that country experienced the war in a way that good Britishers can only dream. To be sure, they felt the effects of the Great Powers’ folly, but they never knew the destruction that a Zeppelin can wreak on a city or feared the appearance of the telegraph boy at midday.”
A light breeze wafted through the French doors, carrying with it the buzzing of bees and chattering birds. How far from London and the cobbled streets and yellow fog through which we once pursued miscreants and ruffians — !
Holmes’ voice soon drew me out of my reverie. “Friend Hohle, meanwhile, was eagerly awaiting developments in the case, and I was contemplating whether to share with him the sorry state of my investigation when an anonymous message arrived, suggesting that I might like to go down to Eina and inspect baptismal records at the church for the year 1919. Now, in my younger days, I would have hastened at once on the next train; but I am not as spry as I used to be, so it would have to wait until the morrow.
“Could you not investigate this informant, and interview him or her directly?”
“I believe that I had already interviewed that person directly, Watson, when I made my first excursion into Eina — but all in vain. In all likelihood, nothing useful would come of confronting the family again, so I simply returned to the village on the first train and called at the church.
“I was not long there, Watson, before I found what I was looking for. This record of baptism solved several problems, Ramensky’s name the most prominent among them. The writer’s hand did not distinguish itself with regards to its legibility, but my theory of a misspelled name was now vindicated; for although it might very well be Ramensky, I fancied Rominski a better reading and hastened to telegraph to both Berlin and Vienna.
“That very evening I had my answer. His true name was Bolislaus Rominski and he was indeed a German, from Bromberg in what was then West Prussia; the town is now in Poland and goes by the name of Bydgoszcz. I beg you, Watson, don’t make me spell it for you; you shall have to look it up in the atlas. Bolislaus, I may add, is simply the Slavic cognate of Walter.”
My friend frowned, and I knew that he was still annoyed that this small but important detail had eluded him.
Then his expression cleared and he went on. “After that, matters became quite simple. In addition to his name and hometown, the casualty lists gave us his birthday and regiment as well as the approximate date of his capture and return to Germany.” Here he rose abruptly and from the shelf withdrew a cardboard box that I knew contained records of his cases.
“Interestingly, Watson, though only a mere sergeant he still rated a mention in the regimental history. We learn therein the circumstances of his capture, and while they do not bear directly on this case, they may be of interest to you nonetheless. I must admit that I found the man’s story surprisingly fascinating — perhaps sentimentality has overtaken me in my dotage.” A ghost of a smile flitted about his lips as he handed me an envelope.
I withdrew a handful of faded telegrams, several photographs of the hotel, and no less than five pages covered with minuscule German script. My German, unlike my friend’s, has always been quite indifferent; and seeing my puzzled expression, Holmes merely gestured to me to continue my perusal, and indeed my next foray into the envelope brought forth what I perceived to be a typewritten translation of those German extracts.
Then a ceasefire occurred on both sides and Russian heads began to appear over the trench. We waved at them to surrender. Then Private or Sergeant Rominski came forward and asked to be allowed to go towards the Russians in order to take them prisoner. I had the guns silenced and also announced to the neighbouring companies that no shots were to be fired. …Rominski and a comrade went towards the Russians… We saw them walk towards a gap in the trench, exchange words and apparently enter the trench to negotiate with the commander. At the same moment, a shot rang out from one of the companies further to the right. Now, of course, it was all over. The Russians’ heads disappeared in a flash and a mad bang came from their side, then from ours as well. …The next morning we saw that they had suffered heavy casualties. Unfortunately, we saw nothing more of the particularly dashing Rominski.
I shuddered at these descriptions. Holmes glanced at me. “Forgive me, Watson,” said he. “I ought to have known better.”
“Pray do not worry yourself,” I replied, though I did not shrink from the brandy that he now extended to me. “That Jezail bullet struck many years ago. What else did you learn?”
Holmes drained his own glass. “There is little else besides that which you find there. The ‘dashing Rominski’ must have been quite badly wounded in that incident, for only prisoners in the most dire of health were selected for convalescent leave in Norway. In any event, I sent a report to friend Hohle, who expressed his complete satisfaction by taking it upon himself to pay for my entire stay in the country.”
“And what of the paternity case?” I asked. “Was Miss Rebne’s child ever acknowledged by this Rominski?”
Holmes shook his head. “I must admit, Watson, that I let the matter rest there. Hohle wrote to me later to say that he had found a carpenter by the name of Boleslaw Rominski in Bromberg, but I never heard whether that man ever returned to Norway to — as Hohle put it once — claim his inheritance.”
Once again, the sound of bees filled our silence until at last Holmes reached for his violin and the strains of a Beethoven romance filled the air.