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The Legend of Rupert by Kees Couprie

German soldierOnce every five years, in a small town in the Ardennes, a local historic society and many amateur actors join forces to reenact certain events in the Battle of the Bulge, partly just because it’s fun, but also in the hope of raising historical awareness with the local youth. To me, an amateur photographer with an interest in European history, these reenactments are a perfect opportunity to combine my two hobbies, so a number of years ago I decided to visit the place, where I quickly befriended the historic society’s chairwoman Michelle and her wheelchair-bound husband, Jacques.

The pair appeared to enjoy my company—on one occasion Michelle jokingly referred to me as the son she never had—and were a rich source of information about the local area, its inhabitants and the events in World War II.  Michelle enjoyed showing me the many historical sites while explaining in great detail about how the battle developed, while Jacques, a retired schoolteacher, amused me in the evenings by sharing his vast knowledge of local folklore and legends.

On some days I went out into the woods and countryside alone to take pictures. In the evening I would show my photographs to Jacques and Michelle, and quite often one of them would recognize the places I had photographed and tell me about something that had happened there, or how something in the picture was related to local folklore.

On one of those days, when I was taking a picture of an old abandoned barn, I heard a voice behind me. “Entschuldigung, wissen Sie wo ich bin?” I turned around and saw a young man, about 20 years of age, wearing a World War II German army uniform. I assumed he was one of the amateur actors so I thought nothing of it. If anything, I was somewhat amused that a young German took part in the reenactment of the Battle of the Bulge.

My German isn’t very good, but I understood him well enough; “Excuse me, do you know where I am?” Apparently he was lost, which explained the worried look on his face. He didn’t seem to speak any English, so I tried to help him by pointing in a direction and naming the place that I knew was there. I turned around, pointed in another direction, away from him, and named another town. When I turned back, he was gone.

I was flabbergasted. I was standing in the middle of a field. There were no trees or anything nearby, the barn I was photographing was too far away for him to reach within a few seconds, and yet he was gone as if he had disappeared into thin air. Finally I decided to pack my camera and go back to town.

That evening, when I showed Michelle and Jacques the pictures I had taken that day, the picture of the barn prompted me to tell them about the disappearing German. At first they stared at me, then at each other, then back at me again. Jacques said one word: “Rupert.” They were clearly confused and I had to urge them to explain what was going on.

Jacques explained that “Rupert” was the name the locals used to refer to a young man in a German army uniform who appeared to wanderers—often tourists—to ask them where he was, only to disappear after a few seconds. Apparently he always used the same words; “Entschuldigung, wissen Sie wo ich bin,” which, as Jacques explained, was an unusual choice of words. “Excuse me, do you know where I am” is not what a German would say. They are more likely to say “Entschuldigung, können Sie mir sagen wo ich bin?” which translates to “Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?” According to local legend, Rupert was a German soldier who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, and whose ghost was still roaming the area, trying to find his way home.

In the next few days the subject of Rupert came up several more times, but there was nothing that Michelle, Jacques or anyone else could tell me, and after a while I lost interest.

In the following years I stayed in touch with Michelle and Jacques. We sent each other birthday and Christmas cards, and every few months a letter. A few times a year Michelle and Jacques mentioned a new Rupert sighting as we had started to call them and it slowly turned into a running joke. Michelle sometimes added a P.S. to her letters, “P.S. Rupert says hi,” and I would respond with “P.S. Tell Rupert he owes me a beer.” One day I realized that Michelle and Jacques had stopped referring to Rupert, but I assumed they had just grown tired of it.

Last summer Jacques fell ill and was taken to hospital. The Ardennes are not that far away from where I live and I decided to visit him. Luckily Jacques recovered quickly and was discharged from hospital only a few days after my arrival. That evening there was a coming home party and many friends came over to their home.  We talked about lots of things and everybody was enjoying themselves, until I asked why Michelle and Jacques never mentioned Rupert anymore.

An uneasy silence followed my words. For some reason everybody in the room was staring at me and after a few seconds Jacques told me how two young boys from the town had been playing in the woods in the fall before. One of them found a bone sticking out of the ground. The boys, hoping to find a dinosaur or something, started digging. When they realized what they had really found, they ran home, both in a state of shock mixed with excitement. Their father followed them to the find, and confirmed that it was indeed a human skeleton and called the gendarmerie.

The body was exhumed and the gendarmerie quickly concluded that the skeleton was of a young male, and based on a number of artifacts near the skeleton, like the remains of an army rifle, a buckle, an army knife and most noticeably a dog tag, the concluded that these were the remains of a German soldier named Albert Köchler. Köchler’s remains were given into the care of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (German War Graves Commission), who returned them to his family to be interred. Since that day “Rupert” has never been seen again.

 

 

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