- Historic Sites
“The So-called Charge Was Murder”
A young GI making the journey from war to peace, and from enmity to friendship, finds amid the most tremendous change smoldering embers of an old tyranny
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
Their apartment, in a four-story stucco building, was tiny. There was no living room or parlor as such, just a chamber with a dining table almost filling it. Both little girls wore freshly pressed dresses, and the boy had on a tie. His father wore a suit. We took seats at the table. Our hosts placed a large German-English dictionary before them. Tea and cake were served.
Conversation was not easy, but it was pleasant. Our host was a solemn and shy man who seemed embarrassed when he couldn’t understand something we said and smiled in a inquiring way. Our hostess was bolder, laughing when she grabbed the dictionary, which she did every minute or so. I offered what German I had, and they kindly said I had excellent pronunciation. “ Prima! ” We went through some German vocabulary drill about things I pointed at. What’s the word for book? How do you say window?
About an hour and a half passed. I have never been one to carry pictures around, but George had a walletful and showed them his house, parents, sister, family car, dog, and himself with his buddies. He got onto his devotion to the Chicago White Sox, and we worked it out that they were the Weisse Socken . God knows what the couple got out of that.
When he ran out of pictures, they asked if we’d like to see their pictures. We said yes, and they produced a large album with themselves as children, their parents, their sisters and brothers, houses. Then there were school photos. Next our hostess made as if to turn over several pages at one time. I thought that perhaps she thought we were bored, which we were not, and said we wanted to see everything. She smiled her pretty smile in a slightly nervous way and said, “Are you"—and reached for the dictionary—"broad-minded?”
“Sure we are,” George said.
I believed that I understood what was coming. A fellow in the section had told me about Fasching , the pre-Lenten carnival season, very big in Bavaria. Beer flowed like water, he said, all the Germans got dressed up in costumes and wore funny masks, and things were really wild. Our very proper host and hostess, I reasoned, were embarrassed to have us see pictures of them in crazy outfits. “We are definitely broad-minded,” I said.
Wife and husband were sitting side by side across the table from George and me, with the album facing us. She turned a page. A formal portrait completely filled it. The elegance of the uniform proclaimed it at once as that of an officer. On the peaked cap there was a skull and crossbones. On the tunic collar were two figured slashes, each a stylized S.
I looked up into my host’s eyes. He had hardly changed. Perhaps there were a few slight wrinkles, and the glasses.
I don’t recall much more of the visit. We left soon after. They saw us to the door and out of the house to the sidewalk. I knew almost no German, but somehow I knew how to give a piece of information to this former SS officer in his own language. I think I got it from a movie. “ Ich bin ein Jude ,” I said. I am a Jew.
There are few people who visit Germany, even today, who do not at one time or another wonder precisely what the people they meet did in the war. Today those thoughts are centered on people with gray hak In 1953 they concerned Germans aged 35 or so. I used to ask such people. The answer was almost inevitable. They had never been Nazis I but had fought against the Russians. Any of our soldiers who asked got that reply. We used to wonder what the devil had slowed up the advance of our predecessors, the Americans who fought the war.