- 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
In time I came to realize that it was very likely, in fact, that the boy didn’t know the name of Adolf Hitler. It was almost never mentioned by Germans. When they referred to their former leader, it was as he . Once in Berlin on leave they had seen him . Just before the war he had driven through their town. So Max of course knew nothing. But the former SS officer at whose table I had taken tea? Is there, after all, has there ever been, a movie about a Nazi Germany that didn’t feature a murderously bloody-handed SS officer? Can any book on Germany’s atrocities of 1933 to 1945 fail to mention Heinrich Himmler’s elite guard, the Schutzstaffel , SS?
To George, the couple we had visited were pleasant people, fellow Christian Scientists who had been very nice to us. He was after me to go back. I declined to do so. Of what I suppose might be called a privileged background, which in the 1930s meant an extremely protected childhood, from a completely nonreligious family, and never bar mitzvahed, I still could not possibly be unaware of what Germany, and SS officers in particular, had done to Jews. But one Saturday I told George I’d join him in another visit. I don’t know why I changed my mind.
We stopped at the PX, got coffee and some gum for the kids, and went to the house. We walked up and found the two little daughters playing on the sidewalk. They dropped us curtsies and dashed inside. Their parents came rushing out. It was hard to believe they weren’t genuinely happy to see us. They said they and the children were just preparing to go visit relatives who lived a short distance off. We must join them.
We demurred. They insisted. We accompanied them to the home of the lady’s brother, who lived with his wife and two kids 10 minutes away. When we entered, the brother’s wife looked as if she was ready to faint at the sight of our uniforms. Her sister-in-law handed her a pound of our coffee. She took it, and years later she told me that it was such coffee as she had not tasted since 1943 or 1944, when things started going against Germany.
The brother, speaking in German, for neither he nor his wife had a word of English, asked me to join them in a glass of schnapps. Otherwise, he indicated in humorous fashion, he would have to drink alone, for his wife didn’t drink and everyone else was a Christian Scientist, and drinking alone was the sign of a bum, a Halunke . We learned that both men were managers at a nearby textile mill, that each came home for lunch each day on a bicycle, and that they worked Saturdays until midafternoon. I asked if the brother had been in the war. Yes. He had been an army first lieutenant. He got out pictures of himself, including one large one showing him at the head of a detachment marching through a city street. Familiar German architecture filled the background. The buildings were draped with swastikas, and people in the street watching the parade held swastikas in their hands.
At one point George left the room for a moment, and the brother spoke to me earnestly. Whatever he was saying was too complicated for me to grasp. I looked over to his sister. “He says,” she translated, “that this is amazing, that here you sit in American uniform drinking schnapps with him, while a few years ago he immediately kills you.”
My reply did not seem hilarious to me, but it flung them all into paroxysms of laughter: “Not if I see him first.”
After that George and I regularly dropped in on Karl and Luise, with whom we got on a first-name basis although I never heard them address anyone else but the brother and sister-in-law that way. We listened to music on their radio, played with the children, went with them to little fairs and carnivals, played chess with Karl, who was very good, and had Luise sew on our stripes when we got promoted. One evening I dropped in alone. All our units had been out on a big-time field operation, 10 days in the worst kind of weather, and for some unfathomable reason my truck had gotten orders to go back to base and stand down.
I grabbed a boiling hot shower, the joy of which after 10 days of washlessness I can scarcely describe, and took myself off to Augsburg’s best restaurant, the Fuggerkeller, located in what had been one of the palaces of the Fuggers, the great merchant prince family of southern Germany during the Late Middle Ages. I need hardly describe the pronunciation our troops gave to their name. The palace, a city block long, had been severely damaged during the war and was uninhabitable, but in the old whitewashed arching wine cellars great meals were now offered. The waiters wore white tie and tails and white gloves. With a Steinh‰ger to begin, wine with, and schnapps after, the meal cost about what today would buy a drink of premium Scotch at a good New York City bar.
Afterward I went to Karl and Luise’s to report happily that here I was while George was sleeping in the snow, where he belonged. It would be well if the whole regiment stayed out another week or so, I remarked. It would help build their character. Karl and Luise praised such kindly concern for my fellow soldiers, and Luise said that actually there was some truth in what I had said. All experiences build character. Karl said he agreed. In his own case, he said, his three years in prison were valuable to him. Three years in prison? This was news to me. Yes, he went on, after the war he had been in prison.