- 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
“As he has been an SS Obersturmfüfuhrer ,” Luise explained. “It was"—she took up her dictionary—"it was automatic.”
“When I was told I must be three years in prison,” Karl said, “I told myself, ‘Yes, this is right. For three years I was a guard at a prison; now it is right that I am a prisoner.'”
I was fresh from a meal liberally accompanied by alcohol and slow on the uptake. “Guard at a prison?” I asked.
“Yes. When I entered the SS, in 1936,1 was a simple soldier. Only later did I become an officer. I served as a guard. I was very happy when the war came, in 1939, and I could transfer from the prison into the Waffen SS.” That meant the fighting SS, not the home SS, which would have manned what he called a prison.
“Do you mean a concentration camp?” I asked.
“What concentration camp?”
Three years at Buchenwald.
“Terrible things happened there,” I said.
“Yes. Most of the time I worked in the office. But sometimes we of the office did terrible things.”
“Most of the prisoners were Jews?”
“Women and children, men?”
“I suppose most of them died then, or in the war?”
“I am sure.”
It was very quiet in the room. The children were in bed. I said what came into my mind in English. Karl did not understand and looked over to Luise, and she translated: “If they came back to life, they might spit in my face.”
A month or so later George tried out for a tennis tournament to be held at the Army’s recreation center in southern Bavaria. A former Northwestern varsity player, he did well, and he was given orders for four days’ temporary duty, detached service, playing tennis. We had together visited Karl and Luise a few times since the Buchenwald discussion, but the matter hadn’t been referred to. Now again I went over by myself. I found the three children alone in the care of a young woman who spoke not a word of English and who I gathered was a remote relative. Where were Karl and Luise? Karl had met with an accident. He had fainted the day before while riding his bicycle and fallen off. He had been taken unconscious to a hospital. Luise was there with him now.
Was this, I asked, connected with his war wound? He had an indentation below his hairline, and he had mentioned he sometimes suffered dizzy spells. The young woman said the wound was re- sponsible. I asked where the hospital was. Her description of how to get there was unending. I asked if the son of the family, Karl-Ludwig, could guide me there on the trolleys. The boy said he could. The boy—today he is a Herr Doktor sociology professor, and his sisters are a therapist and a musician and music teacher—got me to the hospital.
The nurses seemed stunned to see an American soldier. I was led through long high-ceilinged wards and deposited at Karl’s bedside. Luise had a tense look. Her husband’s face was partially bandaged and discolored on one side. He had been going around a corner when all went blank and he hit the curbstone face forward. Unshaven, without his glasses, staring-eyed, he suddenly looked to me like the SS officers of Hollywood’s movies and Europe’s nightmares.
We talked for a while, and then I said I’d be off. Luise saw me to the end of the ward’s hall. I had no idea if textile mills continued injured employees’ salaries, or what the situation was concerning hospital bills, and she had three children to feed. I took out my wallet. To offer money meant no sacrifice. I could always borrow enough in the barracks to get me through to payday. “No, no, we are quite all right,” Luise quickly said, and she hastily turned and went back through the ward. A few days later, when I visited their apartment with George, back from his tennis—Karl was recuperating at home by then—she took me aside and told me that when she had gone back to his hospital bed and told him, he had cried.
On my next to last day Luise asked, “Would you like to meet an SS officer who has not changed at all since 1945?”
In late 1954, my term of service, and George’s, came to an end. We went home, he to enter his father’s business and eventually take over and expand it. I became a newspaper reporter. In the summer of 1960 I went to Europe as a tourist. I had written to Augsburg that I would take a cab from the railroad station upon arrival from Paris and would be at the house at such and such a time. But when the train pulled into the familiar Bahnhof , I saw the family lined up waiting.