Every Jew, somewhere in his being, should set apart a zone of hate — healthy virile hate — for what the German personifies and for what persists in the German.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner and “chief witness” to the Holocaust
Those who sow wind will harvest a Tempest.
To be a German is not easy. Though it got a lot better. And it was much worse.
Take me, for example.
Me and World War II, many summers ago, saw the light of day only a few months apart. When I was a year old my father, an airman, died in Belgium, together with his driver. Both careened, late at night and probably under the influence, into a tree laid across the road by the valiant Resistance. The driver was in his early twenties, my father had just turned thirty. I do not remember him, of course. Once, while passing Belgium on my way south, I deviated and went to visit his grave. The German government pays the Belgian government for the upkeep of the cemetery, so all is neat and proper and meets every standard of good Ordnung. Simple white crosses as befits a brave soldier, with name, rank and date, stretch into the distance as far as the eyes can reach. The afterglow of so many candles prematurely quenched is still strong, and the sheer number fills the heart with a dread that can never be put into words. A dread I felt strongly as I stood there under the low sky, with a few wild flowers in hand I had plucked in a meadow before, thinking too late of a more fitting tribute. I never went there again. But as so often before, I wondered what kind of man he had been. And father at that. He tried his hand at the Fine Arts in his leisurely hours, and I still cherish the only canvas that survived, a small still life. It shows, strangely appropriate, a bunch of wild flowers in a simple vase set against a dark background, lit by a ray of light that gives the daisies and dandelions a becoming inner glow. And from that, and the rare comments my mother occasionally ventured, I deduct that he must have been a good man.
The first years of my childhood were uneventful. We lived in a small village, not far from the military airport where my father had been stationed. The war was far away, and thinking back, I remember only farms under endless blue skies, with poultry wandering freely about, pigs rolling in the mud, horses clip-clapping over the cobble stones. I had a friend, my age but about half my size, and whenever we turned up in a courtyard the women kept a sharp eye on our movements. My mother wore black, very elegant for Sunday mass, rather drab during the week. I could hear her sometimes crying at night, and she occasionally shed a tear while smiling at me, and I probably believed this to be the accepted behaviour of silent and beautiful women in black. The one great tragedy of that time was the death of my sparrow, dearest friend for more than a year, who mistook a mirror for the passage into undiscovered lands.
Slowly the war moved closer. My mother received orders to work in a make-shift factory, there to assemble ammunition in the company of PoWs who spoke foreign languages, some French. One gentleman of that tongue turned up shortly after the war had ended and brought roses, homemade sausages and other unheard of delicatessen. But my mother must have discouraged any serious intentions, because when he left, he looked as sad as she did while accepting a last peck on her marble cheeks.
I meanwhile spent the days in the kindergarten and remember a generally joyous time.
Until the day when the first enemy planes began to appear high in the sky. Glinting dully in the sun, huge even from where I stood, uttering a throbbing roar while trailing long white tails, accompanied by sleek hornets with a shriller pitch that turned into an ugly shriek when diving to meet an adversary.
Once I saw from far away a true air battle that involved four or five planes, with two bursting into fire and smoke while one parachute opened and, in the strangest antilogy, drifted gently earthwards like a big white cloud.
Soon afterwards my father’s airport was bombed to smithereens, including a row of houses just around the corner, with the result that one third of the kindergarten went missing and never showed up again. Air raid sirens had been introduced long since, and now they began to scream at every reasonable and unreasonable hour. It became a nightly occurrence that my mother grabbed me in the dark, since even a candle might give the position of the house away, and carried me downstairs and into the cellar. There we crouched with a few neighbours on a low bench, shivering and huddled close together, listening to the heavy thuds as they moved closer and closer, sometimes so close that the house shook to its foundations, accompanied by the roar of engines that eventually passed overhead and then disappeared into the night. While the sirens wailed, escalating from a muffled howl into an ear-splitting scream and then sagging again, on and on and on…
Naked, undiluted fear.
I am not easily impressed, and later in life found myself occasionally in a tight spot without getting weak in the knees. But whenever I hear the monthly check of the local air raid sirens in the town not far from where I live, my body turns cold and my heart starts beating high in the throat and a nameless horror raises its ugly head and I need all my willpower to wrestle it down.
J.C.C. Dahl Dresden under a Full Moon Oil on Canvas 1839
As the war moved into its final years, it brought first hunger and then disease. Once a week a loaf of bread was the official decree, plus loads of turnips until they came out of your ears, and on Sundays a soup cooked from a handful of wheat ground in the coffee grinder, followed by a few potatoes fried with margarine. Diphtheria, pneumonia, meningitis and other afflictions made the round, and people began to succumb in frightful numbers. The jolly and very fat farmer’s wife from next door coughed blood for a few days, then told her husband that their time together hadn’t been that bad after all, and chuckled for a last time. Agnes from across the road went as well, which upset me nearly as much as the death of my sparrow. She was my age, and in a somewhat patronizing manner my friend and I had allowed her, before the advent of the bombings, to join us on our forays. Agnes the Lamb, blond, with cornflower-blue eyes, a freckled little nose and an angelic face that radiated pure light when she smiled. The last time I saw her she was laying on her little bed, a rosary in the folded hands, thin like a waif. Her face had a yellowish tinge, with dark shadows under the closed eyes and a slight frown as if she still tried to understand what had happened to her.
The Allied Powers, I learned much later, would apply something hideous called the Morgenthau plan when victorious, an infamy bound to cripple Germany into a few rural serfdoms, never to be free again. And ten times worse than the injustice of Versailles, if that was possible. Which must have been the reason why even those who had little sympathy for Hitler and his Reich fought furiously to the last bullet. And which, as we are told to believe now, made the attacks ever more vicious.
The weekly handout of a loaf of bread at the local baker had turned into an excursion fraught with danger, and one day my mother drove her bicycle and both of us into a ditch as something huge exploded nearby. For a long second, and before my mother pushed my face into the dirt, I saw a massive splinter that looked like one of Lucas’ spaceships passing my field of vision, strangely in slow motion. It hit a sidewalk and burst into thousand fragments that hissed into every direction. I still believe that on that day I owed my life to my mother for a second time.
It must have been the winter of ’44, because one day, again on some errand, my mother stopped her bicycle on a bridge that spanned a small river. Some ancient chaps of the Home Defence had pulled a woman and her child from the icy waters. Both had been near an exploding phosphor bomb, as could be seen by the burns and deep holes in their bodies. Phosphor, in case you didn’t know, doesn’t need oxygen to burn. It sits on your arm like a beautiful green light, and when you try to douse it, it splits up and sticks to your hand as well and burns another hole into your hide. The Israelis are using phosphor bombs in Gaza today. The poor woman jumped into the shallow river to safe herself and her child, not knowing of course that even under water the deadly fire would continue to burn both to death. As my mother stared at the terribly mutilated corpses, something snapped in her, and for once in my life I saw her flying into a rage. She dropped down on her knees, raised the arms at an empty sky and demanded to know, in a hoarse and inhuman scream I will never forget, how it was possible that they could murder women and children in such a horrible way.
But apparently they could.
The day when the Americans took over was warm and sunny. Hitler’s gaudy banners and flags had long since disappeared, and white bed sheets hung from every window in case someone might be in doubt and continue the carnage. We were again in the cellar, and my mother held me tight, and I saw olive-green legs in strange boots passing stealthily along the narrow window. Then they were in the house. My mother called something in English, which surprised me because I thought her only foreign language was French. A soldier with a funny round helmet appeared and pointed a gun at us. But my mother said something again, and the soldier only nodded and winked an eye at me. They left soon afterwards, taking my fathers ceremonial dagger and sabre along, plus a wooden target board that showed a hand-painted wild boar whom he had smacked right between the eyes and so won the competition.
The next day all of America’s armoured might passed by or stopped occasionally, and my mother told me to remember my manners and address the newcomers in English with a measured “How do you do?” Which I memorized by heart and extended later into a reasonable command of that language. My first contact was a huge negro who reclined on top of a Red-Cross vehicle. I had never seen a negro before, except in the Struwwelpeter, Germany’s foremost children’s book. It shows a rather diminutive negro with a black umbrella who is taunted by three wicked boys, but an over-large St. Nicolas comes along and dips them into an inkpot and they are black with a bluish tinge which makes them blacker than the negro ever will be. After I had muttered my piece rather sotto voce, he flashed snowy white teeth, and said probably something like: “Just great, man! Yeah!” and dropped me a beautifully wrapped item called Wrigley’s. It was sweet and tasted of peppermint and made me nearly faint with desire and I swallowed three quarters and kept one quarter for my mother after much inner struggle. Who refused it gracefully, read the cover and informed me about the nature of chewing gums.
Slowly things got back to normal. The Polish enforced labourers were set free, got drunk on everything they could find, including methyl alcohol, staged a rampage including theft and rape, and my mother took me to town where we stayed in a small pension until the Poles were sent home. Our grand piano went for a few pounds of butter, but that was, as far as I remember, the final aftermath of the terrible war. Germany began to recover amazingly fast, helped by the fact that the old alliances had crumbled and new strategies were needed to contain communist Russia. My elementary school years evolved uneventfully. While at high school, Germany won the football world cup, which lifted sprits even more, but must have caused a few indignant frowns in certain quarters. My years at college were chaotic. We were forty boys in an overcrowded classroom, most of us for inexplicable reasons uncommonly tall, on the whole an unruly lot, and taught by teachers still heavily marked by the war. Our Latin master, I remember well, had been something of an air ace who flew the final missions mostly on amphetamines and little else. We adored him, and always sat motionless when he stopped dead in mid-sentence and grabbed his left arm with the right hand because it began to tremble uncontrollably while he stared with naked horror at something that had come back to haunt him. My own accomplishments were poor, due to a nearly total incomprehension of algebra barely counterbalanced by a few merits in other areas.
It must have been during those years when the first terrible rumours began to emerge.
Michael Colhaze (email him) is a pen name.