Got a couple of e-mails not too long ago, noting that my old high school German teacher had died. Not that it was too much of a surprise. After all, from what he'd told us he would have been close to 90 years old. Yes, he had been involved in the Late Unpleasantness as a soldier on the Other Side, a situation we 60's youth found oddly fascinating.
Not that any of us had a great amount of desire to study German. Peer pressure and a desire to "skid" led most of us to choose French, clearly the easier language, so we thought. A little arm twisting by the department head led a sizeable minority of us to choose German that year. Of course we were also attracted by the possibility of attending an occasional Abendessen, where the German classes would meet at a local Rathskeller, the idea being to improve our language skills with regard to the ordering of food, etc. Rumor had it that here, far from the parental eye, and under the guise of European sophistication, there was the consuming of an occasional beer, and some said, even the smoking of cigarettes. I made it to one Abendessen before the powers-that-be squelched the activity, and it still stands out as the most fun I had the whole time I was in high school.
It was also that year that someone higher up somewhere thought it would be a great idea to accelerate some of us though several courses, theoretically making all of us two years smarter in one single year, not something I recommend inflicting on innocent youth. I remember waking up one Saturday morning realizing I'd been dreaming all night not about something normal, but the twenty-four forms of the definite article der-die-das! After that the whole thing began to fall in place. The guy was a good teacher--no doubt about that.
Eventually he told us about his early life. At some point he was drafted into the Arbeitcorps, one of the ways Hitler prepared Germany for war despite the terms of the Versailles treaty. Young men drilled with shovels instead of rifles. He saw Hitler only one time, at a rally in Nuremburg, speaking at night in a glass and steel ampitheater. As Hitler spoke, a thunder storm gathered in the distance. He said Hitler would see a flash of lightning and then time the end of each sentence to make each point coincide with the arrival of a thunderclap. "There were not many of us there, who that night would not have done anything this man said."
Of course before too long Hitler's madness became apparent, and he was sent to the Russian front, where he was wounded several times. Fleeing west through Poland, he relied on a knowledge of Latin to ask a priest for directions, "Ubi est via ad_____?" and made it back to Germany, where he was awarded a gold medal by the Nazis for his service on the front. "What happened to it?" we asked. "After the war I sold it for 200 cigarettes." "Oh, and you sold them?" "No, I smoked almost all of them myself."
Toward the end of the war he was assigned to a high ranking officer who later was involved in a plot to kill Hitler. Although he didn't know about it at the time, he was imprisoned for a while, long enough to establish his bona fides with the allies, and later he became an interpreter at the Nuremburg trials, then emigrating to the US and finishing his education. During the war his three or four brothers had all been killed; his parents had died and all their property was leveled in the bombings.
Eventually he ended up retired in Venice, Florida. Sometime in the late Eighties I was near there and stopped in for a surprise visit. He was pleased that we could still converse in German, even though I'd had scant opportunities to use it over the years. And he said that times have changed. "Du darfst mir du sagen."
I'm sorry now I never bothered to stay in touch with him. I'm sure he was active on the internet despite his advanced age.
And a minor update here--if there's any moral to this (vis-a-vis what happened with Germany, something our young people are bound to forget), it's let's not let this stuff get started again, here or there.
On the plus side, almost all the younger Germans I have met opted for the Zivilendienst rather than the army.....und das is auch gut.