“I can’t pay for them,” he said, “but I’m a photographer and I’d be willing to come to your studio to make a portrait of you in trade for these two paintings.” He pointed out an 11x14 and a 14 x 28.
Hans was a rugged-looking man, about 5’10”, brown hair and could have easily been recruited for a German Army poster.
I took him up on his barter
offer. I didn’t have a studio, so I arranged to accomplish the session
at his place. Over the following months I got to know Hans pretty well.
His English was not too bad and my fluency in German was improving. I
hadn’t taken any courses in photography back at Maryland Institute.
It sparked my interest in this art form. I asked if I could watch him
in his darkroom.
I bought my first camera and
began taking photos during off-duty time and eventually began paying him
for the use of his darkroom to print and develop my pictures.
Then one time I saw her downtown and invited her to coffee. I learned she wanted to become a photographer and be a correspondent for international newspapers. She was living with her mother in a nearby apartment. Her father had been killed near the end of the war. The two personalities she presented to me soon merged into one loving person when eventually our physical relationship was brought to fruition in the darkroom one weekend when Hans was away on assignment.
In the spring I
had a two-week’s leave coming to me and I decided to spend it in
France to practice the French I had learned back in Army Language School
Wuerzburg had been nearly demolished during the war. Across the street from her mother’s apartment was a half shelled-out building. Some vagrants were living in one of the downstairs room. In Maria’s building, the second-floor stairs creaked as I went up. An unlighted chandelier was hanging lopsided at the top of the hallway.
Maria’s mother was sitting in a rocking chair next to a pre-war kitchen stove. Her words came out in a stern fashion. She didn’t speak English. “My daughter cannot go to France. I will not allow it. The French hate us. We’ve had two wars with them. My husband’s father was killed in the first war with them. They are despicable. They will kill my daughter if they found out she is German. She didn’t mention her husband lost his life in the recent war. She spoke quietly, not in a vengeful way. Just matter of fact.
I convinced Maria’s mother
that no German would be spoken when we would be in France. That worked.
We spent two weeks in France without incident.
As a postscript, I learned in a letter from Maria, that a son was born of us. I wrote to her upon my return to the USA but the letter was returned. Perhaps one day in my future, a German young man will appear on my doorstep.
Hans Bartsch was in
his mid 40’s, I suppose, when I met him. He didn’t
talk about the war. Rarely did any German I got to know talk about the
war. Not even in the bars. No one professed to be a Nazi nor did they
know anyone who was.
I was to get my answer to this
terrible thing one day when Hans and I were sitting on a park bench. We
had decided to get out of the darkroom for a while. The conversation shifted
to the war and his part in it. I was surprised that he brought it up.
It was as though he had to tell somebody.
“We didn’t realize
it though. Other parts of the Wehrmacht were in retreat. They never told
us this. Then we began to hear rumors. At first we didn’t
“A Captain brought us to attention facing the line of people. We all saluted. “Hail Hitler.” Some of us were wobbling from the booze. I saw one soldier faint. And then the Captain gave the order. ‘Fire!!’ Some of us, like me, didn’t know what to fire at. But the soldier next to me knew what it meant and he and others down the line began firing at the men and women and children. Complete families. They fell into the ditch and those that didn’t were thrown or kicked in. One of the soldiers stepped up and fired down into the ditch to make sure no one was living.
“All of us fired. It was like a game at a carnival like when you get a reward for toppling over wooden ducks with a bee gun. It was like it was meant to be. These people were not meant to live any longer. It surprised me how easy it was, even though it was something you were brought up never to do. It was a license to kill. And you did it.
Hans was wrenching his hands. “Other than my wife, Gerta, I’ve never told anybody about this. It relieves me to know I’ve told you.
I was quiet. What do
you say to a confessed murderer? I don’t know how long
I sat there in silence.
I thought back of my high school years in Maryland. On Halloween night a group of us kids, about twenty or twenty-five would go down to Flower Street, the dividing line in town where the blacks in our community lived. Under a streetlight at the corner of Flower Street, it started with yelling hate expressions at each other, the kind you see scrolled on public bathroom walls. The next year we were throwing stones and bricks at the blacks and they responded. And the next year, someone brought a gun and someone was shot and killed. The police looked the other way.
Hans Bartsch lived in a society whose values and principles were unquestioned. At least, in my case, I was brought up to think I was superior to blacks. As a high schooler, how could I not think otherwise? It was never questioned.
At our town’s ocean front beach, the blacks were allowed to swim only at the “Colored Section” of the beach a half-mile to the north. The schools were separate. If you were black, you went to grammar school or high school somewhere miles away. At the grocery or drug store blacks waited until all whites were served. Blacks sat in the back of public bus. At St. Mary’s Catholic church, blacks sat in the rear pews. If a black handyman knocked on our front door (which was usually never) my mother would say, “Go to the back door. In the movies, blacks sat upstairs in the balcony. In the films, blacks were portrayed as bumbling nincompoops. At the taverns and roadhouses, no blacks allowed inside. O.K. to be outside singing and dancing. But no entry. No intermarriages. The rest rooms, the water fountains, the motels would all say “No Colored.”
Was this the law? I don’t
know. I never questioned it. I’d like to think I was a dissenter.
But I wasn’t .