I rubbed my eyes and looked around at this guy’s bedroom. A university student.
A cross hung on the wall above
the bed. It wasn’t a Maltese Cross it was a Christian cross. Another
was across the room by the dresser. They must be Catholic or Lutheran.
Probably Catholic in this part of Germany.
Back at Wuerzburg, the guys probably would have ostracized me if they learned I spent the night in a German guy’s bed.
I looked around some more. A picture of his girl friend on the bureau, or was it a cousin, or his mother before the war? Pretty girl. A picture of a guy in uniform. His brother, maybe? They didn’t mention him. I didn’t want to ask. And I won’t.
Back in Wuerzburg in the taverns and park benches, I had my fill of conversations about killed and gone friends and relatives. I had a habit of digging down into people’s lives, asking questions. I’m sure that’s why I was eager to learn the German language when the Army sent me to Oberammergau to learn it.
I wanted to talk to the people.
I’m sure I would’ve failed German if I ‘d taken German
in high school, just like I failed Spanish. I admire people who can learn
things for no other reason that just to learn them. Like Latin or Greek.
The conversations were
always the same. They never defended their involvement in the
war, they didn’t know anything about Jews in concentration camps,
and the High Command only broadcast the good stuff like their victories
in Poland and Russia. And how the people cheered and welcomed the German
Army into Austria. This idea of radio and movies telling people what they
wanted to hear must've been exciting. Going to the movies back them, I
mean like in the early 40's and they would have The News before the movie
started. No one was late for that. Everyone was hushed and seated. and
they would see resulted of when German submarines were blasting boats
out of the water, and sailors were floating in the oily fires. Or a shell
wolud blast a Russian tank. That was better than the movie itself.
When the tide turned, the people were in the dark except for propaganda. That must’ve been tough. The radio played music instead of showing the losses in Russia or North Africa or other places depending on when you were listening.
How would you like spending ten to fifteen months listening to stuff on the radio like, "Good morning folks, Heil Hitler! We are losing this war. The British and American air raids are breaking our morale.”
Your reaction to the radio reports would be “My family and me might be killed tomorrow.”
But then the commentator would say something like, “But there’s still hope. Our German ingenuity will overcome. We are in the final stages of developing what’s called a jet engine airplane that will easily destroy those English and American bombers and fighter planes, plus we are developing a bomb that could wipe out London in one minute.”
I guess the people were so war-weary that they would’ve believed anything, -even the idea that one bomb could destroy a whole city. But the funny thing about it was the Nazi broadcaster would have been telling the truth because the German scientists were working on an atom bomb and they just about had it completed before the war ended. Now that would have been something. Let's not think about that,
We can get used to just about anything, it seems, doesn't it? And if we can’t, then we resort to denial, which saves us from an unpleasant existence.
During my two years in Wuerzburg, from the Germans, I never saw or heard spoken the mention of Adolph Hitler, Joseph Goebbles, Heinrich Himmler, or Herman Goering. Except Hans, in his darkroom when I would be in there working with him and Maria wasn't there. He would use the darkroom to tell me deep down what his feeling were. He couldn't express them during the war and he couldn't express them after the war, so the darkroom was the only place to express them, and to an American, me.
As I lay there in my early morning wake-up trance, I dismissed the whole subject. I transitioned into how nice it was for these people to invite me into their home and to spend the night in their son's bedroom. What a beautiful day outside! I let my mind switch into the road ahead for me that day.
“I don’t know,”
I volunteered, “I’ll just take the road out of town
that goes west..”
In the small back yard I began packing my scooter. “Here, “ Frau Werner said, coming down the back steps, “Here’s the address of my sister in Frankfurt. If you pass through Frankfurt, give this note to her. She would be glad to welcome you.”
I thanked her. Then Herr Werner came tramping down the back steps waving an ancient motorcycle helmet, “Here take this, youngster. I think you can use it on your trip!” It was covered with souvenir stickers and scratches. He dusted it off.
“But I can’t take
this, “Herr Werner,” I pleaded.
“It fits perfectly. Now
you take it!” He belted me on the head to show me it was in good
shape. There was nothing more to be said. I had a crash helmet. I took
it off and thanked Herr Werner.
Anyway, I heard the tinkle of the bell on the front door of the store. “I’ve got a customer,“ Frau Werner shouted. She turned, waved aufwiedersehen, gave an affectionate smile, blew me a kiss and disappeared into the store front.
“Drive careful,” Herr Werner smiled as he helped me roll the scooter onto the main street as neighbors looked on. I can only imagine what they must’ve been thinking. A decade earlier they would’ve thought he was harboring a collaborator or a spy and would’ve reported him to the Gestapo.
Herr Werner grabbed my wrist. ”Aufwiedersehen und hals und beinbroch.!” The German way of wishing the best to you is to wish you the worst. It means “break your neck.”
He watched as I disappeared around the bend in the narrow village road. I thought I saw Frau Werner on the side walk also waving farewell.
I traveled slowly through Germany the next two weeks, sometimes camping out along the highway in my tent , sometimes inviting my way to sleep in the hayloft of a farmer's barn, sometimes staying in the German Youth Hostel dormitories, the Jungendherberge.
Once, on the outskirts of Kolblenz, (Colonge) I was invited to stay on a farm for the whole weekend. My invitation was extended to almost a week when they learned I could play German folk songs on my guitar.
It’s funny about music. It’s a universal language. It melts people down. There’s nothing better to carry than a musical instrument if you want to travel to foreign places. It doesn’t matter if you’re really any good at it. I certainly wasn’t. Sorta like Jack Benny and his violin. But it was like a key to get into a door you were generally not allowed to enter.
At the Strauser’s farm it was almost a communal farm where you had an extended family of all ages. I never did learn everyone’s name and at mealtime there was always someone new at the table that wasn’t there the last time. It was like they had this custom left over from the war where there was often an empty chair at the long farmhouse kitchen table because no one was sure just who would be there for supper.
I seemed to fit into that empty chair without anyone noticing anything much different.
We would all work in the fields in the daytime. And at night we would all sit around the kitchen talking and sometimes singing a folksong that I knew. One of the little Strauser boys had a charming voice and would sing when his mother requested. There was no senior Mr. Strauser. I didn’t ask.
I was getting itchy to move on and see what was ahead of me to the north
up the Rhine river. I said goodbye Sunday morning early. I passed through
the village of Rudesheim.
And they all poured out onto the streets and sidewalks and began enjoying walking through the parks or paths through the forest. The voice was saying, "take your children and the "baby carriage, your family dog, or your boyfriend and stroll the town square, parks, the river walkways, the glens, the valleys, the picnic grounds, the playing fields everywhere!
Romping, laughing little children, vinegar-faced old men and women, young
couples, proud young mothers pushing their baby carriage. It was though
they were reenacting Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretle. Shiny,
smiling faces. Neighbors greeting each other and their dogs snapping and
yipping and yapping and chasing each other through the bushes. And the
giggling children trying to catch them.
The Rhine river flows along here on its way to the North Sea, glistening in the high afternoon sun. I drove through Rudesheim past active little outdoor cafes filled with customers as red-cheeked waitresses scurried about in their Bavarian dirndls holding trays topped with white wine glasses, coffee, and tarts. Throngs of people filled the sidewalks and me and my Vespa tried to dodge some of the strollers when the overflow sent them into the narrow streets. There were no banners, no confetti, no concert band playing, no particular day to celebrate, -just a Sunday feeling of festivity in the village air.
I felt sorry I could not be part of it.
NEXT: On to Rotterdam, Holland
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