The lush grass is almost ankle high, and a joyous and rich green; a memento of the long, cool, damp winter and fall. It feels redundant, but the adjective most suitable would be “leafy.” Oversized dandelions speckle the gently sloping hills by the million: a constellation of gold stars against a sea of lazy chlorophyll. One field wanders to a near horizon; others are interrupted by stands of robust birches or horse chestnut trees — the latter’s lampshade-like colonnades of flowers a promise of the reddish-brown nuts that will rain down from above in months to come. We called them conkers when I was a kid.
Across a quiet and narrow street lies a flower-spattered triangular park where young boys are playing soccer in brightly colored but mismatched shirts. No semblance of team training here, just kids practicing and having fun. A splendid tabby cat sits patiently on a stone doorstep, waiting to be let inside a house decorated by wiry vines. Two old men, one with rosy cheeks and a grey and battered flat cap on his head, talk softly over their Saturday afternoon beers. An extraordinarily beautiful tricolor collie dog dozes beside one of the men, her long and elegant chin resting on the instep of his boot while she dreams, perhaps, of chasing rabbits in the nearby forest.
A lawnmower pipes up briefly as a neighbor precisely and efficiently cuts the grass in his minute but perfect garden — hardly the size of two pool tables placed side by side. A hundred or more dainty purple pansies are happily packed in an old tin washing bucket at the lawn’s edge. It is a perfect example of recycling in action, and the pansies’ mischievous little Rorschach faces stare out of their tub with whimsical and puzzling expressions. White cherry blossoms have started to burst from petite, well-pruned trees as have the crab apple flowers. Happy bees gorge themselves upon the sea of blossoms with such madness and enthusiasm that their buzzing sounds like engines.
I periodically hear a faint thud as, off in the distance, an experienced archer practices alone; feathered arrows thunking into the bullseye, one by one. Birds are chattering everywhere: sparrows and finches mostly, but occasionally a large woodpecker will peek cheekily out of the trees, or a raven will strut by, cocky and full of disdain, knowing that with his fine pickaxe beak and glistening black feathers, he is the haughtiest of birds.
Every one of my senses tells me that I am back in the idyllic English countryside of my childhood. But the sign on the pub says “Schutzenhouse” and the woodpecker is a species I’ve never seen in the UK. Even though the sights, and smells, and sounds all whisper to me that I have stepped back in time and am home, I am, in fact, in rural Germany.
Germany was forbidden to me as a child. My father was Jewish and a United States Army World War II veteran. He saw heavy action in the European Theater of Operations in France, Belgium, and — very briefly and until he was partially blown up by Nazi artillery — in Germany. Dad took the Air Force exam when he was eighteen years old, with the intention of becoming a B-17 bomber pilot. I only learned this fact comparatively recently and was more than a little surprised, as my father was a kind and gentle man, not given to violence or hatred. “I thought that, as a B-17 pilot, I could inflict the maximum amount damage on the Nazis,” he added, in an offhand manner, as if merely commenting upon the weather. My father’s career as a bomber pilot did not materialize, due to the Air Force taking issue with his “poor” eyesight. I found that diagnosis extremely amusing as my father passed away last year, just shy of his 87th birthday, and never wore glasses a day in his life. I suppose I should be glad he failed that eye examination, else I would almost certainly not be sitting here, typing this, on a Boeing 767 flying back from Stuttgart; American air crew losses over Germany during World War II being as catastrophic as they were.
My father’s White Russian Jewish parents arrived in the States in the 1920s and they left plenty of family behind, both in Russia and in France. Even as a teenager, my father was aware — much sooner that most of the world, and with aching clarity — that something hideous was going on in German-occupied Europe. “One day,” he told me, “the letters just stopped.” My father had family who died in the concentration camps, including an adored cousin who — to the best of my knowledge — survives only in one small and faded snapshot. My father made it through the Battle of the Bulge, mostly in one piece, but his best friend from high school did not. They joined up together, but young Andrew Yeaple did not return from the war. I gather that many or most of Dad’s other comrades also did not come home from Belgium, but the little I know about his wartime experiences were pieced together from occasional stories he would relate to me when the mood took him, which was roughly once per decade. I know that he was twice decorated and that he was, unofficially, one of the very first Americans across the Siegfried Line into Germany, sometime near the end of 1944. That’s when his reconnaissance vehicle was hit by 88-mm cannon shells. He crawled back to the demolished jeep, under heavy fire, and emptied his rifle into the company radio to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. Real John Wayne stuff, except I never think of Dad like that, because he was quiet and modest and it is difficult to imagine him as a warrior. He took a sizable piece of shrapnel through the left foot and his war was over. Dad’s walking was a little impaired for the rest of his life but he never once complained. He recuperated on a floating hospital ship in UK waters, returned to the States in 1945, and once remarked to me that — as a result of being on serious painkillers for an extended period — he fully understood why some fell easily into morphine and heroin addiction.
My father did not care to talk about himself or his accomplishments. Much of his life, therefore, remains a mystery to me. He came from a poor family yet he graduated with a master’s degree from New York’s prestigious Columbia University, which he somehow managed in only three years on the G.I. Bill (evidently there wasn’t enough money to pay for a conventional four-year education). I once asked Dad how he accomplished such a feat and he replied: “We’d just come back from the war and nobody was going to tell us what we could or couldn’t do.” By “we,” I assumed he meant the others on the G.I. Bill who made it home, but I was never certain.
In his twenties, Dad went back to Europe and spent most of the next sixty years there. He once rode across Africa, entirely by himself, on a Triumph motorcycle, and was later granted top secret clearance by the State Department. He worked in the code room of the American Embassy in Paris, and that’s where he met my mother. In fifty years, my father never explained to me what he was doing in Africa, or the code room, or why he would choose to cross that continent, alone, on a gorgeous and somewhat unreliable British motorcycle. The only anecdote he ever shared about the African adventure concerned an Arab who attempted to steal the Triumph from him. Dad produced an oversized Bowie knife (in my cinematic imagination it runs very much like the famous “That’s a knife” scene in Crocodile Dundee) and the Arab, very sensibly, legged it.
During the 1950s, when my father was living in Paris, crossing Africa, and doing other mysterious things, the term posttraumatic stress disorder didn’t exist. Combat veterans who had witnessed or experienced things too horrendous to assimilate were diagnosed as having “soldier’s heart,” “shell shock” or “operational fatigue.” The symptoms and severity of PTSD were not properly understood, or even named until 1980, and among my father’s generation it would have been regarded as “unmanly” or “weak” to admit to having any such problems anyway. In her dissertation Combat Veterans Diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: The Effect on Their Children: A Phenomenological Study, (University of Phoenix, 2007), Monika Frenz notes that “four out of five Vietnam combat veterans portray persistent PTSD symptoms (Price, 2006).” Since PTSD wasn’t recognized as an affliction during the World War II era, many or most combat veterans from that time, on both sides, probably never received any sort of treatment or counseling and had to deal with it on their own, as best they could.
My father doubtless carried the fallout of war — loss, horror, brutality, injury, and perhaps much more — deep inside. If it was a burden to him, he never showed it. His life during wartime did, however, manifest itself in one tangible way and that was the solid and unmovable edict that we, as a family, would never set foot in Germany. We traveled extensively when I was growing up, visiting almost every country that shared a border with Germany, some of them repeatedly. Further, we were forbidden to have German products, of any kind, in the house. I recall my mother bringing home a bottle of grape juice when I was about nine years old. She found it in a health food store and I loved the taste of it. My mother did all the shopping and all the food preparation in our household but, for some reason, Dad happened to notice “Product of Germany” printed on the grape juice label and when he asked my mother why there was something German in the house, it was one of the few times in my life that I remember seeing him genuinely angry.
As any headstrong boy knows, when something is forbidden it develops a shiny and irresistible allure. Unavoidably, therefore, around the age of nine or ten I became fascinated with World War II and German military technology in particular. Show me a picture of any Germany tank or airplane and I can tell you its history. Even more compelling was my fascination with the German rocket program. I searched used book shops for obscure and out-of-print titles, and became something of a young scholar on the subject. My ever-patient mother aided me, somewhat uncomfortably, in this quest for secret learning, almost as if we, ourselves, were living under a totalitarian regime and smuggling contraband literature. Looking back forty-odd years, it is easy to see myself as insensitive and disrespectful to my father’s wishes. In my defense, however, I was a little boy and I did not yet know suffering, pain, and loss. Now that I have witnessed such things for myself, it is easier to find understanding: reading German words may have been a trigger for Dad, or perhaps he just didn’t want to support German commerce with his money.
My fiancé’s brother, Gerry, is a master sergeant in the United States Air Force. He and his wife, Jesi, and their two young boys have lived in Germany for six years. They have — very wisely, in my opinion — chosen to live “on the economy” as the military calls it, rather than on, or near, the base in a predominantly American environment. My own parents, who were Americans but loved Europe, did much the same thing, but in England. They raised me in a foreign land, making me the progeny of two different cultures and I feel so much the richer for it.
In my adult life, I have been fortunate enough to make a number of valued German friends, primarily as a result of my science work, but I had still never visited the country. This past April the time came, and my fiancé, Libby, and I flew to Stuttgart to visit Gerry and the family, who live in a sleepy little town about forty-five minutes south of the city. Jesi picked us up at the airport after our ten-hour flight. She has learned to speak decent German and served admirably as translator (my German being slightly worse than my Russian, which is already quite bad).
Germany, at last.
I walked here and there, to town, or to the pub, along pretty, and quiet, and perfectly maintained streets, and was almost instantly overwhelmed by the endless similarities between rural Germany and rural England. In fact, the Germans and the English are much more alike than they will ever admit, with their love of socializing at the pub; their adored cats and dogs; soccer in the park on weekends; beautiful little gardens, often adorned with a petite birdhouse; tidy and functional train stations; small and efficient cars (because gasoline is so expensive in Europe) kept immaculately clean; country walks and bird sanctuaries; rolling farms, and barns and old churches, all lovingly tended. I don’t know what I expected to find in Germany, but it certainly wasn’t the sensation of journeying back to my childhood in England.
One afternoon, I met Gerry at the entrance to the base. He was dressed very smartly in a sporty white jacket of the sort that one might wear while sailing. I suppose I unconsciously assumed that he’d appear in uniform and was therefore interested to learn that U.S. military personnel are required to travel to and from the base in civilian clothing. “We are still technically an occupying force,” one soldier informed me in a tone that was kindly and respectful and carried with it a subtext that said: “But we don’t want to be seen that way.” He added: “Uniforms can make the Germans nervous.”
Gerry and I took the train into Stuttgart proper, and I could not help but stare discretely at the faces of a couple of old men riding along with us aboard the spotless public transportation that afternoon. A seventy three year-old retiree would have been five years old in 1945 when Germany was bombed into submission. How do you explain to a five year-old boy why his house has been obliterated?
I might be overly sensitive but I read pain and sadness in the older faces and I was conscious of a sadness in the landscape too. I imagined that the peaceful little town of Bondorf, where we were staying, had remained untouched by the ravages of conflict, but an elderly lady who lived through World War II stated: “No part of Germany was untouched.” I wondered what the wartime experiences of these old survivors had been like, but I couldn’t ask. The Germans have excellent manners and it is regarded as odd, or even rude, to say hello to people you don’t know.
I am not an apologist; I am certainly not a revisionist and I do not believe in visiting the sins of the father upon the children. The Nazis perpetrated terrible evil on the world, but the German people paid for it. In a sense, they still are. “The war casts a long shadow,” one long-time American resident told me. “And there’s still a feeling of national guilt.” Despite all of that, there is a kindness in the people; they are neat, and courteous, and they care about the world. German citizens take their own glass and plastics to central recycling stations, and you can’t walk thirty feet without seeing a house covered by solar panels. It’s a given that you don’t litter, mow the lawn on Sundays (because everyone is resting), make noise after 10 p.m., honk your car horn unnecessarily, or make rude gestures at other drivers (you’ll be ticketed if you do). Germany was the first country to begin separating trash for recycling and is a world leader in ecological awareness. The annual carbon dioxide emission of an average German citizen is less than half that of an average American, and Germany has pledged to cut their emissions by a further 40%. In the span of a single lifetime, Germany has transformed from the country trying to take over the world to the country trying to save it.
Stuttgart is a lovely city with parks and pedestrian precincts, young people out shopping, lively cafés, restaurants and shops, and I quickly discovered that I preferred to dwell on modern Germany, rather than wartime history. I found it impossible to imagine the estimated 142,000 bombs that fell upon Stuttgart during 53 air raids. Instead, I bought a stylish jacket in a favorite clothing store I recognized from England (one that we don’t have in the States) and explored the Markethalle — a luminous concrete and glass Art Deco building constructed between 1911 and 1914, and today housing an international food market that would delight even the pickiest of gourmets.
As I walked along sunny streets, I sifted through labyrinthine memories of my father in search of evidence that he suffered from PTSD. He was always a bit distant, but not emotionally cold, and he absolutely refused to be rushed or hurried in any way. He loved to entertain and enjoyed parties, long dinners, and pouring cocktails for his friends. He played chess frequently, read a respectable newspaper (or two) every day of his life, and watched the news religiously. He never criticized anyone that I can remember, except, very occasionally, and in a joking way, the Germans. He did not collect anything except for his modest library of classical music. He liked simple clothes and every car he ever bought had at least one previous owner. He was not abusive to my mother, my younger brother, or me. It is possible that Dad’s solitary adventures a decade before I was born, and his methodical, slow-paced life were his own way of dealing with PTSD, if he even suffered from it which, given what he went through, seems likely.
In later years, and to everyone’s surprise, my father mellowed quite a bit. He became good friends with a German gentleman, Willy Feld, who had moved to London and was just about the same age as Dad. They played tennis every weekend, if the weather was fair, and went to the pub together on Friday evenings. Willy was almost certainly in combat during World War II, on the other side, but I’d bet a thousand dollars neither one of them ever mentioned it. I am sorry Dad didn’t mellow just a bit more so he could have visited Germany one last time. I think he would have, like me, fallen in love with the land of his former enemy.
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Text and photographs © by Geoffrey Notkin.
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