I’m ten, sitting on the living room rug watching Hogan’s Heroes, and the Germans are dupes, fanatics, clowns, sadists, and murderers. And of course I’m rooting for the clever Americans and their allies: they’ve turned their imprisonment into an opportunity to make fools of their captors.
I know that a few of my great uncles fought in WWI for America, and they died young from the after effects of German mustard gas attacks. My Grandpa Reger’s younger brother, Norbert, was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. A few stories have trickled down to me about his days in a stalag: his best friend was shot by a guard for no apparent reason; and he felt guilty about being kept alive by the Germans because he spoke fluent German and was used as a translator. He was sent near the end of the war to a farm near Garmisch-Partenkirchen to work as a farm laborer where he discovered that the locals had no use for Hitler and were half-starved. He and a buddy found a Nazi warehouse stuffed full of supplies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen after they were liberated by American troops, and they gave out food and clothing to adults and chocolates to their kids. When the kids collapsed and rolled on the ground they thought the Nazis had poisoned the chocolate, but Norbert read the labels on the candy wrappers and saw that the chocolates were laced with rum.
One day I asked Uncle “Norbie” to tell me more about the war, but my grandmother shushed me immediately. Norbie bowed his head, lit a cigarette and stared down at the floor. 25 years had passed since VE day, but it took my grandfather’s patient solicitation (a pat on the back, a quiet word of reassurance and a quick joke) to bring Norbie out of his trance.
My Grandpa Reger spoke fluent German too. His father, Wolfgang Reger, immigrated from southern Germany in the 1890s and settled in Dayton, Ohio. German was the first language heard at home. Grandpa’s Catholic grade school was loaded with the sons and daughters of immigrants, and the lessons were taught in German and English. When Grandpa said a few words in German to me when I was a child I noticed the gentle flow of the syllables, a softness not heard from the war movie Germans who screamed, “Achtung!” and “Macht Schnell!” in harsh gutturals.
Grandpa read novels and articles about politics and science. He loved classical music and sang in the church choir for nearly seventy years. He took pride in his family connection to the German composer, Max Reger, and his dying words were, “Beethoven!” The choir sang the “Ode to Joy”from the Ninth Symphony as I helped carry his coffin down the aisle to a waiting hearse.
At the family reception after the interment my Uncle Bill and second cousin Bobby talked about their trips to Germany. They enthused that the country is clean, well run, beautiful. I almost envisioned going there for a visit until Bobby referred to it as “the fatherland”. Strains of “Deutscheland Uber Alles” played in my head and I recalled newsreels of goosestepping soldiers and Hitler working himself into a lather.
I’m fifty-three. My sister Carla is sitting in her powered wheel chair, and the light streaming in from her living room window is a cold winter gray. She tells me about a recent visit from a social worker who comes by periodically to check on her condition. ALS sufferers are institutionalized if their home care is deemed inadequate, and Carla, a woman of blunt opinions, has to tread carefully when dealing with the authorities. The woman asked Carla about my father, Thomas Schmalstig, who came every week day to make Carla lunch and keep her company while her husband was at work. She says, “So Schmalstig–is that German?” Carla answers yes. Social Worker says, “So your Dad is one of them Nazis.” Carla says no. Our family came from Germany a long time ago, but we’re loyal Americans who fought against Germany in both world wars. Dad is a Korean War veteran. The woman shuts up for a moment, but seems intent on offending a dying woman. She finally says, “Well if he isn’t a Nazi, he must be a bumpkin.”
A few years later I’m speaking to a Quaker woman who is an ardent Francophile. I mention that my mother’s side of the family is more interested in German culture (literature, music, art) than my father’s. She responds with a smirk: “I didn’t know that Germans had any culture.” I rattle off a list of names, Kant, Schopenhauer, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Max Beckmann, Thomas Mann. I tell her about our relation to Max Reger, but she’s never heard of his music. Her smirk shifts a bit as she tries to summon up her Quaker sense of tolerance. I know that I’ve won the skirmish but haven’t won the war. Germans are Germans. Pigs are pigs.