Revised memories of a German WWII veteran

When I was a preadolescent in Germany, one of my prized possessions was a Poesiealbum, a memory book for quotes and notes from people in my life. Superficial, pop-culture quotes from my peers and cliché lines of German thinkers, poets, and philosophers constitute most of the entries. My Opa Dresden, however, inscribed some dark thoughts that are haunting me today. He was my maternal grandfather, whom, in an effort to simplify, I had labeled by the city in which he lived since both my grandfathers were named Herbert. Opa’s handle on sociology, anthropology, environmental studies, and especially zoology without a college education was remarkable, and his take on humanity more than biased.

In his slanted, old-German, slightly show-off handwriting, he informed me in 1985: “The human is the only animal of which I am afraid.” For anyone who knew my grandfather, this wasn’t, at the time, a surprising statement. He loved animals, studied animals, wrote about them. He had a long-term membership for the Dresden Zoo, corresponded with well-known zoologists and researchers of the time, like Dr. Dathe, and wrote for popular magazines, like Gefiederte Welt and Urania. I recall a special interest in species in and around Siberia and the Ukraine, in untamed, uncrossed animals, like wild yaks and Przewalski horses, as well as zoos’ breeding efforts. We, his grandkids, suffered from the occasional walks in the Dresdner Heide or visits to the zoo because he would quiz us on the types of birds we could hear, tracks we would see, and characteristics and behaviors of critters we would observe. It came across as stressful, and I often felt underqualified and disappointed to not remember the animal trivia.

My grandfather served in World War II, and not by choice. Later in his life, he developed a very unique gait, bowlegged, listing like a ship in a storm, with a pace that was uniquely, almost meditatively, his. He’d be quiet on our walks, and listen intently, almost intensively. He’d also rant against sudden noises, shrieking children, bright lights, and slammed doors. He’d love routines, especially those he shared with my Oma — meal times, radio shows with old music, singing along with her as they made weekend morning breakfast or peeled the potatoes or shared doing the dishes. Frequently, he’d whistle along with the songbirds he kept and bred in roomy cages in their apartment. He was very unusual for a German man of his time, I now know. He also, I have deduced over the years, had PTSD, not only from the grenade splinter in his leg but also from his experiences during time served, his imprisonment in Russia, his long walk on foot back from Russia to Germany without food, adequate clothing, protection, through destroyed cities and broken communities.

He never specifically told us what he saw, felt, and heard. What I do know is that he tried to become a post-war emergency teacher, and my grandma talked him out of it because she knew, instinctively, he wouldn’t have the patience or the ability to deal with the sensory input. Instead, he drove taxi cabs in their bomb- and fire-destroyed city, repaired cars, and then came to work as a translator at Mercedes to bridge the gap between workers and Russian occupants. He’d picked up the language during imprisonment and, from what I could tell, he held respect for Russian people and culture, so much that he engaged in committed correspondence with a man in Leningrad. It’s always floored me that he developed appreciation for and relationships with people who, a decade prior, had stood on the opposite side of the battlefield.

Then again, while he quietly, reliably worked, entertained coworkers with his knack for joke- and story-telling, and racked up East German medal and commendations after medal and commendation for good service in socialism’s name, for his decades of accident-free driving, and his commitment to performance, a disdain for the developing politics and PR talk festered inside of him. He judged people for their looks, often shouting “Papagei” (parrot) when he saw someone mimicking propaganda language. He looked down on people for having too many children, which, in his opinion, was a great shortcoming of the human species compared to the animal kingdom. He called out “Affe”(monkey) when he witnessed someone spouting something dumb or not thinking for himself. Yes, he was judgmental, set in his ways, rigid, really — and his expectations for the human race were transferred to those around him: his kids, his grandkids. On some level, many of us felt we didn’t know how to live up to his expectations, and we struggled to be ourselves around him because we were harshly reprimanded.

“The human is the only animal of which I am afraid.” I believe I now know what he was trying to do. He hoped to raise his descendants into better human beings than he saw in the world. He wanted us to not only do better, but be better. He’d seen atrocities before and during the war and lived through some very rocky decades in Germany, none of which helped him regain faith in humanity. The fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent arrival of free market, competitive industry, money deflation, unemployment, and advertisement-driven capitalism put a fire in his belly, and he’d hold forth during family gatherings about the “Blödsinn” (nonsense) that surrounded us all. At the time, I didn’t get it, so it was easy to write him off as an eccentric relic as my teenage ego discovered top music charts, jeans, sneakers and the value of the West German Mark, our new currency. Later, when the Euro arrived and my grandparents moved to a smaller, more manageable apartment, I was already living in the US, in pursuit of, what I thought, would be a life of more freedom to be myself, more joy, a less stifled lifestyle than the one that had choked me in Germany.

I basically missed watching my grandparents get really old. I missed that wonderful, cherished stage when they just sit around and wander off in their thoughts, sometimes telling a story of yesteryear. I missed out on that, and I sorely miss that. Instead, I sent a recorder and had my sister tape a few of the conversations, but, as is the way of my family, they are so lively, choppy, and authentic that without having been there in the flesh, I can’t make much sense of them. What I can make sense of now is my last encounter with my Opa Dresden.

We’d come home, as I still call it, in December of 2010, almost ten years ago now, and gotten a Christmas tree with my parents, decorated it in my childhood home, and were trying to make new memories to enmesh with the old ones. My maternal uncle kindly loaded my grandparents in the car and drove them across treacherous winter roads, all the way from Dresden to my parents’ home so they could be with us a few hours and meet my son for the first and my daughter for the second time. What remains of that day is a memory of my uncle enticing my kids into a joyous snowball fight in the garden so I could have some quiet time with my grandparents.

Oma and Opa were parked on the couch; we chatted, tried to get to know each other again, and squeezed years of absence into one afternoon. My grandma, bedecked in pantyhose and perfectly ironed shin-length skirt, sweater and shiny vest, chatted, as always, for two. My grandpa leaned on the couch. He was seated but so arched and shrunk and tired that he leaned, like a wind-bent tree, into the suede leather. There was a nap for them somewhere in there, a meal for which he didn’t really have appetite, so his wife ate his leftovers. What wasn’t there? Strong opinions, monologues on the state of mankind, the stupidity of advertisements, political misjudgments. He was just present, his piercing blue eyes a lighter, watery shade now, his wrinkled face soft, his large ears floppy. At some point, he tried to stand up from the couch and swayed, as I very gently told him that his fly was open. With slight contempt and resignation, he made a gesture as if deliberately throwing away something: “They’re going to slide down anyway.” And he was right, his pants were slipping down his hips and thighs. In that moment, a well of tender softness opened up inside of me. I was seeing the real Opa Dresden, probably for the first time in my life.

This was the sweet soul he might have been if he hadn’t served in the war, if life instead had been a series of lovely afternoons spent in his worshiped nature, imitating bird calls, watching deer, admiring the circle of life. This was a person now in harmony with himself and life around him. He died nine months later.

My memory of his fierce intelligence, stark expectations, often humiliating statements has been beautifully balanced by this one afternoon. I’m told as his own memory started to fade more, he found peace in prayers he had learned as a child. This was a man who had condemned and belittled the church throughout my childhood. I think he came full circle, despite covering hurt and desperation most of his life with hardness and judgment. And I think of him, feel his legacy beneath my skin this week, as I see events in our world unravel we all somehow knew were coming but were all hoping would spare us during our lifetime. Our world is ill. A virus is culling our species. Mother Earth is hurting. Humans have dominated nature and each other. They dwell on differences, on violence, on domination, on individualism, and on pain.

My Opa, through his observations of humankind, had this figured out, and he strongly preferred to be with animals than people. He’d flip the channel away from sensational news even back then and select a nature show instead. I think he was tired of witnessing how, despite all the sacrifices by generations before us — wars, ideological changes, torture, depression, economic upheaval, habitat destruction, government collapse, natural disasters, illness, hate, famine to emerge with hope to do it better the next time — we as a species still had not learned the way to truly be at peace with ourselves, each other, and other life on this planet.

“The human is the only animal of which I am afraid.” I get it now, Opa, I get it. I wonder how you would have felt about this year, 2020. Do we, as a species, deserve another chance? Somehow, I maintain my hope that love and compassion will come from within and help us all through and out so that those who marched the rocky road of being human before us didn’t learn their lessons in vain.

Harmony lover, plant nurturer, child raiser, frequency lifter, earth celebrator, presence seeker, hope writer.