Mr. Tree (Part Two)

One question gnaws at me as my Opapa recalls his happy childhood in Germany: How much did you know? The second in a special three-part feature.

By Jeremy Klaszus

Auguste, Ernst’s mother, was wise to flee East Prussia when she did. Many who stayed starved to death or worse. One of Ernst’s childhood friends endured six years of forced labour in a Soviet gulag for stealing a loaf of bread in Lithuania. Ernst similarly stole bread farther west but only had to worry about escaping the red-faced bakers who came after him swinging their rolling pins.

German women had it worst. The Red Army unleashed a ruthless sexual violence as it moved west into East Prussia seeking revenge for Nazi crimes in Russia. Ernst’s family didn’t escape this horror. Two of his sisters were brutally gang-raped by the Soviets in 1945. As the drunken soldiers took turns with the women, another soldier played the accordion. Others danced.

Many Germans who waited too late to flee the Red Army didn’t survive. For some, the only escape was a treacherous walk across a frozen inlet on the Baltic Sea. Allied bombs tore deadly holes in the ice and dysentery was widespread. One refugee later described the trek as “an enormously long funeral procession.” 

German ships also ferried refugees west on the Baltic. In one of human history’s worst—yet lesser-known—maritime disasters, a Soviet submarine torpedoed one of these refugee carriers, the Wilhelm Gustloff, killing some 9,000 Germans in January 1945—about six times the number of people who died when the Titanic sank. Many were East Prussian refugees. 

Ernst wasn’t one of them. After leaving Tilsit, he travelled by rail with his mother and sister Lydia to Iserlohn, a Westphalian city amid densely wooded hills, where he took pre-military training and stepped up his activity in the Jungvolk, the junior branch of the Hitler Youth. He worked from morning until night at the railway station, where German refugees from the heavily bombed Ruhr passed through, many with slings on their arms and bloody wounds on their faces. The plight of wounded German refugees affected Ernst deeply, setting alight the adolescent desire to fight and maybe even die on the front.

To this end, Ernst volunteered with the Freikorps Sauerland, a military unit independent from but supportive of the German army. Its battalions, made up largely of disabled war vets and ill-trained teenagers like Ernst, dressed in old German army uniforms. Wehrmacht and SS officers trained the recruits on Sunday mornings. Yet much of the Freikorps aggression was ultimately taken out not on the Allies, but on fellow Germans, particularly deserters and after-bombing looters. 

The plight of refugees affected Ernst deeply, setting alight the adolescent desire to fight.

Hours after Ernst told his mother of his plans to join the Freikorps, she broke news of her own. “I’ve just learned that we need to leave Iserlohn right away. East Prussian refugees like us aren’t supposed to be here, but farther east in Saxony.”

In fact, East Prussian refugees were spread across western Germany like seeds scattered by wind. But it didn’t matter.

“We have to leave. Now.”

Ernst never fought for the Freikorps. He left Iserlohn and travelled east by rail to Radeburg, a small town near Dresden, where Tante Elsa—Ernst’s father’s sister—was staying with her family. 

Ernst, Auguste and his sister Lydia all arrived in Radeburg safely, but their baggage, loaded onto a separate train, was ripped apart by bombs.

A later conversation with Opapa. “Where did you get that information about the Freikorps Sauerland?” He isn’t convinced by my findings on their activities.

“From a 1999 article in the Central European History journal. I’ll email it to you if you like.”

Opapa doesn’t sound keen on it. “I do not trust all of the historians that I have read. And when it comes to wartime, the truth always dies first, so what we get from so-called historical sources may or may not be reliable.” Opapa launches into a long lecture about the bias of “so-called” historians. “I rather doubt that children or old men were involved in killing their own. Maybe that was another Freikorps, but not the Freikorps Sauerland.” 

I push back a bit. “No, it’s definitely the Freikorps Sauerland. I don’t know if teenagers or adults were doing the killing, but much of the Freikorps’ aggression was toward other Germans.”

He sounds more interested, but still unconvinced. “They wanted to fight the Allies. That’s really what it was.”

Opapa is in the cardio ward when we visit him Saturday morning, almost 35 hours after he went into emergency. Patients are allowed four visitors at a time. Opapa has eight. After a couple of hours we decide to leave again. Before we go, I get up my guts and say what I’ve never said to this looming, lecturing figure who now lies helpless on a hospital bed. “I love you, Opapa.” 

“I love you too.”

That night, Omi sends an e-mail to her three children. “Tonight while we were alone, Papa for the first time talked about death. He said to me that there are still some things he wants to do—he’s not ready. He wants to work with Jeremy on his project.… Papa has never opened up either to me or anyone else as he has the last few days. He has never shown how he really felt about things (except when he got angry). Jeremy, your drawing him out has brought out a side of him that I didn’t know—after 53 years. I thank you for that.”

The following weekend, we visit Opapa again. This time Saturday is quiet. Everyone’s at church. Two of my cousins, Opapa’s granddaughters, are being confirmed in the Lutheran church today after studying Luther’s catechism for two years. Opapa badly wanted to attend but can’t.

Confirmation—an essential part of any good Lutheran upbringing. I was confirmed in 1995 at age 12, my dad in 1974 at age 14, and in 1945 Opapa was confirmed at age 15. He dug into the catechism in Dresden, Saxony’s artistic capital, along with eight other teenagers. 

“I appreciate Luther for many of the things he said,” Opapa says. “I certainly don’t agree with all of them and whenever I say that, people are listening up. ‘What, you don’t agree with Luther?’ Well, no. I don’t agree with him on his attitude toward women. I don’t agree with him on his attitude toward Anabaptists. I don’t agree with him on what he said about the Jews.”

In confirmation we never studied Luther’s more incendiary writings. In his hateful 1543 tract On The Jews and Their Lies, the German theologian describes the Jewish people as “a heavy burden, a plague, a pestilence, a sheer misfortune for our country.” He goes further, calling them “an incorrigible whore and an evil slut.” Christians, he writes, are to “set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honour of our Lord and of Christendom…” Luther goes on like this for more than 65,000 words, his words darkly prophetic of the Nazis’ crimes. 

I find Opapa’s struggle with his faith and church, always hidden from me as a child, extremely encouraging. To me he was always a patriarchal symbol of proper behaviour and belief—the very things I wanted to break away from in my adult life after being immersed in religious fundamentalism throughout my childhood. Private Christian schools, all the way through Grade 12. Church every Sunday, and youth group on Friday nights, where we prayed feverishly for the “lost” while listening to lame music drenched in religious slogans. After awhile I couldn’t believe I was fortuitously “saved” while those not drowning in evangelical kitsch were somehow inferior and “lost.” 

The exclusionary theology had to go. And by the time I finished college, it did. I found a church with a more inclusive understanding of faith.

Until recently, I never knew Opapa experienced a similar struggle throughout his life. He questions his religious upbringing as much as I question mine, and now I’m discovering a spiritual friend in a man I always regarded as spiritually and emotionally distant. “What bothers me about my childhood is that we were brainwashed,” Opapa says. “I hate to use that word, but I have to. We were brainwashed into believing what we were told about other religions, other faiths, other confessions, other denominations.” Confirmation was just one step in this unfortunate process.

But Opapa’s confirmation classes were violently interrupted on a night burned into memory for many Germans.

“It was the first time I saw parts of a human body lying here and there…”

Radeburg. February 13, 1945. Ernst slept quietly in his upstairs room, sick with pneumonia, his breath making quick, white clouds. Frost clung to the south-facing window. There wasn’t enough wood to heat the small room. 

Outside and above, British planes flew toward nearby Dresden, Saxony’s cultural heart and a transportation hub swollen with refugees from the east. The bombers announced their arrival by dropping spectacular flares of green and white that illuminated Dresden’s baroque churches and famed art galleries.

Ernst missed the light show happening outside his window. By the time he awoke an hour later, too sick to crawl downstairs, the walls of his room glowed orange-red. Groggily stumbling to the window, he looked to the south and saw only flames.

The British planes had fanned out over the city and bombed with mathematical precision, first at about 10 p.m., and again at 1:30 a.m. Refugees in Dresden burned like tinder in the midnight firestorm. Not just refugees—Dresdeners as well. Not only Germans, but also refugees from the Baltic States, and the handful of Jews left in the city. The storm of fire made no distinction between one human and another. They roasted as equals. Many baked in underground tunnels where they had sought escape.

“A plague, a pestilence…” Luther goes on and on like this, his words darkly prophetic of Nazi crimes.

American planes bombed Dresden again the next day, further stoking the inferno. In the midst of the fire, Ernst’s pastor clambered into his church and rescued a stack of documents from his desk, including the certificates he’d written up in advance of the teenagers’ confirmation ceremony. Afterward the pastor added another line, in blue ink, to Ernst’s large-lettered certificate: “This document was retrieved from the burning parsonage during the terror attack on Dresden on the 14th of February 1945.”

Opapa and his cousin Heinz visited the city a week later searching for twin girls from their confirmation class who lived in Dresden and often invited the boys over for dinner. As they made their way though the city’s Great Garden, the park to which refugees had fled after the first wave of bombings, the boys saw intestines and other body parts dangling from the charred remains of trees. The park had been set alight in the second wave of bombings. The refugees had no defence and no escape.

“Watch your step,” Ernst cautioned his younger cousin. Together they carefully walked past the corpses still strewn throughout the city. Lifeless hands, heads and arms poked from the rubble. A passerby warned Ernst and Heinz not to go where the bodies were being piled. 

“It’s too terrible for young eyes.” 

At last the boys found the girls’ house. The inside was gutted by fire; the outer four walls were all that remained. The boys searched for bodies but found only ashes.

The death toll from the Dresden bombings is as hazy as the smoke from the fire. Whether it was 40,000 or 25,000 that died, the living were still cremating corpses in the city’s Old Market nearly a month afterward, piling the decomposing bodies onto pyres made of iron-girder grates before soaking them with gasoline. Ernst and Heinz were relieved to learn that the twins from their church weren’t among those torched. They’d somehow escaped the fire that so many others hadn’t.

In his 1962 essay Target Equals City, Thomas Merton writes: “There is one winner, only one winner, in war. The winner is war itself. Not truth, not justice, not liberty, not morality. These are the vanquished. War wins, reducing them to complete submission.” The Cistercian monk gives the bombing of German cities as an example. I first read Merton’s essay—censored by the Catholic church until after his death—as a 19-year-old student who, after years of fundamentalist indoctrination, was discovering a humanist dimension to faith. I never even thought of Opapa when I first read the essay, but as I listened to his story, Merton’s words jumped to life. I began to empathize with so-called “ordinary Germans,” the ones I never saw in those disturbing Hitler film clips we watched in school.

Germans like Anna, the sister Ernst regularly visited in Danzig when he lived in Tilsit. At 23 years old, Anna gave birth to a son, Friedrich, while fleeing from Danzig to the port city of Swinemünde in January 1945. Little Friedrich sucked in vain on his starving mother’s dry breast.

After arriving in Swinemünde, Anna took Friedrich to a hospital and called on her mother and Ernst to come visit. Auguste and Ernst answered the call and went by rail. At the hospital, they met Friedrich for the first time. A feeding tube led up his tiny nose. “For the first time, I looked at someone who was starving to death,” Opapa says. “His body was a ghastly colour and there was a little bit of blue mixed into his skin. It was like skim milk that has that kind of bluish tint when they don’t add colour.”

Opapa and his mother returned sadly to the village of Grossbothen, the next stop on their zigzagging journey around an imploding Germany.

The Sunday of the weekend Opapa is hospitalized, Colleen and I return to work in Calgary. Opapa’s condition goes up and down in the days following. He talks incessantly—even more than usual—and shows signs of dementia, getting angry when anyone interrupts him. Even an affirming “uh-huh” mid-way through a story sets him off. He warns the offender, usually Omi or one of his daughters, that they are increasing his blood pressure. He goes on and on about the shortcomings of the healthcare system, his speech badly slurred. I phone on my lunch break and he rambles uncharacteristically, mashing one idea mercilessly into the next. “I lose the thread so easily,” he tells me faintly. “The thread of thought.”

I ask again if Opapa remembers feeling any guilt or shame about learning of the Nazi death camps.

 We stay abreast of Opapa’s condition by talking to my father. My dad and I have never been close. He was always busy with work when I was a kid, either with his construction job or other projects around home. So when I moved out, we never really kept up a relationship. But I now phone my father two or three times a day. 

“How’s Opapa doing?”

“Not good. He won’t stop complaining about the healthcare system. He treats Omi very badly, and…”

Dad breaks down. I’ve never heard him cry like this before.

“There are some things you want to be able to say to someone before they die…”

Struck by my father’s rare honesty, I force out a tearful “I know.”

The tender moment passes. “But we’ll see. He’s having a geriatric assessment soon and that should give us a better idea of what’s going on.” 

After I hang up, Colleen tells me she’s never seen me talk with my father so much. “It’s good to see.”

I continue speaking with Opapa, phoning his hospital room every day or two. When I can, I direct his thoughts toward childhood. His memories are crisp, even now, and when he talks about life in Germany, it’s as if we’re sitting across from each other in his living room, just like old times.

Grossbothen, Saxony. March 1945. The awful screech of metal on metal.

Ernst looked toward the distant hills beyond the town in the valley. He knew what those hills obscured; his heart pounded stronger as the squealing got louder. He’d been prepared for this moment a week ago by a draft board in nearby Grimma. Yet Ernst didn’t feel ready to report for duty and challenge the American invaders as he’d been instructed.

By now the war was all but lost. Grossbothen was one of many German towns caught in Allied pincers: Russians to the east, Americans to the west. But Ernst, even now, refused to believe that Germany was defeated, as did his cousins and friends. They often whispered hopefully about a secret weapon they’d heard was in the making.

“What kind of weapon is it?” they asked each other.

“A bomb that could flatten a city the size of Berlin.” The boys were giddy at the idea. “Or New York.”

“The fatherland isn’t defeated yet.” 

As the tanks came thundering into view unopposed, like horrible growing insects, Ernst felt less sure of his earlier optimism. The sight of them made him tremble. He had to leave immediately if he was to report on time.

“I have to go.”

He ran to the house and had just stood up his bicycle when his mother came out and stood directly in front of him.

“Stay with us, Ernst. You know there’s no hope in going down there.”

Ernst looked away, torn. He felt obliged to fight but knew it would be futile. Even well-trained teenagers couldn’t stop tanks, and he and the other recruits had little training. 

“Please, Ernst.”

He listened to his mother and decided to stay as the tanks rolled into the village.

That night, one of Ernst’s classmates scurried up the hill. The boy, 15 or 16, arrived at the house pale and trembling. He’d deserted, a crime punishable by death.

“Heinrich!” Ernst recognized his friend.

“I barely got away, Ernst. We dug foxholes but couldn’t dig fast enough. They handed us guns but I didn’t know how to shoot mine.”

“So what happened?”

“Absolute bedlam. Our bullets did nothing. Theirs did. Half our class is dead.” Ernst had just met his classmates two weeks earlier and shuddered to think eight of them were gone.

Once the Americans took over the village, they freed all the POWs in nearby camps—many of them Russian soldiers. These newly freed soldiers were different from the POWs Ernst encountered in Tilsit. Those men were sad and kind. At night, the unusually lenient Tilsit commandant let his prisoners assemble into a choir. The wistful voices, singing Russian folk songs, raised goosebumps on the neck of anyone who heard them.

These soldiers in Grossbothen ran from house to house looting, stealing and raping. And drinking, always drinking. Stolen watches dangled from their arms.

Ernst had one run-in with the Russians when they broke into the room he shared with his cousin. The soldiers kicked open the door, shone a light into the bleary eyes inside and jammed a gun against Ernst’s temple, barking something in Russian. No one got hurt, but the soldiers stole everything of value from the house, including a gold watch. 

The Americans were gentler, often leaving half-full cans of meat and other food on the garbage pile behind their camp. 

Ernst adjusted quickly to living under occupation. Using binoculars they’d swiped from the American camp, Ernst and his cousins looked down from the same hill where he’d first seen the tanks. This time, however, the Americans weren’t far away but assembled in a U-shape on the meadow below. Through his stolen lenses, Opapa saw colours of red and blue bursting from the soldiers’ lapels. They began singing, like the Russian POWs in Tilsit, but with less skill. “O say can you see by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming…”

The boys wept bitterly as they listened to this strange new song. There was no denying it anymore. The fatherland was lost.

“I can’t remember if I wept or not,” Opapa says, thinking aloud. “I can’t remember. I just don’t. Why can’t I remember if I wept?” 

The first time Opapa told me the story, he said he cried. The second time he wasn’t so sure. 

Many of Opapa’s boyhood feelings are holes in his memory. He remembers where he travelled when and what he did where, but when I ask him what he felt, his storytelling falters. Günter Grass, the Danzig-born novelist and ex-Jungvolk member, describes it well in his memoir Peeling the Onion: “Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away. It tends to hold forth, to dress up, often needlessly. Memory contradicts itself; pedant that it is, it will have its way.” Opapa similarly acknowledges the shortcomings of memory and often quotes a line from Farley Mowat: old men remember the past the way it should have been.

I circle again to the Holocaust, asking Opapa if he remembers feeling any guilt or shame when he learned about the Nazi death camps. His answer comes surprisingly quickly. “No, I never felt that guilty. I was not involved.”

I press further. “Then what was your response?”

“Shock.” A few days later, Opapa calls me on the phone. His answer had sounded final but he’s clearly been thinking of it some more. “You were probing about how I felt. Feelings are terribly difficult to describe. How do you feel 60 years later? So much has happened in between.”

He has a question of his own. “How did you feel when you found out that the Canadians put all the Japanese Canadians into concentration camps?”

The question catches me off guard. “I wasn’t alive at the time, but it was a bad choice.”

“Right. You were not involved. I wasn’t involved in Hitler’s atrocities. Regret is really all one can feel. You can’t say ‘I’m sorry,’ because I didn’t do it. Those things just should not have happened.” 

This is the second instalment in a three-part series; the final instalment will run in June. Jeremy Klaszus lives in Calgary.


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