Mr. Tree

"A tree gives glory to God by being a tree."- Thomas Merton. The first in a special three-part feature.

By Jeremy Klaszus

We spend a lot of time together lately, Opapa and me, mostly on his treed acreage southeast of Edmonton where he lives with my Omi. Cloistered by the aspens and poplars surrounding the blue two-storey house, we visit another distant forest together, looking down from outer space on a sandy patch of land 40 kilometres east of the icy Baltic Sea. “These were mostly Scots pine and spruce,” Opapa says, reaching into memory while rolling the rubber wheel on his wireless mouse. The trees enlarge in the Google Earth window, creating a dark green cauliflower-like carpet on his computer screen. Outside, evening grosbeaks and black-capped chickadees flit from branch to branch. “And here is where I planted my first tree, a two-foot Scots pine seedling. That was before the war.”

To many, Opapa is known simply as Mr. Tree. He earned his arboreal nickname partly because of his famed love for and knowledge of trees—he’s volunteered with Alberta’s Junior Forest Wardens, a forestry youth group, for as long as I can remember—and probably because he also looks a little treeish himself. Beneath his snowy beard and bushy white eyebrows, aged skin hangs off gnarled limbs. Long grey and white hairs cover his knobby hands like mossy bark. He even acts treeish at times, like one of Tolkien’s ents, giant tree-shepherds that never bother to say anything in their own tree-language unless it’s worth taking a long time to say.

Opapa similarly takes forever to tell a story. Often it’s too much for Omi.

Opapa has spoken often of “the war” throughout my life, but I never really knew what that meant.

“Ach, Ernst, get on with it.” Omi, going on eighty, rolls her eyes and reaches for her iPod.

“I speak in paragraphs, Laila,” Opapa replies coolly, returning to his Google Earth travels.

Opapa has spoken often of “the war” throughout my life, but I never really knew what that meant. I knew he was on the German side and joined the Hitler Youth. I knew he fled his home, travelling from house to house across Germany with his mother and sisters, all of them starving, but I never understood why. As a boy I listened politely to his stories and went back to playing King’s Quest or some other computer game.

What I did know, or thought I knew, was that the war had somehow made Opapa a very stern and serious person. How else to explain his countless lectures? Opapa was always scolding us grandchildren about something, whether it was our “horseplay” or our feeble knowledge of chemistry. “You don’t know the chemical elements? That is very basic knowledge…”

“I tolerate absolutely no horseplay in my home, especially on Sundays…”

“Absolutely no wearing of hats indoors. There are rules…”

I found Opapa’s severity both terrifying and amusing. We all usually escaped his judgment, having endured only the tedium of his lectures, though I also remember getting whapped once or twice for the crime of “horseplay.”

These memories are eclipsed, however, by happier ones. On Easter Sundays, we hunted for chocolate eggs in the raspberry bushes behind my grandparents’ brick-and-brown bungalow in the Edmonton suburb of St. Albert. On Christmas Eve we’d gather around Opapa in the living room after church, our young faces lit by the white lights on the tree, as Opapa read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke in his hybrid German-Wisconsin inflection that makes words like “not” sound a bit like “nat.”

“And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…”

When I was about 12, my grandparents moved to their acreage, where Opapa is completely surrounded by his beloved trees and birds. Nostalgic sounds and smells are everywhere: the chorus of a Handel oratorio on the radio—locked always on the CBC—and the inviting aroma of Opapa’s red cabbage simmering on the stove.

And then there are Opapa’s stories. The older he gets, the more he talks about Nazi Germany, often in sharp and harrowing detail. In the twilight of his life—he’s now 78—he seems to find more and more comfort in his childhood narrative, even though much of it is bleak.

I’ve spent most of my life vaguely embarrassed by my German heritage, acutely aware that the Nazis perpetrated some of the most heinous crimes of the 20th century. In school, history lessons were accompanied by those flickery black-and-white films of Hitler’s frenzied speeches at rallies. Opapa is my direct link to that history. As a writer, I pride myself on telling untold stories, but I had never learned this part of my own story. Now I was being given a second chance in my mid-20s, an age by which many people have already lost their grandparents, and with them, all their grandparents’ stories. I still had access to everything.

“I want to tell you about my home city of Tilsit…”

Opapa takes me with his words to East Prussia, Nazi Germany’s easternmost province. Like carpet that changes shade with each pass of a vacuum cleaner, Opapa’s homeland changes colour on the map each time the machine of war rolls overtop. The Russians kept much of East Prussia after the Second World War and wasted no time in purging the land of German names, German culture and, in one of history’s lesser-known ethnic cleansings, Germans themselves. Hence Tilsit, which sits on the southern bank of the gentle Neman River across from Lithuania, is now called Sovetsk. The city is part of Kaliningrad, a small Russian exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. “A forgotten part of the world,” Opapa says.

I pull from my pocket the digital recorder I use in my work as a reporter and set it on the arm of his black leather chair. Then I listen as Opapa’s deep, gentle cadence—“the Morgan Freeman of German men,” says my wife, Colleen—takes me over spire and shingle, into another time and place, some 65 years ago…

Tilsit-Bendigsfelde, East Prussia, 1944. Dusk after a warm summer day. A German boy of 14 bounded out the front door of his brick house. A lock of blond hair across the boy’s bony forehead danced with each step. Ernst, the youngest of five children, ran past the fruit-laden apple and cherry trees in the yard toward the dirt road where a steady stream of people—Germans, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians—already moved west toward the forest. He fell into the column, his mother and two sisters close behind.

This exodus of neighbours and refugees felt both familiar and tense. It had become routine, like eating breakfast or brushing teeth.

screen-shot-2016-08-18-at-1-56-07-pmThe coniferous forest took them in one by one. Within minutes, the entire troop had funnelled itself into the sandy paths between the trees, the same paths where Ernst’s biology teacher regularly took his class, telling stories about each plant while smoking his flint-and-steel-lit pipe.

Running into the forest, even now, was oddly reassuring for Ernst. He enjoyed being among the needle-filled boughs in the dark. He certainly preferred it to huddling in the basement, the shelter his family used if they didn’t have time to clear the half-kilometre between the house and the forest.

Ernst and the others pressed deeper into the trees. Silence.

This waiting period always stretched and shrank in later conversations; one person recalled it as half a minute, another remembered it as 10 minutes. Ernst used the time to think of his father, who was shovelling coal on a train north of Tilsit. The enemy often targeted trains and Ernst felt pangs of worry whenever his father was away.

“Papa is very brave,” Ernst thought to himself. Friedrich, his Papa, always risked trouble. Before the war, when he manned rail crossings at night, Friedrich would sing hymns into the hand-crank phone in the stone booth by the crossing. He sent his baritone all the way to Insterburg, 50 kilometres down the line, entertaining other sleepy railway workers with his songs. The voice was forever a mystery to the other workers.

Then came the war. Friedrich was drafted into the Bahnschutz, the German paramilitary railway police, and sent into occupied Poland to oversee a stretch of track. Ernst later overheard his parents talking heatedly about the experience in their adults-only tongue of Lithuanian. He made out bits of the conversation and his older sister Gustel translated the rest.

His father had been standing on the station platform in Poland one afternoon when he heard voices coming from inside a locked boxcar. Confused, Friedrich realized there were people inside. The voices weakly asked him if he could open the door so they could unload dead bodies.

Stunned, Friedrich offered to check with his superiors. He strode into the station, picked up the phone and made his request, but the officer hung up on him and the train chugged away, doors still shut. Within hours, the officer he’d spoken with drove to the station and literally stripped Friedrich of his rank, angrily tearing the epaulettes from his shoulder.

Shortly afterward, Friedrich was dismissed as “politically unreliable.” It was an accurate label, given his quiet opposition to Hitler. Friedrich went back to shovelling coal on locomotives, stunted in his career because of his refusal to join the National Socialist party. The mayor of Bendigsfelde, a Nazi, always regarded Friedrich suspiciously, and Ernst worried that his Papa might one day get sent away.

A high-pitched wail jerked Ernst from his thoughts. The warning siren. A minute later, white flares illuminated the city, drifting from the sky slowly as fuzzy aspen seeds. The siren stopped its screeching but the anti-aircraft flak guns barked out their challenge to the enemy planes above, creating a deadly hail of shrapnel in the forest. Ernst threw his arms around a pine for protection.

“Look out!”

A chunk of metal ricocheted off a limb above, shaking Ernst’s tree like a badly hit baseball vibrates a bat. The young tree-hugger clutched the trunk even tighter, his pockets bulging with bits of golden amber he’d collected along the beach in Danzig.

About 10 minutes later, the bombers left. Fires burned inside the city but the people in the forest were unharmed. Ernst returned home with his mother and sisters, the pattern of pine bark imprinted on the inside of his arms.

He thought again of his tall, bald father, and hoped he was okay.

Dressed in a plaid shirt, a brown wool sweater (“cotton is cool, wool is warm,” Opapa always says) and a bolo tie made from a knobcone pine cone, Opapa looks professorial against the backdrop of books covering the living room walls. Many are theological tomes he accumulated as a Lutheran pastor in the ’50s and ’60s.

Once in a while, I interrupt Opapa’s storytelling to clarify dates and locations. But one question gnaws at my mind as he describes his happy childhood in Tilsit: how much did you know?

One question gnaws at my mind as he describes his childhood: how much did you know?

Did you know of Kristallnacht, when the synagogues in Germany were burned to the ground? What about the concentration camps? Or Hitler’s fierce anti-Semitism as revealed in Mein Kampf? Did you know of these things when at age 10 you joined the Jungvolk, the Hitler Youth’s junior branch, compelled by law? How much did you know when you swore an oath to “devote all my energies and my strength to the saviour of our country, Adolf Hitler,” and declared you were willing to give up your life for him?

How much of the Nazis’ anti-Semitism did you swallow? And did you feel any sense of guilt or shame when you learned of the Holocaust after the war?

In my family, questions are seldom asked directly and these questions are particularly difficult to ask, partly because they are loaded with accusation against a kid who was only four years old when the Nazis took power. I look back at Nazi Germany through the lens of the Holocaust. As a boy, Opapa lacked that advantage. I restrain my judgments and move crabwise, taking days and months to get to the questions I really want to ask.

And it’s Colleen, not me, who actually utters the big question: “How much did you know?”

Opapa answers slowly. “We were aware that we were not given all the facts. Similar to today. When I look at the CNN news, in the back of my head I always say to myself, ‘Okay, I really don’t know what the true story is.’ Are they winning in Iraq? Bush says they are winning. It doesn’t quite look that way when I compare that with the German news and the BBC. But the same thing is happening anywhere there is war. The people are fed propaganda.”

To get some of the missing facts, Opapa cobbled together a shortwave radio so he could listen illegally to Swiss radio and the BBC at night. The reports he heard through his crackling earphone cast doubt on the always-upbeat German version of events.

People in Germany liked to say that lies have short legs, and Opapa and the other Jungvolk would repeat the joke that if lies indeed had short legs, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels would be walking around on his ass. When German radio reported that a British plane was shot down near Tilsit, Opapa and his friends elbowed their way through the bush looking for it. But they never found debris or wreckage. Nothing.

Opapa was aware that Jews disappeared from Tilsit after 1938—“there was no hiding that,” he says—though he didn’t know where they went. People spoke in hushed tones of concentration camps but it was all considered hearsay. “The Americans knew more than ordinary Germans,” Opapa says.

That night, I make spätzle noodles for dinner and Opapa, ever the chef of the house, joins me in the kitchen. He hasn’t been feeling well lately and he’s too weak to prepare meals. But he can’t help himself. I’m doing everything wrong. He instructs me on the correct way to slice cucumbers for salad.

“Hold it like this, not like that. It’s the only way to do it.”

On the way home to Calgary, I complain to Colleen that Opapa drives me nuts in the kitchen. He doesn’t trust me with even the simple task of salad making. But when Colleen slowly passes a semi on the four-lane highway, I find myself barking similar instructions.

“Either pass or don’t pass. Make up your mind.”

She’s not impressed. “Thanks, Opapa.”

It was June or July 1944 when my great-grandfather returned to favour with his ideological enemies, the Nazis.

Friedrich had finished his shift at Tilsit’s railway roundhouse, a frequent target of Soviet air raids, when he heard a loud explosion behind him. Spinning around, he saw a plume of black smoke toward the end of a train destined for the Russian front. The train, loaded with ammunition, was blowing apart from the back, car by car, like a string of firecrackers.

Friedrich ran to the middle of the train and uncoupled a string of cars before returning to the locomotive and pulling it forward, dividing the train and successfully cutting off the explosions.

Friedrich’s co-workers later celebrated his ammo-saving heroics. A prominent Nazi even pinned an award on Friedrich’s uniform. Though he never wore it afterward, Friedrich felt a weight come off his chest when the award went on; he no longer worried about saying the wrong thing, about getting in trouble for his socialist—and decidedly non-National Socialist—political views.

Weeks later, on August 15, Ernst heard planes overhead, flying eastward from the Baltic Sea. He stepped outside and watched the planes wing their way across a cloudless sky, challenged only by warning sirens.

At the same time, Friedrich shovelled coal on a train headed across pastoral farmland from Tilsit to Ebenrode, a town 65 kilometres southeast as the crow flies. The Allied planes gained on the train and eventually overtook it, firing a spray of bullets into the locomotive. Friedrich was killed instantly.

He was 48. His son Ernst, 14.

As if to ensure Friedrich was dead, the Allies bombed Tilsit again during his funeral. Flak shrapnel fell as a line of helmet-clad mourners followed the horse-drawn hay cart that carried the coffin to the cemetery. The shrapnel made a singing sound like raindrops on the ocean, but with a louder buzz. One jagged piece landed directly atop Friedrich’s wooden coffin with a startling thwack.

Within days of Friedrich’s burial, Ernst, his mother Auguste and his sister Lydia fled their home and struck westward, joining the stream of refugees fleeing the Baltic States. They could hear the explosions of the Russian artillery nearby and Ernst’s mother thought it prudent to leave before they got any louder. Two of Ernst’s older sisters, Gustel and Gretel, had already moved west to Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, where they worked as secretaries in a police station. His sister Anna was also west, working as a nurse in Danzig.

Ernst left his homeland for good, the first of his many transplants. He would never see his beloved childhood forest again, except on his iMac, as an old man, some 60 years later.

My cell rings at 7:49 a.m. Friday morning.

Mom. She never calls this early. “Hello?”

“Opapa went into the hospital early this morning. He’s asked for Dad, Tante Judith and Tante Christel to come to his bedside. Dad’s on his way now.”

Soon Colleen and I are racing from Calgary toward Edmonton’s University of Alberta hospital. We speak very little. I’m worried Opapa will leave his story unfinished, a story I’ve only partly recorded. I don’t have enough yet to piece it together.

On the other hand, death is a straightforward literary conclusion…

I scold myself silently.

Learning that Opapa is in hospital is nothing new. He underwent a kidney transplant in 1983 and has since suffered from a long list of bodily ailments: glaucoma, prostate cancer, pancreatitis, skin cancer and high blood pressure, to name a few. He’s always recovered well from his hospitalizations. But this one seems different somehow.

A map of Germany before the Second World War. Ernst Klaszus grew up in Tilsit, East Prussia.

A map of Germany before the Second World War. Ernst Klaszus grew up in Tilsit, East Prussia.

When we arrive in the fluorescent-lit emergency room, Opapa is lying on a bed wearing a white hospital gown patterned with blue snowflakes. Mr. Tree looks brittle as a dry branch. His pale skin is stuck with small white patches. A barcoded bracelet hangs off his left wrist and a catheter tube issues from beneath the pink blanket covering his legs. Omi, looking haggard, stands beside Opapa’s bed gently stroking his hairy hand. She’s been here since two in the morning, worried that 53 years of marriage could suddenly end. Fear and exhaustion are etched onto her creased face.

Opapa looks up. His voice, usually deep and strong, is weak and breathy.

“You came. Thank you for coming.”

We get a quick update on Opapa’s condition. “Angina is when you get out of breath and the chest feels tight,” Opapa explains. “At one point I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”

Opapa’s brush with death has made him unusually emo-tional. He cries often as he speaks. Yet he can’t stop talking. Even here in the emergency room, he looks back on his child-
hood, reflecting on his beginnings as he moves ever closer to his end.

“I worked my way up in the Jungvolk and got the rank of hauptjungzugführer. I was a leader. When we marched, I chose the songs. I always chose folk songs.”

As his heart-rate monitor beeps and blips in the back-ground, Opapa recalls the process of leaving Germany for an exchange at a Wisconsin seminary in 1952. An agent at the US consulate in Frankfurt took him aside when he applied for his student visa.

“He wanted to ask me a few questions. ‘Born in 1929. Were you in the Jungvolk?’”

“‘Yes, I was.’”

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘did you enjoy it?’”

“‘Yes, I did enjoy it. Very much.’ He then stamped my passport. If I had lied and said ‘no,’ things might have turned out differently.”

Our conversation is interrupted when a doctor enters the room to check on Opapa.

“May I ask where you are from?” Opapa asks the doctor.

“Saudi Arabia.”

“Saudi Arabia! I go there on Google Earth and I’m always amazed to look at the desert and see those round green spots of irrigation. Beautiful spots of life in the desert.”

“Yeah, perfectly round.” The doctor grins at this curious patient. “Have you been there?”

“Only on Google Earth. No jet lag that way.”

The doctor is the first of a steady stream of visitors: aunts, cardiologists, uncles, more doctors, cousins, nurses. We decide to leave for the day. Opapa’s clearly in good hands. On our way out, Colleen kisses Opapa’s lined forehead and says words I’ve never spoken to him. “I love you, Opapa.”

Opapa responds, in tears, with words I’ve never before heard from his mouth. “I love you, too.”

This is the first instalment in a three-part series; the second will be published in May. Jeremy Klaszus lives in Calgary.

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