As a teenager, I kind of fell into a sort of fascination with Nazi Germany, and with holocaust literature. When my high school psychology teacher discovered I was part Polish and German, he suggested I take some time to learn more about the history of my people. Both of them. Schindler’s List and The Diary of Anne Frank were obvious go-to stories at the time. Then I read survivors’ essays about life and death in Sobibor and Auschwitz and Manthausen-Gusen. Concentration camps, the holocaust, and modern-day tales of ethnic cleansing draw me in like no others can. They are why I chose to volunteer at a military museum that celebrates the American forces that liberated Dachau.
I spent my Friday morning at the museum with a World War II veteran. I’ve been told numerous times that veterans usually only share their experiences with other veterans. I, as a civilian (and as a member of a much younger generation), should not expect to hear many details. Besides, I know that it’s just rude to come out and ask, but deep down I want to hear it all.
Harley, the veteran, shared a few tales with me and another young college student who showed up to talk about his research project. Seeing as I’m brand new to the museum, I tend to stick close to those who have the knowledge (firsthand or not) so that I may one day sound like I know what I’m talking about. So I listened while these two guys, the college student and the veteran, went back and forth in a discussion about digging foxholes in the Vosges Mountains, liberating the small French towns occupied by Nazis, and how each man celebrated his 21st birthday.
I can’t remember how the college student celebrated his birthday. I can’t even remember how I celebrated my 21st birthday. But I can remember how Harley celebrated his 21st birthday: He partied it up in Brussels a few days after he learned he was going home. Do you want to volunteer to fight in the Pacific? his superiors asked him.
“Hell, no,” he told us. “I’d been to Dachau after the liberation. I’d seen the worst of it. I wanted to go home.”
Some of his friends did volunteer to go to the Pacific. They never came back. And to this day, Harley won’t go camping in the winter. He did enough of that during the war. He’s had his fair share of quite a few things, he told me. K-rations included.
There have been some return trips to Pfaffenhoffen, France, one of the cities he spent some time in after the occupiers fled. Just last year, Harley visited the town at the request of some Pfaffenhoffen residents. This group of young people, people my age, raised the funds to fly him out. He stayed with the townsfolk and they treated him like a hero. “They know what we did for them. They appreciate us.” And Harley appreciates them, these civilians from a younger generation. He appreciates me and the college student for wanting to know his stories. (If you haven’t yet done the math, Harley is no younger than 90 years old. His stories will soon be gone.)
It’s difficult to compare America’s appreciation for war veterans with the kind that was borne out of the horrors of WWII. We hear stories all the time of bombed out cities in the Middle East. Even parts of Europe are still in conflict. Most tales are centered around hopelessness and despair, but there are occasional stories of successes and triumphs. Would you be willing to hide a Jewish family in your basement? Or smuggle basic necessities to someone whose very life depends on it? Would you be willing to fight the enemy in a foreign land and possibly die because of it? Maybe this is why I find satisfaction in such stories. We all like a good ending, of course, but sometimes I’m just as thrilled to learn that there are people in the world who might be willing to risk their lives to save mine. Sometimes that in itself makes up for the horrible ending.
I’m currently reading The Book Thief and I’ve just reached the part where the citizens of Molching are watching the Jews march to Dachua. Liesel’s father has been punished for throwing bread to a prisoner. He is punishing himself for not doing more. Just in these few pages, I’m unable to comprehend why people take blame for things when they are also victims. I feel like I should understand it better, though, because I am an emotional human being. As much as we try to convince ourselves that we control our own destinies, I call bullshit. Other people’s behaviors are also at the helm. But does that mean there are different levels of helplessness, blame, or responsibility, especially when our actions are the result of another person’s evil? I don’t know.
Yet I’m still baffled by the rapidity of how one man can use simple words to convince millions of people to slaughter millions more. And I still think that in all my reading I will be the one to figure out the answer. When I first meet fellow volunteers from the museum, they usually ask, “What made you want to spend your time here?” My answer is forthright: “I’m fascinated with Nazi Germany.”
They always say, “Well, you’re in the right place! Have you met so-and-so? Oh, he’s got stories.” It’s comforting to know I’m not alone in my fascination.
Some book recommendations:
The Rock of Anzio by Flint Whitlock
The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy
Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Savage Continent by Keith Lowe
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
These next recommendations have nothing to do with Germany, World War II, or the holocaust (as we know it), but they are the closest I have ever come to reading a war narrative while watching the war play out on the evening news.