What you are about to read, I transcribed from a cassette recording. It came to me in a roundabout way about two years ago. A friend of mine runs an Assisted Living Facility; what we used to call a nursing home. An old gentleman had recently died and as he had no family, his belongings were boxed up and brought to my friend’s office for disposal. The clothes were thrown away, the books put in the community room. The cassette player, my friend kept.
After listening to the tape, my friend called me to tell me about it. Because I am a writer, he thought I might be able to use something from it for a story idea. I thanked him and asked if he could drop it off the next time he was in the neighborhood. A week later, I answered a knock on my door and there stood my friend, cassette player in hand. I thanked him and took possession of the tape and the recorder.
After hearing what was on the tape, I decided that I could not improvise a story half as compelling as the old man’s. His words speak for themselves. I give them to you as he spoke them.
Post Script: If I had written what you are about to read, I would have entitled it:
I went off to war at the tender age of sixteen. My mother cried and begged me to stay, but my country needed me. I would not see my mother again for four very long years.
Due to my age, I was assigned to field headquarters as a dispatch courier for the first two years of the war. However, by the beginning of the third year, I had grown a foot taller, and I was shaving. And because men were dying at an alarming rate, I was sent into the trenches.
They say that war is hell. I say hell is peaceful compared to living in a muddy trench with bombs exploding around you at all hours of the day and night. Though there were periods of respite from the shelling. Those were the hours when the enemy had to let their big guns cool or else the heat of firing would warp them. I lived like that for two years.
I was at Verdun where I saw the true hell of war. After eleven months, we fought to a standstill. When the dead were counted, almost a million men from both sides had given their lives and not one inch of ground had been gained.
By November of 1918, we were out of food, out of ammunition, and almost out of men to send to the slaughter. The people at home had had enough of seeing their sons and fathers and brothers shipped home in boxes. There were marches and protests against the war. Near the end, the dead were not even sent home. They were buried in the fields where they had fallen.
At last, the war was over. I am told that nine million men died in those four years, and another twenty million were wounded. I was there and those numbers seem a little low to me, but what do I know? I was only a private.
When I returned home, President Ebert was there to meet us soldiers. He shook my hand and said, “No enemy has vanquished you.” He said the same thing to each man as he stepped off the train. Then I read in a newspaper that he repeated the same phrase in a speech. He should not have done so. It was the basis of, the beginning of, Dolchstoßlegende, the Stab-In-The-Back Myth. The myth that said we lost the war because of the Jews, the Socialists, and the Bolsheviks. But mostly because of the Jews.
I told you of my war experience because I wanted you to know I was there. I saw why we lost the war, and it was not because of Dolchstoßlegende. However, Dolchstoßlegende would affect me much more than the war ever had.
My mother, when she saw me, dropped the dish she was holding. It broke on the floor, shattering into many pieces. She rushed to me and held me tight. I felt her warm tears on my neck until she let go and held me at arm’s length. “Let me look at you,” she said as she cried with happiness. “My, you have grown so big! You remind me of your father.” My father had died years earlier; I barely remembered him.
It was good to be home. I had no plans except to sleep late every morning and eat my mother’s good cooking. However, the sleeping late was not to be. When I left, my mother was working in her friend’s millinery shop, but the shop had gone out of business during the war. My mother had been living off the money I was sending home every month. She said she did not write me of her plight because she did not want me to worry about her.
I was no longer a boy. I was now a man of twenty years. I had seen the horrors of war and I had lived through those horrors. Certainly, I could provide for my mother and me. Four days after returning home, I went in search of a job.
My first employment was with a blacksmith. However, that did not last long. The automobile was driving him out of business, and he had to let me go. Then Herr Hoffman hired me; he ran the largest bakery in Berlin. It was a good job because I was treated well and shown respect by Herr Hoffman. It was a job I was to have until . . . well . . . until I could no longer work. More on that later.
It was about that time the troubles began. The Allies had demanded reparations, and because of the war itself, there were food shortages and inflation. It was not uncommon to see someone with a suitcase filled with Mark notes going to buy a few groceries. One day, a man came into our shop with a 10,000 Mark note and asked if it would be enough to buy ten loaves of bread. Before the war, a loaf of bread cost 10 Pfennig, the equivalent of an American nickel. It was good to work where I could take a little food home every day, even if it was only a loaf of stale bread.
By 1924, inflation had gotten so bad that the Mark was replaced by the Reichsmark, but it did little good. There was still rampant inflation and food shortages persisted. Of course, someone had to be blamed for the sorry state of affairs. That is when the Brownshirts appeared. I used to see them on the street corners giving speeches. They were always going on about the Jews and the communists.
In those days, I kept mostly to myself. However, being a young man, I did, on occasion, go to a beer hall for a stein or two. It was on one of those occasions that I had my first, but not my last, run-in with the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. They called themselves Nazis.
The year was 1931. I was thirty-three years old. I still lived with my mother and I still worked for Herr Hoffman. But by then, I did more than carry the fifty-pound bags of flour for the bakers. I was now a baker myself. It was a very good position.
I was sitting at a table with four other young men, none of whom I knew. At the next table was a group of Brownshirts loudly going on about how the Juden betrayed the Fatherland during the Great War.
After my second stein, I could take it no longer. I turned to them and asked, “Were any of you in the war?” I knew none of them had been because of their age. I think the oldest one couldn’t have been more than twenty-five.
One of the younger ones answered my question. “No, but if we had, we wouldn’t have lost the war.” At that, I had to smile. I was dealing with children.
My smile seemed to anger them. “What are you laughing at?” one of them asked. Another stood and approached me. “Are you a Jew?” he demanded.
That was enough for me. I stood and said, “No, I am not a Jew, but I fought shoulder to shoulder with them during the war while you were sucking your mother’s tit. And pound for pound, I’d rather have a Jew fighting next to me than any of you!”
True to the Nazi form, they took out their batons and beat me. There were six of them, so I did not have much of a chance, but I did get in a few good punches. One of which knocked out a front tooth of the man who had asked if I was a Jew.
Someone called the police, and they broke up the brawl. Just in time from my way of thinking; I was getting the worst of it. I was told to go home, and as I paid my bill, I saw the policemen talking to the Brownshirts. They all seemed quite friendly with one another.
In January of 1933, Herr Hitler became the chancellor of our republic. In February, the Reichstag burned. The Nazis said it was arson and Hitler persuaded President von Hindenburg to pass the Enabling Act, which suspended our civil liberties. The Act empowered Hitler to name himself dictator of Germany in 1934. The first thing he did was to outlaw trade unions. Then he passed laws prohibiting Jews from working in the civil service and as lawyers or doctors for anyone except their own people.
By 1938, I was the master baker in Herr Hoffman’s shop. My life was good. My mother was still alive, and we still lived together. On my way home one night, I stopped off at a local ratskeller for a stein. As I entered, I bumped into a man wearing the black uniform of the Schutzstaffe; he was missing a front tooth. I knew him right away. He was the Brownshirt whose tooth I had knocked out back in 1931. All of Germany knew of Hitler’s storm troopers, and all of Germany feared them. I could see that he remembered me from somewhere, but was not sure where. Before he could remember, I left without having my stein. As I was going through the door, I turned to see him talking to the barmaid, pointing in my direction.
Since the passing of the Enabling Act, it was legal to arrest a person for little or no reason. Most of the arrests were of people who spoke out against Hitler. The SS Storm Troopers were the ones that did the arresting. Once the SS had you in custody, you ended up in a concentration camp.
The establishment of the camps was also one of the things Herr Hitler did in his first year as chancellor. I had no desire to be sent to a camp for punching a party member in the face years earlier, so I hurried home that evening. I remember the date well. It was 8 November 1938, one day before Kristallnacht or Crystal Night, also known as The Night of Broken Glass.
Over a two-day period, the SS and non-Jewish citizens throughout the country destroyed property owned by Jews. Storefronts were shattered; homes entered and looted; synagogues set afire. The property of Jews was easy to identify because their stores, houses and synagogues were painted with a yellow Star of David or the word Jude.
When the rampage ended, the sunlight reflecting off the fragmented glass lying in the street gave it the look of broken crystal. Two thousand Jewish men had been arrested. Two thousand Jewish men . . . and me.
On the final night of Kristallnacht, the SS—led by the storm trooper with the missing tooth—came for me. My mother cried and pleaded with them not to take me. I said nothing; I knew what it was about. It was about revenge for a single punch in the face seven years earlier.
The SS put me in jail and there I sat for a month before I was charged with treason to the Fatherland and being a “Jew lover.” Without a trial, I was sent to Dachau, which was located in southern Germany. At first, I was treated as any other prisoner. I was sent to a sub-camp and used as slave labor, hollowing out a mountain for a military installation. Then one day, two prison guards hauled me out of the mountain, transported me back to the main camp, and escorted me into the office of the camp commandant, Hauptsturmführer Piorkowski.
I stood before his desk with a guard on either side of me. Piorkowski was reading a file and did not acknowledge our presence. I was hopeful that at last someone had realized my arrest had been a mistake, that it was due to a vengeful major of the SS. I had been in the camp five months by then and had lost forty pounds. I would not last much longer if I was not freed.
Presently, Piorkowski raised his head from the file and looked at me. “It says here in your dossier that you are a baker.”
It was not a question, but I answered him anyway. “Yes, I am a master baker.”
Piorkowski smiled and asked if I knew how to make strudel. Of course I did, and I told him so. Again, he smiled and said, “We will see.” He told the guards to take me to the showers, get me a clean prison uniform, and escort me to the kantine. Turning to me he said, “This might be your lucky day. If you can make a decent strudel, I will take you out of the mountain and put you to baking for the officers and enlisted men. Our cooks are adequate, but none of them can make a proper strudel. And their breads are not much better.”
With those words, any hope of my release flew out the window.
After I cleaned up, the two guards took me to the main kitchen. There were two kitchens, the main one that prepared the SS’s food, and another one that did the same for the prisoners. Both were staffed by men of the Wehrmacht or regular army. The men of the Waffen-SS were above such things. Of course, prisoners could not be trusted to work around food considering the insufficient amount we were given. They would not have been able to help themselves and would have stolen more food than they prepared.
When we arrived, one of the guards left and the other one told the cook on duty what the commandant wanted of me. The cook shrugged and pointed to a table next to a wall of ovens. The guard said, “You will find what you need under the table.” And he added, “The ovens are heated and ready to go.” He did not leave; he just stood there and watched me work.
I did have to ask where to find certain ingredients. But I soon got down to work. It felt good to knead flour once again.
The smells of the kitchen were driving me mad. I was hungry, very hungry, but I knew if I asked for something to eat, I would probably be beaten. Soon the strudels were ready for the oven. I had made twelve filled with cheese.
As soon as they were done, I took the pan out of the oven and laid it on the table. The guard was a young private; he was licking his lips as his eyes followed the strudels from oven to table. Then the cook came over. He looked at my work and took a strudel in hand. It was hot, but it did not seem to faze him. He took a bite, chewed and swallowed. Without saying a word, he nodded at me and went back to whatever it was he had been doing. It was all I could do not to shove a strudel into my mouth.
Once they had cooled, the private took me and the strudels back to the commandant. This time we had to wait in the outer office for about fifteen minutes. But at least I was not in the mountain with a pickaxe in my hand and a machine gun at my back. At length, we were summoned into Piorkowski’s office.
As we entered, the commandant told me to lay the pan on his desk. I could see that a place had been cleared for that purpose. Then he said, “If they taste half as good as they smell, you will have a new job here at our little camp. Now wait outside until called for.” The guard and I left Piorkowski to enjoy his strudels.
When we were called back in, two of the strudels were gone, and Piorkowski had a smile on his face. “It is a good thing for you that you are not a Jew,” he said. The questioning look on my face must have prompted him to go on. “If you were a Jew, I couldn’t allow you in the kitchen. None of my men would eat anything that was touched by a Jew, no matter how tasty.” As I turned to leave, Piorkowski told the guard that after he brought me back to the kitchen, he could go about his regular duties. “I don’t think our new baker will try to escape because, if he did, then I’d have to have him shot.” To me he said, “The head cook will tell you what you need to know. I’ve instructed him to give you one meal a day, regular rations. We don’t want you getting too weak to make your wonderful strudel.”
As I bent to pick up the tray with the remaining strudels, he told me to leave it. Then as an afterthought, he said, “Keep clean. I will give orders allowing you to shower every day. And when your uniform is soiled, ask for a clean one. I do not want dirt or lice falling onto what you bake.”
I nodded, and the guard and I started out, but before we got to the door, Piorkowski asked, “How are you with pfeffernüsse?” I told him I was the best with anything he wanted baked. Pfeffernüsse are spice cookies. When I answered him, there was an edge to my voice. I was still disappointed at not being released, but more so because he still doubted my ability even after tasting my strudel.
His smile was quickly replaced with a frown. “Never use that tone of voice with me again or I’ll send you back to the mountain. Now get to work!”
I was brought back to the kitchen and placed in the hands of the head cook. He informed me of my duties. His main concern was bread. There were 1500 camp personnel, mostly SS, but there were also, as I have said, some Wehrmacht. He would need 1000 loaves per day. Of course, it was also going to be my duty to make desserts. Unless ordered to produce a particular dessert by the commandant, he would leave the decision of what to prepare up to me. He was a nice man, a sergeant in the Wehrmacht. He treated me as an equal the entire time I worked in his kitchen. His name was Joseph Müller.
It was late in the afternoon, and there would be no more baking that day. They fired the ovens at 3:00 a.m. and that was when my day would begin. It would not end until I had everything baked for the evening meal, usually between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m.
After he had finished showing me around and told me what was expected of me, I told him that I could not come up with 1000 loaves of bread per day and desserts for 1500 men twice a day, every day, without some help. Sgt. Müller said he had detailed six men to help me. He had told them to do what I said and pay no attention to the fact that I was a prisoner. It was the first time in five months that I had been treated like a human being and it brought a tear to my eye.
Dachau was not a death camp like Auschwitz or Buchenwald were. It was a camp for political prisoners. Many died, but the deaths were mostly from disease and starvation.
I felt guilty eating my one meal a day in the kitchen while my fellow prisoners lined up for their meager meal of watered-down soup. We were always hungry, but I had it a little better than the other prisoners. That is why, one afternoon when my work was done, I smuggled two loaves of bread from the kitchen and brought them to my barracks. My intent was to feed a few poor souls. But when the people saw what I had, a riot broke out. People were shoving and stepping over one another to get to me. The loaves were wrenched from my hands before I was five steps into the barracks. Of course, with all the commotion, the guards came in, and when they saw what was happening and what had caused the disturbance, I was brought before Piorkowski.
He was furious and paced back and forth as I stood in front of his desk between two guards. Finally, he stood in front of me, and after a moment’s hesitation, he slapped me hard, right across the face.
“So that is how you repay my kindness?” Without waiting for an answer, he went on. “One more incident like we had this afternoon, I will hang you in the yard and your body will stay there until it rots. It will serve as a reminder to the other prisoners that my will is law, and anyone who breaks my law will suffer a similar fate.”
After he had finished speaking, he seemed calmer and in a softer voice he said, “Seeing as how you love your fellow prisoners so much, you can eat with them for the next four days. But after that, you can go back to your meal in the kitchen. I don’t want you too weak to work.”
When I returned to the barracks, no one would meet my eyes or speak with me. They were ashamed for the way they had acted and resentful of me for being the cause of their shame. But I could not blame them. Hunger is a terrible thing. To be hungry day in and day out, with no relief in sight, will take away one’s humanity.
Six other commandants followed Piorkowski, and they all kept me baking my breads and strudels. That is how I survived Dachau. I did not starve to death because I ate relatively well. Besides my daily meal, I snuck cheese and fruits meant for the strudels and a piece of bread now and then. I had to be careful because, if caught, I’d be reported. Sgt. Müller knew what I was doing, but as I’ve said before, he was a good man. I did not succumb to disease because of my diet and the fact that I showered daily.
I’ll never forget the date the camp was liberated. It was 29 April 1945. I was forty-seven years old.
The commandant and the SS officers left in the morning; the Americans came in the afternoon. The first thing the Americans did once they had control of the camp was separate the men of the Wehrmacht from the SS. Then they stood forty-five men of the SS up against a wall and executed them. At the time I did not speak English, but a prisoner who did told me why the SS were shot.
A half mile from the camp, the Americans had come upon railroad cars that were locked and standing idle. When the cars were opened, there lay two thousand dead Jews. They had been left locked in the cars with no water or food for three weeks. Many of the Americans retched from the smell of feces and rotting flesh. Many more were sick just from the horrible sight.
So when the Americans liberated our camp, they were not feeling too kindly towards members of the SS. In fact, they stood around and watched, and did not interfere, when prisoners who were not too weak or too sick attacked SS guards that had been rounded up and herded into the roll call yard. When the SS men were dead, one man who took part in the killings, came towards me holding a shovel, shouting that I was a Nazi lover. He would have struck me, but another prisoner came between us. He held up his hand and said, pointing to me, “This man has done nothing against any of us. He did what he had to do to stay alive. You were not here at the time, but, at great risk to himself, he brought bread to us. He was found out and told that he would be executed if he did it again. What would you have done differently, my friend?” The man dropped the shovel, buried his face in his hands and cried. I think he was crying because at last the horror was over and once again he could live as a human being and not as a feral animal.
We could not leave the camp because the war was still raging all around us. The Americans were fighting their way to Berlin. My mother was in Berlin and I wanted to see her again so badly. We could not leave, but we were fed three meals a day, and the Americans brought in medical personnel to treat the sick. Half the camp was down with typhus.
Two large warehouses held the clothes that were taken from us upon our arrival at the camp. We were allowed to pick out a suit of clothes to replace the hated prison uniforms.
The war ended about two weeks later when Admiral Dönitz unconditionally surrendered. Hitler had appointed him head of state in his will. We were free to leave the camp, but before we could go, we had to queue up and get a card stating that we were ex-prisoners. This was done because many SS men had discarded their uniforms and were claiming to be soldiers of the Wehrmacht.
There was no train service because the tracks had all been bombed. So I started walking to Berlin. It was a three-hundred-and-fifty-mile walk. It was also a most interesting walk. Along the way, I saw what the war—or more to the point—what Hitler had done to our country. There was devastation of one sort or another in all the cities. The countryside for the most part looked untouched. But wherever I went, people were hungry. And so was I. I stole vegetables from some farms and received handouts from others. There was no food to be had in the towns or the cities, at least not for me.
I was stopped numerous times by allied soldiers. Even though I had the card stating I was an ex-prisoner, I was asked on more than one occasion to remove my coat and shirt and raise my arms. The soldiers were looking for the tattoo of the SS. All SS men had the symbol tattooed on the inside of their biceps. Some soldiers let me pass without checking for the tattoo because of my thin frame. It was obvious that I had not been eating very well or very much for a long while. All members of the SS were well fed.
It took me eighteen days to reach the outskirts of Berlin. I thought I had seen devastation on my journey, but I was not prepared for what I beheld as I walked the streets of Berlin. The city had been thoroughly destroyed. There was not a building left intact, and the people were walking around in a state of shock. I went right to my former home to find only a crater and half of a wall standing where my house should have been. My mother was nowhere to be seen. I prayed that she had not been in the building when the bomb struck.
I spent the rest of the day walking the streets looking for my mother before I had to stop because of darkness. I found a cellar that was unoccupied. Even though the floor was rough and hard, I slept through the night. I was awakened by an excited clamor up in the street; many people talking. I brushed the dust off my clothes and went to see what was happening.
There was a line of people waiting to be fed. At the front of the line were American soldiers ladling out what looked to be soup. I hurriedly got to the end of the line and asked the man in front of me what was going on. “Isn’t it obvious? The Americans are feeding us so that we don’t devolve into cannibalism,” he said with a slight grin on his face. He went on to tell me that twice a day, at various locations, they dished out just enough food to keep a person alive. Then he looked at my empty hands and added, ‘Unless you are going to carry your soup in those, I would recommend you find a bowl somewhere.” By then there were about twenty people behind me and I hated to give up my place, but he was right, so I left the line. I had to go only a block before I found what I was after. It was in a destroyed building on the ground floor. I went to where the kitchen had been and moved bricks around until I found a pie tin. Next, I looked for a spoon. I was throwing bricks aside as fast as I could. I was in a panic that the soup would run out before I could get back. Then I found what I was looking for. There was only one problem. The spoon was attached to a woman’s hand, a dead woman’s hand. It was all that I could see. The rest of her body was buried under a pile of bricks.
I had seen many a dead body over the last five years, so one more did not shock me. And I am ashamed to say it, but I took the spoon from her cold, dead hand and hurried back to the food line without another thought of her. As I said, hunger is a terrible thing and a man will do terrible things to alleviate the pain.
That was my life for the next month. I would line up twice a day for something to eat, usually soup. When I wasn’t in line, I would search for my mother. At night, I slept in an air raid shelter with two hundred other displaced Berliners. The occupiers had converted all the shelters into sleeping quarters. Unless you were extremely sick, you were not allowed to be there during the day.
On all the light posts were notices put up by people looking for lost family members. I borrowed a pencil from a nice woman and found some paper that I tore into four pieces. I wrote my name, my mother’s name, and a short message on each piece, saying that she should meet me at the house where we used to live. I then placed one of them on the wall left standing at our old house and the other three on different light posts around the city. For as long as I was in Berlin, I went to where our house had stood every day, even long after my plaintive notices had blown away.
It wasn’t long before the Americans told us that all able-bodied people would have to work if they wanted to eat. I was given a wheelbarrow and told to collect bricks and deposit them in neat stacks at a certain location. I wasn’t the only one doing so. Men and women all over Berlin were doing the same thing. I think the work that the Americans had us do was as much about keeping us occupied as it was about cleaning up Berlin. But there was no shortage of bricks, and I kept busy in that fashion for the next five months. At the end of each day, I was given a piece of paper that allowed me to get in the worker’s line for food; a little more food was doled out there than at the other food lines.
After six months in Berlin, I had given up hope of ever finding my mother. If she were alive, she would have been at our old house waiting for me long before I even got back to the city. It was time to get on with my life. I was a baker, not a brick picker-upper. And as things were, there was no need of my services in Berlin, nor would there be for the foreseeable future.
By the time I came to that decision, some of the railroad tracks had been repaired, and there was limited train service, but only for commercial reasons. I hid in an open car that was carrying coal and heading northwest. The train stopped in Cuxhaven, a small seaport town on the North Sea. On the spur of the moment, I decided I would try to get to another country. Germany had been destroyed and without my mother, there was nothing to keep me there. But first, I would need some money.
I was in luck and found a job loading and off-loading ships. Everything was still a mass of confusion; however, the Allies wanted to get the economy up and running as soon as possible to avoid the inflation that followed the Great War, and shipping was a necessary component of that strategy.
It was about a year after the war. I had decided that I wanted to go to America. I had been working on the docks for a little over six months and still did not have enough saved for my passage. I worked hard and I got to know a few of the captains that frequented the port. One captain in particular, Captain Hans Becker. One day he invited me to come to his cabin when the loading of his ship was completed. “Come and have a glass of schnapps with me when you are done,” he bellowed from the bridge.
Once we were seated at his table, both of us with a glass of very good schnapps in hand, he said, “You once told me that you were a baker. Do you know how to cook also?”
I took a sip of my schnapps and thought for a moment before answering. “I cook for myself every night. I do not waste money eating out. I am saving for my passage to America.”
“That is very good, but will the Americans let you into their country?”
“I don’t see why not. I am able-bodied and can support myself. It is a big country, I am sure they can use one more baker.”
“There are such things as passports and visas, my friend.”
Yes, I knew there were things of that sort, but I refused to dwell on them until I had the money in hand for the trip.
Hans poured me another glass of schnapps and said, “I am sailing for America in two days, and I need a cook. If you agree not to poison my crew, you can sign on. We will be in America for two weeks before returning. It will give you a chance to see if you like the country, and you will be earning the whole way there and back with no expenses for lodging or food. You will be able to put more away than if you stayed here.”
It may have been the schnapps, but I accepted his offer without hesitation. I was going to America!
It was a fast crossing. We pulled into New York Harbor just seven days after leaving Cuxhaven. The customs people came on board before we had even finished tying our lines to the dock. They checked Hans’ paperwork and when they saw that he was carrying industrial parts from the IG Farben Company as part of the war reparations, we were quickly documented and told to enjoy ourselves while in New York City. IG Farben was the company that made the poison gas used in the death camps.
At first I had trouble adjusting to the tall buildings. I had never seen anything like them before, except in the moving pictures that came from America prior to the war. I soon began to love the city. Whenever I had the time, I would stroll the streets and observe the people. They were all so intent with their lives. Rushing to wherever it was they were going. I wondered if they knew how lucky they were that the war had not affected America like it had Germany.
One day while walking in a part of the city that I later learned was known as Little Germany, I happened upon a bakery. The smells coming from inside reminded me of Herr Hoffman’s shop. I went in not knowing how I was going to make myself understood. At the time, I still spoke no English. However, I need not have worried. The shop was empty but for a man behind the counter who asked me, in German, what I would like.
I told him I was just over from the Fatherland and it was good to hear my native tongue spoken in America. When he heard that I had been in Germany just a week earlier, he asked me to sit down at a little table by the window and excused himself. He was back in less than a minute with two cups of coffee and a plate of cinnamon cookies.
He had seen newsreels and read the papers. He wanted to know all about how things were back home. He asked if it was true that Germany had been totally destroyed. I told him what I had seen from one end of the country to the other, especially what was done to Berlin. He sat there and listened to me without interruption and without touching his coffee.
As soon as I had finished speaking, he took my cup, went behind the counter and refilled it. When he sat down again, he asked about me personally. Was I immigrating to America? What had I done during the war, and a thousand other questions. We spoke the afternoon away. By the time I realized that I would be late getting back to the ship, I had learned that he was a Jew and had left Germany two years after Hitler came to power. He had seen the handwriting on the wall. And I told him that, like him, I was a baker. He said he had things he wanted to talk to me about, but I didn’t have the time then, so I agreed to come back to his shop the following day. The baker’s name was Herman Klein. He would turn out to be the best friend I would ever have.
I arrived early the next day, and the shop was busy. There were at least fifteen people in line and Herr Klein could not serve them fast enough. When I saw one lady get frustrated at the wait and walk out, I joined Herr Klein behind the counter and helped him serve his customers.
At last, the shop was empty. Herr Klein poured two cups of coffee, and we resumed our seats by the window. After blowing on his coffee to cool it a bit, he said to me, “If you would like to stay here in America, I think I can fix it for you. I can vouch for you and tell the authorities that you have a job with me so that you will not be a burden on the people of this great country. And when they find out that you were in one of the camps, they are bound to let you stay.”
I wasn’t so sure of that and I started to say something, but he silenced me by holding up his hand. “Let me finish what I have to say, and then you can talk.”
“My wife died before I left Germany, and I have no children. I’m over-working myself and I could use some help, but good bakers are hard to come by. If you come in with me and we get along, I will give you a 25% partnership in my business after six months.”
When it was my turn to say something, I could think of nothing to say. I desperately wanted to take him up on his offer, but I had a commitment to Hans. I told Herman that I would have to discuss the matter with my captain, but whatever the outcome, I wanted him to know that I was deeply moved by the proposition.
That night, Hans only laughed when I told him that I did not think I could stay in America because it would leave him without a cook. “Listen, my friend. You would be a fool not to take Herr Klein’s offer. The crossing is seven days, I think we can manage that long without a cook. The men can take turns doing the honors. It might be interesting to see what they come up with.”
That is how I ended up in America. I was allowed to stay because I had money, a job, and a sponsor. Herman was right—having been a prisoner would help my case. When I showed the man who was interviewing me the card stating that I had been at Dachau, I saw something in his eyes, something sad.
Herman taught me English and when I was proficient enough, I took the citizenship classes to learn about this wonderful country and its history. Six months to the day after I started working for him, Herman gave me a 25% interest in the bakery. It was official; his lawyer had drawn up the papers.
I became a proud citizen of the United States on 9 February 1947. I was forty-nine years old. Herman and I worked together for ten years. He was nineteen years older than I and in the fall of 1957 when he was seventy-eight, Herman announced that he could take the cold no longer and was retiring to Florida.
He sold me his interest in the shop, but no cash changed hands. Our agreement was that I would send him a check every month to cover his expenses with a little left over. If I sold the shop, then I would send him his percentage of the proceeds. This time there was no lawyer involved. It was a handshake deal. Two years later, Herman died in his sleep . . . two days after his eightieth birthday. I was listed as his next of kin and was duly notified of his passing. I closed the shop for a few days and flew to Florida to bury my friend under the warm Florida sun. I was sixty-one-years-old.
I ran the shop until I was eighty-five. Of course, I had help. I trained a young man to be a master baker and ended up selling him the shop with no money down. He sent me a check every month for ten years.
I am now one hundred and three years old as I sit in the Florida sun waiting to die.
Now I come to the purpose of my narrative. My hands shake too much for me to write, that is why I am speaking into a tape recorder.
I told you the story of my life so that anyone who hears these words will understand that I know whereof I speak. I lived through two of the worst periods in human history. And they took place only twenty years apart. The first, of course, being what was then known as the Great War. I saw the carnage first hand. In that war, nine million men were slain. The second occurrence of man’s inhumanity to man was the second great war. Sixty million men, women, and children died in that war, including the eleven million human beings that perished in the concentration camps.
To my point: All that suffering and all those deaths came about because of fear. I was young at the time, but I remember the election of 1912. The left-wing Social Democratic Party made huge gains in that election. The right-wing Prussians feared a loss of power and started agitating for war to distract the populace. Terms like “nationalism” and “territorial rights” were used. We Germans began to fear that there was not enough land. We felt that we had to take land from others so that we would have enough for ourselves. It is ironic, or maybe not, but that is the same argument Hitler used when he had his army march into Czechoslovakia. He wanted land for the German people. It was fear of not having enough space in which to live that caused the death of nine million men and seriously wounded another twenty-two million. And here we are one hundred years later and there is plenty for everyone.
All wars are fought because of fear. Hitler did not hate the Jews, he feared them. He feared the left-wingers, and he feared anyone that was not just like him. Unfortunately, there were too many people in Germany at that time who had the same fears. That is how concentration camps come about. Concentrate those who are different from you behind fences of barbed wire.
In Germany, we gave up our civil liberties through the Enabling Act because of fear. The Reichstag had just been torched, and we were all fearful. Fearful of what, we were not quite sure. We were definitely afraid of the Jews, but our other fears were not so self-evident. We believed our leaders knew best, so we allowed them to take our freedoms in the hope that they would protect us. And once you give up your rights to a government—any government—it is very hard to get them back.
Here in America, this beautiful adopted land of mine, we gave up our civil liberties after 9/11 through the Patriot Act, another act that was born of fear. Like the Enabling Act, it was supposed to lapse after four years. And like the Enabling Act, it is not going anywhere.
In Germany, it was the Jews. Now many of us here fear Muslims. I am not saying that America is on the verge of another Hitler. What I am saying, and this is from an old man on his way out who has seen it all and lived it all, what I am saying is this: Come from a place of love not fear.
I am one hundred and three years old as I speak these words, and I can still get around. I walked to a pawnshop not far from where I live and bought this recorder. It is a cassette recorder. The man in the store told me they were obsolete, so he gave me a good price. I bought it to say just one thing. I have to say it now because tomorrow I will be either in heaven or in hell, I do not know which, but wherever I am, you will not be able to hear my words. So I speak them into this microphone to be placed on a tape, and I pray that someone, someday, somewhere will hear them. Not only hear my words, but also heed them.
This is what I spent the better part of an hour getting to: There is only love and fear. That is all. All negative emotions come from fear; jealousy, hatred, greed, just to name a few. Fear of not having enough, fear of not being loved enough, fear of someone that is different from us, fear of someone who worships a different God than we do. There is only fear and love. I tell you: Live your life with love. The kind of love a mother has for her child. The kind of love that a man has who jumps in front a bullet to save his friend; love like Mother Teresa had for the poor of this world. The love that Jesus had when he laid down his life.
Love or fear?
Where do you want to come from?
Which do you want to rule your life?
Please . . . do not let what took place in Germany ever happen again!
I’ll ask you once more . . . Love or fear? The choice is yours.