Growing up American during WW II

No tears, no fears

Remember there’s always tomorrow

Frankie Laine

Heart, you were never hot,

Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot.

Wilfred Owen

One night long ago in the mythic past, Trojan warriors camped outside the walls encircling the shining towers of their city. They were awaiting the morning to defend those towers against the Greek invaders who had sailed in their black ships across the Aegean Sea to the beaches of Troy. The warriors had just made sacrifice and paid honor to their gods. They now feasted on fatted cattle and drank mellow wine poured in libation as they waited for tomorrow, for “Dawn to mount her glowing throne.” Homer sets the scene. Robert Fagles translates:

And so their spirits soared

as they took positions down the passageways of battle

all night long, and the watchfires blazed among them.

…as stars in the night sky glittering

round the moon’s brilliance blaze in all their glory…

One springtime day, in the more recent historical past, a rank of soldiers stood at nervous attention. They were part of an ad hoc army Hitler culled from the streets of Berlin to hold off an invasion of the Soviets who had crossed the plains of eastern Europe with their hundreds of armored vehicles and were now on the outskirts of the city poised and ready to strike. If not today, then tomorrow.

A newsreel clip of the scene reveals the recruits to be boys. Just scrubs. They look more disposed to receive military school diplomas than Russian bullets.

The recruitment of children was ordered by a Ogre maddened in desperation. The glories of the Third Reich was the drivel they were fed. Hitler knew he was sending the boys to their certain death. Still, he pats one of them on the cheek, as if in blessing. But, what blessing, what glory, can that boy fathom as he waits for dawn to mount her glowing throne?

And, what hope for tomorrow could those other children envision — yellow stars loosely sewn on their coats — those children who disembarked hand in hand with their mothers out of the close darkness of the cattle car into the glaring lights, the cracking whips, and the dogs barking and straining at the leash? Or, what tomorrow for those few children of Hiroshima who survived the hell that rained down from the heavens on high one bright summer morning?

All those children must have known that their tomorrow would be very different from their today — if their tomorrow comes.

But over here, things were different. Most of us kids gave little thought to tomorrow. It would come as it always had and it would fulfill our expectations with a neat precision. Soon would come that happy today when fathers and brothers march home life and limbs intact. From that day forward all our todays will turn into the tomorrows in which our hopes and dreams will come true.

I knew nothing of the horrors my contemporaries abroad were going through.

Of course I was only a child. Still, it shames me when I remember my wartime sacrifice was peevish: tomorrow meant another day without bubblegum. The rubber in it — they called it latex — was needed for the “war effort”.

I was six when the war began, too young to understand what it was all about. Still, it formed a presence in my everyday life, albeit one a little out of focus. For no one in our immediate family was in jeopardy. My father was too old to serve, my brother too young.

So for me the war was a fixture, just the way things were. The way church happened on Sunday and school on Monday, or the way the sandwich in my lunch box always turned out to be bologna. It was an event in the same the way the earth spinning into tomorrow is an event.

At school we played at war during recess. We shot imaginary guns and were shot at by imaginary Germans. If a teacher called us to leave the battle to go dust erasers, the exit protocol required we clutch our chests, spin around, and fall to the ground dead just as the cowboys did in Saturday matinees.

Older boys became early casualties. Their spurious wounds and phony groans were a ploy designed to draw the attention of the girls — nurses to us — at least until the bell rang and we all scattered back to our classrooms.

Big boys bullied, “Gimme a bite of your Baby Ruth, or I’ll sic Hitler on you.” Nazis were the boogeymen. They hid in closets and lay underneath occupied beds. During troubled sleep, they lurked around the ghostly corners of nightmares.

Grownups, of course, had no time for such foolishness. The war insinuated itself into every house, the way an offshore fog finds its way into the dips and creases of a coastal mountain range. Sons and many husbands, some brothers and a few cousins boarded troop trains and left behind a worried wife or mother, sister or aunt.

Her loved ones abroad were cut off from easy contact, except for letters, and it may take weeks between writing and reply. So she kept her Philco tuned into the news while she washed the breakfast dishes or ironed tomorrow’s clothes taken off the line before the rain comes. She hushed the children at the dinner table so she won’t miss Walter Cronkite wrapping up his war report or, even more important, the latest bulletins from the front.

Between newscasts, Big Bands dominated the airwaves. Singers sang about lovers yearning to meet in apple blossom time, when bluebirds instead of bombers will fly over the white cliffs of Dover. In that tomorrow “the lights will go on again all over the world”. ‘Till then, the crooners urged,“don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me”.

But today, everything was rationed — except the hope for tomorrow. Gas station attendants pumped gasoline, 3 galleons a week for most motorists like my father. Shoppers like my mother could purchase food only in quantities alloted by a ration book the government issued to households each month.

Nothing went to waste, not even garbage. Housewives let bacon grease congeal in coffee cans which their youngsters then bicycled to the neighborhood butcher for recycling into wartime explosives. Other garbage was thrown into the compost pile and worked into the Victory Gardens that sprouted in backyards and vacant lots. A single potted tomato plant on an urban balcony did its bit.

Every morning, folks picked up the newspaper and glanced at the headlines before collecting the bottles the milkman left in replacement of the empties put out overnight. Some nights, all lights had to be turned off in drill for an air raid we in Oklahoma knew would never happen this far inland, but which we rehearsed anyway in solidarity with those more vulnerable folks on the coasts. Whether on the coasts or inland, from time to time families gathered around the RCA for a dose of FDR, a fireside chat straight from the White House.

Church basements and community centers opened their doors for the war effort. Bandages needed to be rolled, relief boxes needed to be packed. Over their shoulders volunteers could see posters that encouraged them to buy war bonds in such denomination that accommodated both their patriotism and their pocketbook — reckoned by the government at about 10% of income, in effect a patriotic tithe.

Even children pitched in. From our allowance, we bought Freedom Stamps. Some cost a dime, others a quarter. We licked the back and pasted them in albums. They were filled when $18.75 worth of stamps had been purchased. We then traded them in at the bank or post office for a $25 war bond.

Sometimes we were asked by the school to canvass the neighborhood for scrap metal. The next morning, the driver helped us wrestle our load up the steps of the school bus.

At assembly we were awarded army stripes cut from scrap paper, the rank determined by the weight of our contribution. The principal pinned them on our sleeves, and each morning we transferred them to our fresh school clothes until the paper turned threadbare from all the handling.

One morning, late as usual, you were hurrying to the school bus stop. On the way you stopped dead in your tracks. You had spotted in Mrs. Relinski’s window a banner that was not there yesterday. It bore a gold star on a white field bordered in blood red. This was not the first one you had seen. Your mother had deflected questions about those others. So you knew, whatever the banner meant, it was best to quickly divert your eyes over to something else. You quickly walked on.

Then, one day it was all over. The fighting had stopped, at least in Europe. Not long after, the war’s impact finally reached me — it happened in just a matter of minutes, with no warning. The lights that all over the world were beginning to be turned on again, began to dim.

I was 10 years old by then. It was in May of 1945. I remember it as a sunny afternoon. I had come in for a snack. Following my routine, I lined up a couple slices of buttered Wonder Bread on the arms of my favorite overstuffed chair and settled down with the LIFE magazine I just brought in from the mailbox.

At that moment, I knew nothing of the Holocaust in Europe.

But here opening up on my lap were Nazi death camps, their atrocities laid bare in black and white, page after page. I was shocked. I remember my horror — and fascination — as I stared at those pictures. They showed a new world so unprecedented the newspapers as yet had no name for it, a world I did not want to know existed, but one from which I could not divert my eyes.

I turned the pages dumbstruck. With each turn, my naivete seeped away, as a dog’s trust drains away with each blow from the stick. They revealed an alien world existed in which death had turned causal. Just another body to step over.

The tale is told of a Civil War general, later to become President, who was appalled over the hundreds of bodies he saw scattered on a battlefield. He commented that at that moment he lost the sense of life’s sanctity instilled in him by a religious upbringing. I could not have told you then who President Garfield was, but I would have understood something of what he meant.

I could not relate to naked bodies tossed into a pile, most of them shrunk down to their skeleton, like discards from a human doll factory.

Oddly, it was the unreality of the scene that shocked me into the reality of the war. No longer just a blur, it fell into focus. I wish I could say it was because I felt an empathy with the victims. It was that, to be sure. But that was only part of it.

I am a third generation American-German. My parents spoke German. They spoke it at the dinner table when they discussed our Christmas presents or talked of other matters my brother and I were not meant to know.

So I was aware of my German heritage. But I rarely gave it a thought. I didn’t even take the trouble to learn the second language I had often heard at our kitchen table. But as I looked at those pictures in LIFE, I could not get the ancestral fact out of my mind: It was Germans who did this.

It was one thing to imagine them the enemy on a playground, or as the ghosts of relatives I never met. It was another to see them as real, as monsters, exposed in the pages of a weekly magazine so trusted it had become an American institution.

Of course, as long as I could remember I knew Germans were the enemy. Though I considered them imaginary on the schoolyard, I knew they were real somewhere else far away. Even so, the war’s sacrifices had been for me mostly a nuisance, like the screen door I was always told to keep from slamming when I went out to play, or the bubble gum I could no longer find on the grocer’s shelf.

Now I understood war created monsters whose travesties were of a different order of magnitude from those inconveniences I had accepted as more or less a normal part of life. And to make the bad worse, I knew that these monsters were my kin, related to me as my uncles were, my cousins, even my brother and my parents.

And also, of course, I knew the Nazis were German, and I knew not all were in the military, and even less were in the SS. But now I asked were all Germans Nazi? What about the civilian Germans going about their business? Were they also fantastic monsters? Did they know what was going on?

I was too young for the next dreadful question to occur to me: If they did know, did it matter?

As I grew older, I considered that question. That led me to wonder: Who are these people? I read all I could about the German homefront during the war. What did those Germans think as they rode the tram to work, or prepared dinner for their families? Or opened their Christmas presents? And, if they knew what I we all now knew, would it cause them to pause for a moment before they stepped into the shower?

Perhaps I could find deep in the unguarded moments of their life a clue as to how such a wanton destruction of so many individuals could happen. Surely, evil at that scale could not emerge from calculation, from slide-rules and blackboards.

And, did they not worry about the collateral damage: the destruction in the rest of us of our belief and confidence in the decency of human nature. Or had they managed to show us a truth about human beings we must now turn our face to.

I wanted a voice like the one Job heard coming at him from out of the whirlwind. I wanted a response of religious gravitas — for I considered the Holocaust an evil of religious magnitude.

Historians have come up with various sociological theories about the Holocaust. Some say it grew out of an ancient culture of anti-semitism, others that it was the approval from the German leadership, and still others by the fear of not conforming.

I have read thousands of words about everyday life in Nazi Germany, yet not one yielded the insight that brings full understanding. Among the countless neural currents traced in my brain, not one completed the circuit that would deliver to me the meaning of the evil I saw exposed that sunny afternoon in May.

Perhaps for those of us who were not there, it is pointless hoping to find meaning in such a horrific event. Like a cut stone, the Holocaust has many facets, each of which represents a separate story, told by both perpetrators and victims. What emerges from all the stories is a sense or atmosphere, an aura, of the Holocaust. More penumbra than core, more feeling than theory.

Whatever the underlying causes, the efficiency with which the evil was executed in fact did involve slide-rules and blackboards. No tools, however can measure the impact of the stories; and, perhaps, for that reason they are the more compelling. The Holocaust remained a fact that one could convert into a calculation or a formula of universal application.

The German people provided at once the enigma of its occurrence and the obstacle to its resolution. So they still seemed remote, just as the wartime news on the radio had once seemed just an echo heard at dinnertime from far away datelines, like New York or London.

In my early fifties, my wife and I with our two sons took a trip to Europe. We rented a car to explore the German speaking countries. We were heading for Switzerland. But it was getting late and we knew rooms would soon become scarce. So we pulled off the Autobahn at the next exit.

The road led us to a village tucked in a valley of the Austrian Tyrol. A pointer identified it as Zams. As we passed the sign, one of our boys read the name aloud. He said it sounds like something you might find popping out at you in a comic book.

It was not long before the asphalt of the modern highway melded into the cobblestone of a village street. We drove staccato past buildings steep roofed in red tile. Olden buildings. Colorful murals wove in and out among window boxes, their geraniums in festive abundance spilling over the brim. The village was what Disneyland aspired to be.

We stopped for the night at a gasthaus. 1791 was embossed over the door. It could be the address, or the year it was built. If the wooden steps we took to our room were any indication, it was the latter. They were worn concave from years of use.

In the early dusk before dinner, my teenage son and I went out on foot to explore the quaint town. We soon came upon a church. Over on one side was an alcove formed by two facing walls with a concrete bench in front of each. As we got closer, we could see the plaza was some kind of memorial.

One wall bore the names of villagers who fought in World War I. The other bore the names of the World War II veterans. The German word gefallen had been engraved on each. It was not hard to guess at the meaning.

I knew Austrians fought for Hitler, that in fact Hitler was Austrian. So it was stupid of me to be surprised to come across such a memorial. Somehow I had not expected it here this far across the German border, certainly not in a fairy tale village.

The memorials looked identical. Except on the WWII wall each name had a thumbnail photo embedded next to it. Each soldier had been photographed in his uniform, the same German uniform that signified the monsters of my childhood. Several displayed the sinister SS lightning bolts — here, looking like a couple of thorns stuck on the collar.

These were the monsters of my childhood, the enemy.

But how young and fresh these boys looked. Substitute a polo shirt for the uniform and these ‘monsters’ could have just come in from the playing field to have their picture taken for their school yearbook. At the time, I thought of a trick-or-treater who might come late to the door shockingly dressed in a Nazi costume.

As it happened, they all were killed in combat, buried perhaps who knows where in an unmarked grave. Monsters? In some eyes, no doubt. But to this little town that was now our host, they were family and worth honoring.

Perhaps one of them was the grandson of the elderly lady we say in the park. She smiled and greeted, “Gruss Gott” as she passed by. Maybe the middle-aged lady who showed us to our room in at the gasthaus was a niece of one of the soldiers. Perhaps his sister would be the one serving us schnitzel that evening. Maybe his neighbor was among the aging patrons laughing and raising their beer mugs in what we guessed was a retirement party on the other side of the restaurant.

I studied each photo. These enemy boys from a remote town in the mountains of Austria seemed surrogate of all the sons, relatives and neighbors who have died in war’s carnage wherever and whenever it has occured, from the plains of Troy to the death camps of Eastern Europe, from the warriors of myth to the victims of history.

The film clip of Hitler ‘blessing’ his boyish troops has been seen by many people. Like them, I consigned it to memory and filed it out of the way. And that’s where it remained, a myth, as remote as the war once had been.

But those thumbnails on the memorial in Zams hit home. In some sense they came alive. We were standing where they once worshiped and under the same Cross that had informed my childhood reverence. Moments ago, we walked the streets they had once walked. I had just strolled with my son through the park where they had played. Perhaps their younger brothers had played war there; the imaginary enemy, us.

Homer, the blind poet, sings of warriors in their shining helmets and flashing armor. W.H. Auden tells a darker story of the depraved monsters who send the boys to war.

About a subjugated plain,

Among it’s desperate and slain,

The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,

While drivel gushes from his lips.

When I first read those verses I was put in mind of a painting by Francisco Goya, a nineteenth century Spanish artist. At his death he left in his house a grotesque painting of an Ogre. The giant’s hands are lifting a naked body, headless, up to his gaping mouth already gushing blood. The Ogre’s eyes bulge out in an obscene gluttony. He is Saturn, the mythical god of war. He is devouring one of his sons.

That painting is vivid. But hardly more so than the mortality of these Austrian soldiers. They no longer seemed “Nazi”. They too were the sons of Saturn stripped of their uniforms and therefore of their politics. At least so it seemed in the frame of that moment, as I stood there silent in the fading Austrian sun with my oldest boy at my side.

He was around the same age as the young men whose eyes now stared back at us, bright still, but none blinking. He could have been one of them had the world tilted at a slightly different angle. I could have been one of those children huddled underground in Berlin with my mother, locked in her arms, listening to the Allied bombs tear apart our home and neighborhood. When, in fact, I had been practicing for an air raid I knew would never come.

I wanted to say something to Patrick, if nothing else than to break the silence. But I knew I could not explain my feelings. So, surely my mother’s son, I talked around them.

Some years ago, I came across a letter written by another young warrior. He was a Civil War soldier. I do not remember whether he was Union or Confederate. On this particular morning he was sitting at a campfire writing a letter home while waiting for his coffee. In a just few hours, he said, he and his companions would be engaged in battle. They were greatly outnumbered, and they knew it. They had little chance of winning.

He wrote, “We all know we are going to die soon, either today or tomorrow. But we all hope it will be tomorrow.”

The fallen enshrined now in marble on the church walls in the Austrian Tyrol also hoped it will be tomorrow instead of today. Every fallen soldier memorialized by a Gold Star banner in a home in Oklahoma City had hoped it will be tomorrow instead of today.

Six million Jews hoped it will be tomorrow instead of today. So did five million Soviet soldiers, one million Poles and one million Yugoslav citizens. So too more than a million more who happened to be gypsies, political prisoners and people with mental and physical handicaps.

Those boys ‘blessed’ by Hitler, those sons and daughters handed down onto the station platform in Auschwitz, those children sprouting deadly blisters from the Hiroshima bomb, they all had hoped it will be tomorrow instead of today.

But for them all, tomorrow collapsed into today, and all their tomorrows are lost in answer to war’s strict demand. For them dawn will mount her throne in silence.