The year was 1978. The place: Berlin, Germany. I am one of 2 English speaking students in the entire school, the other being my best friend, Marjorie. As a part of the fallout from our parents’ divorces, we were no longer entitled to attend DOD schools, so we were conditionally accepted into an “Oberstufenzentrum” – a German intermediate school geared to prepare students for apprenticeships or the Abitur, the major exam gateway to higher education. Marjorie, fluent in German thanks to her mother, quickly established social connections and had no trouble keeping up with lessons. As for me, barely having mastered ‘Danke Schoen’, I was put in the uncomfortable position of having to learn at least the rudiments of that language by the end of the first 6 week marking period in order to keep my eligibility for attendance.
The classes rotated much the way they do here in China: once established into a ‘class’, that group of students attend all classes together. Also, rather than the students prowling the halls between classes, the students stay in their homeroom and the teachers go from class to class. Marjorie and I were in ‘A’ class, along with two Bettinas, two Michaels, and one each of Ingo, Astrid, Nadja… and so on. Our homeroom teacher was Herr DeBoer, spelled just like the Boers of South Africa.
He was an odd man, as I remember, but a very engaging teacher. I towered over him – by age 14 I was already a skinny, lanky, long thing, having reached my lifelong height of 1.83m (6’). He had red hair… what was left of it, and a rich, well groomed mustache and goatee. He was rather paunchy and his shoulders hunched forward, as though under some great weight. Probably his most memorable feature was his eyes, glittering hazel from under the pronounced shelf of his brow.
At times I thought of him as ape-like in stature, but there was no mistaking the intelligence, depth and sensitivity of this man. He took great pains to include Marjorie and I in the lessons, calling on us, in the back of the room, in his peculiar way: feet firmly planted, right arm arcing around in counterclockwise motion, ending the gesture by pointing at one or the other of us and saying: “Marjorie (or my name), what do you think?”
In those days I was so shy I would literally turn red and tear up when called on. That was a long time ago.
Herr DeBoer was thirty eight years old at the time Marjorie and I graced his classroom. He was young enough to have lived through the last days of WWII. In fact, it is his recounting of one of his most precious memories that I wish to share with you.
His earliest memories are of war-torn Germany in the final days of the Third Reich. While he never specifically indicated whether his parents took good care of him or even whether he had a life of relative privilege during that dark period in history, he did make it clear he had witnessed immeasurable horror. Indeed, as he recounted that time in his life, his eyes seemed to sink further into his skull. He would sit on the corner of his desk, his body folding upon itself as though to shield himself from great pain. Or maybe he was reliving hunger cramps. His lips would quiver while relating how people scrounged through sewage and garbage for something to eat.
And then came that glorious day: Spring 1945, when American troops marched into town, liberating those citizens from the shroud of Nazism. Herr DeBoer’s tone grew light and a smile crinkled his face as he told of standing on the edge of the crowd lining the streets. There he is, a small boy, perhaps hungry and definitely wary of air raid sirens and the pain of hunger. He is curious of these great men, marching in their green clothes, singing and smiling. Joy was a rare commodity in those days; he is not sure what those expressions portend.
As the column marches past, a wave of euphoria infects the crowd. Fearful of being trampled, or maybe just wanting a better look, this 4-year old boy steps further out, into the path of those smiling, green-clad men. Suddenly, one of them breaks rank, reaches into his pack and stoops to offer the child a chocolate. After the boy takes it, that soldier pats him on the head and, smiling, rejoins the ranks.
As Herr DeBoer talks, his countenance shifts between jubilance and sorrow. So impactful is this memory that, toward the end of his recounting, he could not bear to look at anyone. His every effort goes to controlling his voice so that it does not break. His hands, gripped tightly in front of him show white from the power of his clench. He quavers: “To this day, that is the sweetest chocolate I have ever eaten.” He sighed, heaved himself off the corner of his desk and surreptitiously wiped his eyes as he turned to face the blackboard.
Throughout the room, not a sound. You could have heard a pin drop.
I don’t know what my classmates felt or thought, but to this day I remember the impact Herr DeBoer’s story had on me. As an American, I was fiercely proud that my countrymen brought that child a treat, thus forming one of his most powerful memories. As a student I was part horrified and part fascinated by this adult who displayed such deep emotion. I felt like a voyeur.
By definition, a ‘veteran’ is a person who has had long experience in a particular field. While we Americans tend to think of veterans only as those grizzled folk who stumbled home from Viet Nam in body but not necessarily in soul, or those who served in the Korean War or in any antagonistic theater, we should also include spouses and children, parents and loved ones as veterans. They too endured hardship and loss, even though theirs was of a different magnitude than those in combat experienced.
I am appalled these days to read of a growing body of people who believe The Holocaust was a hoax and that Germans were never oppressed, fearful or starving. I think of those servicemen who entered those camps and were horrified to find living cadavers, people in trenches whose feverish eyes glittered with the last of the life in them. I recall the countless tales of soldiers, nurses, doctors, priests who visited and ministered to camp survivors. All those movies about Omaha Beach, Normandy, fears of Sarin and Soman and mustard gas, ack-acks firing in the mist and potato mashers flung into columns of marching men.
Our Veterans deserve better than this incredulity. Not just the ones that went to fight but the ones who stayed at home, the ones who tended to the weak, the sick, the lame and the halt behind enemy lines and on friendly soil.
Time is running thin. Frank Buckles, the last surviving American WWI Veteran passed on in 2011. By natural attrition we are losing our eyewitnesses to history, while the ranks of skeptics and outright disbelievers grow ever more populous. Public school history books are now so genteel that only a mention of WWII and its atrocities is made. On news panels and chat forums dealing with the topic people are commenting: “It happened a long time ago: get over it!” Already it is believed the Holocaust was at least greatly exaggerated, if not an outright fabrication. Even more frightful is that some espouse the idea that wanton killing of such magnitude was a great idea, and should be going on today.
Let us not forget, today and every day, why we honor our Veterans: not just for the service they rendered, by why they were called into service (or felt compelled to join). Let us never forget what they saw, endured and lived through. Let us include in that number those who waited in vain for their loved ones to come home, those who lived through warring periods without it impacting their life in any direct way, and those who, as civilians witnessed unspeakable horror but could do nothing but live with the massive guilt of preserving their own life while all around, others perished.
That includes Herr DeBoer and his ilk: those who experienced war at a tender age, who, even thirty four years later can taste the sweet chocolate melting in his mouth.