Sherman Tanks Passing Stream of German Prisoners by Ogden Pleissner U.S. Army Art Collection BIG

Just had a message from Germany saying an old friend died today, aged 85. His death marks another ending to the world’s greatest and most terrible war. He used to tell a terrific story about the comic horror of his own brief wartime experience. His story says a lot about the terrifying question that war asks each of us. I want to tell it to you.

Nearly at the war’s end, his entire school class of fourteen-year old boys was hauled before a visiting Wehrmacht recruiting officer to be drafted into the Hitler Youth. They were to be armed and sent out to fight Patton’s tanks aiming for his village as the Third Army smashed through the last fragments of the Nazi empire.

Some of the boys were drafted that day, hastily shoved into uniforms and sent up the road to fight, as much as boys with a few hours’ experience of military weapons can fight. At the first sound of tanks coming up the road, they threw down their rifles and ran.

My friend was more observant than other boys and discovered a less risky way to avoid Patton’s tanks and Wehrmacht officers hunting down deserters. He saw that the boys in his class who “volunteered” to be drafted when the recruiter called them forward went out one door in the back of his village school to be put immediately into ranks by a non-commissioned officer.

Boys who had plausible reasons to delay volunteering were sent out another door. He saw these boys wander off and disappear.

What, I wonder, was the Wehrmacht recruiter thinking when he allowed these boys to escape so easily? Was he humane or incompetent, sloppy or worn out? Was he a lazy bureaucrat or had he given up in the face of coming defeat?

When my friend was called before the recruiter, he said he had to ask his mother’s permission to volunteer and could he go home to ask her? He’d be right back.

The recruiter let him go home. Mom equipped him with food and clean socks and sent him by a kind of Underground Railway of relatives and sympathetic farmers to an aunt’s house far from the front and far from Wehrmacht recruiters. He hid out there until the war ended.

Then he walked home, alone, across 400 kilometers of war-smashed Germany, to find his family.

With those smarts and endurance, he would’ve made a good soldier in any army.

I’ve heard stories like that from others who were kids at war’s end. Some of the stories were romantic fabrications and some were lies. Some of them were true. Knowing my friend, his story is true.

Last week I watched again the German film “The Bridge” (“Die Brucke”) made in 1959 about village schoolboys recruited to fight Patton but sent to what their officers thought was safe, rear echelon duty protecting a little bridge in their home village far away from the fighting.

All goes wrong. All die but one. He throws down his rifle and walks back across the bridge to his home. That movie, so similar to my friend’s true story, reminded me that our enemies are human, too. With homes and mothers frightened for them. Teachers. Friends. Girlfriends.

But, in the same week, I saw “A Film Unfinished” (1942, 2010) which is about a rediscovered and obscene Nazi propaganda film about the supposed good life Polish Jews were living as they starved to death in the Warsaw Ghetto just before the Nazis decided to speed up their genocide with mass transportation to poison gas facilities.

Seeing those two films together is to say, yes, our enemies – even monsters of genocide – are human beings just like you and me. And that is a frightful and horrifying thing to admit. But the choice for good or evil is unique to each of us.

That’s why the great question that came out of World War II is not, “Why did human beings do such ghastly things to other human beings?” but “In the same situation, would I have done those things, too?”

That’s a terrifying question.

My friend died today. One more eye-witness to the horror of that war is gone. We need to hold to and learn all we can from the few eye-witnesses we have left. Or we will never understand why human beings do to each other the horrible things they do.

And why resistance to evil, even a fourteen-year old boy’s farcical escape from a Wehrmacht recruiter, is the choice we have to make.

 

Image:  “Sherman Tanks Passing Stream of German Prisoners” by Ogden Pleissner, U.S. Army Art Collection

(c) 2015 Steven Hardesty

 

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