Wednesday, 14 June 2017


When the war ended in 1945, my job was in jeopardy. For nearly four years i had worked as a translator-scriptwriter-broadcaster for the U.S. Office of War Information. Our teamof three took mimeographed releases from OWI headquarters in Washington, sometimes serviceable, sometimes bizarre, most of the time marvellously inappropriate, and fashioned brief anti-Nazi newscasts to be transmitted by European “black stations” set up by the British. To this day i cannot say whether our propaganda ever reached its target- people in Europe would be severely punished if they were caught tuning into these pernicious foreign broadcasts. Now the OWI was gradually being dismantled. But the loss of a job bothered me far less than what i was beginning to learn in great detail about the concentration camps.

Shortly after I reached America in 1938, I had established contact with a German-Jewish weekly called Aufblau (“Reconstruction”). I contributed articles on film, literature, and theatre. Aufblau  was one of the first papers in New York to publish documentation on the camps, on the destruction of Jewish communities. It printed eyewitness accounts by those who had lived through Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and others. Only later, as more facts were disclosed in American and Swiss publications, did I begin to accept the unacceptable. I knew my father had not survived; it took years until my sister in Holland could find me, or, rather, until I could find her. And at night, when sleep evaded me, my brain conjured up Eric Langer, the one true friend of my Frankfurt years, who had joined the German navy in 1935and of whom I had no news for more than ten years. The day after Germany’s surrender I began writing Hilda, his mother, at their old address in Cronberg, near Frankfurt- but invariably the letters came back marked “Addressee moved. No forwarding address.” Again and again I flipped through the tattered pages of my Frankfurt address book, picking out names and places. But my missives went unanswered.

That Ferdi, another companion of my school years, never responded I could have anticipated. Ferdi, erratic, sexually compulsive, politically promiscuous, and altogether reckless, had for years lived in furnished rooms and changed them frequently. And of course no relatives of mine were still living in my hometown. In short, I was cut off. Only by revisiting Frankfurt might I find Eric, or at least discover somebody who knew of him and his mother. But while one part of me urged me to go back, leaving everything in America behind, the other part shouted the opposite: after what had happened in Germany, it was impossible to return. In some way or another, every adult beyond a certain age had collaborated; it seemed, with the barbarians. Only the very young could be trusted, and they could not provide the clues I needed.

One voice told me to leave behind, at least for a while, the first satisfying job I had obtained since the OWI broadcasting unit was disbanded. I had been hired on three days’ notice as an adjunct lecturer in German language and literature at the City College in New York. Against all expectations, I took my work. After a few semesters I had even learned the intricate procedures of academic etiquette, or, rather, I had learned which rules to observe and which to bend. Yet I felt so insecure that I did not dare take other than summer vacations. When I discussed my predicament with a chequered group of German-speaking émigrés who assembled every Saturday evening at the comfortable ramshackle apartment of a Viennese woman known as Countess Valeska- no one knew her real name- I received no advice, but a lot of heat. Several members castigated me for even thinking about setting foot on German soil; others, equally fervent, declared their intention of going home to help build a new strong German democracy.

Not until much later did I stop vacillating. I do not recall my first positive step, but I am certain it came from a chance meeting with a man from Frankfurt, who, after being arrested, had been shipped to Neuengamme and then, around 1943 or 1944, had been transferred to a penal brigade in Russia- an outfit from which few ever returned. This man, whom I will call Willy, was now employed as a butler by a wealthy American businessman. If Willy told me he was in his forties, I had to believe him, just as I had to believe his odyssey, which defied probability.  He was of medium height, with grey eyes, sandy hair turning white, an exquisitely lined face, and a voice that suppressed all emotion. His hands kept moving as if animated by a hidden motor. The only reason Willy agreed to meet with me was that I, too, had grown up in Frankfurt where he and his current lover were born, and because he hoped I might be able to tell him about some friends of the past with whom he had lost touch. Unfortunately, I could not tell him anything. When Willy was arrested in 1942 he had been a pharmacology student. The Gestapo had discovered some of his letters at the home of his lover, an older pharmacist. His lover, Willy assumed, had been arrested and executed immediately- he never confronted him in a trial and did not know why he himself had been spared. As he recalled, the letters were not especially compromising, but then, his lover had been a practising Catholic who had not always kept his opinions to himself.

Willy would not provide more particulars about his arrest or his later stay at Neuengamme, near Hamburg. At first the jailers roughed him up, but then left him alone- he was the youngest in jail. In Neuengamme he worked endless hours on outdoors detail, often up to his waist in fetid marsh water. Like most of the men with the pink triangle, he was beaten by the guards and he witnessed the deaths of several fellow prisoners. Then a Kapo picked him as his “friend” and managed to place him in sick bay because of his knowledge of pharmacology. There Willy had access to food and was comparatively safe from the beatings the guards gave all those with either yellow or pink triangles.

In 1943-44 the tide of the war turned against Hitler. As more soldiers and workers were needed, Himmler promised to free those who would either agree to be castrated and work in war-essential factories or volunteer for frontline duty. By that time Willy’s protector had been transferred, and Willy felt more insecure than ever. Together with a colleague he “volunteered” for frontline service and was shipped east to join the Dirlewanger Brigade. Captain Oskar Dirlewanger, a certified ex-criminal, operated antipartisan units behind the German front in Russia and the Ukraine. In Willy’s opinion it was worse than the work in the marshes. Dirlewanger distrusted everybody and often had his own soldiers shot.

“At first Dirlewanger did not know I had worn a pink patch,” Willy said. “Since I am a Catholic, he may have thought I had been arrested for not following the anticlerical Nazi line. Again I was fortunate because I had been assigned to a first-aid corporal who was fed up with the entire operation. He did not tell on me. I don’t know who did. In any case, one night I was ordered to get up with two others. We had to pin huge pink triangles on the shirtsleeves and pants of the summer uniforms they issued us. Then they marched us to a clearing in the forest. It was below freezing.” The soldiers tied their victims to some trees, cursed the, and the rushed back to their quarters. Willy thinks he lost consciousness after about one hour. A group of Russian soldiers from a reconnaissance patrol cut them free and brought them to their divisional headquarters. They did not know the meaning of the pink patches and at first believed all free to be dead. However, a Russian-Armenian physician brought Willy back to life and taught him enough Russian so he could help out in the hospital. Willy did not know how the physician named Aram, managed to keep him from either being shot or put into a prisoner of war camp. Perhaps Willy’s pharmacological skills were needed.

After Willy had regained some strength, Aram managed to secure an assignment at a hospital near the Black Sea. Once again, how Aram succeeded in taking him along, Willy could not tell. By that time the war was nearing its end. Aram, who had family ties in both Turkey and America, apparently had planned to escape from Russia beforehand. In 1945, Aram and Willy crossed the border into Turkey, where Aram’s cousin took them in. Later another relative, living in Massachusetts, arranged entry into the United States. Aram, and Willy lived in New York only a short while before Aram died. Willy quit the pharmacy college where he had enrolled and eventually obtained his present job as a butler.

Our meeting had lasted more than a hour. Willy seemed exhausted and did not want to talk any longer. Again and again, I had to promise not to reveal his identity. When I pressed him for more information- how Aram had succeeded in keeping the Russian authorities from taking Willy away, how Aram had managed to get transferred to a Black Sea hospital unit so far behind the front- he shook his head. I did not have the nerve to push any harder, and asked for a second interview. Though I gave him my address and phone number when he left, he did not give me his. After a few weeks he dropped a curt note. No more meetings. He wanted to forget the past, not to relive it.

During the interview i kept thinking of what might have happened to Eric- might he have been as lucky as Willy? Still, I could not decide on a voyage to Europe. Then, in the early fifties, an air-mail letter arrived from Switzerland: my old companion and sponsor Justus, now a practicing physician in Basel, had somehow traced my broadcasting efforts and written to OWI for my present address.  Of course, I must visit him and his family in Basel right away so we could catch up on more than a decade of world and personal history. Justus asked if I still entertained that project to investigate what happened to the gays under the swastika. If so, I must not only visit him, but a new institute that had started collecting data on all the camps and inmates: those who had died, those who had gotten out, the guards, the clerks, the administrators, even the officials who had issued the orders- in short, everything deadly in the Third Reich penal machinery. Justus knew the director. During the war, both had worked for the Swiss Red Cross. While Justus had returned to his practice, his colleague, Dr. Albert de Cocatrix, had accepted a position as chief of the International Tracing Service (ITS), located in the tiny southern German village of Arolsen. Justus would drop a note to the director. But first I must hurry to Basel. His letter gave me the push I needed. How could I refuse such a chance? In Arolsen I might be able to unearth some of the facts about the gays caught by Himmler, perhaps check the camp registries, and even find out something about people I had known.

I made preparations to go to Europe by ship the following June. I sent a detailed, sentimental note to Justus accepting his offer as intermediary between me and the institute. Then I sent a letter to Dr. Cocatrix, asking him to grant me access to the ITS. Soon his answer arrived, quite positive and encouraging. Even more, Mr. Eric Henschel, a member of his staff, had put together a preliminary list of folders from which pertinent information might be culled. On an extra sheet Mr. Henschel had enclosed an invitation to come to him with any problem, and he added a suggestion that the Pension Estonia nearby would offer adequate shelter and halfway decent meals.

For some reason, Justus could not be in Basel until the end of July, and although my trip now followed a bizarre sort of itinerary, I decided to tackle Arolsen first, then travel south to Switzerland and celebrate my reunion with Justus in Basel, my second hometown. At the Pension Estonia I found a note: Dr. Cocatrix would see me the next morning at ten. Over the main entrance to the three story building complex was a stone tablet in German, French, and English: “This building has been erected to house the archives of horror which testify to the extermination, torture and slavery inflicted by the National Socialist dictatorship. These archives will help to furnish relief for the victims and their families. May they serve as a warning to future generations that never again must such horror afflict humanity.”

I spent long weeks in these archives, which did more than “testify to the extermination, torture and slavery” inflicted by the Third Reich, but preserved, sifted and organised the testimony so it could never be denied. Although Eric Henschel and his assistant guided me gently through the various mazes, I never lost my sense of trauma. Here in a central index the fate of roughly 39 million people was put on record. Here the certificates of incarceration filled all the folders on one side of the room housing Buchenwald, while on the other side stretched endless rows of other Buchenwald files- inmate registry entries; work assignment rosters; personal effects cards; plain prisoner lists, usually by numbers, sometimes by names; transfer and location sheets; medical work abilities records, and last, but most revealing, the death books. On neighbouring shelves in the Buchenwald room, in which I usually worked, lay equally thick folders on the Kapos, the camp guards, the SS administrative personnel, amounting to hundreds and hundreds of names. The Arolsen collectors had also acquired nearly complete lists of the various decrees, injunctions, directives, regulations, and sub-regulations that the Himmler bureaus had issued, plus a good part of the officially secret correspondence between the remote killers in Berlin and those who executed their orders on the spot.

One wing of the ITS complex housed only the documents on the camps; in another wing there was an equally overpowering array of documents concerning displaced persons (DPs), many of whom had been forced labourers. At the time of my visit these homeless men and women were still sheltered in temporary barracks all over Germany and the formerly occupied countries. Many had vanished, many did not want to be repatriated. Daily, the ITS received hundreds of inquirers asking the whereabouts of DPs.  Of course, requests about former camp inmates also reached Arolsen by the hundreds. It was difficult to assess, Henschel remarked, which of these tasks was the more strenuous.

Although it was painful, I had accepted the fact that someone like me, working alone, with limited time and no assistance, could never dream of doing justice to the wealth of evidence on the fate of the gays under Hitler. The Buchenwald collection was relatively complete. Others were not. In truth, only a fragment of what happened had been catalogued, and new material was constantly emerging. To give just one example: while I was working at the institute, a Polish agency mailed a list of several new satellite camps, never accredited before. This meant new lists of the missing, new statistics, new death books- in short, new additions to the central index. It is probable that there will never be a complete catalogue for the Third Reich.

To examine the death books perturbed me for a long time. Not only were the sheets beginning to turn yellow and disintegrate, but often the clerk had applied an exceedingly fine handwriting to such characteristic notations as: “Inmate 4-175, born Frankfurt-Main, 1911, barracks 12-S, green and pink triangles, deceased (TB) April 8, 1944.” If the Arolsen employees over the years had managed a semblance of equilibrium, I needed to fight to stay cool, not to get emotionally entangled. It was not easy. For instance, through Henschel I had learned to decipher the entries on the various medical experiments in Buchenwald, where all guinea pigs were humans. Here, as if the perpetrators had been aware that their activities must never be made public, Himmler’s doctors had encoded all reports, even the correspondence between the outside governmental bureaus and the physicians in the camps. Without assistance I would never have been able to check the experiments on gays in Buchenwald. Equally encoded were such special notations as “auf der Flucht erschossen” (ADFE), “shot while trying to escape.” This was usually scribbled in the margin of a prisoners’ death book.

Life at Arolsen was wearisome. During the day I was busy scanning lists, entries, rosters in the company of the dead or missing. My evenings were spent alone, typing notes or walking through the tiny village, which ignored me. The prevailing beery cosiness of the inns repelled me, and I imagined all these redfaced men with their paunches had been in the SS. After many weeks, again through Justus, I received another dispatch from the past. Harold, though some fifteen years older, had been an occasional companion of mine in Frankfurt, and had gone underground in 1935. Now he was living in Offenbach, a Frankfurt suburb. No, he wrote, he did not play piano or organ any longer; he was running a garage and owned a small house, nothing special but with enough room for me- come right away, he urged, be my guest. He was so happy to have re-established contact. Could I phone him immediately?

Like Justus’s first letter from Europe, Harold’s letter touched a raw spot. Quite often, as I searched the death books,, sometimes with a magnifying glass and flashlight, I had the vision of hitting upon the name “Langer, Eric.” I never did, but I dreaded it. By the time Harold’s invitation arrived, I had made some progress. With the continual help of Henschel, I had examined a substantial number of Buchenwald entries, and filled voluminous notebooks. I phoned Harold- first I would travel to Justus in Basel and unwind, then I would visit Harold and face Frankfurt.

My meeting with Justus and his family yielded sheer contentment and restored my mind, although I was saddened to hear that Miss Gaby and other friends had died. I still felt comfortable in Basel, sterling middle-class, old fashioned, Calvinistic, and untouched by Hitler’s gruesome follies. One night I sauntered past my nemesis, the Department for Aliens, stared at the forbidding temple of xenophobia, and invented several elaborate curses. Justus had not remained in neutral Switzerland during the war. As a Red Cross physician he had inspected prisoner of war camps in Germany, Belgium, and England, but, to his dismay, not in Eastern Europe or America. After browsing through the illegal photographs he had taken there, I encouraged him to put his experiences on paper; instead, he spurred me on to follow up my own project: “Now go organise those findings, digest them, write them down, and get this thing finished, because few others will or can get involved in this. And go home and look for Eric...”

As I sat down in the compartment of the Basel-Frankfurt express, it suddenly struck me that on the same truck more than twenty years ago I had hurried away from Frankfurt to Basel. Now the train seemed to be welcoming me back as it clicked and clacked through southern Germany: “Lucky you. You came through. Lucky you...” I had become an American, and nothing in a Frankfurt reborn or revisited could frighten me or shake me, I thought.

I was wrong. Knowing that what was your childhood has been pulverised is one thing. Seeing what has risen in its place is another. On the one hand, that enormous cathedral of industry, the central Frankfurt railroad station, appeared as awesome as it had two decades before. But when I stumbled outside to look for a cab, new glittering buildings greeted me, along with old timers such as the Hotel Emerald, which still boasted a Victorian green turret, now half splintered. Most bomb scars had been patched up, so that I realised I would not have to walk through those charred stone wrecks I had seen in the newsreels. Now, in the fifties, the ruins had been torn down or plastered over with new facades.

In Offenbach nothing looked familiar. After cruising around aimlessly, the driver- a sullen refugee from East Germany- discovered Harold’s Garage. At the entrance stood a heavyset, white-haired man peering from behind thick glasses. Harold, the mentor of my late adolescence, could not hold back his tears. Often during the time I stayed with him at his apartment above the garage, he fought with tears and he always worried that his co-workers might catch him. During the next few days I learned to wait for Harold to start talking. I never asked about the two fingers missing from his right hand- he would never be a church organist again. The Gestapo had shipped him to Camp Flossenburg for “acts inimical to the state.” What he had done was to vouch for Ferdi when Ferdi was in jail and to smuggle another member of our old network, a Jewish boy called Curt, in his car to Holland. In the end Curt made it to Scotland, but the Gestapo caught Harold on his return to Germany. Only with an effort could I reconcile this broken hearted man with the Harold I had known, a man whose vitality had never flagged.  Fortunately he had been classified as a political felon and tagged with the red patch, not the pink one reserved for sexual deviants. When, one day in 1944, Ferdi was transferred into the same Flossenburg barracks, Harold was afraid Ferdi might give him away- Ferdi had been stigmatised with the pink triangle. But Ferdi did not last long after a few weeks of forced labour in the notorious Flossenburg quarry, whereas Harold’s gift for anything mechanical endeared him to the Kapos, who needed experts to repair the crumbling camp machinery. In addition, Harold had joined the leftist underground group, which, by 1944 and 1945, had won grudging respect from the guards. All this he poured out to me night after night.

From the start, I had asked about Eric. In a local library, Harold and I unearthed some charred 1942 telephone books of Cronberg. No listing for Langer. I waded through mountains of other phone books listing Frankfurt proper and the surrounding townships. Then, about a week after my arrival, Harold’s brother, a priest named Father Thomas, who had been thrown into Dachau, came to visit. Thomas, a huge, quiet man, possessed a serenity that enveloped you like a consoling current. He phoned a brother clergyman in Cronburg. Yes, Eric Langer had last been stationed on the battleship Prinz Jurgen near Drontheim in Norway.  So far he had not come back. Hilda, he thought, had taken up residence in a home for the aged. Within a day or so he would be able to tell me which one. I thought my urge to take the train to Cronberg and go to the local police headquarters, or just wander around and ask. But Harold restrained me. Cronberg was no longer the idyllic village of my childhood, but a sprawling suburb favoured by the rich who had moved there to escape the bombing of Frankfurt.

I ventured north into Frankfurt to visit Reuterweg, where I had spent my childhood. To my surprise, streetcar Number 6 still travelled from Offenbach to my station, Gruneburgweg. That the streetcar was sleeker than the one that had taken me to school did not matter- I was too busy staring at the garishly reborn city. The old fashioned street signs had been literally reproduced, like false antiques, but not a single block brought the sting of remembrance. When I got off, I found Reuterweg, but not my house. The entire tract had been redesigned, divided into tall concrete apartment squares with Lilliputian balconies hanging uselessly on the front. Number 66, where I had grown up, had een swallowed by a communal “60-75” at the entrance of the housing project. Perhaps I should have been shocked, but instead I was filled with a fog of indifference. I was almost tranquil when I came back to Harold, who presented me with a chocolate cake covered with whipped cream. He asked me to please tell him about my “lives and loves” in America, and begged me not to worry about Eric.

My mood grew increasingly dark. Of course I tried not to show it to Harold, who kept serving me rich meals and was so ecstatic to have someone with whom he could re-create the good old daysthat he neglected his business. But when I told him about my project, he shook his head. Nobody would believe me, and besides, how could I do it in English? All these Nazi words “will lose their ugliness in English,” he said. Also, Americans were to happy go lucky to accept my discoveries, especially since most Americans he had met firmly believed that evil people were usually atheists, alcoholics, Communists, child molesters, homosexuals, or possibly all five. I did not argue with him but agreed to accompany him to Winnie’s, a new bar in Frankfurt, an “Onkelchen bar,” that is, a place where older gays liked to spend their evenings. Perhaps I would find another camp ex-inmate willing to talk.

Winnie’s turned out to be a glum pub near the railroad station, whose bartender greeted Harold and me exuberantly, switching from German to English in my honour. This time Harold championed my cause, inquiring whether “Big Herbert” was still around. The barkeep, one of the new breed of German athletes who tried to look authentically Southern Californian, promised to “deliver” Herbert. He did deliver- but Herbert, a corpulent, taciturn man in his late sixties, would talk only under certain conditions: first, he and I should be alone; second, if I took notes, all names had to be omitted; third, no patron of Winnie’s must be told. To make him feel more secure, I typed an agreement and signed it. This seemed to satisfy Herbert, but his voice- high pitched and flat- often wavered as he told me his story at a nearby restaurant, jumping from one year to the next and scrambling the events. In the end, I pieced together the following.

Herbert had been a baker’s apprentice when he met Franz, a Jewish medical student, around 1934. Because the university had banned all “non Aryans,” Franz was forced to emigrate.he went to England, planning for Herbert to follow as soon as he was settled. By that time the new anti gay laws were in force. Herbert’s father , an ardent admirer of Hitler, found Herbert out, called him a traitor and a “warm brother” (a nickname for gays in Germany), and forced Herbert to leave home. Papa really taught his boy a lesson in patriotism: the baker for whom Herbert worked was dutifully enlightened, and he, too, threw Herbert out. Since Franz did not have the means to bring Herbert to England- and how would Herbert get those needed papers?- Herbert took a job with an older gay baker, stayed with friends, and led a quiet life. In 1941 he was arrested for “deviant sexual activities” and put into jail. The trial was a mockery; he was forced to sign  a confession and then was sent to Buchenwald.

At this point Herbert’s thin voice gave out. He told me how Nazi physicians had experimented with various drugs on prisoners. For hours Herbert vomited after certain injections; in addition he was exposed to poison gas; and there were further experiments that he would not- or could not- recall. In 1943, Himmler introduced a new ruse. Pink-triangle wearers willing to be castrated could leave the camp to work war essential factories. This happened to Herbert, who considered himself fortunate: he was released readily, while other castrate gays were sent to a deadly penal brigade on the eastern front. When, together with other prisoners, Herbert was shipped to a munitions factory near Frankfurt, his train was attacked by Allied aircraft. The prisoners welcomed the bombings- they proved that the defeatist rumours about Allied air supremacy had been right, that Germany might be beaten. This gave them the added strength to survive the inhuman labour conditions, lack of food, and atrocious living quarters. In 1945, at the war’s end, while the factory supervisors fled in panic, Herbert hiked back to Frankfurt. In the suburb of Brockenheim he encountered an old friend with whom he stayed.

I never met the main with whom Herbert was then living. Herbert was suspicious of anyone trying to come close; he worried that someone might drop an anonymous note to the baker for whom he was now working. Of course, he admitted he should not hang out at Winnie’s, but so many of the old crowd had died and he needed new friends. I encouraged him to speak about other gay inmates at Buchenwald -to his surprise, I knew something about the experiments- but during our last talk he faltered and could not go on.

Then, suddenly, he became angry. He blamed the Allies for not having bombed the camps or for having done too little, too late. In many camps, he pointed out, the SS quarters an war factories were located outside the barbed wire fence enclosing the inmates. “They could have spot bombed the SS villas, commissaries, dog kennels, without hitting us! Why did they wait until 1944? Yes, I know, during the big raid on Buchenwald a few inmates got killed. But we didn’t mind because SS guys got hit, too, and the electric fence and a number of factories were blown up. And you know what? Those SS big shots with their villas and the guards with their whips, they got scared. All of a sudden they realised that Goebbels had been lying and that Germany was losing the war. Do you know what happened? They made deals with the prisoners’ committees. Yes, the Allies could have bombed many camps and they should have done it systematically. The military chiefs knew all about them.”

I just sat there speechless, startled by the unexpected outburst, and could not find an answer. Herbert did not expect one; he rose awkwardly and lumbered away.

I returned to Harold’s. Father Thomas had left a note for me:”Hilda Langer, now at Villa Taunus, Cronberg. Good luck!” I did not even wait to phone. I took a local train and nearly missed Cronberg; nothing suggested this had once been farming country. It was thickly settled with luxury food shops and imposing mansions, some of which still revealed bomb scars, reminding me more of acne than of war injuries. Villa Taunas turned out to be a gingerbread house with a shattered roof. Inside, a stern woman in a nurse’s outfit informed me that Hilda was on the second floor, but she had to phone first. After a while i was permitted to proceed. My heart began to beat rapidly. When I embraced Hilda- she was so tiny i felt like a giant- I knew all at once what I had feared and somehow guessed all along: Eric was dead. At first, neither of us could speak. I held her hand. Finally, glancing at a row of photographs of her husband and Eric, she poured out her heart to me.

During the last months of the war, Eric, stationed on the battleship Prinz Jurgen, off Norway, had gotten in trouble again. On leave near Drontheim, he and some mates had listened in the back room of an inn to an English broadcast claiming that Germany had been beaten. Since Eric had a record as a nonconformist, the navy handed him over to a higher authority, the Gestapo. All of this Hilda had learned from a surviving friend of Eric’s who had mailed her a letter after the war- though he did not tell her where and when Eric had been executed. In December 1945, a terse communication from the secretary of the German navy informed Hilda that her son had died on duty during a bombing of the Prinz Jurgen. More Hilda did not know or want to say. She had spoken without emotion and I had to hold back mine. Although my childhood stammer had returned in full force, I begged her to tell me if whether I could do anything for her. She shook her head. For the moment she seemed to have retreated from reality as her eyes wandered to the photographs. Into our silence a bell rang- I had forgotten that in the homes for the elderly, dinner was served early. By that time I was unable to hold back my tears. Then Hilda came back to me, drew open a drawer, and handed me two framed photos: one, of Eric and me, aged about twelve or thirteen, taken when we were playing in the Cronberg farm yard; the other taken at least five years later, with Eric protectively looming over me. I had ventured a dumb smile, but Eric, who had put two fingers on my right shoulder, stared out of the photograph with an intensity that burned a hole in my heart.

Promising Hilda to come back soon, I rushed away, feeling drained and dull. I had made a vow that Frankfurt would not intimidate me, but I had not been able to keep it. All at once, I did not want to stay in this feverishly prosperous city. “To be frank, I had guessed it,” Harold said when I told him about my visit. “We all figured Eric never made it back from Norway. He simply could not knuckle under to the Nazi bullies in the navy. But you had to find out for yourself.” When I confessed that I wanted to go home as soon as possible, he just nodded.

Harold and two of his workers took me to the railroad station. Now, at the last moment, these teenagers asked how it was that I, apparently an American, could speak German so fluently, even with the local accent. What could I tell them? A blitz-synopsis of the Third Reich; a summary of what Hitler had inflicted not only on the Jews but upon the Germans themselves; an explanation of why thousands were forced to get out and why Frankfurt had lost something irretrievable, despite skyscrapers rising up and whipped cream flowing. The trip to the station was too short to spell out any of this, yet even if it had taken two hours I would have failed, because the teenagers had not been told what really happened after 1933. I mumbled something about relatives having come from Frankfurt, and let it go at that.

As proper adult males, Harold and I avoided any display of emotion when it was time for me to board my train. During the long journey I could neither eat nor sleep. Only when I settled down on the ship bound for America did I begin to relax. By a series of lucky accidents I had been spared, saved from the erupting volcano that had obliterated the country of my birth, my hometown, and many of those close to me. I needed to repress some aspects of the nightmare but never to forget certain others. I would never be able to put Eric out of my mind. His image would always be with me. As I conjured up his likeness, he seemed to be pushing me forward, as he had always done. Forget about your stuttering, he would say. Your being afraid of it just brings it about. If he were here he would tell me to stop stuttering around, organise what I have learned, and put together a chronicle that would throw light on this neglected corner of history. I did not know then that it would involve so much muscle, nerve, and sinew, or that it would take so many years.

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