But For The Grace Of God
At eighteen, my freshman year at the University of Oregon, I saw the movie “Battle Cry”, a film about the marines in the Pacific during the Second World War. The next Monday, I skipped classes and joined the Marine Corps Reserve. The senior sergeant in the unit told stories about Guadalcanal. The major who commanded us walked with a pronounced limp that he had acquired at the Chosin Reservoir. These men became my mentors, reshaping my perceptions of duty and country. They taught me basic military skills; to accept direction from my superiors and the consequences of non-compliance.
Some years later, my reserve stint behind me, I joined the Army and was assigned to what today is known as the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. There I learned German. My teachers included ex-officers of the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht, even an ex-Wehrmacht general. Our learning tools included Nazi training manuals and propaganda films. We saw how German soldiers learned their skills, and how they learned the criteria of leadership and submission to orders. The distinctions between them and us were not great.
After service in Germany, I returned to graduate school and obtained an advanced degree in international business, acquiring an additional language, Spanish. A year and a half after graduation I went to Venezuela.
There I acquired a new mentor, my boss. His name was Erwin. He was a small man, about five-eight, wiry and nervously energetic. He was talkative, and smiled a lot, a pleasant man to be around. I liked him very much.
Erwin had a passion for exploring the Venezuelan wilderness. Once he invited me to accompany him to explore the mountains between Puerto Cabello where we worked and where we lived in Valencia, located on a high escarpment above the coast. Puerto Cabello was one of the great pirate ports of the Spanish Main, in those times known as Borburata. We trekked for hours into the jungle following an old Spanish military road, hardly more than a mule trail that wound up the side of the escarpment. We were searching for a Sixteenth Century fortified bridge that protected Valencia against pirate raids from the coast. We listened to a chorus of invisible howler monkeys as we climbed. We saw trees bearing thorns the size of boning knives. We sweltered in the gloom and humidity beneath a thick rain forest canopy. Occasionally, we broke into brief patches of sunlight. Obscured by vegetation, we almost missed the bridge. It spanned a deep ravine and a small stream. It consisted of a steep stone arch. At either end of the arch, walls had formed barracks for Spanish soldiers. A large tree grew out of the stone floor of the bridge.
Another time, Erwin and I visited a mission, Los Angeles de Tucuco, deep in the foothills of the Serranía de Perijá, a mountain range separating Venezuela from Colombia. Capuchin monks had created a haven for Yupka and Motilón indians. They are a tiny people, tall ones standing no more than four-and-a-half feet. A very attractive people, expressive and smiling, they greeted us with exuberance. The mission was celebrating its saint’s day by butchering a cow, using machetes to chop the animal into chunks which they threw into a large boiling cauldron. They tossed the viscera into another cauldron where it was cooked with rice into a viscous mass. We ate off of banana leaves – not an appealing meal. It surprised me how much Erwin connected with these tiny forest aborigines. He seemed happier among them than with his own kind. He spent his vacations in the wilderness.
Over an eight-year span Erwin and I became good friends. As we became closer, Erwin began to open up about his past. He was born in Croatia, a part of Yugoslavia. He admitted that in Yugoslavia he was regarded as a war criminal. When the Second World War broke out he was eighteen years old, studying electrical engineering in Budapest. He recounted that when Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1940, he was called up as a reservist in the Yugoslav army. His unit later went over intact to the Germans, and according to Erwin was incorporated into the Waffen SS.
I knew from my own military training that most of the foreign levies in the German war machine had been incorporated into the SS, not the Wehrmacht. Many were incorporated into the Waffen SS, combat units, but others went to the Deathshead SS that included concentration camp guards, the Einsatz-gruppen or mobile killing squads and later the units that were responsible for transporting prisoners to the extermination camps. Erwin told stories about his experiences on the Eastern Front. They didn’t ring true. I recognized some from a book that I had read by Willi Heinrich, a German war veteran. I asked Erwin what SS division he had served in. The Waffen SS were elite combat formations. Veterans would certainly remember division, regiment, battalion and company, as well as their commanders. Today, I can still remember units in which I served almost 50 years ago. Yet Erwin protested he couldn’t remember!
Erwin claims as the war wound down he was in Hungary. He said he threw away his SS uniform, put on a Wehrmacht uniform and fled eastward where he was imprisoned in Romania. Somehow he talked his way into the crew of a Black Sea freighter. When the ship called at an Italian port he said he jumped ship and from there, made his way to Venezuela.
In the last days of the war, Adolph Eichmann was desperately shipping Hungarian Jews to extermination camps. Eichmann’s people were Deathshead SS. Like Eichmann, many escaped the Allied dragnet and fled to Italy from where they made their way to South America.
* * * * *
Some years later, I was working in Europe. In the winter of 1977, I had occasion to visit Krakow in Poland. While there, I visited a place known as Ocwiecm. As with many Polish city names, there is a German equivalent. In this case, it was Auschwitz.
There the Germans had converted a small Polish Army barracks into an experimental extermination camp. After the war, the Polish Government set aside the Auschwitz camp as a museum.
My visit took place on an icy winter day. There were no other visitors. Walking in the gate of Auschwitz a row of gallows stands starkly against a gray sky. We entered barracks where the prisoners were housed. They contained rows of floor-to-ceiling wooden pallets with barely enough space in between them to accommodate three or four adults. In one barracks the museum authorities had placed bins; one filled with human hair, another with children’s toys, and still another with spectacles. In a corner we saw a large floor-to-ceiling heap of suitcases with labels painted on them: Lyon, Hamburg, Brussels, Amsterdam, Milan, Budapest, Linz . . . on and on.
Opposite the barracks we walked to the bath house located on a small rise. Signs explained the process. Here prisoners were ordered to disrobe: men, women, boys, girls, infants. They left their clothes and valuables and were herded down a ramp into a large room, the shower room . . . the gas chamber.
I followed the path down into that stark, empty room. I tried to grasp what had taken place there. Terrified people packed in, the doors shut and locked behind them. Fumes coming down from the ceiling! What must it have been like?
I have never felt so inadequate; the enormity of what took place there, within those walls, on that floor. The plundering of the corpses. I felt an obligation to feel something! But I felt only emptiness.
A back door led to furnaces, still intact. It was simple, linear: in the front, out the back, harvest useful by-products and send waste up the chimney.
At Auschwitz the Nazis experimented and developed their industrial process for murder. A half a kilometer away they built the better known Auschwitz, locally known as Birkenau Zwei. There, over a million Jews, gypsies, religious and political dissidents were gassed, shot or beaten to death; their possessions, their hair, their teeth, even their bones and ashes were harvested like some ghastly recycling program.
Was my friend Erwin a part of this? What if I had been born in Croatia?
CODICIL TO BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD
There's a codicil to this story. Long before I met Erwin, when I came back from Germany following my service there, I wanted to understand how the people I had come to like and respect could have been complicit in the horrible crimes of the Third Reich.
I returned to the university and completed a degree in history, focused on Germany and Central and Eastern Europe. I also had the credits to make it a degree in German Literature. Was it "Germanness" that led them to such iniquity?
Despite my inquiries, for me the matter still remained unresolved. Then I met Erwin and I finally interpreted my thoughts in the story I just told you. But now I have concluded I was wrong. Erwin's story is simply one man's odyssey.
From the broad perspective, when Germany, after the Versailles Treaty, fell into madness, their economy was a shambles. The people felt a sense of impotence in the face of forces they could not control, anger and despair. Then along came the catalyst . . . Adolf Hitler.
Now we watch our military inflict another Guernica almost on a daily basis, I don't have to mention Guantanamo or Abu Garib. Too many Americans are excluded from the national economy. Our people feel a sense of futility in the face of forces they cannot control, anger and despair.
And now . . . along has come a catalyst! Now I know, that it was not their Germanness. Then and now, it is our humanness
Copyright © 2019 by Robert Bruce Drynan
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