The woman had to stop talking to me because she began to cry.
I did not speak any German then in the summer of 1959, so her son had been translating what she was trying to tell me. I had been lodged with her for a night or two while the group with whom I was on concert tour in Europe, stayed in and performed in Berlin. I do not remember her name, but it was not her name that moved me so deeply that I remember it clearly today.
We had been talking about something in her living room — I recall that it seemed somehow unsuited to be a living room and was puzzled as to why until she asked me to join her through the door beside the kitchen to her former living room. She opened it out onto a hole in the rest of the building where the rest of her living room had been until an air raid in 1945 destroyed it. But from the doorway you could see the runway at Tempelhof airport.
She looked up at me with tearing eyes and began again to talk. He son translated: my mother wants to tell you that she is eternally grateful to the United States of American. I was curious why she was crying with gratitude. He said: she is crying because the United States saved her life in the airlift. She wants you to know that without the airlift she would have either frozen to death or starved to death. The US saved her with the airlift.
I returned to Germany in 1961 to study for a year in Munich with the Junior Year in Munich program from Wayne State University in Detroit. That year is imprinted on my mind in ways that no other year of my now 75 can claim. Of the many many reasons for that, two stand out: my landlady in Munich and Herr Hildebrandt.
My landlady had one hand blown off in a daytime bombing raid on Berlin during the last months of the war.I did not then know that the Brits bombed during the night and the USAAF during the day mostly. At any rate I had no need to know that because she told me so.
I had been very uneasy about seeing her manage that Munich apartment with one hand and rubber bands for pencils and notes around the stump where the other hand had been. My roommate and I were not the first American students to sublet rooms in her apartment — well not rooms but just one room for the two of us. She knew from former experience that her guests would want to know how she had been wounded so badly. So she took the initiative and told us.
It was not the recounting of the bombing that impressed me. Actually she went over it rather perfunctorily. And I think hat was her intention – not to dwell on the events — so that her guests, whose Air Force had harmed her and cost her a hand, would remember her point. She told her two American guests that her missing hand was a constant reminder to her of the evil of war, of the crimes of the Third Reich and she did not want ever to forget it.
I’ve since realized that she had two messages for us, because she could well have chosen not to rent to any citizens of the country whose military had cost her a hand, driven her from her home city of Berlin and flattened 80% of her country’s cities by the end of the war in 1945. She could have but instead she went out of her way to rent to JYM students. She and her apartment and situation had to be approved by JYM. So she chose to have us there to be a symbol of the ruin attendant upon a nation gone power mad with a people who had given up the right to govern themselves. And she had to trust the sons of the soldiers and airmen who just 14 years earlier had done their best to try to kill her.
I saw those messages every day I lived with her.
You were not allowed to spend the year in JYM without a mandatory meeting with the administrator of the JYM office in Akademiestrasse, Herr Hildebrandt.
Herr Hildebrandt was a native of Munich, a Bavarian, who had lived there all during the Third Reich. His round, red-flushed face, wore the round spectacles that one sees on Hollywood Nazis in the World War Two propaganda films commissioned by the War Department to keep the public buying war bonds. I think they needed to do that: to make propaganda or not to make propaganda is not the issue. the issue is what he told me.
It did not take long but again the messages sent by his words and his choosing American students have made an imprint on me that has not faded, have given me and additional model of human dignity and integrity to add to those of the woman in the still blasted out apartment in Berlin and my landlady in Munich.
He said — as nearly as my mind will recall it 55.5 years later: People here will all tell you that they did not know what we were doing in Dachau, to the Jews, in war. they are lying. I knew and we all knew. BUt I did not speak up. I cannot undo the crimes we have committed but I can make amends. And so I ask every American student who comes here to study to come and listen to me, to hear me make amends and say that I regret it all.
And that was it. He never asked for forgiveness. He did not try to defend the crimes. He made no excuses. He simply said that he had been wrong and now needed to admit it.
He could have decided to admit it every night to a friend in Bürgerbräukeller or sitting at a table in a cafe upnear the Uni. Or only to his wife and kids. Or a priest. Instead he chose American students.
The woman in Berlin chose Americans.
My landlady chose Americans.
And finally Mrs Zielski
She and her husband were refugees from Nazi Europe who had gotten here in time. Viktor was an engineer working for one of the auto companies in Detroit. They were our neighbors in Ferndale where I grew up.
She made her own sauerkraut,-she baked her own bread and made my favorites, krullers. Her house had exotic odors that tickled my palate and calmed my soul and she loved America. Her son, Stanley, had been a captain in the US Army and might well have fought on her home continent. I do not know. I do know she was proud as anyone can be that he was in the US Army and an American citizen.
She chose a little American boy, the son of her neighbor, not only to tell abaout her pride in the US, but also to love and care for as if I had been her son also.
To me those choices speak for themselves. All my life I have had immense pride, humble pride, taht my country for the first tie in human history chose to feed a conquered people at our expense and with great danger to pilots who flow DC-3s in and out of Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. The sharing of my landlady and Herr Hildebrand made them my heroes and me just glow with pride in being from a country which for once on this earth had not totally squandered on vain wars and sad memories respect due to moral integrity. I know today that we have not been saints, but I also know that we have on occasion acted in ways that won the hearts of men for our moral integrity.
The Marshal Plan. The Nürnberg War Crime Trials instead of summary executions. The Amerika Haus-es all across Germany. FDR’s fourth inaugural address. Washingtons farewell address. The Gettysburg Address. The Peace Corps. To Easter Europeans behind the Iron Curtain, the Voice of Amrita, the Berlin Airlift,, the Candy Bomber, foreign exchange programs, Care Packages, all the aid we have given at our expense to peoples all across the globe whe were in need, the Statue of Liberty and the chance of a new life she represented to so many immigrants who washed our clothes, dug our ditches, cleared our offices, drove our cabs, cooked our food
Their choices made me proud of the America which did all that.
I am a proud American who is ashamed and repulsed that we have placed into the chair of Lincoln, FDR, Washington, Jefferson, TR a man who has in a few days destroyed all of the goodwill and moral respect that made me so proud and that I want back. NOt via any more Lilly-livered investigations of what everyone else already has documented been the point of doubt and ad nauseam. I want the internal crying for shame and losss to stop. I want the suspicion of my conservative friends to be wiped clean. I want the pain and heat of hate and invective to cool and return to full bore political debate on how to solve or problems. I’ve had it with hearing dodging and weaving and PR nonsense intended to distract, divide and negate. I want the man defiling that honored chair in the estimable OvalOffice out.