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6/29/10

Frankfurt experience - Part 2 (Hannover)



This recollection continues an earlier post. If you wish to read it from the beginning, here is a link that will take you to square one.

The emergency landing shook us all up, but it was more of an inconvenience than anything else. There were professional skiers aboard whose destination had been Oslo, a city we simply flew over, but there were also passengers who saw our unscheduled landing in Hamburg as a blessing in disguise, albeit a slightly bumpy one. One of these beneficiaries was, of course, Carl-Heinz, the former U-boat officer whom Hanne and I befriended when our unorthodox touchdown remixed a passenger list into a social club. He was able to head for Hannover as soon as his luggage had been retrieved, but before leaving, he handed me his address and phone number, and made me promise to visit him on my way to Frankfurt.

We had been assigned rooms at an airport hotel and many of us continued partying, raising our bathroom glasses of duty free liquor and feeling quite special. The morning brought hangovers, new airline tickets, goodbyes, and Christmas wishes.

To me—although an avowed atheist—no holiday celebration can compare to a real old-fashioned Danish Christmas. The atmosphere is warm and the spirit special—we have a word for it, "hyggeligt," but you won't find an adequate translation in any language that I know of. "Cozy" is close, but it doesn't quite make it. Our 1954 Christmas  with family and friends lived up to the word. Hanne's relative loved the hideous junk we brought from a Times Square hole-in-the-wall, and she found the painted poodles ever so cute. When we told Bengt, Hanne's brother-in-law, that his gift had rolled out of sight aboard the aircraft, he seemed disappointed, but when we revealed that it had been a shrunken human head, he looked visibly relieved. At this point, Hanne and I still naïvely thought that the head was the genuine article and that it would have appealed to Bengt's artistic sense—we were wrong.

We greeted 1955 with some of our old friends and, three days later, Hanne accompanied me to the main railway station, where I boarded the Scandinavian-Italian Express for Frankfurt. It just so happened that on that day, January 4th, a severe cold spell hit the northern part of Europe. Not since the "Big Freeze" of 1947 had the Continent been hit so hard—it was colder than any weather I had ever experience in Iceland. 


Carl Heinz was at the Hannover station to meet my train. He was in a good mood and told me that his daughter had prepared a special dinner for us, but that we first had to make a stop at the House of a Thousand Schnapps. There, over a fine brew, Carl-Heinz told me that he was having some of his old U-boat buddies over after dinner. They felt like celebrating, because Germany was once again going to have its own military. This had been in all the papers for several months, generating much controversy, but it was finally a done deal and it was now said that former officers would be given back the rank they held under Hitler—whoopee! This is what we were going to celebrate that night—the man who had told me and Hanne how awful the war years had been, how he had agonized over having to shoot down U.S. Liberty ships, and how he would rather forget than remember the ordeal of military life, was now getting goose bumps at the mere thought of hopping into a uniform again!

When we got to his home, I was still wondering how it could be that someone who went through the war and saw it up close did not want to distance themselves from all of that. What was it about a uniform that made them blind to reason? My thoughts were interrupted by a whiff of something delicious coming from the kitchen, which is what Carl Heinz's daughter also did. She was in her teens, shy and quite lovely with a warm smile. She made a curtsy as she extended her hand and gestured for me to take a seat. I felt welcomed and silly for having had critical thoughts, but they returned as I was left alone just long enough to have a good look around me. There, on a small table were three framed photographs, one showed a young couple with a little girl, another a lady with braided hair who I presumed, was Carl-Heinz's wife. She had passed away during the war, the victim of a British bomber attack. The third and largest photo showed a smiling Carl-Heinz, proudly posing in his uniform. My eyes were drawn to the immaculately polished Iron Cross on his chest—it appeared to be the photo's raison d'etre.

I adopted a comic book mindset
Clicking on any image will enlarge all.
I began thinking of my own war years, the two I spent as a boy in Forest Hills, New York. I remembered parading around in my Army uniform, the one from Woolworth's on Austin Street, and standing at attention before Mrs. Gertrude Lutz, our Principal at P.S. 101. We sang Over There, Anchors Aweigh, and From the Halls of Montezuma as we waved the 48-star flag. We, too had something pinned to our chests, buttons depicting Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo with their heads in a noose that could be activated with the pull of a string. I also recall making regular runs to Mr. Mensch's little hole-in-the-wall shop, to pick up penny candy and the latest issues of comic books in which my super heroes triumphed over the evil Axis. I even made my own comics, highly caught up in the prevailing patriotic atmosphere. Even though I was going through hell at home, with Stella drinking herself into an unbearable state and my father leaving me and Kanda to endure it all, my memories of that time are not all bad. Well, so here I was, ten years later—my spirit of patriotism all but dissipated, but ready to be re-lit with proper papers. Here I was, a guest  in the home of a former Nazi who was ready and eager to do a little deja vu number. I was about to find myself in the midst of a surreal celebration—what would Mrs. Gertrude Lutz think?

As we enjoyed a hearty, unpretentious dinner, I finally asked Carl-Heinz why he and his military buddies were celebrating the return of something they should wish to put behind them. He told me that this would be an entirely different military force, more American, and just the fact that everybody would get their old rank back was an incentive to enlist. It still didn't make sense to me, but I nodded my head and dug into another potato. German efficiency being what it is, the table was cleared, the stove fed fresh briquettes, and Carl-Heinz's daughter bid us goodnight just as there was a knock on the door. Carl-Heinz checked his watch, mumbled some word of approval and let his guests in.

There were about five of them, still young and and obviously a close-knit group. They brought with them their own beer and enthusiasm. No heels were clicked, no salutes were made—that sort of thing was all in my overly imaginative mind. In fact, this was a bunch of pretty ordinary guys and it wasn't long before the beer was flowing, glasses were clinking, and laughter filled the room. Many stories of Nazi life in the service were told in English, for my benefit. They were for the most part horror stories of overly regimented life and unbelievable disciplinary measures, all meant to give me a picture of the awful life they so eagerly wished to resume. Special events at the officers' club were costly and attendance was mandatory, I was told. Some commanding generals held so many of these events that it was difficult for younger officers to keep up with them, so they would get behind on their club dues. This often resulted in their being given an alternate solution in the form of a side arm. I had a feeling that they weren't exaggerating.

The next morning, I slapped some Old Spice on my face and stepped out into the chilly winter air. My head still reeled from all these stories, boosted slightly by a hangover, and an otherworldly feeling that wouldn't go away. Carl-Heinz's daughter handed me a small brown paper bag as I was about to enter the cab and head for the station. It contained a sandwich and a hardboiled egg. I appreciated that a lot.

I never heard from Carl-Heinz after that, nor he from me, but I have often wondered how he was doing back in his old role and a new uniform. Of course, as it turned out, the new German military was not a throwback, but, even so, I remain puzzled as to what that little rearmament get-together was all about.

So now I was railing towards Frankfurt and a very uncertain future there.  Had I only known what I was getting myself into...

You will have the answer to that when post the continuation of this recollection.