“I don’t like Polish people,” he says, and raises one eyebrow that suggests “And how could anybody, really?”
Among other things, he explains, their language is incomprehensible.
At 84 he has earned his opinions.
He’s graying and a little severe, and turned out today in a light spring jacket, tan sweater and shirt with matching scarf. He takes small steps, pitched forward just a little. He’s tall, thin and upright, and he walks us up and down the streets of Wittenberg all day long.
His father was born in Poland, but mind you, Poland’s borders wave like a battle flag. When his father was born Posen was German. Today it is Poznan, in Poland.
His father fought the Great War riding great horses for the Kaiser, a dragooneer fighting hand to hand with lances. Imagine. His father owed oaths to three sovereigns in his lifetime: Kaiser Wilhelm, the Weimar government and the Third Reich. Imagine that, too.
Erich was born in 1930.
His mother had little reason to think he’d go to war. At the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria in 1938, and during the occupation of the Sudetenland later that year the prospects of her eight year old marching off to war seemed distant. When Germany invaded Poland to start the war in earnest, she thanked heaven her boy wasn’t even ten.
But in time her boy was fifteen and the Reich was depleted of fighting stock. He got six weeks training – rifles, hand grenades, knives, and marched off to dig anti-tank trenches near Bratislava. In the end his unit marched two days trying to surrender to the Americans.
Early in the morning of 2 May, the Russians captured the Reich Chancellery. Fighting continued here and there, but a week later the Red Army had collected German remnants, sorry unfledged youth and press-ganged elders in a stadium in Prague. They ran them through a gauntlet of sticks and pipes. They held them for a week, rain or shine, no shelter, no change of clothes, gave them only bread, then marched the lot to Dresden.
He feels the Russians were fair enough, but along the way ordinary Czech people beat them with sticks and bats the Russians did nothing to stop them. The soldier’s tongues were so dry they filled their mouths. They came to a camp in Dresden, a German POW camp for Russians that once held 3000, but the Russians used it for 18,000 Germans.
He was there a month. Sleeping, when one man turned over, the next three or four had to, too.
When he was freed he returned to Berlin, a boy of sixteen and a war veteran. He had no idea if his parents were alive. His father had been a fireman. Because of the bombing, during the war he worked day and night. It was a dangerous job.
Tremulously, Erich walked up to his old house, knocked, and his mother answered. She peered into his eyes and dismissed him: “I already gave food to soldiers” before at last she recognised him.
He mimicks her, putting his palms to his cheeks and exclaiming, “My boy!”
He was so gaunt she didn’t recognize her own son.
His family was reunited but their city lay in ruins. He and his father bicycled 100 kilometers, deep into the Spreewald to trade with farmers, for there was no food in Berlin. 100 kilometers on a bike, for food.
One time it was a Sunday. He was due in school the next day, learning Latin and mathematics but when they got home he leaned his bicycle against the wall and slept all the way through until noon on Tuesday.
They would trade nails, tools, and especially soap for food. His father could get soap. Firemen had a police connection; they were the Fire Police. Maybe that had something to do with it, but he was never clear, he was just sixteen.
What food could you get from farmers after the war? It depended on how many nails you brought, how much soap, but the staple was corn.
Erich loved a woman, and when they wed in 1951 they had nothing. Basic weddings are free in Germany because of the church tax, but the pastor will suggest every extra you might imagine, a tree and flowers and cards and silly things, but they had nothing and told the man they wanted it simple.
Together they finished school as lawyers. Inge became a family court judge. Erich became a criminal attorney. Once the wall went up they stayed in West Berlin, for nearly three decades, denied the opportunity to get very far out into the countryside around town. Later they showed us the Gleineke bridge, the famous spy bridge where Gary Francis Powers and others were swapped between the East and West Blocs, and they showed us enticing woodlands on the other side that you could see but not visit.
They had a wooden boat for fifty years. They would pack enough food for the weekend and live on the boat from Friday night until Monday morning to get out of town. It gave them a measure of freedom. Except they had to be careful. There were buoys beyond which if they drifted in error, they were liable to be shot. Others were.
Inge and her mother lived in Berlin right through the allies’ assault, until the block of flats where they lived was bombed and burned. They found shelter in the neighborhood, sharing bedrooms with others and moved around from time to time before the German surrender, when they hid from the Russians.
They so wanted the Americans to arrive first because of the stories they’d heard of Russian soldiers and rape. There was a public shelter across the street from the last place they lived, nearby enough that Inge, a teenager in 1945, and her mother watched in terror as Russian soldiers went in and women came out, ‘blouses ripped’ and hysterical. Even parts of the rump German leadership fled west to surrender to the advancing Americans rather than the Russians.
Finally one day a single Russian soldier, very young, she said, pounded on their door and opened it to find her and her mother inside. “This is it,” her mother said, the moment of horror they’d built up in their minds in all those nights underground, burrowing like rodents against the bombs and the fires.
But the soldier just looked, then closed the door.
Later a Russian soldier stole her bicycle but left them alone.
She thought that because of some translation problem, when the Russians asked the Germans what kind of seed they wanted to plant they misunderstood that the Germans wanted corn instead of wheat, so now there are corn fields where there weren’t before. Which her future husband bicycled into the Spreewald to get instead of starving.
People ate most of the kernels the Russians brought instead of planting them. Which is part of the reason she loved the Americans. They brought actual bread instead of seeds. She said she would never forget when she and her mother got a whole loaf of bread from the Americans.
When President Kennedy came to give his ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech, of course she went, but to Inge, more than Kennedy the star of the show was General Lucien Clay, the head of the American occupation sector, who came out of retirement to accompany Kennedy. She said Berliners felt it was he who had fed and saved them.
They traveled widely once they could, after the wall came down. They visited all the European capitals. They survived a vicious hurricane in St. Maarten. They liked the warmth of the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf in winter and spent lots of beach time in Cyprus and Doha and Dubai. We met some twenty years ago on the beach in French Polynesia.
As American World War II veterans celebrate their great victory in Normandy today, their numbers are dropping by some 550 a day. They are dying, too, in Berlin.
America’s remaining veterans have led remarkable lives. So too have the remaining veterans in Berlin, some just boys at the time, who fought, were vanquished and left with a city in ruins, then found it rent asunder for 28 years more, divided east from west and friend from friend by the Berlin Wall.
In April Inge, wife of the young soldier Erich, died in Berlin. We went to see Erich last week to celebrate two extraordinary lives.