Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dear Herrmann

An old Postcard found on Google Images of Eltviller Aue, an Island on the Rhine which served as a WWII work camp.

 My father was 16 when the Germans invaded the Netherlands. He was captured and imprisoned at age 17. His mother was of Jewish origin. Had this fact been known he might not have lived through the war. My father rarely discussed his imprisonment with his children or my mother until later in his life. I think that they were memories better left in the past. We had many students from Germany visit our home and my father treated them with the same warmth and grace he extended to any guests in our home. He however, did not forget his captures or the war.

My father did share one wonderful story about his imprisonment. My father was held prisoner on a small island on the Rhine. According to my father the island was owned by an elderly countess who lived in a grand mansion on the island. She was loyal to the Nazi party and happily provided her farm and out buildings as a work camp for prisoners. There were a few livestock and a vineyard that the prisoners tended to but was strictly not intended for their consumption.

There were prisoners from several countries in Europe and my father used this opportunity to perfect his language skills. The other prisoners took him under their wing, appreciated his youth and his desire for knowledge.  One prison guard, named Herrmann took a particular liking to my father and allowed him to listen to the BBC. Herrmann also allowed him the use of his row boat and directed him to a nearby orchard where he picked fruit to share with the other prisoners. He also looked the other way when the prisoners treated themselves to roast suckling pig one evening after they were able to convince the countess that she had indeed miscounted. Herrmann also tutored dad with his German so efficiently that on one occasion when he left the island and was questioned, he was able to convince his confronter that he was German.

The island prisoners were eventually liberated by Canadian soldiers. I don’t know what became of the countess. I imagined that she was arrested because upon his departure my father helped himself to numerous bottles of her private reserve which was used as currency for his return to Den Haag.

My father never forgot Herrmann’s kindness and thought of him often. In the mid-nineties with thanks to the internet, he finally located a phone number. He called the number and when a woman answered he tentatively used his best German to explain who he was and who he was trying to locate. The woman was Herrmann’s wife.  She reported that Herrmann too had spoken of my father and had even gone to Holland in search of him. Sadly, she reported, he had died only a few months before.

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