Okay had to get that out of the way.
Earlier this week I read a book to review, “Wolfsangel” which takes place in France in the days before and after the Normandy Invasion. Although the book was not my normal read, it was interesting and period, which made me think of my contacts with that time period a German couple I meet when I lived in Flensburg, Germany in the 1990’s, Carl and Gerta.
Gerta was the local national school secretary for our small American school in Flensburg. We had about forty children, K-8 and Gerta helped with any translations the school needed with the German community at large. Her English was great and she was a lively woman in her 60’s. It turned out that she and I had a common hobby, that of spinning…wool into yarn. She had been interested in taking weaving classes in France (why not?) and asked me if I would like to also (why not?). So she located a school in the south of France not far from Pamplona, Spain that taught weaving in French, German and English.
My husband could not make the trip but Carl was willing to drive. Gerta and Carl had six sons the youngest twenty-one at the time, and so like many Europeans had a youth hostel family pass. I went as ‘family’ and we made our way through Germany and France to our location. Carl was an excellent cook.
The part of the trip I did not expect to get was a first hand account of the early days of World War II from Carl’s perspective.
It turns out that a large part of our trip was a road that Carl had ridden before as a teenager, right after the French and Germans had signed a treaty at the beginning of WWII. His account (my memory) was that the Germans and French signed a treaty that would cede any land the Germans were on to German control and would take affect three days from the signing. Gerta’s comment (icy and acidic) was, “I suppose that just goes to show how smart the Germans were and how stupid the French.” I didn’t want to get into the middle of an argument like that, but honestly the Germans would have been stupid not to take advantage of a loop hole like that and I think so to this day. Now I’m not a WWII historian and I don’t find ready information to substantiate this but his story (Vichy France?).
Carl was a member of the Hitler Youth before war was declared with anyone. Everyone was Hitler Youth…it was like Boy Scouts. Don’t jump down my throat and tell me it wasn’t. To the kids it was. So Carl was with his troop hiking up some valley off the Danube River, out of contact with the world. He said that when they came down to where they had started, they were told they were all to get back on the trains and head back to Germany, trip over. They were now part of the German Army. This began Carl’s military career.
Back to the treaty with France. Carl said, the Germans packed their troops into the back of trucks, moved them to the French border ahead of time and after the treaty was signed for the next three days they (including Carl) didn’t stop driving except to refill the trucks with fuel. The men ate, slept and etc while the trucks were moving. And so on the third morning some of the trucks including Carl’s rolled into the French military post in the Auvergne area as the garrison was waking. It may have been Clemond-Ferrand where we stopped on a market day. Guten Morgen?
From a tumultuous start in young adult life, Carl and Gerta had gone on to raised six sons, were strong advocates of things natural and Green Peace Members. So one of our stops while walking the market was the stand of a man who sold honey and was also a Green Peace advocate. We bought honey, and moved onto other things in the market. At the end of the morning we came back by the honey vendor, who excitedly told us there was an older French gentleman who wanted to meet the older German gentleman.
Carl spoke no French and the Frenchman spoke no German, but with the honey vendor’s help they communicated some. To me it was surreal that these two sixty somethings with no common language had more in common with each other than they had with the people around them. Granted the Frenchman had probably been resistance up in the hills trying to take potshots at any Germans he might ambush (Carl) and Carl was probably trying to keep a low profile, but after forty some years it was a strange truth.
I don’t know if there is a meaning to this event, but it has stayed with me all these years as one of the twists of fate we can hardly plan or foresee.
Carl was eventually (towards the end of WWII) captured and sent to a prison of war camp in England. He knew what shape Germany was in and that the end of the war was coming for Germany, so he started learning English in the camp. He said that prisoners who had ‘arrived’ earlier in the war (probably fliers?) looked down on his actions. For them the Germans were still going to be victorious. Carl knew otherwise. After the war he parleyed his English/German skills into translating for the Allies. I’m not sure if it was for the English or the Americans, but that was his job and earned him his income until retirement.
On thinking about Carl, was he just an opportunist or a pragmatist? I think the latter. I think sometimes we do what we can to survive conditions beyond our control.
So that was Carl’s story. I’ll save Gerta’s for another day.