“When I was a kid I was raised in a real wild scary environment – Germany during World War Two.
And when the war was over, I was barely 11 years old. All I remember is that my dad went away and never came back. He got killed.”
Yet with this tragic account, today’s neighbors… now endeared friends, Horst and his beloved wife Elizabeth, show no signs of contempt towards humanity.
Up the street they live from me, always private, always smiling and always receptive to a passing greeting. But after ten years of living in the area in addition to the thirty my wife has spent here. We really do not know Horst and Elizabeth all that well, other than our occasional strolling nods of recognition.
In fact my wife used to play with their children when she was young. But even with this past, we are still complete strangers to our community sharing couple.
Today that has all changed when I knock at their door to invite them to 365.
Funny thing, that at my initial knock, I find myself a bit anxious in not wanting to encroach on my neighbor’s private time in intruding at the sanctity of their home front.
But the instant Horst opens his home and his history; the more I am endeared to call he and Elizabeth new and totally amazing friends.
Both are survivors of the grandest scale, living through the ravages of a devastating war and bearing the blessings of forty-nine years of successful marriage.
Elizabeth welcomes us with an engaging comment, “Now that I am ageing, I realize how wise my mother was. That’s for me the biggest, biggest thing. Especially when my grand-daughter comes over about twice a week. I keep telling her little quips that my mom always used to say that totally annoyed me, and, of course embarrassed me when I was young. But now I can see that she was really wise.”
Takes me about a nanosecond to understand what she is saying. And, although my dear old Mum is still alive and kicking. I remember the words of my Grandfather, “Take care of your teeth.”
At the time I thought he was a little off the rocker. Teeth? Sure they are important, but don’t you have any grand spiritual enlightenment to depart on your most handsome grandson?
But now that I look back at the pain he endured, even in the simple act of eating, visualize his frail physique and reflect on the esteem issues he must have bore due to his deteriorating smile, I feel a latent empathy for his life and a deeper respect for his council.
Elizabeth is a surgical nurse and confirms of his wisdom in telling us that off all the cases she has worked on, and in every instance, the healthiest patients, both mentally and physically are the one with good teeth. And many of the sickest are the ones with poor dental hygiene.
Enough said, I’m stocking up on the Fluoride and floss today.
I mentioned history in introducing you to Horst and Elizabeth. History, that during a pleasant living room chat overwhelms me with accounts of the strength of character these two special people hold.
Horst recounts his childhood, “I recall a lot of bombings, and being scared all the time… really scared.
But I understand, The Germans bombed London and they bombed us… well that’s war.
There is no pity taken on anybody, war is horrible, and it’s the most horrible thing in the world as far as I’m concerned.”
Horst holds no biases, no patriotic gleam for battles won, or lost… and certainly no attack directed towards any one group of people. Horst is a humanitarian.
He furthers his account, “Then the war was over and all of a sudden the Russians came. They were mostly nice people. They didn’t do anything that bad.
We’d sit in the basement… everyone was scared…and then a Russian came in there all by himself. It was amazing. He must have been a very brave guy. He had a big tommy gun and the center scope, a magazine – 72 rounds.
He gave my step Grandfather a cigarette, and my step Grandfather could speak Polish, which is very close to Russian. So, they could understand each other. Then he left. It wasn’t too bad.
Then some other guys came in. They were not that nice. They were people that I had never seen before in my life. They were Mongols. One of them poked me with a bayonet and I wet myself. I was really just a kid and the rifle and bayonet was this long (Horst parts the width of his arms to illustrate).”
Wow…! All I can do is listen… Amazed in trying to put myself in the situation, a situation that is so far out of my sensory understanding: Dad gone, no idea if I am about to be murdered or not. Alone in a basement filled with what I can assume are equally frightened people and families.
Sitting, shaking at age eleven with a bayonet pressed against my chest. And Horst speaks of it with humor, humility and forgiveness. Makes me wonder what any one of us would take away from the same. Not that I wish it on any human, but Horst’s story is a sobering testimony of survival of the mind and of spirit… One that I hope will enlighten us to a charitable outlook towards the citizens trapped in the backgrounds of any battle.
The closet I can get to empathize is to relate the stories of my parents, survivors of the German Blitz; and, of their stories of fear, courage, heroes and carnage. Tales of brave citizens and of undetonated buzz bombs.
Horst recounts, “We found so many ammunitions it was unbelievable. It was a bazaar heaven for young boys. I mean thousands of rounds of ammunitions, all just lying around. Guns, knifes, bayonets, everything you can imagine. Dead people too… Lots of dead people…” He pauses. “They took away the dead Russians, but not the dead Germans.”
Again, I listen.
“We were just very lucky that our house did not get hit. It was just like plain luck if you did not get hit. They open up the bomb bays and the bombs are indiscriminate.
Actually, when you were outside you could see it. You know, because the Americans used to come during the day. The English used to come at night. The sirens would start, and wherever you could go, you would go. We did not have great big bunkers like they show in the movies where hundreds and hundreds of people could go. We’d just run to the basement, you know, with reinforcement, big wooden pieces, but that doesn’t really mean anything.
You could hear the flack shooting like crazy, the searchlights going like that all over. You could see it, right through the basement windows. A lot of people did not make it. It is just a draw… that’s all.”
We talk about the good and bad in people and how war draws the best and the worst out of man.
“We are all human…” Horst proposes, “…. We are all the same. Cut me… Cut you… The same blood comes out. We all have different upbringings, different beliefs, different prejudices or whatever, but basically we are all very-very much the same. No matter what color or creed.”
Horst is now retired from his life as a commercial painter. He reviews his life, “There were some pretty tough times and after, good times. After all who enjoys a good time more than those who have had bad times.
If you were born with a silver spoon and you have always gotten all that you wanted. You can buy the nicest clothes, the best food… you don’t get too much excited about anything.
I’ve worked for people like that, and that is not who I am.”
“People are basically good…” Horst accounts, “’… It all depends on what type of environment they are brought up in. Not necessarily in what country, but the environment. They are formed from about age zero to fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. That totally shapes you.
I was in an environment that was very toxic. It was very dangerous. You could have got killed the next day. So you don’t put that much emphasis anymore about you and are not that much worried about getting there; the final stages in life, like a lot of people do. It’s very simple to say, ‘I can be friends with anybody, but sometimes they are beyond my influence.’”
Elizabeth has a history that matches that of Horst. They did not meet in Europe. They met years later while residing in Canada. Born in Germany, then to Yugoslavia, Elizabeth tells me of her childhood. “After the war Yugoslavia threw me out and I was placed in a relocation camp. I was there for nine years and began working at age fourteen.”
Elizabeth chooses not to overly talk of the past, Horst has been their spokesperson, but she does make a set of forward thinking remarks.
“We must continue to make the greatest effort to conserve our natural resources. And to not rip our Earth apart as we are doing now. Oh my gosh! If we don’t we are heading towards disaster.”
Horst contributes, “You know there is a word for it – It is called Armageddon.”
Elizabeth resumes, “I truly believe the younger people have the ability to do something about it. I just hope that they will be able to conserve, not destroy our natural resources. That would be my biggest wish.”
Horst looks forward, “’There are people in every country that will use any means to enrich themselves materialistically. You can go to Russia or whatever country. We have those people in America too. In German they say, ‘Sie werden auf alle Schrittmotoren um dorthin zu gelangen,’ which means, ‘They are stepping on all to get there.’
I’m not really surprised, like I said; ‘We are all basically the same.’ For one thing, we will do anything to survive. That’s human nature.
But some people will do anything to enrich themselves. And because of this, I can see that there will always be a great big divide between what they call the left and the right. There will always be the people who are the haves and the not haves. And sooner or later the people who have things get so greedy, that they will hurt all the other people tremendously… To the extent that the other people get together and they will become commune – Communism. The poor people do not create Communism. The rich people create Communism.
If you are so greedy that you do not let anybody else make a decent living. Then the people will commune. Never forget 1917, you know… the Russian revolution.
I’ve talked to people who lived through it. If you don’t let an animal make a decent living, sooner or later it will bite you. It happens, Capitalism against Socialism, it goes on… and on… and on. It goes on forever. It will always be. There are certain people who just don’t care if anybody else makes a decent living or not, all that matters is that they do.
I can see the handwriting on the wall in America. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I’m not a bloody Communist or anything. I just see things different as the average America sees it.
We have lived in three different countries and I am old. I’m seventy-eight years old this year. I see things different. I don’t put much money in monetary value. We are not rich. Our house is paid for. We worked very hard for it and that’s about it.
For a short time I lived with a stepfather who was rich and he wasn’t happy. I’ve also worked for a lot of rich people. I could name you hundreds of rich people, all of who are not happy (Horst recites a who’s who list of names). None of them were happy. I’ve worked with rich people all of my life. You know, poor people cannot afford me to paint their house. I didn’t charge that much, but I’ve got to make a living.
Most of the rich are kind of OK, but some of them…?’”
I kick in, “The way I see it… The humble rich and the humble poor and all those in the middle are coming together, and perhaps there is a revolution of awareness and information coming, maybe we are in it now.”
Elizabeth speaks, “I do believe since we have global communication we are all more aware. Everything with this instant communication feels very-very close. Which is good, but it does prevent us from a lot of personal interaction and that is what worries me.”
We talk of the importance of education and of family values; both topics that are at the top of the 365 list of reoccurring conversations, questioning, “How many of us choose the materialistic, focusing on the work it takes to get it, and paying the price of a devalued family or other values.”
Horst and Elizabeth come from a generation of survivors. Like my mother and father, they came to America in the early sixties. As many others at the time quested similar journeys in locating wherever they did post war and beyond, they were searching for a better life for their families.
Our new society in moving fast, the economy is all screwed up and the media, hidden politics, unsubstantiated judgments and materialistic comparisons are the compass for far too many an individual.
Have we gotten soft in the wrong ways and as a result become thoughtlessly powerful? For in what we are learning from Horst and Elizabeth a case is proposed before the court of humanity. Horst opens with his comparative evidence, “We are all the same. Cut me… Cut you… The same blood comes out.”
I examine his plea and come to a question of a conclusion, “Are we living with expectations of what we deserve… or are we preparing for what we can contribute?
“We are very liberal people. Not like the average German. Most of the Germans in this area are very conservative for some unexplainable reason. But for us… Everybody is welcome,” Horst concludes.
We ready ourselves to take a few pictures, when Horst shows his remarkable sense of humor in pointing at himself, “All we have given you is Henry Kissinger.” He smiles.