One Day After School I Learned About War

This post will be the last post on the topic of my hometown’s traditional German cultural history and roots. To be perfectly honest, I have never really quite known how to feel about this story, and I haven’t told it to very many people. I’ve never really been able to decide if it was, in the end, a good or a bad thing, but I tend to think that it was for the greater good, I think that is fair enough to say.

Spring, 1980. I was finishing up the 5th Grade.

Now, before I get ahead of myself, I need to tell you about Holly. She was in her early fifties, I’d say, and was one of the cafeteria cooks at my elementary school, one of three elementary schools in town (there was only one junior high and one high school).

Holly was a first generation German immigrant. She spoke perfect English but with a very heavy German accent. She adored children. She used to let us in the back door to the school kitchen on the really cold mornings growing up and make us all cinnamon toast and hot chocolate. And I remember how she would open those 64 ounce cans of pears or peaches and pour the “juice” into glasses for us. And sometimes she would tell us stories about when she was our age and how the Rocky Mountains in some ways reminded her of the Bavarian Alps of her youth. Holly was one of the kindest women I have ever known.

So back to that warm spring day in the 5th grade in 1980. I was doing good in school, had a great teacher, loved playing in the elementary school band, and had a childhood crush on Susanna Preston (all names changed to protect the innocent, of course, heh.)

Life was good.

On this particular spring afternoon, I had gotten roped into selling raffle tickets for the band for an end of the year shindig in Sanders Park in town (the school always took us to Sanders Park on the last day of school and gave us sandwiches, chips, popsicles and Pepsis).

Anyway, I’m selling these raffle tickets door to door, yes, by myself. Now I know that seems pretty horrifying to a lot of us – I live in a major city now and can’t imagine a 5th grader going to door to door selling raffle tickets after school by himself – but you have to understand. This was small town Bible Belt America in 1980 – it felt completely safe. People never locked their houses when they left or at night, and never locked their cars when they went into the store. Things change, of course, but to some degree the town is still largely like that. So this really wasn’t a big deal to me, or to any grown up – this was normal, this was how things were supposed to be.

Well, I knock on the door of a neatly maintained bungalow style home, and Holly answers the door. I tell her about the raffle tickets, of course she’ll buy some, come on in. (Again – no need for alarm here – this was okay – really!)  So before you know it, she’s sitting me down in her living room and  bringing me lemonade and chocolate chip cookies (and this lady knew how to make lemonade and chocolate chip cookies, I gotta tell you).

So at this point I’m in an old Twilight Zone episode and I don’t even know it, from my sheltered little life up to that point. Which is actually a pretty apt comparison, considering what happened next.

The mood of the room at that moment, when her husband Henry (about the same age as Holly, maybe a little older) came in from the back room, was one of pleasant simplicity.

Holly had me explain about the raffle tickets, what they were for, yada yada yada. Right there and then, Henry pulled out his wallet, and handed me a 20 dollar bill, which was wayyyyy too much money. In a soft, kind voice, he told me to keep the change.

As he handed me the 20 dollar bill, I noticed a series of small blue numbers tattooed on his forearm.

Naturally, I asked what they were for. As you might imagine, it suddenly got very quiet in that house about then. They looked at each other, and I’m sitting there with this stupid look on my face, knowing that I had obviously said something wrong, but for the life of me not understanding why.

What I didn’t understand at the time was, of course, that I had done nothing wrong; they were simply, and with the silent communication that comes naturally between two people who have grown to be very close together, trying to decide what to tell me.

It was Holly who spoke first.

“You know about za great second world war, ja, you have learned this in school?”

I nodded that we had, but that I didn’t understand all of it.

“Well, I doubt zat zey told you about dis, and maybe zat’s good. If you want to know, ve will tell you.”

I nodded slowly, and Holly’s husband told me. He told me about being in Auschwitz during the war, as a German Jewish citizen. At that time he was around 16 years old, and was kept alive because he was strong and could work. It was his good fortune, in a horrific way, that the American Army pushed down the gates of Auschwitz before the Nazis ran out of work to force upon him. 

Most of you know the gruesome details of Auschwitz and the other Nazi concentration camps in World War II. There’s no real need to go over the horrible details of what he saw, what was done to his loved ones, and the kind of work he was made to do. I think we are all pretty familiar with what he must have experienced.

And yet we can never really know – none of us can, unless you lived it.

I remember that afternoon like it was yesterday, and I remember everything that was explained to me. Some of it I understood, some of it I couldn’t understand. Mostly, living in that town, I couldn’t understand how things could go so badly wrong that human beings could ever treat each other like that. That was the part I just didn’t get.

I didn’t sell anymore raffle tickets that afternoon. I just went home on my bicycle in silence. I didn’t sleep much that night. That afternoon haunted me for a very long time.

Did Holly do anything wrong? Did her husband? Was the situation handled inappropriately? I have thought often about those questions. If I had been younger, then yes, perhaps. But I was in 5th Grade, 11 years old going on 12. I think it was appropriate, and in the end, I think they did me a great favor.

From that day on, I understood that life is not always lemonade and cookies, an innocent view of the world I had in some ways been allowed to believe up until that day. Though I was never able to find out if Holly experienced the same horrors or was spared them (I never asked), I understood that people can be cruel and filled with hate just because of what church you do or don’t go to or what the color of your skin is. People can really suck, in other words. Life isn’t fair, and very bad things happen to very good people.

But that’s the point, isn’t it?  These were two of the sweetest people I had ever met in my life. And Holly brought joy to children waiting in the cold every winter morning because that was her way of bringing some small amount of happiness into her small corner of the world. I have to admit that it took me a while, but I finally realized that was the real lesson that I was meant to take away from that warm spring afternoon – yes, injustice and evil have always happened, and probably always will – but look at the people who endure it. So many people come out of true horrors with the realization that it is their job for the rest of their lives to spread as much happiness as possible in whatever way possible, not to atone for any sin of their own, but to somehow try to erase the wrongs in the world they were unfortunate enough to experience, wrongs done to them by others. Not everyone reaches that realization, of course. But enough people do, enough rise above evil that in the end, they are probably the reason you and I are living the lives that we are today.  Maybe that’s grace.

All I know for sure is that the Hollys and Henrys of this world are what give all of us our humanity back, and it’s a debt that we can never repay.


Postscript:  Sorry for being so depressing today, but this is a story I have always felt I needed to share, and with all that’s going on in the world today, maybe this is as good a time as any. Back to the somewhat amusing anecdotes next time, I promise………


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