Throughout the year I would visit my grandparents in Germany. They didn’t speak English. I spoke only German to them during the times we would visit or they would come to the United States. I was fortunate to experience my American culture living in the US as well as my old-world German culture by my mother and grandparents. Grandfather, Opa, was Bavarian and my grandmother, Oma, was from the Black Forest. They lived in the old family home in Denzlingen, in the heart of the Black Forest, which was purchased and passed down generations on my grandmother’s side of the family. My great grandfather had made his fortune building greenhouses after the war and purchased half the village real-estate, but unfortunately my great aunt married a scoundrel who squandered the family fortune racketeering and a mishmash of lousy business dealings.
Opa was a very gentile, giving, loving man. He was Bavarian and if you know Bavarians, they are proud of their heritage. He’d wear his lederhosen around the house and town, but as Oma emphatically shared in her stories, he never donned underwear beneath his hand-made leather shorts. This allowed views of his manhood shared with whomever he was sitting close to at the table during drinking or dining. This infuriated my grandmother who, I must assume, didn’t like him to share it with the public.
Opa, like most Germans, was open about most things including the sexes and sexuality. Germans expose nakedness and sexuality at a young age, often inviting their teenage kids and girlfriends or boyfriends to spend the night with the family. “Better at home under a safe roof than secretly in a car or in some back alley,” my mother used to say. As a young boy, during sunny days, my grandfather would detour our frequent walks through the English Gardens in Munich. In the Gardens, German women were topless exposing themselves while sunbathing and relaxing. As a young boy, my face would flush bright red when I saw such women, but my grandfather would just smile and shrug his shoulders as he walked slowly with his hands rested behind him. Sometimes Oma would find out about the detours and scold Opa blaming him for exposing me to nakedness and debauchery at such a young age to which my Opa would simply chuckle. Oma was loud and animated in her stories about Opa and his alleged escapades. She’d raise her voice recalling times when Opa would frequent the lake, without her, to go boating and sailing with other women, obviously naked and in an orgy of fun, to which Opa always denied such foolish tales.
Oma spoiled me rotten. My memories of her are as fond as they get. She fixed me traditional German dishes whenever I asked. She was warm and loving. Oma spent significant time in the kitchen and when Opa got too close to her business of cooking or cleaning she would bang her pots and pans and rattle insults to which Opa seemed oblivious. Oma often told me as I got older “the best days of my life were when you and your sister came into this world.” She would call me a “nettes bierbly” which was Denzlingen slang for little doll.
I spent more time with Opa. He was a skilled carpenter and could fix anything around the house. His favorite times were canoeing, swimming, and sailing. Watching Opa go to work was always fun. He kept himself busy with various projects around the house. I would speak to him in our German Bavarian dialect and he would tell me story after story. His stories about the war were the most interesting.
Opa shared that he was raised by women and although they were very poor growing up, he was an athlete who spent his time outdoors. On sunny days he played soccer. Food was scarce, but he learned to live meagerly and worked labor jobs starting at a young age. He told me that when he was a young man he was “stein hart,” which means hard as a stone. Then he would growl amusingly and pound his chest and abdominals.
When he talked about the war he shared his basic misunderstandings of most things involving what was going on in Germany. According to him, when first enlisted, he left the barracks at night to go dancing with women. Upon his return his company commander would discipline him with calisthenics which included running, push-ups, sit-ups, and a movement involving the entire body called “hase hupfen” or rabbit jumps. He said he was in superior condition so any exercise that he was forced to endure was easy considering his upbringing involving hard labor jobs and meager food rations. He said he would yell loudly “Ich kahn nicht mehr, ich kahn nicht mehr!” which means “I can’t do anymore!” to his company commander, but this was a ruse as he could have continued exercises throughout the night with ease. His unruly and carefree conduct continued during his early days in the army, he asserted, after all, being raised by a bunch of women, he simply didn’t know better. As he revisited his stories he shared that his foolish and unwitting behavior, behavior that certainly didn’t match the behavior expected of a German Wehrmacht soldier, could have had him shot or killed. Opa believed it was sheer luck that his company commander had been such a good man; a man that didn’t shoot him personally given my grandfather’s insubordination in Hitler’s army.
It wasn’t long into the war that Opa met Oma at her village of Denzlingen in the black forest. There was a brief courtship followed by a hurried marriage in the back of a truck while stopping temporarily on a logistics supply run. It was war time and chaos was the norm. My grandfather soon deserted the German army and he and my grandmother made way to the snowcapped Alps. Opa, a master outdoorsman with knowledge of the terrain and surroundings, was able to lead a small group of families through a mountain impasse that was considered unattainable or unreachable by most. Overcoming the impasse, traveling to higher elevations, and through the thickness of the pined black forest they found refuge. There, my grandparents along with a few other couples and families stayed in hiding for the remainder of the war.
My grandfather said on more than one occasion he was “captured” by American forces before he and his wife made their escape to the mountains. Once he was put on a truck with other POW’s and as the truck started to drive he jumped out and ran to the cover of woods. Nobody bothered to chase or shoot him. Another time he was forced into a POW building, but he walked out the back door, grabbed a bike, and pedaled off. My grandfather carried natural ease and contentness about him so the stories he told me as a child I never questioned.