Friday, December 24, 2010

Me, a general, and a memorable holiday party

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Since Christmas, that most un-Jewish of holidays, is tomorrow, I thought this an opportune time to share one of my most memorable holiday stories.

There’s some sort of weird synergy happening with Christmas falling on Shabbat this year. It has me thinking of another holiday season, long ago, when I was working for Uncle Sam and living in Germany. It wasn’t the Sabbath that added a touch of Judaism to Christmas then, but a bizarre link to the Holocaust.

I’ll explain. Some of you might recall the draft, a system once part of the American way of life. Universal conscription offered up warm bodies for military service, a useful program especially during World War II when darkness covered the planet. The draft continued providing soldiers, sailors and marines during the Korean War, then a dozen years later when the U.S. was busy battling Communism in Vietnam. I’ll leave any political posturing and discussions of right and wrong about our role in that little corner of the world for another day.

It was during this period, however, when our leaders were worried about dominoes falling across Southeast Asia, that a lottery system for the draft was created and I graduated from the Land of Cotton U just in time to become a private in the Army. The good news is I had learned how to type in high school and honed my talents in college. So it was all together a pleasant surprise after I managed to survive basic training that I ended up being handed a typewriter instead of an M-14.

More significantly – for both this posting and my life – I was shipped off to Germany instead of the jungles of Vietnam. I landed at a NATO base in Seckenheim, a small village between Heidelberg and Mannheim.

The little installation that became my home for the next 18 months or so was the headquarters of something called CENTAG – that’s army talk for Central Army Group. Back when the cold war was absolutely frigid, CENTAG was a happening place. If I actually detailed our mission, I’d then have to kill each of you. Suffice it to say I needed a “NATO Top Secret Atomic” clearance to sit in my office and do my work.

If you can recall the Nazi installation that was blown up by Lee Marvin and his band of misfits in “The Dirty Dozen” then you have an idea of what CENTAG looked like. The base had, in fact, been a Nazi Kaserne – barracks to you and me – during World War II. Rumor had it housing members of the Gestapo and the installation certainly had the look of such a place – cobblestone courtyard, sterile gray buildings and a pristine parade ground, all neatly surrounded by a high-brick fence topped with barbed wire.

The top general for USAEUR – military speak for United States Army Europe – was also the top dog at CENTAG. But his deputy was a German brigadier general – after all, this was a NATO base on German soil – and therein rests our story.

Hans Jurgen Vogler was straight out of central casting. He had leading man good looks – strong and confident, a shock of gray hair, sharp features and a tall, lean body. He was always immaculately dressed in a uniform that was perfectly pressed and creased, the chest of his slate-gray uniform filled with campaign ribbons and medals.

Although details about his war record were never officially discussed, it was rumored that he had fought for Germany on the eastern front during World War II, was wounded and taken prisoner by the Russians.

I was working as a glorified clerk-typist, but because I had a degree in Journalism and had worked for a newspaper before being drafted, I was often called into staff meetings to take minutes of the proceedings. So when our office, including NCOs and officers, held its annual Christmas party, I knew most of the players. It was an international group, top heavy with top brass from the U.S., Germany, England, Italy and Canada.

I was chatting with officers from England, Canada and Italy when Gen. Vogler joined out group. We had been discussing the sad state of affairs in Northern Ireland – it was 1972 – and the general seemed interested in our conversation. There was something about the violence in the region that captured his attention.

“It’s hard to believe,” he said, “that people die over religion.”

Have you ever been in a group, started to tell a joke and just before delivering the punch line realized there was a good chance someone listening was going to be offended? That’s exactly where the general found himself. Time momentarily stood still as our little group stared at him in slack-jawed amazement.

It had been over 25 years since the end of World War II. Yet the horrors of the Holocaust still hung heavily in the air, a constant reminder of the murderous, sadistic behavior of Germany’s Nazi regime and its people who claimed they never really knew what was happening in all those death camps across Eastern Europe.

Gen. Vogler turned to me, the only Jew in the group and, quite possibly, the only Jew on the entire base. He started to speak, stopped, then managed to say these five words. “I acknowledge what we did.” It seemed he had more to say, but after a moment’s thought, pulled himself to attention, gave me one of those Germanic bows – knees stiff, arms at his sides, slightly bent at the waist – then whirled about and walked briskly from the room.

His words and actions might seem slight and light. But given the time and place – he was a general and I was an enlisted man; we were surrounded by his colleagues, all filled with good cheer and expensive booze – what more could he do or say?

At least for a moment the cosmic order of military life had been turned on its head – up was down and down was up. And how could it have been otherwise? I might have only been a little specialist in a room filled with colonels and generals, but on that day 39 years ago I was lifted high atop the moral high ground by six million souls that will never be forgotten.

THAT BE ME: After being drafted and making my way through basic training, I ended up working and playing (photo above) at a NATO installation near Heidelberg, Germany.

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