A beautiful mourning in Hamburg

Monday, January 10, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

By Uwe Siemon-Netto, FreePressers.com

The New Year began for me with a sad telephone call from Hamburg, Germany, that gradually evolved into a most beautiful conversation. On the line was my friend Helmut, the former editor-in-chief of one of Europe’s biggest magazines.

“Ruth is dead,” he said with an old reporter’s deadpan voice. “She died peacefully in my arms. Her last words were, ‘Ich danke dir’ (I thank you). Actually, these were the only words she had spoken in many days, except for the Lord’s Prayer. You see, she suffered from dementia and was blind. She had forgotten almost everything, except for the Lord’s Prayer and all of Paul Gerhardt’s hymns. We sang them together every day for the last two years.”

“How long have you been together?” I asked Helmut.

“Sixty-four years.”

A moment of silence followed. I wondered, why did he not break down? Why did he not sob? Had he become such a cynic in his many years in journalism that he could no longer mourn like normal people? Sixty-four years, for God’s sake, and now Ruth was gone!

“Yes, 64 years,” Helmut repeated, “and if you want to know how I feel, then let me tell you: I am full of gratitude. For 64 years we have slept literally under the same blanket. For 64 years we have loved each other, laughed with one another. How many people have been so blessed?”

This set him off on a long narrative of thanksgiving. Helmut was born the son of a streetcar driver in the industrial city of Essen. “My father was a strong Catholic and trade unionists who taught me his values. When Germans were ordered to fly the swastika flag on Hitler’s birthday, he put out the banner of his church, and when the Gestapo came to question him he said that it was a rainy day and he didn’t want the national flag to get wet. It’s a miracle that they fell for this illogical explanation, but they did. And I learned from this experience how ridiculous the Nazis were. My father was a very good teacher of what was right and what was wrong. To this day I am grateful to him for that.”

Then came the day when Helmut was drafted on his 16th birthday in early 1945. “World War II was almost over, but not quite. I was supposed to be trained as a Luftwaffe pilot but the Luftwaffe had no planes left. So I was attached to a hotchpotch unit of teenagers from all three branches of the armed services and sent to Berlin to fight off the Soviet Red Army. In my nightmares I can still see Russian tanks the size of skyscrapers coming towards me ready to grind me into the rubble of what used to be our nation’s capital.”

But that didn’t happen. Helmut and is fellow teenagers were spared the senseless slaughter that became the fate of so many young Germans in those final days of the war on Hitler’s orders. What happened?

“Well, now we come to the next point I have to be thankful for,” Helmut went on. “We owe our lives to our captain. There wasn’t much left to this man by the time he took command of us. He had lost an arm and a leg and an eye and an ear on the Eastern front, but clearly not his wits and his soul. Risking summary execution for disobedience he commanded us to turn our backs to this inferno, and, hobbling along with us on crutches, he led us in a northwesterly direction into the arms of the advancing Western allies.”

Instead of dying at the outskirts of Berlin Helmut became a British prisoner of war. When he was released from POW camp in the following year he returned to his bombed-out hometown of Essen. On that very day he met Ruth, and the two never separated until she died quietly in his arms just after Christmas.

I have been calling Helmut every day since he told me of Ruth’s death. He continues to sound thankful — thankful for his father who prevented him from becoming a Nazi; thankful to that crippled captain who disobeyed Hitler in order to spare Helmut’s life; thankful for a stellar career in journalism that has not turned him into cynic but trained him to count his blessings with a discerning reporter’s mind; thankful for 64 years on the side of a woman who was a much-beloved elementary school teacher; and thankful to have been made to learn the Lord’s Prayer and Paul Gerhardt’s hymns when he was a child.

It’s a beautiful mourning in Hamburg.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

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