I returned home to Friedrichshafen on the train from central Germany last Sunday. My wife, daughter, and I had second class tickets on the slow train—which meant a lot of stops. On the second stop, an elderly man got on the train, and asked if he could sit across from me. Sure, I grunted. I liked him, but still had some hopes of escaping a conversation and not revealing my horrible American accent. Alas, my shyness was not to be rewarded. He started talking about how uncomfortable the benches were these days. Screwing up my courage, I said something to the effect that at least they weren’t as uncomfortable as in the past. Covering for my language deficiencies, my German wife piped in that she remembered when the benches were made of wood.
This got him going, and I found myself straining to listen over the rumble of the train. He was a retired baker, it seemed, who had left East Germany in 1954 to come to the West. He was pleasant, and knowing that my wife was also listening (and could translate what I missed later), encouraged him to continue by smiling, making eye contact, and muttering the occasional “Ja.” More of his story came out, of leaving the East, the problems of Communism, and the blessings of life in the West. Just the sort of thing you expect to hear from refugees, even long after they have fled their home.
At some point along the way, he asked us a question, and I let my wife answer again. But then inevitably, she interjected that we were from the United States, and that I was American.
“Ah an Ami, I did not know. Here I was rattling away in German and you do not know what I was saying.” He seemed embarrassed by the situation, and I felt a momentary flush of pride, realizing that I had actually passed as a German for over ten minutes, and probably eight or nine short sentences.
“No, no, it’s ok, the Ami understands some German,” my wise wife added helpfully (gee thanks Dagmar).
“Ah, the Amis! Did you know I am from Dresden in East Germany? And on February 13-15, 1945, the British fire-bombed Dresden. And then the next day the American planes came in over the river at about 40 meters and used their machine guns to shoot the people running away?”
My cover blown, I indicated that yes, I knew about the fire-bombing of Dresden. But he said it all in a friendly way, so I asked him to continue with his story. My wife interjected that many Americans know about Dresden from having read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
He had never heard of Slaughterhouse Five, and asked what it was about, and my wife told him about Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and his crazy little book about the Dresden fire-bombing. My daughter Kirsten, who read Slaughterhouse Five in English class last year at Bear River High School, in the meantime got out a bag of gummy bears, and offered him some. He took them appreciatively.
He matter-of-factly repeated seeing the American planes strafe the civilian populations up and down the river Elbe. The Baker explained that he was born in 1936 and nine years old at the time, old enough to remember. He also said that the official German statistics that 30,000 civilian dead in the fire-bombing are bogus. He pointed out that there were millions refugees in Dresden at the time, and their deaths were not accounted for.* But he had to go. He thanked us for the conversation, and we thanked him, and he left the train.
Kirsten rides the bus to school every day here in Friedrichshafen. Quite often older men get on the bus; she thinks that there must be a retirement home on the bus line. A few of the old men end up talking to no one in particular. But she says the story is always the same: they talk about war and bombing. Perhaps they are survivors of the bombings of Friedrichshafen, or maybe they are just repeating stories they have heard from others. Friedrichshafen was heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II—the Germans built aircraft here, as well as some of the V-2 rockets which struck England in the last years of the war.
It is almost 63 years since Dresden and Friedrichshafen were bombed, and World War II ended. Wars last a long time, don’t they? I still occasionally meet American World War II veterans, though not so much anymore. After all, to be a World War II veteran, you need to have been born before about 1927, which makes them at least 80 years old today. Also, I rarely take public transportation in the Untied States, and so do not meet strangers as often. And I never meet war witnesses who were nine-year-old civilians. After all, the United States was not affected the same way as Germany, Poland, France, or the other countries where the battles were fought.
I wonder if people riding on street-cars in 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia, have similar experiences? Sixty-three years after the Civil War did Yankees visiting from New York have conversations with the children who remembered Sherman’s march, and former slaves who survived that War? Were there old people sitting on Atlanta’s street cars talking to no one in particular about Sherman’s march through Georgia? I guess also that this means that 63 years after the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad in 2003, that is in 2066, some “Ami” will be riding public transport in Iraq and will hear tales of that event too.
In my Population class two years ago, we discussed the final pension payment made by the Department of Veterans Affairs made to a Civil War widow—it happened in 2003, 138 years after the Civil War ended. Wars last a long time, don’t they?
*I checked the baker’s memories against internet sources. The received wisdom is that…the charges of American strafing are controversial, meaning some say yes, and some say it didn’t happen. In terms of casualties the actual body count was about 30,000 dead. This represents all the actual bodies found between 1945, and about 1966. This of course is a very conservative estimate, since it does not include anyone incinerated in the fire storm, died after fleeing, or who was buried elsewhere for whatever reason. The consensus number of refugees in Dresden at the time of the is about 200,000 who had fled the advancing Soviet armies moving in from the east. All this is besides the point for this essay, which is about memories of war, and how it structures relationships 63 years later.
Originally posted at Ethnography.com January 25, 2008