By Wayne Allensworth
Rolf spent much of his boyhood in wartime, one in which piles of rubble accumulated as the Allied bombers leveled his city. Rolf and his friends played in the piles of rubble, and later joined the exodus of Germans heading West as the Red Army approached from the East. Everyone knew what would come under the Soviet thumb. So, they packed their belongings and made the trek in the hope of encountering American forces approaching from the West. A strange hope, praying to be taken by the Americans who had destroyed everything around them. A paradox, perhaps, but the only rational choice for a people defeated and now being conquered from the East by the bitterest and most vengeful of foes.
I had asked Rolf about his childhood. It’s a time most people have some fond memories of. They are nostalgic, as I’ve written previously, for all the “firsts” in their lives, for the wonder of discovery that only young people have as a matter of course in their daily lives. What was it like for a boy in wartime, in a country under bombardment, with the enemy at the gates?
He raises his eyebrows in a gesture common to people who ponder big questions. Then Rolf furrows his brow and strokes his whitening beard thoughtfully, his eyes focused on something else. The past, I suppose. We are sitting in his living room, which is quite distinctly a German place, evoking Teutonic styles and the air of a different time. His Bible on the coffee table is in German, with gold Gothic script on its black cover. He is a man prone to Biblical language, with the manner of an ancient sage, pronouncing on the follies of humanity and the temptations of the world. And now he ponders his childhood as if no one had ever asked him about it, though I’m certain that given his background, someone — his American born children, surely — had raised questions about his past and the momentous time he lived through.
He raises his head and replies that he has many good memories of his boyhood. True, his family lost friends and neighbors to the war, and the terrible explosions were unnerving, but he recalls his friends, and their adventures playing among the rubble with some fondness. He says that he does not dwell on the rest. It was the worst time for his people, but as with little boys everywhere, he remembers it as partly the best time.
Is that wishful thinking or selective memory at work? I get the impression that he is quite sincere — that he does have fond memories of a great bad time. That in the world of children, even the terrors of war can slip by them, God willing. Rolf is very old now, but remains clear in his thinking, and like many old people his long-term memory has survived the ravages of time that have eroded the strength of his thin body. I have no cause to doubt what he says. If there is any bitterness in him, I can’t detect it.
Rolf lives alone now, and when I arrive, as is his custom, he simply opens the door, says “Come in,” and begins talking about whatever is on his mind. Today he reminds me that sanity and at least a chance at happiness in life is most of all a disposition and an attitude about what is important. It’s something I’ve had to work on myself.
Rolf eventually made his way to America and worked as an electrical engineer. He shows me the engineering journals he had read when he was working and it’s clear he misses his job. He flips through the journal pages slowly, pondering the words and pictures. I’m reminded of my paternal grandfather. In his old age he sometimes looked through the local newspaper and circled want ads for welders. He had worked in the Houston shipyards during the war, building vessels for the US Navy. In the same war in which Rolf lost his home, Grandad had lost a son.
While Rolf is pondering his childhood — and probably, lost innocence — I recall that my carpenter father had worked with a German man in the 1960s who had been a Wehrmacht soldier in the war. He had been taken prisoner and wound up in a POW camp in Texas. He stayed after the war and he and my father, who had lost a brother in that war, became friends. So, the worst of times can begat better ones. And enemies can become friends.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote that people have been able to lead good and fulfilling lives under any political or economic circumstances, and that democracy is not itself a guarantee of satisfaction or contentment. We can see that for ourselves. The great Russian was reminding us that political circumstances are not the be all and end all of life. This coming from a man who risked everything to oppose a corrupt totalitarian political system, but who had a family and seems to have enjoyed the best of times in his life, nonetheless. He survived the darkness and he lived to see Communism collapse. He didn’t surrender in the Gulag or the cancer ward.
It’s worth remembering that in the microcosm of our daily routine, life with all its richness, its pain, and its rewards goes on in the worst of times. I’ve heard young people say that they are skittish about bringing children into the world we live in now, one so marked by moral corruption, social disarray, and uncertainty. But that’s always been a chance you take — a chance worth the risk. You’ll know it when you watch children, amid the evil day, live and learn and laugh. And in that living and learning and laughter is the greatest gift to all of us: life and the chance to take part in creation itself. The spark of divinity in us is partly expressed by the gift of life we can all make. There is happiness. There are no guarantees, of course, but it can’t be some other way. For most of us, a few dedicated saints excepted, what else is there?
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.