BY RON FEINBERG / Web Editor //
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas and, once again, I’m thinking of another holiday season long ago when I was working for Uncle Sam and living in Germany. A bizarre series of events played out that December that touched on German shame, world politics, my Jewish identity and the Holocaust.
I’ll explain. Shortly after graduating from the University of Georgia, I was drafted and shipped off to Europe. I landed at a NATO base in Seckenheim, Germany, 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 silence 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 Jürgen 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 several officers when Gen. Vogler joined out group. We had been discussing the sad state of affairs in Northern Ireland – it was 1971 – 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 say something 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 41 years ago I was lifted high atop the moral high ground by six million souls that will never be forgotten.