From enlightened compassion

All three of us were born in 1933 - the same year that Franklin Roosevelt was elected and that Hitler came to power. Our grandfathers came from the same region near Berlin, now part of East Germany.

Helmut's father left his home and factories in the Soviet zone shortly after the Red Army began its occupation in 1945. Helmut's family made their way to the American zone where each of them began a new life. After spending his first twelve years under Nazi rule, Helmut has lived all his adult life in West Germany, where he has become a free-wheeling but humane capitalist. He owns a textile firm and a pharmaceutical company, but he also works to depoliticize Germany's Amnesty International and to humanize the condition of guest workers from Turkey. His elder daughter studies English at Oxford while the younger spends the summer in Crete.

My own grandfather, Gustav, grew up in the Kaiser's palace outside Berlin where his father worked in the mint. Gustav chose not to fight in the wars that unified Germany but made a foe of France. He became a lithographer in Philadelphia and then a music teacher in Cincinnati. His son, my father, was brought up to respect Germany, but he volunteered to fight the ''Hun'' in 1917. He later encouraged me to study and travel in Germany in the 1950s, just as I now urge my daughter to attend a Goethe Institute in Germany to master the language.

Joachim, also born in 1933, was not so fortunate. His father considered moving westward in 1945, but did not. Joachim therefore spent five years in Soviet-style schools after the five he experienced under Hitler. A member of the ''Free German Youth'' organization, Joachim's political record was fairly clean until 1953 when he sympathized with friends throwing stones at Soviet tanks in East Berlin. This act cost him any chance for a higher education. He paid for his political misdeed by becoming a miner. Still, he earned more than most East Germans and provided his young wife with more comforts than most workers his age.

Joachim considered escaping to West Germany in the late 1950s (when I chose to study for a year in Moscow), but he decided to delay this attempt until his son was a few years older. In 1961, however, the Ulbright regime erected the Wall to stem migration from East to West Germany. Unless Joachim's family were willing to scale the Wall or burrow beneath it, egress was no longer feasible.

Joachim's son, now twenty-two, does not study at Oxford. Instead, he and another young man sit in a watchtower overlooking the Wall as it winds along the Selbitz River separating East Germany's southern border from northern Bavaria. I had seen the Wall before in Berlin - terrible, but not so out of place in a vortex of East-West confrontation. But for the tranquil German countryside to be here ripped asunder by a wire fence, a mine field, and the Wall - all separating the village of Blankenstein atop the hill from that of Blechsmiedenhammer (Tin-smith-hammer) below - is an obscenity. Huge electric lights help patrol the night.

As Helmut's wife stops her Volkwagen convertible to peer at this no-man's land, we see that Joachim and the other guard are following our every move through binoculars! They stare at us and we at them. What can they be thinking?

Helmut's wife feels like shaking a fist at these soldiers who confine their fellows behind wire and Wall. But then another West German runs over to our car and loans us his binoculars. We see that Joachim and the other guard have put down their field glasses and are waving to us. Joachim dangles a tape measure from his perch and points to its markings. He gestures that he has only ''ten to go'' - ten days more to serve.

This is no monster on the other side, but a human being, caught in circumstances that narrow his chances far more than the children of Helmut and Walter have known. We and our offspring also have problems, but we enjoy economic security, political and personal freedom completely out of reach for an East German. Our children can go and do what they please. Joachim and his family are not so blessed. There but for the grace of God go we.

I print a greeting on a piece of paper: ''Gruss aus Amerika!'' This might be called ''fraternizing with the enemy.'' But the ''enemy'' is my brother - or my brother's son!

My ''enemy'' waves, and I wave back. (My own father had stories about waving from Allied to German trenches at Christmas 1917.) I fight back tears as our Volkswagen pulls away, taking us wherever and whenever we want, leaving Joachim's son in his tower, wondering whether the next tourist will frown or smile.

Joachim's son, of course, is not alone. Whole villages have been split in two by the Wall. In nearby Modlareuth a boy and girl paddle a raft on a duck pond just forty yards from the Wall and another watchtower. Their father, not quite Joachim's age, has lived with the Wall for half his life. The children he knew from the community school live ''over there,'' but he doesn't dare shout a greeting or tell them when someone dies or marries. The only communications come when a pensioner from the East travels by a long route around to visit a paying host in the West.

Some fifty miles southwards from the Wall stands Wagner's opera house in Bayreuth where a new production of Parsifal played in 1982. To the Knights of the Grail was promised that redemption would come from enlightened compassion - ''Durch Mitleid wissend.'' Perhaps all Westerners should give thanks for their blessings . . . and feel a deep compassion for their brothers and sisters confined by this or that wall.

Will enlightenment ever come? Richard Wagner, a genius, was also an anti-Semite and helped generate feelings that Hitler exploited for his Aryan mythology. Still, the two performers who receive the most applause at Bayreuth from this mostly German audience are an American Jew - conductor Joseph Levine - and a black from Iowa, Simon Estes, who plays the wounded king served by Parsifal.

Parsifal's mother raised her son to be innocent of arms and other worldly matters, for his father, a great knight, had perished in war. But many blunders come from his innocence. Only when his strength fused with insight could his compassion aid the king and the Grail Knights. Only when Parsifal's individual faculties served the community could there be redemption also for him the redeemer - ''Erlosung dem Erloser.''m

Can Joachim and his children ever join Helmut, me and ours? Pacifism and innocence are not likely to bring down the Wall. Nor will material might by itself suffice. Like Parsifal, all of us need both strength and wisdom illuminated by empathy.

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