A Fast Friendship in Germany With 'Enemy' I'd Never Met
'Oma has called. We're going to Berlin!" Claus was shouting at me from the top of the stairs of his family's home in Wiesbaden when I walked in to begin another weekend with my adopted German family. I was serving overseas with the US Army of Occupation. Claus was finishing his PhD in economics at the University of Marburg. Two new friends, in a postwar world not of their making. Onkel Hans and Tante Lotte slipped a food basket into my old Volkswagen and waved handkerchiefs goodbye, weeping as we drove away. I remember thinking: Why are they weeping? I'm a foreign soldier in a former enemy's land.
It all began the year before, on a German train from Frankfurt to Giessen, at the end of a long weekend. The old train was packed as usual, but I saw one unoccupied seat ahead of me. "Is that free?" I asked in terrible German. The young man next to the empty seat nodded and smiled. There weren't a lot of friendly glances for a GI uniform on a German train in the 1950s. I gratefully slid into the seat next to him. His English was almost better than mine, and I laughed in relief.
We talked in a rush, easily and with enthusiasm. We were too young to carry our elders' memories and burdens. We were glad just to be alive, to see the best in everyone. Claus remembered chewing gum handed to him from a GI tank in 1945. I confessed an uncle had warned me to be careful in Germany. "Germans are still the enemy," Uncle Lou said. I wondered how I'd know when I met an enemy? They certainly didn't look like Claus.
My big test was my first meal at his family's home, where a sandwich nearly did me in. The dining table was set with slices of bread in a basket and some luncheon meats. I made a very nice high-stack sandwich with lots of meat, and only then glanced up.
But Claus, his brother, and his parents had each taken one slice of bread, put one meat slice on it, and were cutting it slowly with a knife and fork. My face turned red, and I placed my shame down on my plate. "No, no," laughed Onkel Hans. "That's good! Eat it like a sandwich. That's American!" Claus and Stephan grabbed more bread and meat and began copying my pyramid sandwich. Everyone dove in, laughing. I loved them immediately.
Soon I slipped into a soft medley of concerts in the park, fierce arguments over Mozart versus Beethoven, and long history tours of Hessian countryside. Saturday night would mean riding on the back of Claus's Vespa scooter, holding on for dear life, to go dancing with some of his girlfriends at a local dance club. New faces showed up every week, always beginning with, "Are you Claus's friend, the Ami?" They would press in quickly, eagerly, to smile and shake my hand. We laughed at everything. What war? What enemy? We'd broken free, we two friends. We laughed some more, cranking up the Vespa for another race across town or into the countryside.
And now Berlin arose before us. We stared at the Wall, scrambled over the rubble of a church where Claus's parents had wed, and visited East Berlin uneasily. "Were you born in Berlin?" I asked Claus's grandmother.
Oma sniffed in that Berlin way. "I was baptized in the waters of the Spreem."
She was wonderful to me. We stayed on the third floor of Oma's big old house in Dahlem. Claus's favorite cousin showed up for our weekend visit, with a friend from her university. He was an Iranian, a law student. "My father sits in his office, expropriating the poor," Mohammed almost snarled at our first meeting. He bragged of his membership in the outlawed Communist Party in Iran.
But I also noted Mohammed's qualities, beyond the nonsense and rhetoric. He was bright, brave, strong, stubbornly holding his own against the rest of the cousins and guests filling the house. I didn't think it was fair for everyone to gang up on him, shouting him down. And I said so.
Mohammed asked Claus what I'd said. The room filled with loud cousins was suddenly quiet as Claus answered in German. Mohammed said something to Claus in response, and it was now my turn to ask what he said.
Claus said, proudly, "He said you have a good heart." I smiled. "Is that the sort of thing a Communist says?" We all laughed at that one. Even Mohammed laughed, finally.
Our last night in Berlin, Oma hosted a party at a supper club for all of us. A comedian told rude jokes about the Americans, and everyone roared. So did I.
As we pushed back from the big table, Mohammed pulled out a leather coin purse from his pocket, took out the coins, and gave it to me. Claus hissed at me, "You must take it! It's a gift. You'll insult him!"
I took it. He turned and vanished. "Do Communists give gifts?" I asked Claus. He put a hand on my arm, and said, "You did it!" beaming broadly. "But what did I do?", I asked. "My heart's the same one I brought with me from California. That's just the way I am. That's just the real me."
"Well," said Claus quietly, "that's what the coin purse is for. For the real you."