Europe of the World War II era should have been made childproof. Instead, it was “child abuse” on a scale that the world had never before seen.
Because of those six years, millions of children were denied their first kiss, the pain of algebra, the flowering cactus of puberty. Violent death happened first.
Though children don’t write history books, they often see things that we may not, and more quickly. The memories of children, as they are later sorted out with maturity, can give a perspective that grows our own.
One German child who lived through the Hitler depredations was Guenter Schott, a boy who was born into an unremarkable family, but in a most remarkable city — Berlin, the place where the worst of it began, and where it ended.
Schott was born in 1931 and lived with his parents, Walter and Ilse, and Wolfgang, a brother two years older, in an apartment in a working-class complex.
Childhood memories are unlike those of adults who recall important things in the continuous reel of a movie. Kids’ memories, however, are usually of the slide show variety, snapshots filed away in no certain order.
Today, in his 82nd year, Schott, a U.S. immigrant in 1958, lives in San Marcos and is still active in publishing. He can plumb his memory and speak of the dark time he lived through — the Nazis through the mind’s eye of a child …
Of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Schott says: “They made Berlin beautiful with flags, parades and flowers. I remember saying to my parents, ‘What is this all about?’ and they explained that it was a very important time in life, because Germany was taking its rightful place in the world. Hitler had been in power only three years at that time and already the public loved him.
“Hitler gave people work building the autobahn and reviving the armaments industry. That turned a huge number of people from unemployed to wage-earners. I watched happy workers coming home at the end of the day, finally being able to feed their families, and praising Hitler for providing jobs.”
Hitler used that credibility with the public to intensify his campaign against Jews. It became a signature fact of the Nazi regime. Schott was there.
“Jews were known to be well-educated. Many people went to Jewish doctors because they knew they’d get the best care possible. But Hitler, who was a brilliant speaker, stopped that by brainwashing the people. He pounded and pounded in his speeches that Jews were no good. Because people had confidence in Hitler, they wanted to believe him.
“We heard his speeches on the radio that we received in a little black box called volksempfanger, the radio of the people. Everyone had one because the government sold them cheap (to spread propaganda).”
In November 1938, Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, was named for the shattered windows that littered the streets as Nazi thugs looted and terrorized Jews. Schott remembers the crunch of broken glass beneath his shoes on the streets.
“It was terrible. People shied away from shops because there were so many troopers in the streets. They were brutal … they were brutal. If they saw someone they knew to be Jewish, they’d beat them with billyclubs. I saw that and I was scared, and held tight to my mother’s hand. She said, ‘Let’s go home. You don’t have to see this.’
“Later, when Jews were forced to start wearing the yellow star on their outer garments, I asked my mother, and I’ll never forget this, ‘Why do these people wear this yellow star?’ And I remember she said they were a group of people the government wanted to pinpoint as being not good Germans.”
Did she believe that?
“I cannot say for sure.”
The government started false rumors against the Jews, he says, including one that they practiced cannibalism. Children, especially, believed it. “Anti-Semitism was absolutely there to begin with, though. Hitler just fed it.”
Did you know any Jewish children?
“No, I didn’t.”
During all this, Schott says many Germans were able to compartmentalize their own religious beliefs. “My mother made sure my brother and I went to (Lutheran) church. Ministers would keep mouths shut so far as politics were concerned. They were afraid. I remember no criticism.”
Of knowledge about concentration camps: “From time to time we would have (extended) family gatherings. And when the adults were sitting around the table, they discussed things that I overheard. One expression I remember was “K-Z.” It was said quietly. I couldn’t understand what it meant, but later I realized they were referring to konzentration (camps). They had only heard rumors, and knew to keep quiet about it. It is said today that ordinary Germans knew about the atrocities, but, from what I heard and saw, that’s not true. I don’t think most people knew a darned thing about what went on in the camps.”
Did they choose not to know?
“I don’t think they could have known. There was no discussion about it because people did not have the (independent) media to investigate and keep them informed. The government controlled the radio and the press. The main publication in Germany was Nazi controlled, and was called the Völkischer Beobachter, the World Observer for the People. The newspaper was produced out of facilities confiscated from a Jewish family.”
As in all places in all times, the stomach and its care and feeding dominated much of life.
“In the early ’30s, our diet was not very appetizing. Chicken was a rarity. Pork was the most available meat. Fish was usually available. We ate a lot of beets and sauerkraut. But as the ’30s wore on, the economy got incredibly better. Meat became more available. For that, all praise went to Hitler.”
But when the war progressed into its later years, Schott became aware of a dietary surprise, at least to his observation. Although we tend to think of a besieged population as suffering starvation and malnutrition, Schott says it was common in Berlin for the opposite to be the case, at least through his child’s eyes. “The people had about half as much food as before the war. They didn’t have much meat or even butter. But they were far slimmer and healthier looking than in prosperous times. They ate a lot of vegetables and greens.
“At the beginning of 1939, children of my age participated in youth groups that became quite popular. They were called jung volk, young folk. We met once a week to build model planes and play with toy railroads.”
The serious Nazi indoctrination would have come later, at age 14, when he would have joined the Hitler Youth, but the end of the war happened first.
Likewise, in Schott’s school, teachers at lower levels adhered to the basic elementary curricula and avoided direct Nazi influencing, except no books written by Jews were allowed. The hard-core indoctrination came in the higher grades, he says.
“In 1940, my brother and I were playing in the yard, and mother called for us to come inside. She was crying: our father, age 40, had been drafted into the military and would have to leave shortly. It came as a blow, because we didn’t know things were headed for war. My mother then started receiving checks from the government to support the family, but we lived mainly on bread, potatoes and cabbage.”
In the late ’30s, as war clouds began to get darker and darker, the radio was filled with propaganda, he says. “The German government dished out to the public that finally we were going to accomplish what our Fuhrer always wanted, to gain lebensraum, living space. I remember the cheering crowds.”
Were they afraid of war?
“Not most, because the propaganda machine bombarded us — ‘We are the greatest. We have everything. In no time, we will conquer the world.’ ”
In 1943, as the war started to turn against Germany, the government intensified its thought control through its media monopoly. Schott says every sinking of an enemy troop transport was played up big. Even in defeats, such as the catastrophe at Stalingrad, the government tried to put a positive spin on bad war news.
However, beginning in 1944, as defeats mounted, and the Wehrmacht was being pushed back toward Germany, it was impossible to disguise looming defeat. But, Schott says he observed people reacting glumly, with typical German stoicism.
The bombs never stopped falling. “In 1943, allied bombing increased drastically, and each year became heavier and more destructive. I saw in my neighborhood burning buildings and great mounds of rubble. There were bodies in the street.
“The mood was of depression, but I never heard anger toward our government or even toward the allies. People were numb.
“Some (bombs) came very close to our flat. I was terrified. We didn’t know what to do. The terror would start when we heard the air raid sirens. We would go to the basement immediately. My mother would say, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.’ As we heard the bombs come closer, we were all very quiet, sitting with my mother’s arms around my brother and me.”
As the war wore on and lack of raw materials began to hurt the war effort, Schott says Nazi bigwig Hermann Goering was put in charge of a recycling campaign. Students got prizes for collecting the most recyclables, which they brought to school.
He says a ditty to this effort was sung by the children. It translated to, “Rags, bones and paper, we love Hermann.”
Schott also says that during winters, white bed linen was collected and sent to the Russian front to help soldiers camouflage their dark green uniforms in the snow.
The war ended in May 1945, and the Schott family gradually pulled their lives back together. Almost miraculously, all four were uninjured and reunited by summer’s end when the father was released from a POW camp.
Reflecting decades later on what he lived through as a child in Germany, Schott says no society can be complacent about the risk of a charismatic leader who promises everything, but asks in return his people’s freedom.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions. Contact him at [email protected]