09 March 2013

An American Teen in Germany, Part 1


When I was a young man, I lived in Germany twice.  The second time, which I’ve written about many times on ROT by now, was when I was stationed in West Berlin from 1971-74 while I was in the army.  The first time, from 1962-67, my family lived in the Federal Republic while my father was a foreign service officer there.  I was still a teenager when I first went to live along the Rhine River in central Germany.

Inspired by the young President Kennedy’s inaugural call to “ask what you can do for your country,” my dad applied to the U.S. Information Agency (known overseas as the Information Service) in 1961.  (Kennedy was 43 when he was sworn in; Dad was 42.)  He was accepted in June 1962, and after training in Washington, Dad was assigned as the Director of the Amerika Haus in Koblenz, West Germany, in September.  (His official title was Information Center Director, Koblenz.)  My mother joined him in October, and my younger brother and I went over to live and go to school the following summer. 

USIA isn’t very well known at home, probably because it was barred by law from operating within the U.S. and its territories.  A little explanation is in order.  Established in 1953 by President Dwight Eisenhower, USIA was the agency responsible for what was called, somewhat euphemistically, public diplomacy.  For that, read “propaganda”—principally of a cultural nature.  USIA, which was the parent agency for Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, brought art and cultural events, lectures, and political and historical information about the United States to countries all over the globe through libraries and other facilities and tours by performers and speakers.  (USIA published, for instance, a Russian-language magazine, Amerika, in the Soviet Union in exchange for the Soviets’ publishing an equivalent journal, The USSR, later called Soviet Life, in English in the States.  By all accounts, ours was very popular there; I never saw theirs on a newsstand here.)  The mission was to show the U.S. in the best possible light and emphasize our founding principles and it was a major aspect of my dad’s job to reach out to the leaders of the local society and the ordinary Koblenzers to make America an accessible idea.  For example, one of Dad’s frequent tasks was to arrange visits by Koblenz officials, infrastructure managers, business leaders, and such to U.S. cities of the approximate size or stature of Koblenz to see how their American counterparts approached or solved problems.  Remember, Germany’s democracy was in its infancy in 1962: Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic, had only taken office in 1949.   At the time my dad joined the agency, his boss was the renowned radio and TV newsman Edward R. Murrow (1908-65), who ran the agency from 1961 until 1964; he was succeeded until 1965 by Carl Rowan (1925-2000), another respected newspaperman, TV journalist, and commentator.  (From the time Dad was transferred to the embassy until his resignation, the agency’s director was Leonard Marks, 1916-2006, a communications lawyer.)

In Germany and Austria after World War II, USIA was a significant asset in the de-Nazification effort and its programs became so popular that when the U.S. government proposed eliminating them because their mission had been completed, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany stepped forward and offered to foot the bill for the libraries and offices as long as the U.S. would supply directors to run them.  From 1962 through 1965 (when he was transferred to the embassy as Cultural Affairs Attaché), that was my dad in Koblenz.  Except for him, the entire staff of the Amerika Haus was German.  (The explanation for the distinction between the USIA headquarters in Washington—at 1776 Pennsylvania Avenue propitiously—and the designation of the overseas facilities as USIS is that the outposts abroad preexisted the formation of the agency: they’d been programs of the World War II Office of War Information which changed names in 1945.  USIS already having been established abroad by 1953, the split identity of the agency and its overseas offices remained.)  In 1999, USIA and USIS ceased to exist and their functions were folded into various divisions of the Department of State.

(As a sidelight to the agency’s name, my grandfather, who lived to see his son become a foreign service officer, had a problem with Dad’s new job.  Born in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, Grandpa Jack was a little confused by Dad’s employer.  In many European cultures and languages, the word for ‘information’ is also the word for ‘intelligence,’ so an “information agency” was a security service.  For example, in West Germany, the Bundesnachrichtendienst was the equivalent of the CIA.  The name means ‘federal information service’—or ‘federal intelligence service’; Nachrichten is the German word for both ‘intelligence’ and ‘information,’ as well as ‘news.’  In Russian, the word svedenya has both meanings as well.  Grandpa Jack, whose family spoke both German and Russian among several other tongues, was convinced that his son was a spy until the day he died in 1963, despite my father’s consistent—and honest—denials.  I became an intelligence agent; my dad was not one.

(In a sidelight to this sidelight, in 1968, five years after Grandpa Jack’s death, a small book called Who’s Who in CIA was published in East Berlin.  It purported to list agents of U.S. “secret services”—and my father’s name was included.  So were such prominent figures as President Lyndon Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Secretaries of Defense Robert McNamara and Clark Clifford, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, among others, so Dad was in illustrious company.  Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms was listed, of course, but one name not included was the one CIA officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bonn whom everyone knew.  I won’t reveal her name, though I presume she’s dead by now, so you’ll just have to trust me that she’s missing from Who’s Who.  But my father’s name, along with his wartime service in the CIC—the army’s Counterintelligence Corps, the precursor to Military Intelligence Branch, in which I served a quarter of a century later—is duly inscribed.  Dad was an artillery officer and battery commander during the combat in Europe, but when the occupation began in May 1945, he was detailed to the CIC because he spoke German.  It was a short assignment because his unit was ordered to the Pacific Theater and Dad was at sea with the artillery pieces and trucks when Japan surrendered in August.  Back in Washington, which is where my parents were again by 1968, it was all the rage to be listed in that little red—wouldn’t you know it—book.  It was a mark of prestige on the cocktail circuit, so, of course, Dad went right out to buy a copy; the book was conveniently available in both German and English editions.)

Koblenz, then a small city of just 100,000 people (it hit that milestone the year my family arrived), is in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate), pretty much right smack in the middle of what was then West Germany.  ‘Koblenz’ (sometimes still written ‘Coblenz,’ its pre-World War II spelling) is supposed to be a corruption of Confluentes, the Latin name of the northern outpost of the Roman empire that was there before the German town grew up.  Located at the confluence of Germany’s two greatest wine-producing rivers, the Rhine and the Mosel, the city includes suburbs on both sides of the two rivers.  Koblenz-Ehrenbreitstein, for instance, the site of the ruin of a large, early-19th-century Prussian fortress (with origins dating to the first century CE) and the birthplace of Beethoven’s mother (whose house is preserved today as a museum containing the world’s largest family-owned Beethoven collection), is across the Rhine along the eastern bank.  On the west bank, at the actual point where the two great rivers meet, is the Deutsches Eck (German Corner), a triangular, paved plaza with an 1897 monument to Kaiser Wilhelm I. 

(Being situated on two such important riverbanks as it was gave rise to a kind of split-personality society in Koblenz.  When it came to wine, for instance, Koblenzers were a lot like Jonathan Swift’s Little Endians and Big Endians: one was either a Rheiner or a Moseler.  Most Weinstuben in Koblenz served either Rhine wine or Mosel, but not both.  If you walked into one and ordered the wrong wine . . . well, it was a bit like a member of one street gang crossing into the territory of a rival gang.  Beer was generally a safe choice, however: Koblenz provided excellent beer—Königsbacher, the ninth biggest brewery in the country.  In Germany, that’s going some!)

My brother and I would already be starting school when Dad’s tour in Koblenz was going to start and my parents needed to sort things out before we could all make the move permanently so the two of us boys stayed stateside that school year (my sophomore year in high school, my brother’s eighth-grade year).  Mother stayed behind a month before joining Dad to see to things here and let Dad get things in order in Koblenz.  At Christmas vacation in 1962, my brother and I made our first trip to Europe.  It was also our first trip off the east coast of North America and only our second outside the U.S.; our only other foreign visit was a family ski vacation to Ste. Agathe, Quebec, when we were little boys.  When we arrived in Germany, our parents surprised us with a trip to Paris for the holidays.  I had expected we’d be staying around Koblenz.  First off, we had no car—there was a dockworkers’ strike in the States, so nothing was being loaded onto ships that fall.  Second—and for much the same reason—my parents’ household stuff, including winter clothes, hadn’t arrived in Germany.  Staying put seemed like the only sensible option.  Third, the immediate neighborhood, as you’ll see, is not without its own history or cultural attractions.  Now, Christmas Day is my birthday—and this one was going to be my 16th.  I was going to turn 16 in Paris.  I sure didn’t know anyone who did that.  So we drove half across Europe in a rented wreck of a Renault (or whatever it was—something small and rickety) whose doors didn’t work right and whose heater didn’t work at all.  (Along with his puns about “Paris sights,” my about-to-be-14-year-old brother kept looking at me and asking: “What do you know?  You’re not even 16 yet.”) 

Before I found out I was going to live in Germany and go to an international school, I had been studying Latin, of all things.  (I actually thought I was going to be a classicist and study Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  Naïveté, anyone?)  When I found out my folks’ plans, I took one year of American high school French that last year in the States and tried to learn some German from one of those “teach-yourself” books.  In neither case was I particularly successful, but I got a slight taste of modern, living languages.  As soon as we crossed the frontier into France, however, my mother turned to me and said, “You’re taking French.  Talk to these people.”  I’d had one semester of American high school French by this time, mind you—but when we stopped for gas, it was up to me to get the tank filled.  I wince now at what I remember saying. 

Needless to say, the trip was life-changing nonetheless.  Paris was freezing—an unheard-of cold-snap, and even dustings of snow.  Dad had nothing warmer than a trench coat.  The car’s windows didn’t always roll back up once they were down.  But we saw Paris.  (My dad would say, in an expression that became watchwords on the many trips we’d take in the ensuing years: “Getting lost just means we see a part of the city we’d never see otherwise.”)  France is still a Catholic country, for all its official anti-clericalism, so it’s pretty much closed on the 25th.  But Versailles is open (Christmas is not a government holiday), so I had my birthday at the palace.  We had lunch at a little bistro near the palace, and instead of a birthday cake with candles . . . we had flaming crêpes Suzette for desert.  Boy, did I have a 16th birthday!

The summer after that school year, my brother and I came to Germany to live.  We sailed across on the SS America—it’s last crossing, as it happened—and my Grandpa Harry joined us as a surprise for his daughter and son-in-law.  (My brother and I didn’t know he was coming along until he didn’t get off the ship when the visitors were told to disembark.  It was too late to warn my folks, so they only found out when they met the boat in Bremerhaven.)   My dad was real smart: he found Hannelore, a young German woman who had studied at the University of Miami, and hired her to tutor my brother and me over the summer.  After each German lesson at home—we had one every day during which we spoke only German (even our textbook had no English in it)—I’d go off and try out my German by doing errands—mine, or sometimes my mom’s.  I had a ball and I learned German fast.  By the time I got to school in Switzerland the next fall, I was fluent enough in German to get placed in the third-year class, even though I’d had no German in school before.  More than that, though, I had actually learned to speak it—not just read it out of a book and translate.  It was the most fun I’d had since I first discovered Latin in eighth grade—and this was better because I could talk to people.  I don’t think anyone gets “fluent” in Latin—except, maybe, Catholic seminarians. 

My younger brother and I went to school in Switzerland starting in the fall of 1963.  My brother stayed only for his freshman year and then returned to the States for school, but I spent my last two years of high school in Switzerland and graduated from the International School of Geneva (École International de Genève, or Écolint).  I spent my junior year at the Collège du Léman in Versoix-Geneva.  (Lac Léman is the French name for Lake Geneva.  Versoix, a tiny town about a half hour from Geneva, has the distinction of being the hometown of Josephine Boisdechene, 1827-75, the first bearded lady exhibited by P. T. Barnum—as Mme. Fortune Clofullia, “The Bearded Lady of Geneva.”  Some claim to fame, huh?)  

French took me a little longer to learn because I didn’t have the advantage of a private tutor.  But I did have some help along the way.  Koblenz had been part of the French occupation zone after World War II so there was still a small contingent of French troops there, even after France withdrew its military from NATO in 1966.  One French family—Pierre Humilien, the military doctor; his wife, Ninon; their son, Marc, who was my age; and daughter, Marion, my brother’s age—was especially outgoing, a great rarity among the French, who usually tend to keep to themselves.  Marc, Marion, and I became great friends and hung out like teens do—except we all spoke different languages.  Little by little, though, I learned enough French to get by—as long as we could toss in a few English and German words and phrases.  (Franglais, the “native” tongue of Swiss international school kids like me, became our lingua franca—with the addition of a dollop of German.)  By the time I finished my first year in Versoix—our classes were in English, but everything else was in French—I was pretty fluent in French, too.   (I still have very vivid recollections of the first time I dreamed in French, during my second year in Switzerland.  I awoke in the morning and, though I didn’t remember the dream itself, I remembered that it was all in French—and I sprouted a huge grin.  Later, in college, when I got drunk, I spoke only French.  Or so people told me afterwards.) 

I soon realized that I was picking up very near-perfect accents in both French and German.  (A lady sitting next to me on a plane in the Soviet Union told me the same thing about my Russian accent.  She may just have been flattering me, however.)  I was good at picking up slang, too, so as long as some grammar point or vocabulary word didn’t trip me up, I could often pass for native—just from some other region of whichever country I was in at the time.  I even got to the point where I could switch among the three languages pretty facilely one right after another without getting too mixed up.  On one little jaunt Marc Humilien and I took, we rode a bus up the Rhine to one of the many riverside towns with a castle ruin—Burg Rheinfels at Sankt Goar, I think.  I’d been there before with my parents, but Marc hadn’t been so we decided to take a guided tour.  There wasn’t a French- or English-speaking guide available right then, so we took the German-language tour and I translated for Marc.  (My German was better than his by this time, and my French was better than his English.)  Another couple in our group was American, so I began translating for them, too—German to French for Marc; German to English for the Amis.  (Ami was the colloquial German term for ‘American.’  Unlike some other well-known sobriquets, such as Gringo, it isn’t a derogatory name, but one of friendship and endearment.)  Everyone was amazed, though I was a little too occupied to realize what I was doing at the moment.  (I was also inserting some of the stories and details from the guide who had taken my family around the ruin into my rendition of what the current guide was saying, augmenting her spiel.)  The German guide thought I was German—though probably not from the Rhineland, and the American couple apparently did, too.  “My,” the lady exclaimed, “you speak English so well!”  When I explained that that was probably because I was American, like them, I don’t think they entirely believed me.  On another occasion, when I was at school and was downtown in Geneva one afternoon, I found myself in front of the American Express where an obviously American couple seemed to be lost.  I asked if I could help them, and I gave them directions to their destination.  Because I seemed to know this foreign city so well—which I did by this time—this couple also figured I was a native: they wouldn’t believe I was American, either.  (I never tried to fool anyone, but I did glow inside with an intense feeling of pride when this kind of thing happened.)  After a while, I could even translate from French into German and vice versa without having to go through English first.  I knew that was an accomplishment.  The key, of course, was that in both cases, I was actually living in the language a lot of the time.  (Something I never got to do with Russian.)   Mostly, though, I was just having the time of my life. 

(Two sidebars about language and tour guides.  The latter first: My family went on a trip to Austria one spring, visiting Vienna and Salzburg, and then taking a ski break in the little village of Kitzbühel.  In Vienna, we took a city tour as we often did to get the lay of a new city.  We arrived at the departure point for the tour, a large plaza with many sightseeing busses loading all around, and Dad went to one guide and asked where the English-language bus was located.  Dad spoke in German, of course, which he did quite well by this time—he grew up speaking German with his immigrant grandmother who never learned English—so the guide told him he didn’t need an English-language tour.  Sie sprechen Deutsch genau wie Schiller!” she insisted—“You speak German just like Schiller.”  The Viennese, of course, were famed for their . . . ummm, shall we say Schmalz?

(In the years I lived in Europe—actually both stints—I personally knew only one person who was truly tri-lingual.  In school, of course, I had many bilingual schoolmates and a number who, like me, could speak three or even more languages, but not all with equal fluency, but the only person I knew who spoke French, English, and German all equally well was the daughter of Dad’s boss in the consulate.  Her folks had been a career foreign service couple and she’d been born in Paris and lived many years in Germany with them.  She was a little younger than I and had started this life many years earlier than I had.  But in Koblenz was a young Canadian couple, part of a small international business community I’ll speak of in a bit.  They were Anglo-Canadians, but they’d met while students at the Sorbonne, so they spoke French.  They had two small children, a boy and a girl, just school age.  The parents spoke both French and English at home and the children were going to the local school in Koblenz where they spoke German of course.  At their young ages, they picked up the languages fast and spoke all three, often at random and in succession, with equal fluency.  I never met these kids, but my parents did, and one of the cutest stories they told was when one of the children would come to their father and hold up some object.  “What’s the word for this, Daddy?” the child would ask.  “In what language?” the dad replied.  After a pause and a moment of confusion, the kid would answer, “In the language we’re speaking!”)

Because Koblenz was just a small city, without a major U.S. military installation or diplomatic post, we lived, as foreign service families say, “on the economy.”  We had German neighbors, shopped in German stores, ate in German restaurants, hired German repairmen and service people, used the German busses, went to German movie theaters (which often played American movies, of course—dubbed or with subtitles), and so on.  As an offshoot of Dad’s work, he and Mom met or entertained at home most of the prominent citizens, their wives (this was still a male-dominated society—as were we in the early ’60s), and their children, most of whom were around my brother’s and my ages.  (The Baby Boom, it seems, had a European branch.)  There were no other civilian American officials in Koblenz—for all intents and purposes, Dad was the U.S. ambassador as far as Koblenzers were concerned—but it had several things that compensated for that situation.  The town was the seat of an international court of reparations (for suits over property seized by the Nazis during the Third Reich) and, what with the judges and their staffs, there was a small international community around it.  Koblenz’s central location, pleasant climate, and West Germany’s on-going Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) also attracted foreign businesses to set up offices, as I hinted earlier, so even though there were no other U.S. diplomats in town, there were American business people and their families (more kids), as well as Canadian, British, and several others, along with the French military.  (Koblenz was the HQ of the Bundeswehr‘s Third Army Corps as well, so there were two U.S. liaison officers stationed there, one for the air force and the other for the army.)  All of these folks, including some of the French, formed a little international community along with the Koblenzers.  Since many of the children were teens, we formed a sort of loose gang of boys and girls who got together or hung out in small groups. 

That international court of reparations I mentioned had, I believe, five judges, each from a different country, including, for example, Italy, Sweden, and the U.S.  I think the nationalities of the judges changed on a rotating basis periodically, but while we were in Koblenz, Dad got quite chummy with the Italian justice.  He was a young man, about Dad’s age, and he had the same haircut Dad had!  That was significant, because Dad’s hair was relatively short when we arrived, in the American style rather than the longer style worn by most European men, and the Italian judge had found a place where he could get his hair cut the way he liked it and Dad had been having difficulty finding a good barber for his American hairstyle.  That began the friendship, but it was cemented when the judge challenged Dad to a pizza-making competition.  I think there’d been a debate one evening during dinner over who had the better pizza, the United States or Italy.  (Ten years earlier, you couldn’t get a pizza in Italy outside of Naples where it was invented.  The ubiquitous pizza parlor was an American development.)  So the challenge was on—and the men had to make their pizzas themselves, no help from wives or neighbors.  Then there’d be a party at someone’s house and the guests from the little international group would declare the winner.  Believe it or not, my father won—but he’d cheated.  He’d started with a frozen pizza from the commissary which he’d “doctored” to make it “home-made.”  No one really cared, of course, because by then a lot of liquor and wine had been consumed and no one’s taste buds were particularly discerning anymore.  (There was another big meal on another occasion—I think it may have been at the Humiliens’ apartment in the French compound—for which all the men were the cooks and each one contributed one part of the meal.  I forget what my father made—he wasn’t much of a cook; he was better at eating—but the dinner was a great success, I understand.  These weren’t occasions when the younger generation was invited—we all made ourselves scarce and did our own thing.)

The international court’s job was to make determinations over claims by former business owners for the return of family businesses seized by the Nazis.  Needless to say, most of these were Jewish families; some other groups got similar treatment, but the largest number by far were Jews.  Many families returned to reclaim the businesses and though some turned around and sold them and left the country again, quite a few stayed and ran the businesses again.  There was a small, but stalwart Jewish community again in Germany by this time and when we were in Koblenz, we knew a family—I think it was the next generation actually—who got their business, a sock factory, back and stayed to run it.   Most Jews who had survived the Holocaust and the war had left Germany during the conflict or right afterwards and many just couldn’t adjust to new countries, usually Israel or the U.S.  When we were living in Koblenz, the tiny Jewish community there couldn’t even manage a rabbi.   My parents went to one of the community’s services—it was in the home of one of the members—and the rabbi presiding was from Israel.  He was the son of one of the members and had been born in Koblenz or nearby, but the family left for Israel after the war.  His parents returned in the late ’50s or so, and he came back now and then to visit, and would officiate at bar mitzvah, weddings, brises, and Sabbath services when he was in town.  This was a common situation in those days. 

[I have to leave off here temporarily because my reminiscences have simply run away with me.  This was such an extraordinary time in my life—I wonder if anyone else agrees—that I found it hard to stop remembering.  I’ll stop for now and pick up the rest of my recollections of a not-so-misspent youth in a few days.  Please come back to ROT next week for the rest of my memoir.]


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