A recent write-up by lostcauser brought back a scene from the early Sixties; one I wish I'd forgotten. Such is the memory of the aged- you can remember every stupid thing you've ever done but you can't remember why you came into the bathroom.
I was all of nineteen or twenty, and working as a track worker, or 'Gandy Dancer' as they were known, on the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was basic physical labor, laying track, replacing old ties with new timber, and endlessly, it seemed, trying to shore up old roadbeds. Some of us were college kids, like myself, doing summer work; some were Hispanic and supporting their families; and one was German. I'll call him Fritz because that was what he called himself; his real name he said was Damien Damianov, which if true meant he came from the Sudetenland but at the time I knew nothing of this.
He also claimed to have been in the Hitlerjugend, the Hitler Youth, during the war, but that was unlikely; more probably he would have been a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk and aged about 11 when Germany was defeated and occupied by the Allies.
Fritz gravitated immediately to the College boys; he was intelligent and articulate and it didn't occur to any of us to question why he was doing manual labor under an assumed name. When he had sussed us out and concluded, I suppose, that we were innocents in a way that only Americans of that era could possibly be, he began to regale us with stories of what being an eleven-year-old in Nazi Germany was like.
This is difficult to convey, but at that time the Nazi Era had a superficial gloss of romanticism for young men. We knew, in a vague sort of way, that the very idea outraged our parents' generation, so it was a sort of teenage rebellion; the uniforms were kind of cool, and the notion of marching and singing songs together sounded cool, too. Fritz entertained us with a rendition of what I now know as the Horst Wessel Lied'- even little boys were regularly drilled and had to sing as they marched, just like their big brothers.
There was more. Fritz told of American soldiers who had been present at the opening of Auschwitz Birkenau and the other Concentration Camps. These soldiers came into German Schools and showed the children home movies of what they found there. According to Fritz, the children jeered and laughed. After all, it was just a bunch of dirty Jews. He related jokes the children told each other, imitating Concentration Camp Guards, e.g. 'I haf a bookcover dat vas your father; vould you like to be a matching lampshade?'
I regret to say that we all laughed. Black humor was all the rage at the time, and besides we were of that strata of human development which is akin to monkeys tormenting a sick or injured animal. Or perhaps what had happened in Nazi Germany made us uncomfortable enough to want to treat it as a joke; it would be nice to think so.
But no. I know in my heart what my feelings were at the time. Laugh at the bully's jokes, be cool, be one of the gang because otherwise the group would brand you an outsider and turn on you. We were lucky, only. Lucky because in America at that time there was no Hitlerjungend to join, not even the KKK if you were in the North, nothing more right wing than the Boy Scouts, really. So I don't have to wake up every morning of my adult life with the knowledge of what I had been a part of, only the self disgust at the memory of laughing at Fritz's jokes.
Go on, Fritz, tell us again what is the difference between a pizza and a Jew.