BY: JENNIE CHRISTENSEN
I can hear the faint sound of the old clock in the corner of this small kitchen. Tick tock tick tock tick tock. It’s a little sound that we’ve all heard before, but it makes this moment feel more momentous, as if it were preserving a moment within the tick tocks of time. My grandfather’s face is solemn but friendly. His skin is rough, but his eyes are soft and lively. I can tell that he is eager to talk about his experiences in Germany… he normally is. “Nonno,” I began, “Why did you join the army?” I want to know about his life, about his experiences, and about his past.
He replied without hesitation. “In 1942, when I was seventeen, I was worried that the Germans would invade Switzerland, so I applied to the US army to get me out of Switzerland.”
“It sounds like it was a way for you to escape?” I asked.
“Yes, it definitely was. Before I continue,” he said, “let me give you a brief history lesson.” My grandfather has always been great with remembering history and dates. He continued, “In 1938, Hitler invaded and took over Austria. In the same year, he invaded Czechoslovakia. And a year later, in 1939 on the 1st of September, he invaded Poland. England and France had previously made a treaty with Poland that if anyone made war with Poland, they would declare war with that country. In 1940, Hitler invaded France and, about the same year, he took over Denmark and Norway. I was in Switzerland, and I heard how in all of the countries Germany conquered they took all of the Jews and sent them to many, many concentration camps in Germany and Poland. What happened in the concentration camps we all know… they killed over six million Jews.”
My grandfather can tell you dates for everything to the month and, sometimes, the day. He remembers the date of everything from graduating primary school to visiting a new restaurant over twenty years ago. He can even tell you the date he got a great discount at the supermarket for low fat milk. The army taught my grandfather to take nothing for granted. He talks like an army man, too. He’s factual, to the point, and shows very little emotion. Everything is steady, like the clock ticking in the background.
“What was your assignment in the army?” I asked. I wanted to ask him more probing questions, but it was important for me to understand the background before diving in.
He replied smoothly and without hesitation, as if he had prepared a response. “I was at Nuremberg trial from 1945-1947. My assignment, for General Maxwell Taylor, the Commander of Nuremburg, was to translate the diary of General Halder. This man planned every invasion by the German army and trained the German army until 1942 when he broke up with Hitler.”
“You’ve told me before that you interrogated people too, is that right?”
“Yes, that is correct,” he replied. “My job before I went to Nuremberg was working in a camp with 10,000 German soldiers, and three of us interrogated 500 soldiers every day. If I found that they had nothing to do with crimes against humanity, then they would get a discharge. With the discharge paper, they could get a job and food.”
“Five hundred people… that’s so many…,” I thought. I imagined a line, 500 tired faces long, all waiting to be interrogated. Then, I thought of my grandfather, Charles Tatti. He and two other men had the authority to decide the fate over that many people. My mind was filled with questions.
“Was there anyone that stood out to you in particular? Or did you have any experiences during interrogation that were particularly emotional?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied swiftly. “There was one time when we were interrogating a very old German soldier. His name was Deschauer.”
He stopped here to spell the man’s name for me because, unlike my grandfather, I know no German.
“After lengthy interrogations,” Nonno continued, “Deschauer admitted that he was a member of the SS, one of the meanest units in the German army. He admitted to killing an average of three Jews every day and was rewarded with a pack of cigarettes for everyone he killed. He thought that he was a hero… because these people that he killed were enemies of his country, so therefore he was doing a great deed for his country. At this point, it was very, very emotional for me.”
My grandfather’s voice rose ever so slightly. For a man who keeps his conversation steady, this rise seemed to convey the emotion still locked within old memories.
“Deschauer.” He repeated the man’s name as though it were sour. “Every day he would admit to more atrocities. He would kill a man just for dropping a fork. Finally, he signed a confession and, after that, the three of us lost control of ourselves and we beat him up and broke one his bones. We were able to bring him back to complete health in six weeks then sent him back to Poland where he was wanted for war crimes.”
“You know, Jennie,” he said to me, “there are things that are so terrible, that they would get anyone excited. Our minds were just occupied by the immensity of his crimes.”
There was a pause after this, but I remained silent for a moment because I could tell that his mind was racing. His eyes were still steady, and his body was still, but yet, I could somehow sense that he was deep in thought.
Following the long pause, I asked quietly, “Did you ever see the concentration camps where these crimes were committed?
“I drove by… I have pictures…,” he said, “but I refused to go and see it. I was a young soldier, and I didn’t have the courage. I know there were thousands of skeletons and bodies.”
“What did the camps look like?” I asked.
“We just drove by ‘em. All you saw were fences and a huge piece of land with wooden or metallic barracks by the hundreds. They were about a hundred feet long and, at the gate of the concentration camp, they had a big sign in metallic letters that read ‘Work makes you free.’ ”
Nonno spent some more time describing those signs, and I could tell that they were an image that he will never forget. It’s been about sixty years since he saw them, yet he remembers every detail.
He continued, “The camps had ovens where they burnt thousands every day. When they took a population of Jews and brought them to the camps, they would separate the children from the mothers and the mothers from their husbands. The first thing they would do is tell the kids they were gonna get a ‘shower’ and… instead of water… they were all gassed to death.”
I imagined the screams… the sheer terror of the camps. I imagined the large metal signs, and the showers, and the children, as they were pulled apart from their mothers. I imagined the utter sadness, the complete devastation, in the child’s eyes as they said goodbye to their mothers, never to see them again. It amazed me how my grandfather was able to tell me these things in such a factual way, but I reminded myself that it is just the nature of his personality.
“I understand that you were scared to go inside,” I said, “but were you close to anyone who was forced into a concentration camp?”
Nonno thought for a moment, then replied, “Yes, yes I was. I became friend of the mayor of a very little village next to the prison camp. The village was Kappel. His name was Richard Hopf, and he was head of the Boy Scout movement in Czechoslovakia. Although he was a German, he refused to join the Nazi party and was put into a concentration camp at Buchenwald with his wife and mother. His wife and mother were killed in the camp, and he was tortured.”
“What did they do to him?” I asked timidly, meanwhile hoping that my curiosity wouldn’t appear disrespectful.
Nonno replied, as usual, calmly and swiftly. “When I became a friend of Richard’s, he was probably 40 years old, but he looked like he was 60 from the beatings. He dropped his knife one day in the cafeteria, and they hung him feet up in the cold over night as punishment. That man taught me a lot during the interrogations.”
I could tell that my grandfather had a deep respect for this man, a respect for all that he had endured to stay true to his morals. Although I hope to never be put in that sort of position, I hope that, if it ever does happen, I will make decisions as honorable as those of Richard Hopf. In refusing to kill others, his family was killed and he was tortured. Yet, even through these atrocities, he would not join the Nazi movement. He seems like the sort of man that makes you see the good in humanity and regain faith in the morality of humans.
Without prompting another question, my grandfather continued,
“The people in the towns told me and everybody else that they did not know what went down in the concentration camps. Which was a lie. Every day trains full of people would pull into the camps, and then all that was left were bodies.”
“Was it really emotional for you,” I asked, “to think about what was happening and be so close to the horrors?”
His response completely surprised me. “Honestly, no,” he said matter-of-factly. “For this reason: I was young. I had heard the stories… and I was so busy interrogating my share of the 500 from 8 am to 5 pm that, at the end of the day, I was so happy to go to bed that I did not let it get to me.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if this made him any different from the local townspeople who seemed unbothered by the concentration camps. My grandfather made those people seem like monsters for pretending to know about nothing, yet, he himself was only focused on his own day-to-day life at the time. It seems strange to me, to not have an intense emotional reaction to the pains that others are suffering. Then, however, I realized that I do the same thing. Genocides and other crimes against humanity are occurring all throughout the world, and while I would never support these atrocities, I am also doing nothing to stop them. Talking with my grandfather made me realize the selfishness of humanity. He is a great man and a wonderful grandfather. My conversations with him about how the locals reacted to the concentration camps and how he reacted revealed to me how unintentionally self-centered I am. It was an unexpected lesson, but, nevertheless, a powerful one.
I decided to ask one last question. “Nonno,” I said, “when you look back at those years in your life, how do you feel about them?”
“I think it was an extremely valuable time for me,” he responded. “I was appreciated for my work and had a very honorable job in the secret service. At times, it was scary. The Russians increased their number of soldiers, so there was the fear that they would invade the American zone, in which case officers and Army Intelligence such as myself would be the first people they would kill. But, I am very grateful that I learned a lot. The army gave me responsibility for which I knew nothing of before.”
“Thank you,” I said, truly grateful for everything he had shared with me. I learned valuable lessons and have a better understanding of the way humanity reacts to crimes against our neighbor. Witness texts are important because they are an attempt to open the eyes of the reader and take them outside the bounds of their self-centeredness. We don’t try to be self-centered, and we certainly don’t want to be selfish, but there is an undeniable lack of both sympathy and courage in our society. There is a lack of sympathy towards sufferers and a lack of courage to do anything to stop suffering.
As the clock continued to tick in the background, I realized that the things he taught me were possibly the greatest use of time imaginable. These lessons on morality will impact my own future decisions and how I view the world around me, and I am grateful that my grandfather was willing to share his past so openly.