US Jewish and German veterans make belated peace

Former enemies brought together on Europe-wide tour by Denver-based foundation which gives veterans opportunity to visit old battlegrounds.

Jew german handshake 88 (photo credit: )
Jew german handshake 88
(photo credit: )
Shep Waldman, a former officer in the US army and a Jew, knew exactly what he would do when he came face to face with the former enemy high up in Hitler's Eagle Nest, the Fuhrer's mountain retreat. Approaching Alois Wuerzer, a German Wehrmacht veteran equally burdened with age and bad war memories, Waldman let out a friendly greeting: "Comrade," he said. "Comrade," pondered Wuerzer, struggling with the English military term, a puzzled look on his face. Then his weary eyes lit up. "Kamerad," he repeated - which in German also means "friend." Weathered hands stretched out and one of the past century's bitterest divides was bridged with a hearty handshake. "Fortunately, we survived it all," said Wuerzer, 85, his ruddy cheeks shining as the two sized each other up this past Saturday amid the pristine peaks of the Bavarian Alps. The veterans were brought together on a Europe-wide tour by the Denver-based The Greatest Generations Foundation, which seeks to give veterans the opportunity to visit their old battlegrounds one last time. Arranging a meeting with German vets had always been a controversial part of the trip, as was moving deep into Germany - something that gave nightmares and chills to some of the 23 US and Canadian veterans in the group. Standing closeby at the Eagle's Nest, another Jewish American veteran could not bring himself to such reconciliation. "I was not going to get involved in that," said former Private First Class Cy Marmelstein, who had already taken a big emotional step by just entering Germany again for the first time since the war. It was near the end of the tour and feelings were starting to run ragged after two weeks of being guided around England, Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge area in Belgium and Luxembourg before heading toward Berchtesgaden in the extreme southeast of Germany. With the commemoration of D-Day, the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, coming closer, thousands of US veterans have fanned out over the European heartland seeking to recapture the excitement and horrors that indelibly marked their lives. For many, it turns into a last opportunity to deal with feelings that have long been buried. Marmelstein, in his eighties, has controlled his for most of his life. But being in Germany again and visiting Hitler's mountain redoubt brought up decades of pent-up anguish to the surface. "Peace with the people? It is hard," he whispered. "I know they are not from the same generation, but it is a hard thing," he said, explaining he had relatives who died in the Holocaust. Marmelstein's attitude largely stems from the events of April 13, 1945, when he walked into the camp of Buchenwald two days after it had been liberated by the US 3rd Army. Inside, soldiers found some 21,000 starving survivors and piles of corpses, some only partially burned in the ovens, as the Nazi SS and their helpers fled the camp. About 56,000 died in the camp, either from exhaustion, shot or killed in medical experiments. "Buchenwald was the primary scar," Marmelstein said. "You can see it on TV but once you were there with the smells, it is indescribable. It has always been with me. It is not in the forefront of my mind but it is there." At the start of his long European tour, the sight of German uniforms worn by actors participating in battlefield reenactments would send him into a fit of agitation. After the war, he picked up his life and started selling air conditioning in Florida before becoming a businessman in cultured marble. He now lives in Pembroke Pines retirement community in Florida. There would be one constant though. "Personally, I would never, and I haven't to my knowledge, purchased German goods." Waldman's contact with the Holocaust had not been that direct, although he knew about the persecution of Jews from even before the war. "For two years, the rabbi, it was all he spoke about. It didn't quite register at that moment. I could not visualize it," he said, remembering his teenage days in Denver. He volunteered in 1943, quit his job in a diamond shop and was sent to Europe. Near the end of the war he found himself in a Huertgen Forest village in street-to-street combat. Stepping around a corner, he suddenly stood face to face with a German soldier who was even more stunned. "I saw him, I had him, he was meat as far as I was concerned," Waldman, 83, remembered. "His eyes popped, and that poor kid was shivering and shaking. I said 'I can't kill him. No way I can kill a young man like that."' He told him to drop the gun and run. The German did. Even though he later had to kill a German in hand-to-hand combat behind enemy lines, which turned him into a killer at 19, the compassion never left him. It made it easier to make peace with himself later and slowly any sense of anger and enmity toward the Germans left him, even being Jewish. "I have gone through that," he said of coming to terms with the horrors of war and the Holocaust. "It took a long time, probably 20 years. Now, no more nightmares," he said. But it has not dulled his awareness of what Jews faced under Hitler. The Eagle's Nest, jutting out into the mountain air at 1,834 meters has been turned into a visitors' center with a restaurant, terraces and souvenir shop. Little reminds people of the dark past, when Hitler was plotting his war plans there or frolicking with Eva Braun and Blondi the dog. Admiring the sun on the stunning snowcapped mountain, his eye suddenly caught a picture showing construction work during the 1930s on the Eagle's Nest, with several men clearing rocks for a road. He pointed toward them and said "Looks like Jewish slave labor." On his last day, he went to a commemoration at Dachau concentration camp, and, even if he is not the most devout of believers, he did what his rabbi had asked him - read the Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead. "I am glad I went," he said. The handshake also left its mark in Kisslegg, Bavaria, where Wuezer, a former senior non-commissioned officer in the Wehrmacht's 205th Division, is enjoying retirement. "I was so totally surprised" by the handshake, Wuerzer said a week later. "They are good people. It is good for two enemies to talk to one another."