09 March 2015

My Encounter With an SS Officer

It was my last day in Berlin, a brisk November afternoon just less than 10 months before the Germans invaded Poland. I’d been in Berlin for two weeks to file some stories for my newspaper, but also out of curiosity. I wanted to see if this Nazi regime was as awful as some said or as benign as others said. I’d seen and heard enough to be pretty confident that the Nazis were quite bad indeed. I wasn’t convinced that war was imminent but I felt certain that ominous things were happening in the country and that they meant to export their twisted philosophy one way or another.

Just the atmosphere in Germany was quite unsettling to me. It was clean and efficient and under control but the rich cultural life I’d experienced in my first visit to the country ten years earlier had vanished. People did not seem unhappy but their was something robotic or resigned about them. There were too the many signs — literal and figurative — that life for Jews was intolerable. I recall feeling quite relieved that I was leaving and was looking forward to a few day in Paris before returning to the States.

I’d been wandering around Berlin for awhile that day as I had time to kill before my train left. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was and didn’t fancy getting lost. For one thing I didn’t want to miss my train but also I was uncomfortable enough in Berlin as it was without finding myself in parts of the city unknown.

I had just stopped at an intersection to try to sort matters out when I noticed that there was an SS officer coming out of a cafe. He must have noticed that I had a perplexed look. I’ve always had a very bad poker face, there’s never been any disguising how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking. In any event, he took a few steps toward me and asked if I was indeed lost. I spoke sufficient German to tell him that I wasn’t sure the way back to my hotel. He detected my accent and asked where I was from. I read nothing but curiosity in his question, even as I think back on it now all these years later. I told him I was an American and he said that he had a cousin living in Cincinnati who quite liked the country. I told him that I’d been in that city before and the area itself was very nice.

He asked about my visit and I told him. We chatted amiably for perhaps ten minutes. The SS officer couldn’t have been more polite or charming. He seemed to be what we used to call a gentleman. He was several inches over six feet tall, trim and -- not surprisingly -- blonde. While talking to him I momentarily forgot what his uniform stood for, what his leaders and peers had been doing and might be preparing to do. Finally I felt bold and — ever the reporter — asked him about his government’s treatment of its Jewish citizens. The SS Officer smiled politely and nodded as if my question were to be expected. He said (and here I offer my translation of his remarks in quotes because I’ve always remembered it well): “the Jews are treated in accordance with their needs and responsibilities and the manner in which they conduct business. Their is nothing done to or for them that is not just.” His answer seemed at once patronizing, polite and rehearsed. It was also bereft of meaning. But there was also in it the understanding that further pursuit of the topic on my part would be fruitless.

The SS Officer then told me he had responsibilities to attend to and asked if I was sure I could get back to my hotel. I assured him that I could and thanked him for his kindness.

I thought about that encounter a lot in the years since though for some reason I left it out of any future articles I wrote about my trip in particular or the Nazis in general. Of course I often wondered what happened to the SS Officer. Was he killed? Was he executed for war crimes? Did he serve Hitler throughout the war and survive then go on to a “normal life” and help rebuild Germany? I think, of course, that he was brainwashed. All those SS were in my opinion. Had the Nazis not come along he might have been a decent chap contributing to his country in any number of positive ways.

During and after the war I was much sought after for my opinion on various issues relating to Hitler and his gang of thugs. I was always willing to offer my thoughts, but truthfully I was just as bewildered as everyone else. It was a scope of evil that was not easily comprehended. When the horrors of the Holocaust came to light I had trouble sleeping. The images from the campus haunted my dreams and woke me up. And I couldn't help but think: did the SS Officer I spoke to participate in this barbarity? If he was stationed at a camp then surely he did.

Sometimes at a particular time of year or time of day or when the weather is just so, my mind will go back to that encounter with the SS Officer and the memory will be as clear as though it took place yesterday. And I often think, he seemed such a nice man.

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