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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Some thoughts on my father's birthday

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

I love this picture of my father, who would have turned 98 today. He’s having a moment with Shawnee, the horse he brought into the family back in the 1970s, when some of my siblings were in their teens. I was already living on my own by then but must have been home for a visit when I snapped this photo that I think captures something of Dad’s essence, a tenderness that circumstance did not often permit him to express or reveal.

Our relationship was complex and often difficult, especially during my youth. The early days in Canada were stressful for both my parents, and that stress often manifested in anger and recrimination. The life that Dad had chosen (the decision to emigrate to Canada was certainly his, not my mother’s) was challenging. He worked at a full-time job, then came home and spent another five or six hours on the ongoing renovations to the decrepit house they had purchased in 1955. As a German in the land of his recent enemies, I’m sure he endured some ostracization and pejorative comments as well. Our extended family was in Germany, and the social safety net back then was not what it is now. There was a lot of pressure.

Add to that his personal landscape of trauma. As a child in 1920s Germany his upbringing, though loving, was nonetheless very strict. Corporal punishment, at home and in school, was the order of the day. Then, in 1933, just after his twelfth birthday, the Nazis swept into power. Dad’s parents were, if not supporters, certainly not opponents of Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party, and so the regime change brought no immediate injury or hardship for Dad, as it did for those on the Nazis’ list of enemies. The lasting impact, I believe, was the insidious poisoning of his worldview and belief-system resulting from total immersion in Nazi doctrine during this formative period in his life. At home, at school and through his engagement with the Hitler Youth, the Nazis’ ideology was woven into his impressionable young consciousness to the degree that it could never be completely unraveled.

Then came the war. Off he went, at 20 years of age, to fight for the glory of the fatherland in Africa under the storied Erwin Rommel. There, as a machine-gunner in a Panzer division, he saw a lot of death, including that of a close friend, and several times came close to dying himself. He prided himself on being tough and resilient, but no one is immune to the emotional mutilation inflicted by the horrors of war. There were scars.

He was taken prisoner by Commonwealth forces at El Alamein in July of 1942, marking the beginning of a four-and-a-half-year journey around the world as a POW, punctuated by several short-lived escapes. His treatment during his internment, most of which was spent in American POW camps, was generally good and he was physically well cared-for and never mistreated. Boredom, homesickness and lack of female company were the lower-order demons he and his fellow prisoners faced and contended with in their various ways.

On the face of it, he coped fairly well with his captivity, but I believe it was during those years that an inner tension began growing in his psyche. The narrative he had absorbed and held fast to, the utopian picture of the New Germany that had been so skilfully implanted in his being by the Nazis’ machinery of indoctrination, was now being threatened by information that hinted at a different version of reality. The re-education and denazification programs that his American warders instituted in the camps unveiled the dark side of the Nazi vision. It presented a challenge for Dad, something akin to a crisis of faith, and marked the beginning of a compartmentalization that carried on throughout his life.

He could never let go of his belief that Hitler had been a true reformer, a savior for the German nation, a visionary who had created a new order that his enemies then conspired to tear down. I don’t think he could ever bring himself to accept the fact of the Holocaust. In his mind, Germans could never commit such a crime, therefore it must be a hoax, cooked up to discredit Hitler and his dangerous socialist ideas. He wisely kept such thoughts to himself, except for occasional conversations with family and close friends. He and I had many arguments on this topic, which inevitably left me frustrated and disappointed.

This layer of my father’s identity could not countenance a challenge to his memories of the Germany that had been his experience during the 1930s. Over the years, as the consensus that contradicted his version of history coalesced, I’m sure there was a part of him that sensed the truth and recognized the evil inherent in the Nazi story, but he couldn’t bear to have his rosy picture desecrated by the reality of the Nazis’ crimes. It gave him comfort to maintain the mythology he had forged, and he never found the will to destroy it by seeking out the truth. It was harmless enough, I suppose, and he was basically a good man, and lived a good life.

I’ve often wondered if, had I been in his situation, I would have done anything differently. I would like to believe so, but with nothing to inform my awareness except enthusiastic approval of Hitler and his program on all sides, with my parents, teachers and the media all echoing the patriotic fervor and optimism the Nazis represented for so many ethnic Germans, it’s highly doubtful that I could have accessed any kind of alternative perspective. I, too, would have been part of the delirious throngs of young people raising their arms in the "Hitler greeting," singing the praises of their Führer. And there, to me, lies the essence of forgiveness. When we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and understand how their outlook and values have been shaped by their experience, we may feel less entitled to pass judgement.

Which brings me back to a picture of my father kissing a horse—a photograph to remind me that, at his core, he was a kind and compassionate soul. Perhaps this is true for all of us. We come into the world wide open and bursting with love, awaiting our destiny. Then, as we roll through the years, the inevitable trauma—sometimes subtle, sometimes brutal—teaches us about walls and defenses. For most of us, the pain is mitigated by the love bestowed upon us by our families and communities, enabling us to live and grow and love and perhaps even influence change for the better in our troubled world. Others get caught in a vicious circle of trauma cycling through generations, and healing comes slowly.

The trauma my father experienced—his Nazi indoctrination, his wartime experiences and his long imprisonment—left him with emotional scars, to be sure, and this meant that he was not always easy to live with. But his love invariably found expression and was never in doubt for me and my siblings. He lived for his family and, together with our mother, built a good and secure life for us here in his adopted land, and for that I am grateful.

Happy Birthday Dad, wherever you may be.

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Nov 09, 2019

Nice. Thanks Karl


Mar 05, 2019

Yes, me as well, Jürgen.


Jürgen Körber
Jürgen Körber
Mar 05, 2019

Ich freue mich schon auf den Tag, an dem wir wieder zusammen sitzen werden und über all diese Dinge reden können!

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