©Photos by Oma Liz
MY NAME IS FRED
Most ordinary Americans can readily identify the distinctive national geographic region of born and bred Americans by that person’s dialect, accent, and application of idiomatic phrases. This facility of being able to pinpoint specific location and dialects is common to major language groups throughout the world. Unfortunately, many of those who are able to pinpoint the dialects often paint the speakers with the broad brush of individual and cultural prejudice; ascribing supposedly inborn characteristics as an integral part of a region’s inhabitants.
German, like English, is a major language group divided into two major divisions: Hochdeutsch or Plattdeutsch. Its dozens of dialects are spoken by more than 100,000,000 people throughout the world. To the untrained ear of non-Germans, the dialectical sounds, which range from musical to guttural, are amusing, to say the least . Comedians exploit this perception and utter insultingly satiric, coarse guttural sounds when satirizing German oral language. As a result, many people believe all Germanic speakers sound like uneducated boors. It just isn’t so.
Modern High German, spoken in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, is officially referred to as Written German. It is used in administration, higher education, literature, and the mass media throughout world German speech areas. This happenstance of a universal German written language means people like myself, though unable to communicate in regional dialects are able to read German from places around the globe.
Which brings me directly to my personal connections to Martin Luther , the 1930’s Lutheran Bishop of Camden (NJ), the Lutheran Bishop of the LCA NJ Synod in 1983 … and Fred.
“Hello and welcome. My name is Fred.”
My husband and I had moved our family to the Mount Holly, NJ area to work and live in the NJ Audubon Society’sRancocasNatureCenter, located north of the church, directly across the creek.
Thus, back in the early 80’s, Fred and I met on my first visit to what would become my new church. I recognized the thick German accent as a form of Plattdeutsch, an entirely different dialect from the musical tones of my birthplace in Vienna, Austria, nodded my head, said “Liz Anderson, thank you.” then escaped into the sanctuary to sit down. In those days I was prejudiced about regional speakers and their so-call “inborn characteristics”.
It was not a propitious beginning.
For nearly a year after that, our mutual stress escalated due to individuality, a diversity of outlooks and personal prejudices. The stress was further heightened by inexplicable actions on both our parts.
Then the relationship spiraled downward when I found out that not only did Fred work as an engineer for Exxon, then considered the conservationists’ worst enemy. But — shock of shocks — he also served as an enthusiastically active soldier in the German army during WWII, eventually to become an Allied prisoner of war. In addition, his view of the environmental community and its aggressive stance on protecting this Earth, was, to put it mildly, dim. We agreed to disagree by not discussing the matter.
He also believed quite firmly that his logical thinking was the best tool we could use when solving the problems that faced us in the church community. On the other hand, I considered that my passion about any given subject close to my heart was a much better pathway to a solution.
Fred had no idea that I had been born in Vienna.
So he and I became became mutually suspicious co-workers at St. Paul’s while sitting on the church council together and committees together.,
Working together in concert as a team eventually led us to become appreciative and reciprocally respectful friends. Within a year the differences evaporated as our shared a love of God and church community, enabled us to make numerous discoveries about each other’s abilities in matter of talents and faith. It was not an easy road, and we needed a great deal of help from our Higher Power; not that we thought we needed help, mind you.
An extremely patient God sheltered us in His cupped hands. Long before we, ourselves, admitted that we were both uniquely stubborn individuals, God, as we sheepishly determined at a later time, took over. The Lord has a way of unexpectedly refusing to do what we tell Him to do. All too often He tosses unpredictable twists of life at us.
My firm personal opinion and explanation is that the “Ho! Ho! Ho!” we hear from on high “ain’t the Jolly Green Giant.”
The first breakthrough came one Sunday morning when Pastor Mangiante was on vacation and Fred spoke the guest sermon. I grumbled to myself and wondered, “What could someone ‘like that’ possibly talk about; being a prisoner of war and ‘all that’?
Well, he talked about “being a prisoner of war and all that!” Plattdeutsch accent and all.
As he led us through the troubled path of his younger days when he “knew everything except faith and joined the Nazi party”; eventually becoming an anti-aircraft gunner, the tears came welling up in his eyes.
The congregation was stunned.
Eventually he was captured and sent to POW camp in Canada. “I had attitude. I hated everyone.” he said.
After a few months, much to his surprise, he and one of guards at the camp, a Canadian soldier with a wooden leg, became fast friends. It was a friendship that would last until death.
After hours, they would sit and talk. At that point, both were professed Christians. Fred was fascinated by his friend’s attitude of forgiveness and the man’s lack of hatred. At that time, it was a concept he not yet learned.
Fred was blessed: it was to take me twenty more years before I was finally able to reach that turning point and gladly accept forgiving others as directed by God and His Son.
During their talks, Fred’s attitude began to thaw. One night, he asked his now good friend when and how the leg had been lost. The Canadian had been a tail gunner on a Flying Fortress that was flying a bombing mission over Stuttgart one evening. His plane was shot down by anti aircraft fire and the now badly wounded Canadian was captured. Within two months his injuries were such that he was part of a wounded prisoner exchange. The leg could not be saved and was amputated.
Then he told Fred the date.
Fred looked fully at all of us who were sitting in the sanctuary, enthralled and at the edge of our seats, awaiting the outcome of this tale. After an agonizing moment, he began to shake a bit and the tears rolled down this stricken face. “I looked at my friend and my hatred evaporated.” Then, overcome with the emotion of that past event, he cried out at us , ‘My God!’ I screamed at him. ‘I was on the guns that night! My God! I was shooting at those planes!’”
“We two men fell into each other’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Finally, after many minutes, but still holding each other, we looked into each other’s eyes and began brokenly reciting The Lord’s Prayer together.
“After that, still tearful, and still holding tightly to on another, we spontaneously said in unison, “We could have killed each other. We could have killed each other.”
“We talked with each other and not at each other and made our peace. It was the turning point of my life. Praise Him!
“When we eventually bid each good night in the early hours of the morning, we again spoke spontaneously in unison, “Philippians 4:7.(And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.)
We in the congregation sat in stunned silence. I don’t much remember the rest of the service.
As we filed out at the end, it was still and silent. Somberly, tearful people shook Fred’s hand, or hugged him, or patted his shoulder. Then they left in silence.
Then it was my turn. Tears running down my cheeks and body shaking, I faced Fred and shook his hand.
“I was born in Vienna, Austria, Fred, “ I whispered brokenly. “Jewish and a Holocaust Survivor.”
Fred’s jaw dropped.
“We could have killed each other, Fred.”
Fred’s body froze and he gaped at me, tears running down his face, as the enormity of the situation washed over both of us.
And so the two of us stood in the narthex, crying healing tears and holding on to each other, repeating over and over, “We could have killed each other.”
God is the master of using unexpected twists to guide us in our lives. I used to wish He wasn’t so dramatic, but I finally learned to trust him and then accept the fact that He was dealing with an exceptionally stubborn and rebellious person like myself, I could only say: Praise God!