"Grass," Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1867)
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work–
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
Carl Sandburg was almost right. But 20 years after the Second World War, the grass had not quite finished with Germany.
In 1966, Berchtesgaden, though a picturesque alpine village in Bavaria, was a classic case of dissociative personality disorder.
Disney studios could have designed the charming chalets, with their overhanging eaves and women who wore their blond hair in braids atop their heads. The men wore feathers in their felt hats and dressed in lederhosen with wool knee socks and thick-soled shoes.
Americans invaded Berchtesgaden in 1945 without firing a shot, so two decades later the villagers showed little animosity to uniformed Yanks.
Still, interactions were awkward because of an unavoidable truth: every Berchtesgaden resident over 40 was an ex-Nazi.
“One had to be a National Socialist in order to live and work here,” a round-faced German waiter told me with a shrug. “It didn’t mean anything.”
But it was a hard to ignore. Adolf Hitler was a virtual resident of the village after he took possession of the Kehlsteinhaus, a mountaintop mansion built for his 50th birthday in 1939 by his aide Martin Borman. The building atop the Obersalzberg was soon dubbed the Eagle’s Nest.
When I visited Berchtesgaden in April 1966 for a U.S. armed forces religious retreat, unscathed reminders of the Nazi past dominated the village. Elegant stone barracks for SS Officers were converted to luxurious billets for U.S. military visitors. Each building still bore a bas-relief carving of the SS eagle, but where the fierce talons had once grasped a rigid swastika, the Nazi emblem had been chipped away and replaced with the letters, “USA.”
I don’t know who first thought of converting this enclave of Nazism into a religious retreat center for U.S. armed forces families. Whoever it was had a fine sense of irony or perhaps just a great sense of humor, which describes none of the generals I knew.
Each spring and summer, various church denominations held weeklong hymn-sings in buildings that once resounded with the Horst Wessel song. The Baptist retreat (mostly Southern Baptist – the more liberal American Baptists were regarded with paranoid suspicion) was held each April when the snows began to melt and the Berchtesgaden valley turned luscious and green again.
I traveled to Berchtesgaden as the assistant of an Air Force chaplain, who checked into the officers’ side of the General Walker Hotel, a former SS barrack renamed for General Walton Walker who had been killed in Korea. The chaplain’s room was spacious and exquisitely appointed. My room, on the enlisted side of the quad, had six rows of bunk beds and 11 occupants.
My roommates seemed like nice guys, but when they stuffed copies of “The Four Spiritual Laws” in my pillow and invited me to a workshop on Christian witnessing, I decided I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time in my room – or in religious services, either. I stepped outside and lit a cigarette.
I took a long drag off my Pall Mall and watched people – Germans and Americans – as they mingled in the courtyard. A young man about my age, dressed in light green jacket and khaki jeans, sidled up.
“Army?” he asked. The branch of service in which one served was much like a nationality and etiquette required one to declare it before revealing anything else.
“No,” I said. “Air Force.”
“Cigarette?” It was a request. I handed him the crinkly red pack.
“Thanks.” He quickly lit up and loudly inhaled.
“I’m Harry,” he said. “Army. Chaplain’s assistant.”
“Yeah?” I said. “Me, too.”
“Your boss here?”
“Mine, too. What a drag.”
Harry had a crew cut and horned rimmed glasses and I remember thinking he was pretty goofy looking. On reflection, most passersby probably thought we were twins.
We smoked in silence for a minute, carefully striking macho poses before we crushed the butts under our shoes.
“Thanks for the fag,” Harry said. In 1966, a fag was a cigarette, at least in sections of Europe influenced by the British culture of the Mersey Beat.
“You’re welcome,” I said. We looked around and casually studied our surroundings while we evaluated whether we could stand to be with each other for any period of time. “Yeah,” I repeated. “Any time.”
“Know what I want to do?” Harry asked suddenly. “I want to climb up – there – and see what’s what.” He pointed to the top of Obersalzberg, to an expansive gray house barely visible in the distance.
“That’s the Eagle’s Nest,” Harry said. “Effing Hitler’s place.”
“Yeah,” I said. Of course I had heard of it. It was the main thing I wanted to see in Berchtesgaden.
“That’s where he declared World War II.”
“Yeah,” I said. I knew that wasn’t exactly true.
“Maybe he’s still there. No one has seen him.”
I felt a surge of excitement. When you’re 20, you tend to believe anything another 20-year-old tells you and this was too good to ignore.
“Want to see?” Harry asked?
“Hell, yeah.” At that point, the spring sun was quickly setting behind the hills so we agreed to meet back at the same place after morning chow.
The next day Harry and I loaded up on an enormous breakfast of hotcakes, eggs, fried potatoes, and sausage, followed by several cups of coffee and a couple cigarettes. It’s frightening what you can do to your body when you’re 20.
It did look like a long hike. The Eagle’s Nest is 6,017 feet above sea level. You can climb straight up if you’re young and energetic, or you can walk up the 3.9-mile road that was built for Hitler’s staff cars. The road climbs 2,300 feet through five tunnels and one hairpin curve.
Harry and I chose to walk straight up the mountain, at least until we pooped out and had to take the road. We walked through thick forests of evergreen trees that reminded me of the Adirondacks at home.
“Is this the Black Forest?” Harry asked.
“I dunno. Where’s the Black Forest?”
Harry lit a cigarette and thought carefully. “This is the Black Forest,” he announced confidently.
“Yeah,” I said. Actually, the Black Forest is in Southwest Germany, in Baden-Wurttemburg. But I enjoyed thinking I was in the Black Forest, and used to tell people I had been there.
We climbed for about an hour until we came across the rusted hull of an old military tank. I don’t know what kind of tank or if it was German or American. Sturdy trees, that would have limited its maneuverability, surrounded it. Perhaps the Germans had placed it there as part of a defensive perimeter around the Eagle’s Nest.
“This is where Patton came,” Harry said authoritatively. “This is one of his tanks.”
“Right,” I said. We examined the tank carefully and climbed on it until our pants were reddened with rust. There was no insignia that we could see, so I decided it was one of Patton’s. Why Patton would have left it here in the woods was a mystery, but not one I worried much about. Everything generals do is a mystery.
We climbed several more yards until we reached the road that winds to the Eagle’s Nest and decided to follow it to the top. It started snowing heavily and Harry and I wished we had worn heavier jackets. The snow accumulated around our feet, but as we followed the road out of the trees we could see the village of Berchtesgaden below us, bathed in sunlight and greenness and spring flowers.
“Shit,” Harry said, awed.
“Yeah, Shit,” I said. It was a poetic moment.
It was close to noon by the time we reached the base of the Eagle’s Nest. The house itself was still 406 feet above us, but we found the entrance to a long tunnel that led to the elevator that went up to the house. The wind blew icy snowflakes against our cheeks as we paused to evaluate our accomplishment. We looked around. The place was deserted.
“I kind of figured there’d be a caretaker or something,” I said. In later years, the Eagle’s Nest would become a popular tourist site. But in the early spring of 1966, it appeared abandoned.
Harry shrugged. “Go in?” he asked, gesturing to the darkness in the tunnel.
“Can’t come this far for nothing,” I said.
We shuffled into the tunnel and waited until our eyes got used to the dark. We walked slowly until we got to an elevator, which was unexpectedly modern with a polished brass door and button. Harry grinned mischievously and pointed his finger at the button.
“Me or thee?” he asked.
Decisively, I reached out and pushed it. Nothing happened. I pushed it again. Then Harry pushed it. We thought we could hear the hum of gears and pulleys, but it might have been the sound of air in the tunnel.
“Hel-looo?” Harry sang. “How do you say that in German?”
“Auf wederschoen?” I sang. I pushed the button again.
“Maybe there’s another …” Harry started to say, but a gigantic figure suddenly appeared in the darkness behind us.
“Nicht, nicht, nicht!” the figure growled.
Harry and I jumped, but we did not cry out. The apparition was only a man, but a big man, just under six-feet-tall, and dressed in a green Bavarian hat and leather lederhosen.
Harry and I wheezed in the man’s face and tried to charm him with toothy grins.
“Guten tag,” I ventured, but the man’s face was turning red. He put his left hand on the elevator button and repeated his admonition. “Nicht! Nicht! Nicht.” With his right hand he shook his finger in our faces.
I smiled as broadly as I could, remembering how Davy Crockett grinned a b’ar out of a tree. Harry was also smiling stupidly and nodding his head, mumbling, “ja, ja, ja …” We turned and retreated quickly from the tunnel.
It had stopped snowing when we got outside and we stopped to listen to the alarming thumping of our hearts. The slush on the ground stuck to our shoes and made it difficult to retain our balance. Harry started to lose his footing and I grabbed his arm. We steadied ourselves against the tunnel entrance. I reached into my jacket pocket for a package of Pall Malls and started to offer one to Harry, but he was staring at something behind me.
It was a little old man, dressed in an old gray military coat. The coat was frayed but the man’s boots were recently polished. He had a scarf wrapped around his face, and his gray eyes were rheumy and showed little interest in the two young Americans in front of him.
“Guten tag,” I said. I held the cigarette pack out to him, but the old man only looked at me suspiciously. All three of us had been surprised by the encounter so we stared at each other for several seconds before Harry turned away.
We headed down the mountain. We got as far as the place in the road where we could view the sunlit village below.
“Long way down,” Harry said.
“We’re going to miss chow.”
“Damn. Let’s step it up then.”
“Can’t,” Harry said. I sprained my back. I’ll never make it.”
“C’mon,” I said. “When you walk up a mountain, you gotta walk down the same distance so your muscles will readjust.” I have no idea where I heard that.
As we caught our breath we could hear a vehicle on the road above us. Harry smiled.
“If it’s not that big joker in the short pants, let’s hitch a ride,” he said.
“We don’t know where he’s going.”
“He’s going down hill,” Harry said. “That’s all we need.”
In less than a minute the vehicle appeared above us and Harry and I stuck our thumbs out. It was a red truck, pre-war vintage, with a large red wooden cabin affixed to the chassis. The cabin had elaborate designs and carvings on it and I knew it was a gypsy wagon. When the driver saw us he slammed on the breaks and the truck fishtailed alarmingly in the slush before it came to a halt. The driver, a middle-aged man with graying chin stubble and a large black moustache, leaned out.
“Americans?” he said.
“Can you give us a lift?” I asked.
“Ja, Ja. General Walker hotel?”
Harry and I smiled. “Yes, Sir.”
“Ten marks,” the driver said.
All I had in my pockets were a few wrinkled British pounds but Harry had the German currency. He handed a wad of bills to the driver who pointed to the door on the side of the cabin. We jumped in.
Inside, several people were sitting on wooden benches that had been built into each side of the cabin. Two women, one about 50, the other younger, looked at us without much interest. An old man nodded to us. Under the bench, two small children with huge black eyes stared curiously at us.
“Hi, I …” I started to introduce us when the truck lurched into gear and we were thrown off balance. Harry and I both went down, but the unfortunate Harry had inadvertently grabbed the breast of the younger woman, who started hitting him with a small cloth bag. The old man started laughing and I seized one of the bench posts to keep from sliding out the truck. We could hear slush slapping the undercarriage as the truck picked up speed. I could feel it sliding from one side of the road to the other. When we got to the hairpin turn, I am sure the truck was riding on two wheels, and when it straightened out again it lurched sickeningly from left to right.
“This is how I die,” I told myself calmly. I thought of my poor mother. Every other gold star mother in 1965 got a nice letter from President Johnson, “Dear Mrs. Jones, I want you to know your son died a hero in the service of his country and you can be very proud.” I wondered who would write the letter to my mom: “Dear Mrs. Jenks, your son died in a wagon full of gypsies after he tried to break into Hitler’s house.”
But soon the truck stopped, inexplicably but safely, in front of the General Walker hotel. Shaking, Harry and I got out. We started to thank the driver, but he had already skidded away. We watched thoughtfully until the truck disappeared behind some brightly painted chalets. I offered Harry a cigarette.
“That was interesting,” I said.
“Interesting!” Harry replied. “Are you kidding? That was effing amazing.”
“I know, I thought we were goners.”
“What – the truck? Naw, man. The old guy at the top of the mountain!”
I had assumed he was an old German veteran living out his last days. “What about him?”
Harry took a drag from his cigarette and looked around to make sure we were alone.
“Didn’t you recognize him?” Harry asked. “That was effing HITler. No shit. Adolf effing HITler himself.”
I stared at Harry, who was leaning back and forth in a self-congratulatory dance. I decided it would be pointless to comment.
I didn’t see Harry for the rest of the week. In fact, I never saw him again. I never did know his last name, so it would be impossible to trace him in the Internet. And even if I did find him, I couldn’t be sure he would remember me. And if I do find Harry, who knows? Perhaps he’s now governor of a red state.
Harry, if he managed to avoid Vietnam or other hazards of the intervening decades, probably spent the next fifty years telling people Hitler survived the war. My own recollections of that day are more modest. I survived an icy roller coaster ride down the Obersalzberg with gypsies after trying to break into Hitler’s house. And thank God my mother never knew it.