My maternal grandfather, Erich Hientzsch, was born in 1899 in a town called Düren, not far from Germany’s borders with the Netherlands and Belgium. A magistrate’s son, he studied agriculture and forestry and, having obtained a doctor’s degree in that field, in 1927 joined the Prussian ministry of agriculture. He spent the next couple of years working in various parts of what was then Prussia, including a number of areas that became Polish after WWII, such as the Stettin (Szczecin) area and Silesia, both of which he came to love particularly well. On a cruise to the Northern Cape, also in 1927, he met and soon thereafter married my grandmother, Ruth Hientzsch née Müller, nine years his junior, whose family owned a brewery and attendant real estate in the small Thuringian town of Bad Langensalza, not far from Erfurt.
Already a veteran of WWI, into which he had been drafted at age 17, my grandfather also participated in WWII; not out of any particular enthusiasm for Hitler’s regime or for the war itself, but chiefly because his sense of duty would never have permitted him to stand by while others – able-bodied or not – were drafted into service and sent to die for their country. My grandmother, meanwhile, took their three children back to her family’s home in Bad Langensalza, where they stayed until the end of the war.
Together with the army unit in which he was serving during the last months of the war, my grandfather was detained by the American forces in northern Italy, his pre-war position with the ministry of agriculture soon earning him a classification as a “magistrate” (“Rat,” or government employee) and, consequently, internment rather than “mere” prisoner of war status, with the prospect of rather lengthy so-called “denazification” proceedings hanging over his head, had he not been able to clear himself quickly and decisively of any suspicion of involvement with any barbarities committed by the Nazis, or of war crimes committed during his military service.
After the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany, my grandfather returned to government service, again with the (now: federal) ministry of agriculture. Having first spent a couple of years in Frankfurt, where my grandmother had joined him with their children, my grandparents lived out their lives in the Bonn area, where they moved in the 1950s due to my grandfather’s ministry position. Erich Hientzsch died in 1981, his wife Ruth followed him in 1996.
Reunited after WWII: Ruth and Erich Hientzsch in 1949, with Ruth’s twin sister Elsa (left, also in 1949), and with their children in 1951.
In 1975, my grandfather submitted contributions to two anthologies of poetry and short fiction, one a collection named Rosen für Eva-Maria (“Roses for Eva-Maria”) and the second simply entitled 3. Anthologie von Poesie und Prosa (“3rd Anthology of Poetry and Prose”). Though both texts are written in the third person, they are, in fact, largely autobiographical. An exchange with a friend concerning the aftermath of WWII prompted me to pick up again my grandfather’s writings, the first of which, I remembered, dealt with his experience as an American detainee, and his thoughts on Hitler’s regime and on totalitarianism in general.
Writing at the height of the Cold War, shortly after the publication of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” and at a time when some Eastern Europeans (and East Germans in particular) were desperate enough to risk their lives to overcome the Iron Curtain separating the two Germanies – as well as Eastern and Western Europe as a whole – my grandfather could not help but see a connection between the various forms of totalitarianism; be it of Nazi, Communist, or any other political color: not because he felt any need to justify the unjustifiable things that had happened in Germany and point his finger at others (“see, they’re doing it, too”), but rather, to express his dismay at any and all forms of cruelty visited on man by his fellow man, and to sound a cry for vigilance (“never again”). He concluded his recollections on the end of WWII, and on his own internment – which he had entitled “The Path to Freedom” (“Der Weg in die Freiheit”) – with observations occasioned by his stay in Dachau, the former Nazi concentration camp which the Americans had turned, inter alia, into a discharge camp for detainees scheduled to be released in the Munich area:
“In Dachau, prior to their release, the interned men were shown the notorious Nazi gas chambers; probably in order to do away with the notion that any part of the representation of these facts might have been exaggerated. This they were not; on the contrary, anybody visiting these places of mass extermination could only be horrified at the bestiality of man.
There is nothing to be excused here, neither in Germany nor in any other country. Anybody who has read Solzhenitsyn’s “GULag Archipelago” knows that cruel methods of extermination still exist in the world. That book is undeniable evidence of such methods and, at the same time, provides shining testimony as to its author’s courage. Solzhenitsyn elected freedom, but at the price of his yearning for his home country. In Germany, too, we still witness how, again and again, men risk their lives to flee from the land of bondage. The many voices who belittle conditions like those should consider that the path from indifference to thoughtlessness and, finally, to criminal negligence, is not far. But it is dangerous in the face of a determined and focused man who is only waiting to exploit a moment of incapacitation in order to strike, as quickly as lightning. Those who fail to grasp this should remember the demise of the Weimar Republic, where internal friction, strikes, inflation and unemployment worked together to make the seizure of power by the enemy within a mere child’s play. He put in place a job-creation program (highway construction), in order to quickly do away with unemployment. Strikes were simply outlawed. Jobs and food were back, but what was lost was freedom.”
It is this text in particular that I wanted to share in this part of my blog. The second text, entitled “Ride to Spyker” (“Ritt nach Spyker”) is of a completely different tone and nature; dealing with an episode from my grandfather’s pre-WWII agricultural employment and highlighting his wry sense of humor (the possible absence of which in the text’s English translation I would humbly beg the reader to blame entirely on the translator, not on the words as they were originally written), as well as his love of nature and, particularly, of the areas where he had spent some of the happiest years of his life; including and in particular the Baltic Coast.
I am indebted to my grandfather’s heirs – my mother, her sister and her brother – for their gracious consent in letting me translate and share my grandfather’s writings here. The original texts were published by Ellenberg Verlag, Cologne, Germany, in 1975.
Photos, from left to right:
Erich Hientzsch (right) and his younger siblings, ca. 1910 – Ruth and Erich Hientzsch, March 1981 – Ruth Müller (left) and her twin sister Elsa, in December 1911.