In the spring of 1943, three high school classmates and I became part of a work crew that, after air raids, tore down ruined buildings and cleaned the rubble from damaged structures. The members of the crew, Jewish husbands and sons of mixed marriages, came from all walks of life—a truly motley crew. They gave me an early course in human nature. Some of them I remember vividly.
Georg, a chemist, told me about his work at one of Germany’s major industrial plants. He also explained the vulgar words and expressions that were being bandied about. That stood me in good stead later on when I worked in a refrigerator factory in St. Paul, Minnesota. There, some fellows tried to trick me into using four-letter words, but without success. These words are of Anglo-Saxon origin and are very similar in German!
Arthur, tall and reserved, was a railroad engineer and had a major part in the electrification of the German railroads. I was already a railroad buff and asked him many questions about locomotives, trains, signals, and roadbed construction. I truly enjoyed working next to him.
Albert, who had been in the furniture business, was a rumormonger. Most mornings he went around asking, “Have you heard this? Did you know about that?” Nobody took him seriously. He also liked to regale everyone with silly, mildly off-color little rhymes.
Ludwig had been in the building trade. He was a perfectionist; everything had to be just so. When, for example, we had to clear rubble from a hallway, he spent extra time sweeping each corner and even tried to get the dust off the walls. During the night, bombs falling nearby again damaged the building, undoing all of Ludwig’s efforts.
Karl, who had owned a major clothing store, had a truly remarkable skill. He could stand for hours next to a heap of rubble, looking very busy but actually not doing a thing. However, he never did this at the expense of fellow workers; when working in a group, he always carried his weight.
Kurt, a salesman, liked to ask personal questions. When, for example, some men mentioned that their wives and children spent each night and frequently some daylight hours in a public air-raid shelter, he inquired in a loud voice when they had the opportunity for marital relations!
Edmund, a barely literate laborer who often had big holes in the heels of his socks, tried unsuccessfully to sidle up to the supervisor. He claimed that others interfered with his work, preventing him from doing his best. He was not popular. He, like most of us, took home wood from broken beams, doors, or window frames, since firewood and coal were scarce. One day, some of us removed part of the wood from his rucksack, replacing it with bricks. He did not notice the switch until he reached home. Occasionally when no one was looking, we made firewood out of salvaged, completely sound crossbeams. This was not without risk; had we been caught, we could have been accused of sabotage.
Konrad, a businessman, had just one goal—not to be recognized as a Jew away from work. Since his daughter had not been raised Jewish, he did not have to wear the yellow star. He left home in the morning wearing coat, tie, and hat, and changed to appropriate clothing at the worksite. At night, he changed back to business attire. Some of us wanted to pay him a visit with our stars prominently displayed, but of course we never did.
Robert had been a driver for a linen rental company. He is best characterized by a brief dialogue I had with my friend and former classmate, Gert, when we were reminiscing about our time with the gang:
Fritz: “And then there was Robert.”
Gert: “Yes, he was in the linen business.”
Fritz: “But he only handled dirty linen.”
Gert: “And even that, only on a rental basis.”
Oskar, whose previous job I do not recall, somehow was put in charge of the tools. He took this job seriously, very seriously. Each time we changed locations, he found a room with a door that could be locked and appropriated it as a toolshed. Night after night, after many of the gang had already left, he cleaned, counted, and put in its place each shovel, pickax, crowbar, and hammer. He then carefully locked the door and went home with an air of accomplishment. One night he went through his usual routine of cleaning, counting, and putting the tools in place and was ready to lock up. But there was no door. Someone had taken it off its hinges and hidden it! I still can hear Oskar’s howl of outrage. The gang members who were still around, including me, almost injured ourselves laughing.
Joseph, a journalist from Vienna, told me about his hometown and about Austria. He made me aware of the differences between the Austrian and German languages and cultures, and he always had a funny little story to share.
Aside from my former classmates, I lost all contact with the members of the gang after the war, but I hope they all did well. Each of them taught me something, and for that I am grateful.
©2003, Fritz Gluckstein. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.