Why you should care
Because a glimpse into the head of a man who made a real part of history could be more instructive than half a dozen World War II flicks.
My love affair with Germany is both deep and abiding. My father, who was an Air Force intelligence officer there during the Cold War, speaks German, and although he and I are long estranged, his time there informed my time there.
You see, in the 1950s he toured Germany as a bass player in a jazz trio, preferably at clubs close to military bases, as it was widely assumed that three African-American musicians would not be able to speak German. (Though they did.) As intelligence officers, they reported back on whatever they heard — otherwise, they lived as touring musicians. Which, some 40 years later, is how I came to know Germany: by touring with my band Oxbow.
From Berlin to Hannover, Hamburg to Munich, Oxbow regularly crisscrossed Germany from the late 1990s through last February, when I performed in Berlin with a side project called Sal Mineo. Through it all, I learned enough German, James Bond-style, to order drinks and fraternize with friends and natives, film a Viva TV show called The Eugene Robinson Show and record for German music labels. And my understanding of the country — and, yes, its past — was pretty nuanced.
But in 2000, a friend of mine, Michael Krell, invited me to his wedding at a scenic island about 20 minutes from the city Zentrum. While Michael told me his father would be picking me up from my hotel, he semi-warned, “My family history is a bit … interesting.” Indeed. His father, who had been nine years old when Hitler came to power, was 17 when he had been drafted into the army. While Michael didn’t think his father had ever been an actual member of the party, the man had been a true believer. Marched back from the Eastern Front in the winter of 1943-1944. On foot. All the way. “But you and he will probably have a lot to talk about,” Michael said.
Booted and suited and waiting in the hotel lobby, I met Michael’s father, Werner Krell — a fairly fit, 80-something-year-old who stood about 6’1”. We walked to his car, where he asked, “Would you mind terribly sitting in the back? The front seat is, as you can see, full of wedding things.”
“I don’t mind at all,” I said. “If you don’t mind feeling like a chauffeur.”
He laughed. “Not at all.”
And off we went in his full-sized German luxury automobile. Our desultory chat touched on the weather and wedding guests before he said, “You know, I am a frank-speaking man.” He tilted his head and watched me in the rearview mirror while I waited for him to finish out a conversational gambit that never fails to end in something that rankles. But then a fairly routine interrogation about who I was, until the questions dug into how many kids I had — and whether their mother was white. I showed him a photo of the kids, which is when he said, “Yes, I’ve understood this about you black men and white women.”
But I was also a frank-speaking man, and now a skosh irked: “Say, what did you do here in Hamburg?”
“Well, I did lots of travel in Africa.”
“Not in Hamburg, but OK. Before then.”
“I worked for oil companies, petroleum engineering, and studied very hard to get my degree there.”
“Before then.” He looked at me again in the rearview mirror and let out a sigh that was nearly inaudible.
“Well … I bought the whole Hitler thing hook, line and sinker, and then we rebuilt Hamburg to what you see today.” He waved at what was now the outskirts of the city and we rode the rest of the way in silence.
The wedding went off without a hitch, though during the reception when Werner stood up to welcome his guests another volley: “I’d like to thank you all for attending the wedding of my only son. This, however, will conclude the remainder of my remarks in English, so sorry for our American guest, but I will be speaking in German because this is Germany and WE are Germans.”
“Ich kann Ihre gut Deutsch verstehen, sir,” I shouted, smiling. (Translation: “I can understand your German well enough, sir.”) He shot me a look and kept on talking, in German, and we were united in a moment of unrestrained love of battle. And for the remainder of the evening I’d catch him, klatched with some friends, looking over at me, speaking in undertones. Then when next to me, by luck or providence, he and I would go at it again.
“Terrible, the poverty in America, with people sleeping in the streets. Seems strange that the richest country in the world can’t feed and clothe its people.”
“Well,” I responded, “we suffer from an excess of desire to help other countries when we should be helping our own, I guess. Rebuilding countries — after wars and such.”
A few years after our evening of back-and-forth, Michael told me his father had died — by his own hand. “It seems that with his health declining,” said Michael from Montreal, where he now makes his home, “he had decided he had had enough of the struggle.” And now mourned by his only son, and a little by me, I was reminded of a Vietnamese saying I had heard from a friend of mine: “Better a true enemy than a false friend.”
Truer words were never spoken.