Jewish American veteran and a German have a different face-off

Associated Press • May 18, 2007 at 10:39 AM

BERCHTESGADEN, Germany - Jewish American veteran Shep Waldman knew exactly what he would do when he came face to face with the former enemy at the Eagle's Nest, Hitler's mountain retreat.

Approaching a German veteran equally burdened by age and war memories, the former U.S. Army sergeant let out a friendly greeting: "Comrade," he said.

"Comrade," pondered Alois Wuerzer, struggling with the English, a puzzled look on his face. Then his weary eyes lit up.

"Kamerad," he repeated - which in German also means "friend."

Weathered hands stretched out, and one of the past century's bitterest divides was bridged with a hearty handshake.

"Fortunately, we survived it all," said Wuerzer, 85, his ruddy cheeks shining as the two sized each other up amid the pristine peaks of the Bavarian Alps.

The men were brought together by The Greatest Generations Foundation of Denver, which seeks to give veterans the opportunity to visit old battlegrounds. Arranging a meeting with German vets was controversial, as was moving deep into Germany - a journey that chilled some of the 23 Americans and Canadians in the group.

Standing at the Eagle's Nest, another Jewish American veteran could not bring himself to join in the reconciliation.

"I was not going to get involved in that," said former Pfc. Cy Marmelstein, who had already taken a big emotional step by entering Germany again for the first time since World War II.

The encounter at the Eagle Nest took place May 12, and the veterans had already toured England, Normandy, Belgium and Luxembourg before heading to southeastern Germany - among thousands of U.S. veterans visiting Europe ahead of the June 6 anniversary of the D-Day invasion of 1944.

Marmelstein, in his 80s, has long controlled his feelings. But being in Germany again and visiting Adolf Hitler's mountain redoubt brought his anguish to the surface.

"Peace with the people? It is hard," he whispered. "I know they are not from the same generation, but it is a hard thing," he said, explaining he had relatives who died in the Holocaust.

Marmelstein's attitude largely stems from the events of April 13, 1945, when he walked into Buchenwald concentration camp two days after it was liberated by the U.S. Army.

There, soldiers found some 21,000 starving survivors and piles of corpses, some partially burned; the Nazi SS and their helpers had fled. About 56,000 people had died or been slain in the camp.

"Buchenwald was the primary scar," Marmelstein said. "You can see it on TV but once you were there with the smells, it is indescribable. It has always been with me. It is not in the forefront of my mind, but it is there."

After the war, Marmelstein sold air conditioning in Florida before going into business selling marble. He now lives in Pembroke Pines retirement community in Florida.

There would be one constant, he said. "Personally, I would never, and I haven't to my knowledge, purchased German goods."

Waldman's contact with the Holocaust was less direct, although he said he knew Jews who were persecuted before the war.

"For two years, the rabbi, it was all he spoke about. It didn't quite register at that moment. I could not visualize it," he said, remembering his teenage days in Denver.

He volunteered for the Army in 1943 and was sent to Europe. Near the end of the war, he found himself in a German village in street-to-street combat. Stepping around a corner, he suddenly stood face to face with a German soldier who was even more stunned.

"I saw him, I had him, he was meat as far as I was concerned," Waldman, 83, remembered. "His eyes popped, and that poor kid was shivering and shaking. I said ‘I can't kill him. No way I can kill a young man like that.'"

Waldman told him to drop the gun and run. The German did.

Even though Waldman, then only 19, later killed a German in hand-to-hand combat, his compassion never left him. That made it easier to make peace with himself, he said, and any enmity toward the Germans slowly left him.

"I have gone through that," Waldman said of coming to terms with the horrors of war and the Holocaust. "It took a long time, probably 20 years. Now, no more nightmares."

But time has not dulled his awareness of what Jews faced under Hitler.

The Eagle's Nest, jutting out into the mountain air at 6,017 feet, has been turned into a visitors' center with a restaurant, terraces and souvenir shop. Little reminds people of the dark past, when Hitler was plotting war.

Waldman spotted a picture at the Eagle's Nest showing men clear rocks for a nearby road in the 1930s and said, "Looks like Jewish slave labor."

On his last day in Germany, he went to a commemoration at the Dachau concentration camp, and read the Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead.

"I am glad I went," Waldman said.

The handshake also left its mark in Kisslegg, Bavaria, where Wuerzer, a former senior non-commissioned officer in the Wehrmacht, is enjoying retirement.

"I was so totally surprised" by the handshake, Wuerzer said. "They are good people. It is good for two enemies to talk to one another."

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