I grew up with war stories. World Wars I and II on the German side and my Dad’s service in Korea and Vietnam are all part of my family’s story. Occasionally I will share a story here.
We don’t know much about Rudy Gentzheimer beyond his name. And that he was one of the millions of casualties of World War I. We don’t know what his hopes, dreams, and aspirations were. We don’t know where or when he died.
One thing we do know. Frieda Gierich loved him with a ferocity that survived two World Wars and two husbands.
This month of August is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. One hundred years ago, millions of young men from England, France, and Germany marched straight into hell with the cheers of their countrymen still ringing in their ears. The “old Lie” as Wilfred Owen so heartbreakingly describes:
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March, 1918
It’s hard for me to grasp the reality of millions of dead young men in a war which nearly erased a generation from the face of the earth. Somehow the tragedy of it is more comprehensible when I think of it in terms of just one life, my grandmother’s, knowing that variations on her story were repeated relentlessly throughout Europe and eventually the United States.
I have a vivid memory of the day she showed me the sepia-toned photograph of Rudy Gentzheimer and told me he was the man she had wanted to marry. He was handsome in his uniform, prematurely balding, blonde, and well-built.
That’s it. That’s all we know about this phantom who had such a place in my Oma’s heart. How I yearn to be able to ask her about him now.
After the war there was a shortage of eligible young men to marry in Germany. A middle-aged civil servant wanted to marry Frieda, but she refused. Family lore has it that her father struck her and told her she would, indeed, marry this man like it or not. Money was hard to come by, and she was not welcome in the home if she didn’t obey. She married a man she did not love.
In the 1920s, after giving birth to a little girl, she divorced Herr Markowitz – a highly scandalous (and brave) act in that day especially for a young German girl. She went to work in a resort hotel in charge of linens and there she stayed for several years. I think of her working very hard, managing the life of a single mother in a time that couldn’t have made it easy to do so. And always, I imagine, grieving for Rudy Gentzheimer.
Funny the twists and turns of fate. The day came when a girlfriend of Frieda’s talked her into going on a double date with two young men who loved to ride motorcycles. (The existence of any of these photographs from so long ago is miraculous, isn’t it?)
One of those young men was my grandfather, Fritz Martin. He had served in the war in the Royal Bavarian Army and had been gravely wounded in France in 1915. He spent a year in a convalescent hospital and was relieved from active duty. When he met Frieda he was beginning his career as an automobile industry engineer.
Obviously, Frieda didn’t stay counting bed sheets the rest of her life or I wouldn’t be here telling their story. Frieda and Fritz were married in 1929 and six years later my mother was born.
At least they had a few years of peace before the next conflagration began.
When my grandmother showed me the photo of Rudy Gentzheimer, it was in the 1960s. Now that I think about it, I realize that the photograph somehow made it through the devastation of World War II. Did she carry it with her through the bombings and the harrowing flight into the Austrian Alps after the war? I imagine she must have.
We don’t have the photo now. When Oma died, we were living in the US, and her possessions were handed down to other German family members. I wonder if it was thrown away. No matter now, I guess. I’ve asked my mother what she knows about Rudy Gentzheimer. She feels as I do – frustrated that there are questions to which we will never have answers. My mother’s sense is that Frieda never really recovered from his death and that the grief was with her for the rest of her life.
And while I am fully aware that Rudy’s death paved the way for my own life, I feel a sort of sorrow for his life cut short far too soon and for my grandmother’s great loss. They say that no man is really dead while his name is still spoken, and so for Rudy Gentzheimer and all the rest of the boys who marched off to the old Lie, I remember his name one more time.
Thank you for reading,