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The Way We Actually Were
Recollections from a veteran of the Third Reich.
[1,337 words]
Jeffrey (George) Winter
Journalist, counselor, author.
[May 2003]
[email protected]
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The Way We Actually Were
Jeffrey (George) Winter

    “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?”
    In a life than has crossed the world, experienced the atrocities of war and found itself without country, family or home, it seems Gandhi’s perspective on war hits closer to home than the divisiveness of battle’s in which a soft spoken, elderly man was once engaged.
    Walter Auer, 77-year old northern Wisconsin resident, seems an unlikely veteran of such travels. Warm, witty and enthusiastic, the former member of the Germany Army seems not just miles but worlds away from the grizzly battlefields of World War II. Aside from the gouge rendering his left arm only partially usable, one would never suspect Auer a man who’s witnessed first hand what to most are horrors distant in location and time, studied in history books not in person.
    But Auer’s experience is distinctly personal and by virtue of that, there are stories to tell. His however, aren’t so much ones of valor, courage or the glory of war but of setting things straight without denying war’s final count: lives lost, children orphaned and homes and lands destroyed.
    Gathered over a cup of coffee and liverwurst sandwiches, he recalled what’s brought him to the cozy and protected hamlet of Elcho, Wisconsin in the upper Midwest.
    His memories began with recollections of an innocent childhood that had grown more difficult as the Jewish economic “war” on Germany took hold in the 1930s.
    “You know,” he said, “At that time, it was not that Hitler had out and out decided to exterminate Jews but that the Jews had basically boycotted German business and industry.”
    “In fact,” he noted, “There was an effort to not necessarily rid the nation of Jews but instead to allow them passage to whatever country would have them so as to deflect the financial wounds the boycott was having.”
    “But no one would take them,” he added, “Because they didn’t want to open themselves up to the same type of economic infliction.”
    “You know,” Auer mentioned, “History books tell us more about their authors than about the history itself.”
    A history that for him was interrupted when at 18 years of age he was called up into the German army in 1943, ending a promising career with the German railway. Following radio operator training in Friedberg, he joined the German army’s march into Znaim, a Czechoslovakian city bordering Austria.
    What was cause for parting from his tearful mother, later served to save Auer’s life as the heavy radio equipment he was required to carry insulated him from bullets and grenade particles.
    Upon his arrival to the battlefield in the Baltic state of Kurland, the young 18-year old immediately saw the gruesomeness of war.
    As part of that initiation, he remembers fleeing a Russian ambush alongside his company commander in order to find cover in the scattered bushes littering the Latvian flatlands. Halfway there, he was met by machine gun fire that left most of his comrades, including the commander, dead. Surrounded by torn apart, pale bodies and the drone of falling bombs, he recalls crying aloud to God to save him.
    Although machine gun fire blazed by him as he darted off like a pursued rabbit, Auer miraculously escaped.
    Whatever it was that kept him safe in harm’s way, Auer recalls that his ability to evade capture and death came at a price from his country.
    His escapes, including one in which he was his company’s sole survivor, led to investigation by the Kurland army’s secret police. He was later absolved of “possible treason to Fuhrer, People and Homeland.”
    His tour of duty ended on May 10, 1945 with the laying down of arms, two days after the German Reich’s surrender in Reims, France and Karlshorst, Germany. Russian troops shipped German POWs to what were called work camps, though Auer questions the terminology.
    Determined by his captors to be unfit for work due to war injuries, he was returned to Germany within a year. Not however, before the prisoners’ squalid existence left an indelible mark on his memory.
    “No one could fault them if they felt it would have been better to die,” he recalls, “The conditions were abominable, the darkness and cold of the mines, the scarcity of food, the infliction of injury for the slightest thing and ‘mysterious’ deaths that were more accurately termed as executions.”
    Even for those shipped on cattle wagons back to the Soviet-occupied portion of Germany, conditions weren’t much better. Auer noted that many starved to death before arrival and he very nearly did.
    Contracting typhus from hunger in Grossenheim in Saxony, Auer required nearly four months of hospitalization that included relegation to the dying ward and reception of last rites.
    Having escaped war and its final price, the 20-year old soon discovered a perhaps higher cost.
    Due to the rejection in Austria of everything associated with Germany in wake of the late and post-war collapse, he was prevented from returning to his Sudetanland home. Though his family had resettled not far from Znaim in Retz, he migrated by foot to Germany.
    Without food or shelter, Auer remembers fishing in protected ponds by nightfall to secure nourishment and sleeping wherever he could find warm surroundings, often in the wilderness.
    Having encountered much the same atmosphere toward Germans here, Auer immigrated to Chicago in 1953 via “The Refugee Relief Act”.
    “It was incredible,” Auer recalls, “Coming from a land that was utterly destroyed and riddled by poverty, the huge skyscrapers and numbers of automobiles amazed me. It was a world that saw no limits or any reason for concern that there might be.”
    Auer worked as a drill press operator, at an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center and finally, owned a successful hair salon in the Chicago metropolitan area
    Granted the opportunity to pursue a life-long dream, Auer traveled around the United States and Mexico and also around the world, re-establishing contact with his family in Europe.
    Having established friendships from within with the large German population of Chicago and later in Florida, Auer visited a friend who owned a summertime home in the Wisconsin north woods. Lured by the wilderness and the large German population of the area, he moved to the Boulder Junction, Wisconsin area where he purchased a nightclub.
    Following retirement and at the suggestion of friend ?? Schreiber who owns the Pelican Club in Pelican Lake, Auer relocated to Elcho where he entertains at area clubs and churches playing accordion expertly.
    “Back in the Chicago area,” he laughed, “A group of us got together and made pretty good money by traveling throughout the Upper Midwest on weekends.”
    “We were a pretty popular band,” he added.
    At dinner’s conclusion, Auer’s offered some final observations.
    “You know,” he remarked, “There’s always another side. That’s why I wrote a book (entitled “How We Actually Were” and published in German). I was there and so I know what went on. And yes, there were atrocities committed but they occurred on the part of both Allied and Axis powers, not solely the Germans or for that matter, the Russians. Each nation sought its piece of the pie and to enlarge it. They still do”
    “You know, not all Germans comprised what history has called the evil empire, not even the armed forces for that matter,” he continued, “There is a good deal of reputable literature out there detailing the historical inaccuracies handed down, some written by reputable and respected Jewish people either from that period or those who’ve studied it.”
    Without bitterness or defense, he added, “The lives lost and torn apart and the children orphaned were spread across the globe.”
    “We believe what we want to believe,” he concluded upon stepping out into a fair and gentle night en route to an accordion performance, “But the wisest man need ask one thing.”
    “What is actually true?”




"Interesting story, I am always fascinated by stories of people who lived in the Third Reich, since I am a graduate history major. Expand it into a book. " -- Shelley, Fullerton, California, USA.
"Auer's 220-page book containing vivid photos, "The Way We Actually Were", is available for $17 plus $2 S&H through WW Press at [email protected] or N9133 Mill Rd., Summit Lake, WI 54485, #715-275-3150 " -- Jeffrey Winter, Summit Lake, WI, USA.
"Excellent piece...send me two books, please!" -- Willis.
"Ehmm..m. Sehr gut Seite! Ich sage innig..!:) bmw" -- BMW, ..., ..., ....


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© 2003 Jeffrey (George) Winter
February 2003

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