Reliving images of a painful past

Imagine being a young child and suddenly realizing that people are disappearing, and no one is offering an explanation.

This was the case for Rainulf Stelzmann, a former USF professor of German literature.

First, one of his teachers was taken to a concentration camp, then it was one of his mother’s friends, Stelzmann said. Both of them were Catholic, but Stelzmann said the Nazis distinguished by race and ethnic belonging, not by religion.

During Stelzmann’s discussion Tuesday called “Germany: The Critical Years, 1920-1956: A View From Within,” he told memories of Germany during the time Hitler was in power. In addition, Stelzmann shared parts of a memoir he recently wrote, titled Thinking of Germany at Night, with about 50 people in the Grace Allen Room of the Library.

“His book is a compelling contribution to the accounts of German history. It’s full of vivid images, elegant translations, and deep literary, philosophical, and theological insights into life and truth and the nature of good and evil,” said Irma Naab, an adjunct professor in the language department.

Stelzmann recalls when he was 8 years old and had a teacher whose middle finger was half cut off. When a student in class incorrectly answered that 16 – 8 = 7, the teacher said no, and held up his fingers. Then the boy guessed “seven and a half?”

At another time, that same teacher spoke to the class about Hitler. Stelzmann remembers the teacher said, “Thanks to (Hitler) we will be a great nation again. We all will have to help him.”

Stelzmann said the class was unmoved by the teacher’s comments about Hitler because class was boring and they didn’t understand.

“That time period was horrible for so many people, but he still remembers the humorous points,” said Christine Probes, associate professor of World Language Education. “That definitely is a talent.”

During the early years of World War II, propaganda targeted German children through the use of cartoons that depicted SS solders kicking Jewish people.

Another option for young Germans at the time was “Hitler Youth.” However, Stelzmann said he and his friends didn’t like the idea because they saw the exercises and marching the members did.

“A lot of memories were revived,” said Ingrid Murphy, who taught German at USF from 1979 – 1998. “It’s nice to hear it from someone else’s point of view.”

When Stelzmann had a two-week break from fighting at the Russian, front he came home to find out his father had been thrown in jail for “undermining the will of the German people to fight for the fatherland,” or defeatism. The normal punishment for this was death by hanging or decapitation.

It was well known during the previous year, people had been executed for the same thing for which his father was being accused. Their punishment took place within a week of the beginning of the legal process.

Stelzmann’s mother tried to get members of the community to speak on her husband’s behalf, but many were reluctant to help because, as Stelzmann said, “No one wanted to end up in a concentration camp or worse.”

Stelzmann said the only way to survive was by not saying anything at all.

“It’s amazing to learn from someone who’s personally experienced so much beyond what most people ever do,” said Ryan McLaughlin, a former student of Stelzmann’s.