A Q&A for "Urchin at War"

Reading Time: 4 mins

Urchin at War is now available from 1517 Publishing

1. In Urchin at War, you tell your story of growing up in Nazi Germany. You have two more memoirs planned. What initially prompted you to write these memoirs?

For some years now, I have regaled friends in California with anecdotes from my childhood in Nazi Germany. They urged me, “You must write these stories down. In America, nobody has given much thought to what it was like to be a kid in the Third Reich. What was it like to be bombed nightly? Were you indoctrinated by the Nazis? How were you shielded against this poison at home?” It seems that to Hollywood we were just “Nazi kids.” Yet many of us lived in two different universes: Outside our homes, we were exposed all the time to Nazi doctrine. But at home, many of us experienced the traditional, Christian universe of the Bildungsbürgertum, the educated bourgeoisie. In subsequent volumes, I shall describe how my wartime experiences impacted my dramatic life as an international reporter and led me to earn a doctorate of theology late in life.

2. Your grandmother played an important role in your childhood. Can you tell us a little bit more about her? And what does this book have to say, generally, about the role of grandparents?

My maternal grandmother, Clara Netto, was a very funny, sharp-tongued lady born and raised in the golden era of the late 19th-century. She was the German equivalent of the dowager countess in Downton Abbey. She was fearless and a devout Christian but no holy roller. Omi, as I called her, was quite capable of coming up with salacious one-liners. She did not allow me to even wince when the bombs fell. This would be un-gentlemanly and un-Christian, for it showed a lack of faith and pluck. Omi was a woman who loved and cuffed me and taught me to always speak my mind. I recall one incident where she sent the Gestapo packing when they came to arrest her for making “seditious remarks.” Imagine: the Gestapo! I pity many of today’s children who are being deprived of their grandparents’ wisdom, serenity, and trustworthiness because these grandparents live far away in the sun or tootle down the highways in their RVs. Yet for a sane upbringing of children, grandparents are every bit as important as parents

3. You mentioned that despite expecting to be bombed or killed at any moment, you were still able to have a childhood. What was a normal day like for you and your childhood gang of ‘urchins’?

Following a nightly air raid, I would sleep for a few hours, rise at 6 am and take a cold shower. It was cold because coal was rationed; we did not have enough to heat bathwater every day. I had breakfast – usually a roll with jam, an apple, and cocoa, then walked to school if we weren’t bombed by the Americans who attacked at daytime. I had lunch at home and did my homework in the tiny bedroom I shared with Omi in whose apartment my parents and I lived since losing our home to phosphor bombs in 1943. After that, Omi taught me Luther’s Small Catechism. Only then was I allowed to run out of the house to explore with other imps the smoldering ruins in our neighborhood. Yes, I had a proper childhood because I always felt safe with my grandmother. Not that we enjoyed the danger we were in. But we were big-city urchins pulling pranks such as stealing a streetcar after a bombardment, or the steam locomotives of the narrow-gage “rubble trains,” with which the bricks and stones of bombed-out buildings were being removed. We knew that we might die that night. Yet we had fun.

4. You say in “Urchin at War” that you were introduced to the Christian faith by Omi. How did her Lutheran theology, particularly the concept of two kingdoms, impact your way of seeing the world?

One evening in the air-raid shelter, I asked Omi, “Why does Jesus not save us from bombs?” She answered, “Jesus said to Pilate, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’” (John 18:36). With that she outlined Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine to me: Believers are citizens of Christ’s kingdom of grace. But as forgiven sinners, they are now called to roll up their sleeves and participate fearlessly in God’s finite worldly kingdom where He reigns in a hidden way. And alas, in this kingdom bombs are a reality. This distinction proved extremely helpful in my career as a reporter, especially in the Vietnam War, for it allowed me to view the world soberly and with a keen sense of irony. It taught me that this sinful world is crazy but will ultimately disappear. In this kingdom of the hidden God, I am by definition a sinner and will die. But in Christ’s kingdom, God no longer sees my sins, and I will never die because Jesus has paid for them with his death on the cross and his resurrection.

5. In terms of World War II literature, what makes your account unique? And why should everyone, not just individuals interested in WWII history, read this story about a child growing up in Nazi Germany with his Lutheran grandmother?

My account is unique because in World War II literature the fate of German children has rarely been deemed worthy of consideration. But these kids of whom hundreds of thousands were killed or maimed, were not goose-stepping Nazis or concentration camp guards. They were children, for God’s sake! Nobody seems to care, either, what life was like for non-Nazi families who had to shield themselves against two foes: their own tyrants and allied bombers. This omission is the fruit of simplistic, cliché thinking. Of course, I did not write this account of my childhood to make readers feel sorry for me, and I certainly do not make light of Hitler’s crimes. Quite to the contrary, my readers will find my narrative thrilling but also entertaining because it contains many humorous anecdotes. Most importantly, it is an ode to a hitherto unsung heroine: my hilarious, classy, and intrepid grandmother, a woman of faith who guided me through this demented and finite world by drawing my attention to another reality, which is sinless, painless, and infinite. I am sure that my readers will find my tale fascinating and indeed thrilling.

6. Is there any advice or thoughts you want to share with potential readers?

Surely anybody with eyes to see and ears to hear must by now realize that the world is heading for calamity. In this situation, we would be nuts not to seek guidance from the experiences of previous generations who have lived through hell without losing their faith and their sense of humor. History is not “bunk,” as Henry Ford foolishly claimed. To live without history is to live in utopia (Greek for no place). In Urchin at War, I propose the Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine as an antidote against utopianism and try to regale my readers with stories about my thoroughly anti-utopian Omi, the steely, loving, faithful, and funny Lutheran grandmother such as one can only wish on every contemporary family.

Urchin at War, Volume 1, is now available to order.