I periodically delete the pile of bullshit that builds up in this blog’s spam folder. Today, I noticed the first spammer in the queue had attempted to attach his remora-like sucker to a post titled “Bettie Page’s Hip.”
What, I wrote a post and titled it Bettie Page’s Hip? Really? Looks like I did. Wasn’t that long ago, either, and it’s still relevant and on point. Social media influencers beware, Paul’s Thing is on to you!
Bettie was no Nazi, but there are references to them in that post. Which brings me to this post.
Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration and death camp in Poland. Over the weekend I posted something about it to Facebook, along with a short comment about my brief friendship with a German Jew named Herr Kugelstadt who survived the Nazis but was still afraid to tell the story decades later. A few friends wanted to know more.
I thought I’d written about it here, so I searched the blog. The search function works, because it found the Bettie Page post right away, but it turned up nothing about Herr Kugelstadt. So here’s the story:
When we were first married, Donna and I lived in Wiesbaden, Germany, 1965-1967. We had jobs with the military exchange service. In 1966, the year we both turned 20, some friends in personnel let me know about a truck driving job that had just opened up at the exchange warehouse complex in neighboring Mainz-Kastel. They saw to it I was the only qualified applicant (in spite of the fact that I wasn’t, and that before me they’d only hired German nationals for the position). I got the job, along with a nice pay raise.
One day, the truck I was driving home from the Army PX in Nuremberg began to run rough. I was able to nurse it back to Mainz-Kastel, limping in around 11 PM. Everyone had gone home but the gate to the compound was still open and I was able to park the truck inside. There was a procedure to follow in the event we got in late: take the recording strip from the truck’s speedometer, along with the keys, and put them through a slot in the dispatch shack door.
When I got to the shack, the lights were on and the door was cracked open an inch or two. I poked my head in and didn’t see anyone. I went inside to leave the recording strip and keys on the dispatch counter, and as I did I heard someone humming a melody. I looked over the counter and there was my boss, Herr Kugelstadt, laying on the floor, surrounded by empty beer bottles and singing to himself. He looked up, saw me, and struggled to his feet. I apologized, in my weak German, for disturbing him, told him what had happened, and started to leave. There was a late local bus that stopped near the gate, and I just had time to catch a ride back to Wiesbaden, but Herr Kugelstadt grabbed my arm and started telling me a long drunken story.
I understood German better than I could speak it and was able to follow most of his story about living as a young teenager during the war, but also knew I was missing something. He must have realized I was confused, because he suddenly put his head alongside mine and whispered “Herr Voodford, Ich bin Juden!” That’s when I got it. His father had talked a friendly Christian family into taking him in when the Nazis began rounding up Jews. With the help of that family and some phony paperwork, he survived the war, passing as an adopted Christian orphan. His own family died in the camps. And here we were, 22 years after the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the war, and he still felt he had to whisper the truth into a sympathetic ear.
I remember how the hair on the back of my neck stood up when I realized what he was telling me. His tongue was loosened by drink, so I took his story as a confidence. I didn’t ask if he’d shared it with the German drivers he supervised. I doubted it, and certainly wasn’t going to blab about it. We’d been friendly before, and stayed friendly afterward, though neither of us ever brought it up again. Just before Donna and I flew back to the States in 1967, we bequeathed our pet hedgehog Sam to Herr Kugelstadt so he could give it a home in his garden.
Here’s another story:
In 1990, when we were posted to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Donna and I rented an aero club Cessna for a short flight to Yoronjima, the southernmost island in Kagoshima Prefecture, just twenty-two kilometers north of Okinawa. We were going to spend a day or two there doing the initial groundwork for an Okinawa Hash House Harriers off-island weekend of partying and running. Our mission was to find a cheap hotel, restaurant, and bar to serve as hash headquarters for the upcoming event, and do some initial trail scouting.
We’d filed a VFR flight plan at Kadena, but something fell through the cracks and we arrived unannounced at Yoron. A spirited discussion with airport authorities ensued, but neither side could crack the language barrier. They eventually called in the only English-speaking island resident to find out who we were and what we were up to. That person turned out to be a middle-aged Japanese woman named Kay Frazee. We told her why we were there and she thought it sounded like lots of fun. After patching things over with the airport people, she took us under her wing and drove us to a bed-and-breakfast farmhouse in the middle of the island, where she introduced us to the owner and helped us make arrangements for the hash weekend … which, by the way, turned out to be a great event, becoming an annual Okinawa Hash tradition for many years afterward.
Back to Kay Frazee. I’m skipping over a lot. We had another hasher with us, and also our young teenaged daughter Polly, a blonde and blue-eyed rarity in that isolated part of the Japanese archipelago. Kay took Polly to the house of a Japanese family she knew who had a daughter Polly’s age. Polly became instant friends with the daughter and her parents, and wound up spending the next two days with them in Yoron Town, the island village and port. Donna and I became fast friends with Kay, and remained so until her death many years, and many postings, later.
Kay got her Anglicized name when she married an American sailor several years after Japan surrendered to the Allies. They settled on Kay’s home island, Yoron, and opened an American-style hamburger diner in town. Kay was a widow by the time we knew her, but still ran the diner.
Kay visited us in Hawaii a few years later. One night, maybe thinking of my friendship with Herr Kugelstadt and his wartime secrets, I asked Kay if she was willing to talk about her experiences during the war, when she would have been—as our daughter Polly had been when Kay first met her—a young teenager. And Kay said the thing she remembered most vividly was the “husband burnings.” Yes, that’s what she called it.
When the Allies, led by the American Army and Marines, landed on Okinawa in 1945, Imperial Army troops posted on Yoron rounded up military-aged men and boys, most of whom were sugarcane and pearl farmers, executed them, then stacked and burned the bodies in town where everyone could see. This was to dissuade anyone from defecting or surrendering. Kay, who was 13 or 14 at the time, saw it all happen and knew many of the families who lost husbands, fathers, and sons.
Imagine experiencing what these people lived through as young teenagers, a time of life when our own biggest worries are pimples, sex, and trying to look cool. I realize now that survivors of horrors are all around us, not just older people but young people too, with stories that will help the rest of us put our lives in perspective, if only we ask them to share those stories with us.
© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.