When I Met Hitler

by Charles W. Arnade

from "Private Lives," a column in the St. Petersburg Times (July 29,1992)

Charles W. Arnade is professor of International Studies
at the University of South Florida, Tampa.

Don't all of us have experiences better kept to ourselves if we can't produce evidence that they happened? Cannot time erode the truth and distort the facts? But my recollection of an experience I had more than half a century ago as a boy of 9 is as clear as the mountain lake water where it happened.

It was the summer of 1935, in the resort town of Tegernsee in my native Germany.

My parents and I were on a short trip into southern Germany, with no fixed destination. We arrived at Tegernsee, a popular resort, expensive and fashionable, and my parents located a reasonably priced boarding house on the lake.

But it soon became obvious why it was possible to find such an inexpensive fine place. Adolf Hitler's close associates had weekend cottages there. We learned that respectable residents left for weekends, and most tourists avoided it for the same reason. Also, Hitler was scheduled to arrive for the weekend as a guest of one of his officials.

My parents were apprehensive. But since the accommodations had already been paid for, they decided to remain, rest, stay put at the boarding house, enjoying the fine view of the lake.

There was tension between my parents since Hitler had come to power. Mother, whose family roots were in the working class with heavy Marxist and pacifist strains, never thought that Hitler was a savior of Germany. She despised him and predicted bad omens for all German people.

When we arrived, a pompous village official had noticed my younger sister--the very embodiment of the Nazi concept of an "Aryan" child, with flaxen, blond hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks. He wanted her to be one of several "Germanic" children to present Hitler with bouquets of indigenous "Germanic" flowers when he arrived at the village. Mother vigorously informed the official that her daughter would join the selected children over her dead body.

Father was embarrassed, fearful of the consequences of this statement. He was from a wealthy merchant family, an army officer, very patriotic, and considered his oath of loyalty to the state sacrosanct. He had served in World War I, where he was awarded the Iron Cross and other honors.

But he, as did many other army officers, had serious doubts about Hitler and his followers. And there were rumors that the Arnade family was Jewish in origin. Aryan purity would be complicated to document, and the process required for proof of purity was degrading and contrary to my parents' convictions. Yet, both my parents were provincial and never had lived outside Germany. Mother wanted to leave Germany. Father was cool to the idea.

The day after our arrival at the boarding house, while my parents were still sleeping, I decided to take a swim in the lake. My parents trusted my swimming. I had already won a swimming competition in primary school, and my instructors had drilled us in safety, especially while swimming alone.

After entering the lake, I noticed a raft with some men on it about 400 yards from shore on the right side of our beach. I swam toward the raft. As I approached it, two men jumped from the raft, apparently to join me. I thought they had friendly intentions, but when they reached me, they grabbed me roughly and dragged me toward shore.

I remember being terrified; I developed stomach cramps. But the remaining person on the raft signaled the men to bring me to him. Immediately they obeyed and even gave me a smile.

Everyone who had seen or dealt with Hitler talked about his penetrating eyes, which supposedly had hypnotic effects. This I cannot recall. He looked like a very ordinary adult in the old-fashioned male bathing suit. I had no idea who he was except that he must be important.

He asked me why I was swimming alone toward the raft so early in the morning. I told him why. In a rather soft voice he said he believed me, and if I continued my habit I could be a good German swimmer, and Germany needed sports champions.

I distinctly remember that he asked me whether I knew who he was. I said no. Then he wanted to know whether I was able to swim back myself or whether his men should take me home. I said no, I wanted to swim back myself. He nodded slightly, patted me on the head and said, "Jump and go."

I did. The two bullies accompanied me about halfway back. Before turning around, one of them asked me whether I knew whom I had met. Again, my response was no. He barked at me: "You have had the great privilege to meet the Fhrer." I knew that was what Hitler was called.

I did not tell my parents of this encounter. They might not believe me, and if they did, they would be upset. I never told them.

Only once did I attempt to tell that, as a child, I had accidentally met the Fhrer. Ten years later in high school in Bolivia (for we left Germany soon after the lakeside weekend), my teacher was talking about Hitler as a person. A lively discussion followed. When I exclaimed, "I met the man while I was swimming," everyone laughed. The teacher reprimanded me for trying to be funny.

Did I meet Hitler on the raft? Sure I did. Today, 57 years after the encounter, the memory is crystal clear. I still don't tell this story. How many would believe it; where is my proof?

I did become a national swimming champion of Bolivia. I doubt that I would have become a "sports champion," as Hitler put it, to glorify the infamous German Reich. More likely, I would have been a concentration camp victim. The world would soon learn that Hitler, among others, killed millions of children.

The apparently gentle man on the raft was a monster.

A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
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