On December 16, 1944, my great-uncle Lester Bornstein was stationed with his unit, the United States Army 168th Combat Engineer Battalion, in the Ardennes forest in Belgium. After seven months of relentless fighting, the troops were supposed to have a quiet night. But that was about to change.
At dawn, the Germans staged a surprise attack, the opening salvo of what would later be known as the Battle of the Bulge. The platoon spread out across the forest. Lester and his comrade Jimmy Hill found a foxhole right off a road leading to the Belgian town of St. Vith. From there, Lester and Jimmy spotted large gray vehicles rolling up the road in the distance. They were German tanks, a whole line of them. Not knowing what else to do, Lester and Jimmy set up a bazooka gun on Jimmy’s shoulder, and took aim.
Lester didn’t know it at the time, but in one of those tanks, the third from the front, was a German soldier named Hans Geng. Standing in the foxhole loading a bazooka, Lester couldn’t foresee that that Hans would end up fascinated with the Jewish American soldier against whom he faced off during the Battle of the Bulge, or that after making contact Hans would spend the rest of his life writing letter after letter, desperate for reconciliation. But that night in the Ardennes forest, Lester and Hans were faceless soldiers on either side of a war.
As Lester filled the bazooka with a rocket, his fingers shook so vigorously from anxiety that he twice broke the coils that would set off the ammunition. The German tanks were only 30 yards away when he finally succeeded. Jimmy aimed the bazooka at the leading German tank, and Lester whispered, “Jimmy, please don’t miss.”
Jimmy, who like Lester, was only 19 years old and from Massachusetts, hit his target perfectly. The tank caught fire before Lester and Jimmy’s eyes; they could hear the men inside screaming. German soldiers started climbing out of the second and third tanks in a panic, not sure from where the bazooka shot came. Crouching in their foxhole with the German soldiers only a few feet away, Lester and Jimmy prepared to throw hand grenades, ready to die fighting. Lester thought about his mother Celia, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, and how he might never see her again, when he heard the words that would save his life: “Komm zurück, komm zurück” — Come back. Lester understood the words because his mother had once said the same phrase in Yiddish.
The Germans retreated. “We’re saved,” Lester whispered into Jimmy’s ear.
For Lester, that moment in the Ardennes was a defining one. He’s told me this story many times.
But it was also a defining moment for Hans.
Hans, too was 19 years old at the time. He was in the third tank; he had originally been assigned to ride as the gunner in the lead tank, but his commander switched him to the third tank at the last minute, saving his life. After Lester and Jimmy’s shot, Hans watched the gunner in the first tank burn to death.
56 years later, in 2000, Lester and Jimmy were honored for bombing the German tank, which delayed the German attack on St. Vith. A Belgian friend read about the honor, and told Hans about it. That’s when Hans started writing letters.
“All my former comrades of the assault artillery Brigade are dead now,” he wrote to Jimmy. “You are the only comrades of the Battle of the Bulge I have left.”
When Lester got word of Hans’s letter from Jimmy, he was offended. He couldn’t believe the audacity of a German veteran who could even imagine becoming friends with a former American GI.
“I didn’t feel the same way,” Lester told me recently. “In fact, I didn’t feel the same way because I kept thinking of all those graves in Normandy, in Germany, and the Holocaust victims.”
To Lester, Hans was not a comrade; he was still the enemy.
But Hans was persistent in his letter writing. He sent notes to both Lester and Jimmy for three years, long notes, often once a week. Jimmy, who wasn’t Jewish, would respond occasionally, but Lester didn’t share the same interest in having a correspondence.
“He had so much guilt,” Lester told me. “I didn’t have that guilt and I didn’t respect the fact of where he came from.”
Lester eventually agreed to meet Hans in 2004, after he was contacted by an NBC team who wanted to do a segment about the veterans. But he didn’t know if he could shake the former German soldier’s hand, and he felt anxious when the three former soldiers met in Belgium, reunited in the Ardennes forest at the spot where the bazooka shot took place.
And yet, when Hans reached out his hand, Lester surprised himself by taking it. He even reached out to touch the German war veteran’s face.
For the first few minutes of their meeting, the three men caught up together. Footage of the meeting shows them joking around, talking about the war like it was a basketball game.
“We had orders to take it at any price,” Hans said.
“We broke your backbone,” Lester responded.
“Well you were lucky,” Hans said with a slight smile.
All three men laughed.
Over the course of the day, the men visited several spots in the Ardennes. They walked to the memorial put up by the town of St. Vith honoring the 168th Combat Engineer Battalion. Of the 400 men who fought in Lester’s unit, 244 died in the Battle of the Bulge.
“We soldiers were machines,” Hans said, as they walked through a cemetery with crosses and Jewish stars. “Machines to kill. It’s always the same thing.”
Standing in front of the grave of a fallen American comrade, the veterans saluted.
“We paid a high price,” Hans continued. “At least you fought for a better thing than I did.” He noted that the Germans fought “only to prolong the life of our lunatic Führer.” Hans almost always referred to Hitler as “the lunatic.”
“We made peace, finally,” Hans said later, laughing, looking at both Jimmy and Lester. My great-uncle nodded.
“We survived the war,” Lester said slowly. “Let’s be friends for the remaining years of our lives.”
It was a hard thing for Lester to say, and it would turn out to be a harder thing to do. Over the next ten years, until Hans died in 2014, he would send letter after letter to Lester. They were almost always long, filled with stories about his service in the war and his pre- and post-war life.
Most of the letters went unanswered.
I learned about the letters Hans wrote to Lester very recently, on a visit to his home in West Orange, New Jersey. Lester, who is now 94 years old, was trying to clean out the desk in his office while I was visiting him, and he pulled out a big blue box containing the letters.
I was surprised; the German soldier he had almost killed and then corresponded with for a decade hadn’t been part of the story Lester had told me about his wartime exploits. It seemed like he was planning to throw letters away when I asked if I could read them. He agreed, and then surprised me again when he asked me to make sure to return them.
Inside the box of letters, I found a picture of a young Hans in his German uniform — he looked like he was 19 or 20 years old — standing in front of a tank. He looked so proud in the photo, so eager to fight and serve his country.
Under the photo were two books that Hans had sent Lester, each memoirs of his life. The first was about Hans’s childhood during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Born in 1923 to a farming family in the small German village of Engelthal, Hans was only ten years old when Hitler came to power. But he had vivid memories of the time. He describes the Nazification of Germany as slow; many didn’t want to embrace Hitler’s populist and anti-Semitic ideologies immediately. Hans writes:
“Of course there were men who warned of Hitler and predicted disaster if he came to power. Also in our village were such warning voices… But their warnings could not penetrate the propaganda drums of the [National Socialist German Workers Party]. In our village altogether, there were still more people against than for the Nazis. But they were the quieter ones who did not march and therefore were not apparent.”
The people of Engelthal ultimately came around to the Nazis for economic reasons, according to Hans. He writes about a number of political organizations popular in Engelthal, each of which was affiliated with a different pub where its members would meet and share ideas. The people who went to the National Socialists’ pub — “The White Lamb” — were often people who had been unemployed for years and desperate for a job. And suddenly, by 1934, one year into Hitler’s chancellorship, all of them were back at work. “Soon there was no longer any unemployment in our village,” he writes. “Everybody had work and bread. Prices were stable and wages improving. Those who had debts to the Jews never were to pay a pfennig back of course.” Those who were against Hitler in 1933 supported him by 1934. The press was full of pictures of bread lines in Depression-era America.
Hans’s life was completely changed by the Nazis’ rise to power. Schools taught a new curriculum that celebrated the “wonderful life story of the Führer Adolf Hitler” and highlighted the dangers of Bolshevism, and the devilish, conniving nature of Jewish people. His town had become indoctrinated with Hitler’s backwards ideologies; even his parents joined the National Socialist party because they needed work. And when the war started, Hans felt that he had to serve the “Fatherland” and enlist.
Hans served in the Hitler Youth until he was seventeen and a half years old, and then volunteered for the military and trained as a tank gunner. Hans spent his first two years in service fighting on the Eastern front, mostly in Russia and other parts of Soviet territory. In his second memoir, he writes about the cruelty of the German soldiers, and his failure to stand up to them. As the Germans retreated westward, they burned down every town they passed through. And one time, when they were driving through a German-occupied town, several German soldiers killed every townsperson in sight.
“Everybody, including me, was too cowardly to get in the way of the [SS] Lieutenant and prevent this,” Hans writes. “Even though most of the comrades of the battery did not participate in this murdering, we carry our part of the guilt because no one dared resist against this crime.”
While traveling through Poland with the German army, Hans recalls staying for a few days in the town of Lisowice. “The workers on the state farms were mainly Jews transported to here from Vienna,” he writes. “In earlier times they had been doctors, lawyers, businessmen and so on. Now they were packed together in small sheds and used as cheap workers. They were not paid with money but with a few pounds of wheat and other natural products every day.”
Hans describes the cruelty of one of the German officers towards the Jewish workers — particularly on display one night when the Jews were attacked by Polish robbers, desperate for food. “[The officer] even forbade us to give dressing material to the wounded because they were Jews,” he writes. “Who was about to die should die, who was able to get through should live. That was his point of view. The [Jewish] population was exploited and treated badly at any opportunity.”
Hans writes that he was not aware of the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews, though the race politics were rampant. “I do not say that I was a perfect soldier,” Hans later wrote in a letter to Lester. “To qualify for a perfect soldier in the German army at the time was to hate — and I was never able to really hate.”
But he also didn’t shy away from taking responsibility for the Holocaust. “Every German must still be ashamed for what had happened during the lunatic’s persecution of Jews in Germany and many other European countries under German occupation,” he wrote to Lester in 2007. “There are still many versions of explanation of how this could have happened. But we Germans must bear a collective blame for this mad persecution… for the devilish spirit of the Führer Adolf Hitler.”
“If the silent majority of people not agreeing would have jointly stood up against this historical madness, it maybe could have been at least partially avoided,” he wrote in the same letter. “It was really a measure of cowardice to have people not openly reject this type of ‘race politics’ right from the beginning.”
After the war, in 1953, Hans travelled to America for several months. He wanted to see the former enemy territory with his own eyes. In the process, Hans learned English and made friends all over the country.
But he struggled with his past. “I volunteered,” he wrote in 2007. “[I was] seventeen and a half years old. But then in the lunatic’s great battles in south Russia, I soon discovered that our patriotic spirit and readiness to die for it had been miserably abused by our Nazi leaders.” He went on: “Thank God we lost the war.”
It was impossible for me to read Hans’s eager attempts to connect with my great-uncle and not feel moved by them. I found myself feeling empathy for Hans. How does one know how he or she will respond to certain wartime situations? Can we really judge?
But things looked very different to Lester.
“My feelings toward him were not the same as his feelings towards us,” my great-uncle told me recently. “I can’t forgive his growing up [in Nazi Germany] and his participation in the persecution of Jews and not doing anything.” Lester believes that Hans should have resisted his superiors more.
“I don’t think fear of punishment is an excuse,” he said, insisting that he himself would have stood up for what’s right.
This isn’t idle talk; Lester has the experience to prove it. Because Lester was Jewish, he was abused a lot in the army. For a significant amount of his time in the service, he had a very anti-Semitic commander who Lester says purposely sent him into the most dangerous situations, hoping that the young private would get killed.
But Lester was tough; he was a fighter. He told me how he always stood up for what was right whenever he thought a line was crossed. And he didn’t stand up just for himself. He recalled a time when a superior of his entered a German woman’s house and tried to steal her mattress. She started to scream and cry.
“Leave the woman alone!” Lester yelled at his commander. Just because they were occupying soldiers didn’t mean they were thieves or animals.
Lester resisted his superiors in the army on several other occasions, and even got punished for it, though he thinks his commitment to standing up for what was right earned him respect among the other soldiers. One night during training, while he was digging a foxhole as a punishment for standing up to his anti-Semitic commander, his comrade Jimmy Hill came over to show his support. It is his own moral compass and bravery that makes it impossible for him to forgive Hans — that and the memory of the Jews.
“You can’t wipe the slate clean,” he told me. “You can’t wipe away the fact that there were six million people and say we’ll start to forgive you for everything and start afresh.” He paused and looked at me closely. “You’re dealing with humanity,” he said. “You’re dealing with family. You’re dealing with generations.”
I felt Lester’s words powerfully, knowing that he, the youngest of four brothers, all of whom were on active duty during the war, did not need to serve but did; Lester’s oldest brother Joe was an army physician on the team of US soldiers that liberated Dachau.
At the same time, while reading Hans’s journal and his letters, I felt impressed with Hans’s humanity, his guilt, and his willingness to confess and take responsibility for what he had done. I could see in Hans’s letters how traumatized he was by both his actions and his inaction during the war.
But neither of these stories is mine. And I’m not even sure if forgiveness was what Hans really wanted — or realistically thought he could get. Instead, when I spoke to Lester, I proposed a goal that was a bit different than forgiveness: reconciliation. Was that possible?
“Yes,” Lester said, closing his eyes and nodding. “That’s a better word.”
Arielle Kaden is a writer based in New York City whose work has been featured in the Forward and Columbia Journal. She is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship. She is currently earning a MFA in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia University and is a former intern for the Opinion Section at the Forward. You can visit her website and follow her on Twitter here.