Salt Lake City, UT (Summer 2016)
“I’ve always hated the Germans,” he said to the medical student standing next to me. He was approaching 80 years old, too young to have served in World War II. Besides, he had a slight accent that the student had correctly identified as Dutch. It was unusual for my patients to have a foreign accent, because as a general rule, United States military veterans are from our own country. The student had proudly told him she was from Germany and that she thought the Netherlands was a beautiful country, expecting to bond with him over their shared European heritage. His response was an unexpected shift in what had started as a typical clinic visit.
The medical student stared at him, her face reddening. She was young, in her mid-20’s I guessed and probably could not fathom why this grandfatherly gentleman would hate her countrymen. It might have been different if he had said it angrily. We were used to dealing with gruff, frustrated veterans. We calmed them down, redirected them, placed mental health consults – whatever the situation required. But the way he said it – sadly, thoughtfully and as if he meant every word. It was startling in its calm composure.
I was a brand new attending physician, standing in the middle of a borrowed clinic room on the third floor of the veteran’s hospital along with the now embarrassed German medical student and a pharmacist. It was late afternoon on a Wednesday, at the time of day when everyone starts thinking about wrapping up and getting home and when no one expected a patient with a story.
Before any of us could respond, he started talking again with his gentle Dutch accent filling the room. He was 12 years old when the Germans bombed Rotterdam. He described the bombs dropping on his beautiful city, leaving it a flaming, smoking ruin. After the blitz, the Germans took control. Every day on his way to school, he was harassed by German soldiers until the day they took him.
His story derailed then, jumbled words causing him to lose focus. I eyed the clock on the wall, gauging how far behind this diversion would put me. Then his head snapped up again and it was impossible to think of anything else. He told us how he and a group of other kidnapped boys were chained to the outside of cargo train cars, sent across Europe in all temperatures, acting as human shields so the Allied forces would not attack the trains.
I glanced at the medical student. Her eyes were glassy. The patient continued talking. He ended up in a concentration camp, forced to labor in horrifying conditions. By the end of the war, he was surprised to still be alive. He could barely walk. The malnutrition and overwork had whittled him down to a skeleton. The camp guards had abandoned them, but the prisoners remained. There was nowhere else for them to go. He told how he watched the Americans approaching to liberate the camp, how he staggered toward an American Marine, then collapsed in his arms. The Marine gave him a chocolate bar and a pack of cigarettes. He ate them both, then vomited.
After the war, he went to America. He immediately joined the Air Force after gaining his citizenship. He described being fueled by an intense hatred. It was initially directed at the Germans, but became free-floating, searching for something to land on. “Lucky for me, the Korean War started,” he said.
As the war progressed, be became more hardened and ruthless. His voice broke as he described how intensely he wanted to kill, hurt and destroy the Koreans – to leave a flaming pile of rubble in his wake.
He was disturbed when he realized how far he had sunk into the pit of anger and hatred. He had lost something precious inside himself and felt like he was being eaten from the inside. He told us, voice thick with emotion that he realized if he did not find a way to let it go, he would be consumed by it. He left the military, giving up a promising career.
He finished his story, lifting his eyes to the student. Her face was wet with tears, running into her mouth and dripping from her chin. “And that’s why I always hated the Germans,” he said. “But that is no way to live. We have to let it go. We must realize that we are all connected. When we hate each other, we destroy only ourselves.”
We sat in silence for a few moments, as if we had accidentally stumbled onto sacred ground. We made it through the rest of the clinic visit that day, turning to mundane tasks like the physical examination and medication changes. Before leaving, the patient and the medical student embraced. I never saw either of them again.
Though I have forgotten his name and medical diagnoses, I have not forgotten this experience. The World War II generation is disappearing along with their stories. It is imperative that we listen to them, especially now as the climate of hatred grows in our country and our world. We must remember what happens when we draw lines, when we categorize, when we label people as “other.”
The stories we tell and the stories we remember are how we discover who we are and who we will become. My patient may have lost some details in the telling of his story, but he never missed the point. When we hate each other, we destroy only ourselves.
BRADEIGH GODFREY, D.O., is an assistant professor in the Division of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Utah and a staff physician at the Salt Lake City VA. She enjoys creative writing in addition to teaching, research and clinical work.