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reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Ottomar's Odyssey by Robin Cody

Ottomar communion

Ottomar holds candle for his communion in 1939. He was 10 years old.

Ottomar’s brother, nine years older, piloted a Messerschmidt 109. Another brother, four years older, would soon be drafted. At 13, Ottomar and his classmates were given uniforms. Two evenings a week, Nazi leaders recited dogma and read aloud heroic war stories. Hitler Youth tested the boys’ physical fitness. Fleet of foot and a lithe athlete, Ottomar returned from field trips with medals and ribbons. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, upbeat and eager, he was a winner. Weekend war games sharpened his reflexes and boosted his warrior spirit.

“I thought it was great,” Ottomar writes. “I was good at this,” he says now, as a matter of fact. “Above my bed was a motto: In allem, einen Schritt voraus! In all things, a step ahead!”

He remembers the songs, especially. Romantic songs of the Lorelei or the linden tree gave way to stirring battle hymns with hateful lyrics. “We listened, sang, and marched to a new music. Nazi songs. The Nazis stole a lovely melody by Joseph Haydn and put the lyrics of ‘Deutschland über Alles’ on it.”

In school, Ottomar solved math equations for artillery trajectories. The message was everywhere and everywhen, like the air the boy breathed.

And I wonder. I try to imagine. My grade school classmates and I recited the Pledge of Allegiance every school day. Russia was the Evil Empire. In 1954 the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee convened in Portland to grill Reed College professors, among other suspects, and I believed that the Reds were out to annihilate us. My country didn’t recruit Boy Scouts to the cause, but if it had. . .

Like Ottomar, I was intoxicated at 14 with uniforms and winning. But that was baseball. And duty to country, in my Boy Scout oath, was pretty weak tea compared to the brew Ottomar swallowed. I’m just saying. What would you have done? Can you be certain you would have had the world view and moral compass to resist?

Ottomar’s father didn’t swallow Nazi propaganda. He never joined the Party. Ottomar suspects that his father’s Iron Cross for bravery in the Battle of Verdun, World War I, earned him a pass from their block warden in Ulm. Father disapproved of the medals Ottomar brought home. He listened to Swiss broadcasts on the wireless. When Ottomar, in his zeal, posted a photo of Hitler in his bedroom, his father wordlessly tore it down.

“But he’s our Führer!!!” his mother sobbed.

The Catholic Church, like his father, countered some of the Nazi line. And Ottomar’s mother insisted that he attend after-school religious instruction. Because the Vatican had agreed by treaty not to meddle in Hitler’s affairs, the atheist Third Reich tolerated mild religious instruction. But Hitler Youth field trips were on Sundays. What was a boy to do? Practice war games with his comrades, or go to church with old ladies?

Ottomar did both. Wearing his uniform, he attended 6 a.m. Mass with his mother. And he fit right in—he belonged—with the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). There, too, he sang the songs and read the stories. He became an enthusiastic leader as the war took the older boys away, one by one.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009