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reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Ottomar's Odyssey by Robin Cody

Ottomar Rudolf’s incredible transformation from teenage tank gunner to professor of humanities at Reed.

In the fall of 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Germany stood at the peak of its might. Austria had been annexed, Czechoslovakia swallowed, Poland crushed. And a small but sinister victory took place in the heart of a twelve-year-old boy.

Ottomar in office

Ottomar is writing a memoir.

You’d think—I thought—good for him. Good for us. Twelve years after his “retirement” from Reed, Ottomar still teaches an occasional class and is still a campus character. It’s time for the professor emeritus of German and the humanities to sit down and write the story from his point of view. But nowhere in this memoir does Reed College appear. It’s called I Remember: A Boy’s Life in Nazi Germany, and it zooms in tight on those years when Ottomar swallowed the Nazi line, hook and all.

This is a cautionary tale. A good boy, a bright and competitive and eager boy, falls headlong and blinkered for an extreme cause, with terrible consequences. It happens. It’s happening elsewhere in the world today. The facts here come from Ottomar’s memoir and from my talks with him. The sense of wonder is mostly mine. Except for the accident of birthplace and time, what happened to Ottomar could have—would have—happened to me.

Ottomar lived with well-educated Catholic parents in the ancient and elegant south-German city of Ulm, the birthplace of Albert Einstein and home to the world’s tallest cathedral tower. His father was a jeweler. His mother attended Mass every day. Books lined the walls at home, and classical music filled the air.

But at school, Ottomar and his classmates—all boys—followed instructors with Nazi pins on their lapels. Every morning, class began with an all-rise recitation. Ein Deutscher Junge ist flink wie Windhunde, zäh wie Leder, und hart wie Kruppstahl. A German boy is fast as a greyhound, tough as leather, and hard as Kruppsteel.

Newspapers, cinemas, and posters celebrated the accomplishments of the Nazi regime and echoed the message that Jews were the nation’s enemy. Membership in the Hitler Jungvolk was mandatory for boys ten and up. On the wireless, at home, a fanfare from Liszt’s Les Préludes announced each victory.

Photos of Luftwaffe aces and daring U-Boat captains lined his bedroom wall. At night, Ottomar heard planes returning from bombing raids to a nearby air base. As the war progressed, he and his friends stuck pins in their maps. German troops were advancing, always advancing. The glorious army won on all fronts, from blitzkrieg triumphs to U-boat attacks to Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s sweep through northern Africa.

Rommel himself paid a visit to Ottomar’s school and signed a photograph, which became Ottomar’s most prized possession. Naturally he aspired to serve in the Panzercorps, the armored division of the German army. Already, he felt like a junior member of the most sensational winning team in history.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009