Hans Koch’s service in the Nazi army was involuntary and very brief — just one day, in fact, but his description of his experience of wartime Germany opened a window for a young Jewish girl in Elizabeth.
Elisheva Sternglass, 18, a senior at the Jewish Educational Center’s Bruriah High School for Girls, learned about Koch from her father Adam. Last month, assisted by her younger brother Joseph, 16, she set up an interview with him. Koch, now 84, lives in Riverdale, NY.
“Yeshiva Girl Interviews a WW II German,” a 23-minute video posted on YouTube, features Elisheva and the World War II veteran seated side by side on a couch, discussing the war from a German’s perspective.
Though initially not a school project, she will receive academic credit for the interview.
She decided to do the interview, she told NJJN, “because we have so many stories from the Jewish perspective, yet barely any of the German view. We’re told that history is bound to repeat itself if we don’t learn from it, and if we don’t understand the German mindset of the Nazi era, we won’t be able to recognize when the same thing happens again until it’s too late.”
Elisheva’s father, who served as a United States Army reservist and spent time with the army in Afghanistan in 2010, said, “Mr. Koch was a computer client of mine during the 1990s and we stayed in touch.”
He was inspired to connect Koch and his daughter after an encounter he had last year. “In Georgia, I met this very old woman. When she was 16, she interviewed her great-grandfather who fought at Gettysburg,” he said. “The narrow overlap between the generations is something special. When Elie is an old woman, she will be able to say she spoke with a German soldier from World War II.”
The crux of Koch’s story, for both Elisheva and her father, was the fact that his parents, who were wealthy store owners before the war, provided money to help a Jewish mother and daughter escape from Germany around the time of Kristallnacht in 1938. Many years later, after his immigration to the United States in 1953, and the end of his first marriage, Koch married that daughter. They were together till her passing a few years ago.
The videotaped exchange begins with an unexpected coincidence. “When were you born?” Elisheva asks.
“Dec. 12, 1930,” Koch answers.
“That’s my birthday,” she exclaims.
Sharing his story
As it happens, Koch’s army experience was very brief. He had been forced into the Hitler Youth. Then in early 1945, as a 14-year-old boy walking in the street of his home town of Worms, he and his companions were grabbed by Nazi recruiters. He told Elisheva that if General Patton had only had a better supply of gasoline, the Allies might already have invaded, but their arrival was still weeks away. As her father put it, the Germans were still determined to fight “to the last boy.”
“They put us in a lorry [a truck] and took us to the front,” Koch tells Elisheva. They were told they were to help defend the homeland. He managed to escape the following night, under cover of darkness, and make his way back home. “I never told my parents what happened,” he says.
His parents had voted against the Nazi party, Koch tells Elisheva, and they were “disgusted” by the treatment of Jews. “They didn’t believe in Nazism,” he says, “but they couldn’t do anything. They couldn’t speak out — or they could, but they didn’t. People were easily killed if they did.”
“So, if you liked it or not, you were involved,” Elisheva responds.
Koch told her the early years of the war were relatively easy because Germany took produce from the countries it invaded, but as the tide turned and food supplies dwindled, “the last two, three years of the war were terrible,” he says. He recalls how in the Allied bombing of Worms, the three houses the family owned were all burned down, and the business, a delicatessen and coffee import operation, was lost.
“My father took it very badly,” he says. “He had been a very rich man, and now he was poor.”
Koch’s brother, who is six years older than him, served in the German navy. Elisheva asks what his experience was like. “I don’t know,” Koch replies slowly. “I never asked him. I should ask him.”
Looking back on the interview experience, Elisheva said, “I didn’t fully understand how much the regular German people suffered during the war, from starvation, to napalm being tested on them from the Allies’ air strikes, and how hard and long it took them to build themselves up again.”
She came up with most of the questions herself but also asked other people what they’d like to know about Koch. People were astonished by what she was planning to do. “The response I mostly received was literally jaw dropping,” she said. “They were extremely interested in finding out more about his story.”
Koch told the Sternglasses he’d been happy to do the interview. “I want to share my story with younger people,” he said.
Elisheva’s history teacher, Peter Prato, was most impressed. He described the interview as “really unique.” Her father said Prato told him, “Elisheva conducted herself with poise and confidence.”