Coming to the U.S. under ‘re-education’ for Germans program |

Coming to the U.S. under ‘re-education’ for Germans program

Immigrant Stories
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Klaus Penzel

Penzel: I was born in Germany where I grew up during the Hitler years and World War II. My father was the pastor of a large urban congregation in the North German port city of Bremen. I still have a vivid memory of the first time I heard of America. In elementary school I was attracted to a little girl, a classmate, who suddenly stopped coming to school.

When I finally asked our teacher about her, she replied almost in a whisper, “She has gone to New York.” That answer filled me with awe: “Gone to New York” – to that mysterious big city across the ocean! Only after the war did I realize that my little friend was Jewish, and her parents had managed to get out of Germany just in time. And how could I have known that at that very time, in 1938, there was already another little girl living in New York who 21 years later would become and remain my wife.

A normal family life ended for me when I was 12 years old, after the first air raids at the beginning of 1941. I remember the sirens awakening us at night, the terrible noise of the anti-aircraft guns, and flying down the stairs to reach the safety of a basement shelter. When I heard the screeching noise of a falling bomb for the first time, I fainted, falling from my chair. Moments later I heard my father saying good-naturedly: “You little blockhead, the bomb you hear won’t kill you.”

He explained that a falling bomb travels faster than the sound. Now, of course, I worried about the bomb I did not hear. My parents finally sent me to the safety of a town in southern Germany where I lived with host families, finally ending up with relatives in a suburb of the beautiful city of Dresden on the Elbe River, where I attended the venerable Latin School that had been founded in the 13th century.

Normal school life ended for me at the beginning of 1944 when, at the age of 15, we high school students were ordered to take over the big ant-aircraft guns protecting the German cities. Of course, we were not real soldiers, we were called “air-force helpers.” In the morning our teachers would come to our barracks, where they continued to instruct us in German, Latin and geography. But in the afternoon and for the rest of the day we were drilled and treated like soldiers.

We saw action only once when, as I proudly remember, we youngsters gave a better account of ourselves, with our big guns blazing away, than our nervous adult superiors. Shortly before Christmas all anti-aircraft guns were removed from Dresden to the western and eastern fronts. A few weeks later, two terrible air raids during the night of February 13 destroyed Dresden and killed some 30,000 civilians.

At the end of March, I was drafted into the regular army. Two weeks later, without having fired a single shot, I was taken a prisoner by soldiers of General Patton’s Third Army. “Hands up!” were actually the first English words I ever heard. In the prisoner-of-war camp I collapsed but was nourished back to life in the camp hospital.

I was 16 years old when, at the end of July, I was released from the camp. Later I would tell my teenage sons that I had trouble understanding them, because WW II had helped me to get “safely” through the teenage phase. I never was a teenager in the normal sense of the word.

I graduated from my high school in the spring of 1948 when I enrolled at once in the university. I majored in theology, because I wanted to become a minister, following in my father’s footsteps. I also became active in the German YMCA.

And then, in the summer of 1950, came the great turning point of my life. I was selected for a three-month study tour of the United States under a program that was sponsored by the United States State Department and at the time had the telling title “Program for the Re-education of the Germans.” This program brought several thousand Germans from all walks of life to the United States, there to study the workings of a functioning democracy.

Those were three unforgettable summer months for me. I traveled from New York to Washington, D.C., to Chicago and Minneapolis, everywhere observing the youth-work of the American churches and of the YMCA. One experience I still remember vividly. On the morning of one of the last days in June I was standing in the bathroom of the YMCA in Washington, D,C., when somebody burst through the door, shouting: “The president has ordered American troops into Korea.” That, of course, was the beginning of the Korean War, which soon turned the former enemy nations of Germany and Japan into desired allies in America’s cold-war confrontation with the Soviet Union.

When I was flown back to Germany a few weeks later, the program that had brought me to the United States had already been renamed: “Cultural Exchange Program.” I should perhaps also mention that when I applied for my visa in Germany, I had to answer the question: “Were you a member if the Nazi Party?” Three years later, when I applied again for an American visa, that question had disappeared, it had been replaced by a new question: “Are you a member of the Communist Party?”

During my first visit to the United States the American churches had struck me as very exciting, but also as very different from the churches in Germany. It was then that I firmly resolved to return to this country in order to study the history of American Christianity. I was fortunate to receive an ecumenical fellowship from the World Council of Churches. The fellowship made it possible for me to continue my “re-education” at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

While in New York, I was befriended by a wonderful woman who owned a beautiful estate on the banks of the Hudson River not far from West Point. One weekend, she had a party at her estate and invited a number of junior officers from West Point. When it became known that I had never been to West Point, a young captain offered to be my guide on a tour of the West Point campus the following Monday.

During the introductions I had unfortunately not caught his name. And on Monday, as we were walking across the campus, we passed a statue on our left. My guide pointed to it and said matter-of-factly: “That’s my father.” It was a statue of General Patton. I was deeply moved. Nine years earlier soldiers of General Patton’s Third Army had made me a prisoner of war, and now General Patton’s son was showing me West Point.

Later when we went for lunch at the officers’ mess, the young captain introduced me to his fellow officers with the simple words: “He fought in the war but on the other side.” On that day I realized once again how unpredictable is history, how unpredictable is the course of a human life! My own life certainly had come full circle.

When I finally ran out of scholarships I had to find a job. I was lucky to find a teaching position at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. But then a terrible glitch developed. I was still on my student visa and was now told that it is illegal to hold a paying job on a student visa.

I was also told that I would have to leave the country and apply at an American embassy or consulate abroad for an immigrant visa, and only with that visa in hand would I be allowed to return to the United States. I was shocked. But perhaps immigration laws in the 1950s were more flexible than they are today, or, more likely, the college had pulled some strings.

In the end it turned out that all I had to do was to have a friend drive me across the Canadian border to the American consulate in Montreal where I arrived in the afternoon and filled out the necessary papers. Next morning when I returned to the consulate, there was my immigrant visa waiting for me, and I was back at Dartmouth College that evening, not having missed a single lecture during my two-day absence.

My immigrant story ends, as it has ended for millions of other immigrants: I became an American citizen. In 1966, I moved my family to Dallas, Texas, where I taught at Southern Methodist University for many years. Three years ago my wife and I came to Carbondale where our youngest son and his family live.

Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to

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