By: Wayne Head
Two stories have been bouncing around in my head recently, and I thought that I would share them with you. These stories highlight two very disparate and memorable men that I met within a calendar year of each other.
The first man was the bread deliveryman for the U.S. Army Commissary in Darmstadt, Germany. I had my first and only conversation with him around June of 1978 while I was the foreman of the commissary warehouse. He always dressed in a dapper manner with a long green smock and tweed cap. He mostly kept to himself and did his job efficiently, then drove onto his next commissary. This man was an employee of the Department of Defense, as was I at the time.
I was a nineteen-year-old dependent of my father who had taken time off between my sophomore and junior years of college to earn money for the rest of my bachelor’s education while living with my parents and my four siblings. I knew enough German to hold a conversation, although not a truly in-depth conversation, and my grammar, in English as well as German, has always been poor.
This man spoke English fluently and with ease. He was a veteran of the German Armed Forces, as were many of the older men who worked at the commissary. Like my co-workers Karl, Teo, and Herr Ruhm, this older man was interning in an American prisoner of war camp two miles distant from the commissary. Unlike my co-workers, he had been a member of the Nazi party and continued to espouse the rhetoric of that former governing party of the German government. Why he chose me to share his story with, to pour his evil into my ear, I still do not know. Maybe because I attempted to speak the German language, maybe because I have always been easy to approach and engage in conversation. I really do not know, and it is far too late now to learn why he chose to confide in me his history and his beliefs.
I remember feeling a little panicky and repulsed as he told me that he had been a Sergeant in the German Army and was a member of a unit that was tasked with finding and eliminating, by any means, resistance groups in Nazi-occupied territories. He bragged about using very violent and terror-producing methods to find the resistance group members and then kill them. He told me, with a smile, that had any of the men he commanded survived the war, they would have testified against him at the Nuremburg style trials that were held in occupied Germany after the end of World War II. He told me that he thought Hitler was a great man and that he still believed that if you are mentally or physically deficient that you should be eliminated, killed to better the rest of the population. I remember being shocked at this statement. Our conversation ended as quickly as it had started, and I never talked to him again. The memory of this evil man who was working on retiring from the U.S. government service stays with me and saddens me when it comes into my thoughts.
The second man was Jack Oran, a survivor of the Holocaust. When I first met him, I could not take my eyes off his faded Auschwitz concentration camp tattoo. This was in June of 1979 in Plano, Texas when he hired me to work in his motorcycle parts warehouse, the summer prior to my senior year of college. Another college student, Chuck Schmidt, and I called Mr. Oran the boss man. There were only four employees in this warehouse, the foreman, the bookkeeper, Chuck and myself.
Much of what I learned of Jack Oran’s history with the Nazi military was from a book that he co-wrote with a ghost writer a couple of years after I worked for him. He had a good friend that came and worked side by side with him twice that summer, a man who had a similar tattoo and could have been Jack Oran’s brother in appearance. The two would work together without words, just quietly sharing the task of boxing up motorcycle parts to ship to motorcycle shops all over the United States.
Jack Oran also owned the Lone Star Honda motorcycle dealership in nearby Richardson, Texas. This dealership was the largest Honda motorcycle dealership in Texas at the time. He was a hardworking, funny and gracious man who gave all the warehouse employees three days off when the Fourth of July fell on a Wednesday that year.
I remember being shocked when I read his book. He described how his family was interned in the Warsaw ghetto in his native Poland. How his mother, sisters, younger brother, and all the women and elderly of his family were marched off to the left the first day they all arrived at Auschwitz. He wrote that they were herded off the cattle cars that they had travelled to the concentration camp in and how he and his father were separated from his other family members. Soon after his mother and the rest of the family were marched away, a great cloud of smoke went into the sky from that direction. Other, more veteran prisoners told them “that’s your family; they have been killed and burned.”
Jack Oran was probably about thirteen at the time. He wrote that he almost died the first week when he was brutally tattooed with the number that I saw on his arm. In the procedure he developed blood poisoning and almost died from the experience. Later, when the guards were bored, he was gathered into a group of prisoners that were forced to run back and forth between two rows of guards and their vicious German shepherd dogs. At some point in the running, a guard would let his dog have some length of his leash and that dog would attack a prisoner. Immediately, the other guards would converge with their dogs and the man would be killed. As Jack Oran was running one of the dogs was loosened in his direction, and he saw it going for his ankle, he knew in that instance that he was going to die. Then the dog turned its head and bit the man running next to him, and that man died quickly. Soon, the gauntlet was over, and Jack Oran returned to his hellish existence in the concentration camp.
The third time that he almost died there was when he was forced to be a participant of an experiment by the camp doctor, Dr. Viktor Mengele. He was taken into a room and a testicle was removed from his body while two large men held him on the table. He received no pain medication and no antibiotic medication to forestall infection. He was returned to his work unit and was made to work all day, each day laying bricks in the camp. A while later he was again summoned into the room with the table and his second testicle was removed in a similar fashion, and once again he was made to go back to his job as a brick layer. Had he failed to perform this arduous job he would have been killed immediately.
The last time that he almost died was when the camp was being abandoned before the advancing Americans discovered the concentration camp. Once again, prisoners were loaded onto cattle cars and transported towards an unknown destination. Jack Oran and two friends decided that this was their chance to escape. They pulled some boards off a train window. The first man lifted himself up, stuck his head out of the small window and instantly died when a telephone pole hit him. Jack Oran and his other friend each waited until a pole went by and then leapt from the speeding train. The rest of the prisoners were taken to a location in the woods, were shot in front of a large ditch, and were buried, in an attempt to hide the hideous perfidy of the Nazi regime. Jack Oran and his friend travelled at night, slept during the day, and were finally found by the American soldiers. The foreman of the warehouse told me that Jack did not celebrate his birthday on the day that he was born in Poland; he celebrated his birthday on the day that he arrived in the United States of America.
Two survivors of World War II and the Nazi regime, two men carrying different experiences and different beliefs about this world.