ST. PETERSBURG — For fifty years I have carried these memories. …
I have tried to understand how millions of people, like me, could have allowed themselves to be led down a path of total physical, moral, and spiritual destruction in such a short time.
Many of those millions have passed on and found their peace, but I am still here, a leftover of that evil time.
• • •
Dieter Steiner was born in 1931 in Grimma, Germany.
His mother couldn't get service at the town grocery without saluting Adolf Hitler. Young Dieter thought shouting "Heil Hitler" was fun.
He didn't understand the concept of "Jew." He was fascinated by fancy uniforms. He walked around with a ruler taped to his shoulders so he'd stand at attention like a soldier. He played war, like little boys do.
But reality and fantasy were all too close.
The Hitlerjugend, or Hitler Youth, was grooming young boys to fight for the Nazi Party. When Mr. Steiner turned 8, he couldn't wait to join. Military boys at his school were revered and had special privileges.
Mr. Steiner's stepfather, a pacifist opposed to Nazi practices, made his stepson wait until the government forced him to join. It didn't take long.
His uniform had black pants, a jacket and a hat pinned with a swastika. His belt lacked enough holes to fit the skinny boy snugly around the waist.
He strutted around in his uniform. When he spewed anti-Jewish rhetoric at home, his stepfather tried to correct him — people aren't good or bad because they're Jewish or Catholic of Polish.
Mr. Steiner was confused.
"Now I don't know who to hate."
• • •
Evil can happen anywhere. At any time. … All it takes is hate and good people who say nothing.
• • •
He was 13 when the Hitler Youth thrust him to the front lines of war.
His peers beat him, because his name sounded Jewish to them. He saw children killed by the enemy or hanged for running away. He saw a woman's head blown off. He jumped into a ditch once, landing on a corpse.
Mr. Steiner's stepfather died in Stalingrad, where he had been sent to fight. His mother was assaulted by Russian troops. By war's end, the family was starving, eating dandelions and grass.
Mr. Steiner came to the United States in 1953, enlisted in the Army and became a citizen. He worked as a graphic designer for Oscar Mayer in Madison, Wis. He married twice and had two children.
He tried to lose his German accent entirely. He carried deep shame.
Mr. Steiner retired to St. Petersburg. In 1992, he met author Diane Marcou, who agreed to help put his experience on paper.
"It gave him an opportunity to finally discuss it," said Marcou. "He was a good, kind man who carried the burden of having been on a horrible side of the war."
He published War Child in 1995. The book was later re-released with the title Once Upon an Evil Time. He and Marcou spoke at schools, explaining how hatred festers in innocent places.
Speak up, they said, when you see injustice.
Mr. Steiner kept to himself except for bowling outings. He wrote a book about his life after the war, but he never gave it a title. He battled bladder cancer and lymphoma and died Thursday. He was 76.
• • •
Years ago, I promised myself to do something to make our world a better place. When my time is up, I hope I will find that I accomplished my goal in some small way.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.