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Epilogue | Robert Karl Nebel

German deserter Robert Nebel fought to stay in U.S.

ST. PETERSBURG — The hospice chaplain took a seat in the living room and got right down to business.

How did Robert Nebel, the dying man he had come to visit, feel about religion? Would Mr. Nebel like the chaplain to say a prayer on his behalf?

Mr. Nebel declined the request. He believed in the Buddhist concept of nirvana, or freedom from suffering, he said — but that religion had caused wars.

"The chaplain just smiled and said, 'Well, sometimes I can understand that,' " said Mr. Nebel's wife, Emma, 76.

The chaplain returned many times. "They talked about everything else but religion," Emma Nebel said. "Bob looked forward to his visits."

Mr. Nebel died June 15 of lymphoma. He was 89 and had lived in St. Petersburg for eight years.

He was born in Hamburg, Germany, with a chip on his shoulder. "He was crabby," his wife said.

His distrust of authority strengthened while in the Hitler Youth. At 17, while in the German equivalent of the merchant marines in 1937, Mr. Nebel walked off his ship in New York Harbor and disappeared.

He lived at the YMCA and washed dishes.

He sat in movie theaters and tried to piece together what they were saying. He learned English.

In 1941, authorities caught up with Mr. Nebel and sent him to an internment camp at Fort Lincoln, N.D. He stayed three years. At one point, he joined fellow prisoners in a Great Escape-like attempt to tunnel their way out beneath the kitchen.

One day a delivery truck arrived. The ground beneath broke up like a Hershey bar. The tunnel had been exposed.

Mr. Nebel was deported to Germany. He moved to Canada, and worked as a chef for a trans-Canada railroad line.

He tried to get into the U.S., but authorities always said no. "The tunnel made it difficult," said stepson Richard Cunningham, 55.

Through a favor granted by Minnesota Gov. Hubert Humphrey (whose milkman happened to be a childhood friend of Mr. Nebel's), Mr. Nebel entered the United States in the late 1960s — legally, this time.

He cooked for the Sheraton-Ritz in Boston, the five-star Ambassador Hotel in Minneapolis, and later moved down the street to the Radisson.

He had divorced twice by the time he got to the U.S. He married Emma in 1974, two months after flirting with her in a bar.

He clipped coupons and pinched pennies. If his wife wanted to replace a table cloth, he would answer, "You can get it when I'm gone."

He coached youth soccer for more than 20 years, organizing exhibition play in Europe. He also played in a senior league. German beer and soccer kept him connected to the country he had left so suddenly.

Mr. Nebel never wanted a funeral service. True to his wishes, his family grilled filet mignon last week and toasted his memory with St. Pauli Girl.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Robert Karl Nebel

Born: April 8, 1920.

Died: June 15, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Emma; sons, Reinhold and Wolfgang Nebel; stepsons, Roger and Richard Cunningham.

German deserter Robert Nebel fought to stay in U.S. 06/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 8:35pm]
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