Ethnic profiling is hardly a new phenomenon, as Tales of An American Soldier, a memoir by St. Petersburg resident Werner H. Von Rosenstiel shows. Transplanted Americans have fallen under suspicion before _ even those who were willing to fight for their adopted country.
In 1943 the Prussian-born Von Rosenstiel, a lawyer who had come to America in 1939, was under close watch when he was drafted to fight the Nazis. He understood the scrutiny. Before serving for the red, white and blue, he had spent eight weeks (also drafted) in Hitler's army. In the U.S. Army, he was placed into a platoon of misfits and malcontents whose primary military responsibilities included KP duty and picking up litter. Moving closer to the action only escalated his troubles.
"I was clearly an endangered species, fully aware of the unhealthy climate in which I was a potential target not only for German infiltrators, but also for trigger-happy, nervous Americans," he writes.
As the war raged on, he survived all-night interrogations, risked his life in the glider brigade and bunked in "Buzz Bomb Alley" as "an endless chain" of planes flew toward Antwerp. Meanwhile, fear for his siblings left behind in Germany never left him. In the midst of chaos, he found solace in writing letters _ more than 500 _ to his then wife, Marion, whom he had married in America.
"If it had not been for the never ending supply of books with which Marion entertained and educated me, I would probably have taken to drink or found some other form of misery," he admits.
Instead, as others viewed him warily, he turned his own observant eye onto the cast of characters around him. They now people his memoir, written with an enticing style and a hint of humor. There's "Junior," a 19-year-old clerk typist who claims he counted bumps on the pickles for the Heinz Company. He rips the number 57 from a surrendered German soldier's uniform for his boss. There's Lichterman, a Czechoslovakian refugee and "trained chemist" who bitterly resents being assigned to a labor platoon. He resists by never lifting his shovel, even sleeping propped up on the handle. And there's Paulinetto, an Italian, who chatters incessantly about "Mussolini, women and dice."
Von Rosenstiel worked with Mitch, an enlisted man who had been a ballet dancer with the Follies Bergere in Paris before the draft. He befriended a police constable who granted him a peek into the House of Lords. He even met Lady Cavendish, Fred Astaire's sister, who was rumored to have held her hand up to her neck and said to a young American fly boy, "Above my hand is 62, below it is 18." New friends popped up wherever he traveled and those people remained his friends long after the war.
At the end of the war Von Rosenstiel returned to Germany _ now a place of soot-gray cities with bombed-out churches and charred pencil-thin chimneys. There suddenly the German-speaking soldier be became indispensable. His combination of European and U.S. education, his ability to translate and his cool-headed manner, made him the perfect man for one of the most important jobs after the war: excavating evidence against Nazi war criminals for the Nuremberg Trials.
The People's Courtroom, a place where Hilter's henchmen rendered death by hanging as the punishment for all crimes, is taken over by the U.S. Army. Files teeter on desktops filled with information to incriminate Nazi leaders. Von Rosenstiel writes of sitting in the same room with Hermann Goering, Minister President of Prussia, who took control of the Prussian police and concentration camps, and Dr. Karl Brandt, who admitted to authoring the plan to kill mental patients by lethal injection. Von Rosenstiel's interpreting skills helped bring Hitler's followers to justice.
Von Rosenstiel's honesty in writing _ without bitterness or blame _ about how he was transformed from an "enemy alien" to a "privileged participant" of a dramatic historical event, endears him to us. Tales of An American Soldier may be the story of von Rosenstiel's experiences during World War II, but in the terms of understanding humanity, it is a book for all time.
Theodora Aggeles is a St. Petersburg writer.
TALES OF AN AMERICAN SOLDIER
By Werner H. Von Rosenstiel
Xlibris, paperback $19.54, e-book, $8