It Started With a Kiss. Happy and tragic German-American love stories after World War II. By Nicola Varns
After World War II, every second GI had a German girlfriend. In 1949 around 20,000 German war brides had emigrated to the United States. Berlin's Allied Museum chronicles love stories that flourished between Western Allied servicemen and German "Fršuleins" in the war-torn country.
"Darling, I want you to come to America to make our lives complete, that I may marry you with all the love and devotion you deserve."
When Major Frank Eyre proposed to Ingeborg Rymarczyk in 1947, he didn't realize how rocky the road to the altar would be. His sweetheart and former secretary needed her parents' permission for marriage, but they disapproved of the relationship and refused. Frank and Ingeborg had fallen in love in Berlin in July 1945, but were forced to keep their blossoming relationship a secret. It would be six years before they could wed. Their bond lasted for life, yet the obstacles to their postwar romance were not uncommon.
Every day on American Army radio, GIs stationed in Germany at the end of World War II heard slogans such as: "Don't make friends!" "Be suspicious!" "Every German girl is a funeral march!" Issued in September 1944, the Allied ban on fraternization "to counter insidious and dangerous propaganda" was intended to fend off attacks and ostracize the perpetrators of the Third Reich's war crimes.
The notion of "collective guilt" was widespread, as troops were told that "practically every German was part of the Nazi network," children and women included. Soldiers mingling even casually were fined $60. British troops too were expressly forbidden to visit Germans, exchange gifts, shake hands, dance, take walks or converse with them.
When Allied troops first entered Germany, what they saw took them by surprise. Could they reconcile these devastated cities and starving people with the warmongering images they had seen in Frank Capra's training film "Your Job in Germany"? They started to draw distinctions. One GI stationed in Cologne told the New York Times in March 1945: "I can't be hard toward these old people and women and kids. I'm not built that way."
The sight of emaciated children hunting through rubble heaps for food scraps tugged at the troops' heartstrings. When Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower relaxed the ban in June 1945, allowing contact with small children, candy and chewing gum were dished out openly, forging the first bonds of friendship between victors and vanquished.
Children were not the only ones with a fond eye for the handsome young men in enemy uniform. The dire food shortage was one factor, but German menfolk were also in short supply, making the soldiers an attractive curiosity to young women.
After years of fighting and hardship, the need for human recon-ciliation was reflected in the fact that, according to one army survey, every second GI had a German girlfriend. Non-fraternization decrees were not only being ignored, but proved to be unenforceable. As one former "Ami-Liebchen" ("Yanks sweetheart") later observed, "the first human contact with the Allies was through us women."
Military command received the first requests from GIs wanting to wed their Fršuleins in the fall of 1944, but refused point-blank. Twenty-three-year-old Robert J. Lauenstein of St. Louis was the first GI granted permission to marry a German. With no breweries in the American sector of Berlin, the resourceful sergeant had driven to Dessau on a beer hunt in the summer of 1945. Having to wait for supplies was a stroke of luck for him, as he made the acquaintance of Annemarie. His beer run soon turned into a weekly affair. His view of the enemy altered on discovering that Annemarie's father had died in a concentration camp, where he'd been interned for "anti-Hitler utterances."
The two got engaged, Lauenstein cleverly making use of a loophole in the GI fiancťe law to obtain her exit permit. They married in November 1946 under a hail of publicity, setting a precedent for GIs until the U.S. Army finally permitted marriage to Germans in December 1946. By 1949, around 20,000 German war brides had emigrated to the U.S.
Sgt. Jerry Hansley was one fellow glad of a chance to fraternize in Berlin during the Soviet blockade in 1948. One Sunday afternoon he invited three passersby to join him in the Bierkeller. The couple out on a stroll accepted a beer, but he had his eye on their pretty niece. He found out her address and soon turned up looking for the girl called Sulamith in his jeep.
After they'd been dating a while, another Berlin Fršulein approached Sula in the ladies' room of the American club they frequented. "Congratulations! I hear you're getting married!" she exclaimed. "I'm getting what?" Sula was perplexed. Jerry had spread the word without proposing to her. "I guess he just assumed I'd agree!" she chuckles girlishly, recalling the events 55 years later. Asked whether she regretted leaving Germany, Sula didn't hesitate. "I was so in love with Jerry that I didn't really think about it - it was just something that had to be done."
The newlyweds sailed to the U.S. in August 1950. Sula's first glimpse of the neon lights of Manhattan came as a culture shock after years of Berlin blackouts. As the couple drove to North Carolina in their second-hand Buick, she wondered about her future. She didn't speak a word of English, and the deserted acres of corn and tobacco fields were a far cry from her bombed-out homeland. The reception from Jerry's family shattered the idyll - at first it was less than lukewarm but eventually warmed up.
She soon settled into her new life as an army wife, traveling with Jerry and adding three children on the way. Her cream wedding dress, on display in the Berlin exhibition, is a symbol of the youthful hopefulness of a romance which flourished among the rubble.
Not every story ended happily, though. The outcome of some romances was bitter disappointment as the truth emerged of soldiers' wives and children back home. By 1955, over 68,000 illegitimate children had been fathered by occupation soldiers - with some never learning who their fathers were.
Susanne Sandweg was born in 1946 after her mother's brief romance with a GI. He'd already returned to the U.S. so she wrote to tell him of her pregnancy. "Tell me all about the baby!" he replied with enthusiasm. Yet plans of marriage were dashed - his mother was opposed to a German daughter-in-law.
Susanne was proud of her American father, and imagined saying "Daddy" to a man she longed to meet. Yet to her mother, the dalliance was a source of embarrassment - single mothers of "occupation children" were often social outcasts.
Only after her mother's death did Susanne trace her father, to be informed that he had died just weeks earlier. In 2001 she applied for U.S. citizenship and discovered that he had acknowledged his paternity. Susanne had been a U.S. citizen all along.
- Nicola Varns is a freelance writer, translator and lecturer based in Berlin.
"It Started with a Kiss"
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