On the road again
Oct 20 2014

Dearest Old Bold Pilots, Family and Friends,

Charley is with me and our starting point today is:  Duesseldorf. This is interesting for two reasons:  1) I actually started this trip solo a week ago, since Charley can no longer travel as much due to family obligations;  2) there was a train strike over the weekend which prohibited Charley from meeting me here.   Instead, I drove 5 hours to pick him up and then turned around and drove 4 hours back down here with him.  I wasnít good for much except napping yesterday evening, despite the mild weather, which had everyone outside. 

Yes, it was 21 degrees Celsius at the height of the  afternoon, a whopping 69 degrees Fahrenheit.  So, due to this extraordinary HEAT WAVE, the heatís not on anywhere (not even at the Marriott), even though itís normally been in the 50ís during the day, and in the 40ís at night.  This is no problem for the veterans, who tell me that after a Russian winter, nothing feels all that bad anymore.  For a southern California girl (and I do still consider myself that now), buying an electric blanket is high on my priority list this morning. 

On Thursday, I visited a veteran born in 1918 who can still remember just about every name, place and date from his battles during the war (and there were many, many battles).  Over the summer we filmed 13 hours of interviews, and only got to 1944.  Over two days last week, I was able to scan in his photos, some documents, and get to 1945 with him.  But Iím worried about him. Heís feeling so poorly that this time he had to conduct the interviews laying down.  I wondered, of course, if we should actually go forward, but he didnít want to cancel. 

Up to now, interested men have visited him with the hopes of getting his Knightís Cross (which could sell for over 10,000 Euros), his other medals, or just about anything they can get their hands on.  Years ago, an unscrupulous visitor took his paybook (Soldbuch) with him when he left and sold it for several thousand Euros.  Men meet him at veteranís gatherings, get his autograph on a picture, and write letters to him.  Then they turn around and sell his letter back to them (which he asked to keep private and confidential) on the internet for nearly 100 Euros. 

On Saturday I interviewed a nightfighter who lent his pictures to a respected historian who wrote a book about nightfighters.  This historian gave his personal word in writing that all his original pictures would be returned.  However, when the nightfighter got his album back, dozens of original pictures were removed and replaced with duplicates (the original white decorative border is now missing on these, and the new pictures are different size from the originals).  On the internet, these original pictures could sell for around 10-14,000 Euros in total.  And how many veterans lent this man their albums?

In Germany, almost every elderly veteran is a target for unscrupulous reporters, collectors, and opportunists masquerading as historians, who use and abuse them, steal from them, and betray them.  They themselves do often not realize how much their items are worth, donít believe the police will help them, and are ashamed they were taken advantage of, so they donít report the abuse.

It turns my stomach. 

And itís the reason itís so very hard to gain their trust.  It can take years of showing up to reunions, multiple phone calls from Charley, and the recommendation of other trusted friends to gain entry to these veteranís hearts.

And it makes me wonder about my own motives.  Naturally, I intend to write about these veterans sometime in the future, with the goal of selling many books.  After all, I am spending tens of thousands of dollars of my own savings to gather these stories while there is still time, and hope to make a living as a writer in the future. 

So am I any different?  Iíve asked myself many times.

And I always come back to the same answer. 

In ancient eastern philosophy, there is a notion of never taking anything that is not freely given.  I have found this a useful rule to live by.

Sitting on the floor next to my 96-year-old veteran while he lays on the couch, holding his hand and looking into his eyes, I asked, do you want to continue to work with me so that I can write your story?  Do we press forward, despite the difficulties, to make sure that what you experienced does not die with you?

And the answer is yes.  As long as we can, we will push on together.

The answer is a relief, and a burden at the same time.  There is great responsibility to these men and the world to get this right, to show respect, and to research and corroborate, to ensure accuracy.  It is a long, difficult, and expensive road.

There are many more men, more interviews in the coming days.  And as soon as I can, I will circle back, hoping my 96-year-old is feeling better, can tell me more, and show me more.

I am grateful every day for the opportunities presented to me to talk with veterans at home and abroad, for the chance to counteract in some small way any harm done to them, and to serve them and the world by preserving their stories.

In deepest gratitude to everyone who helps us in the mission,

Heather


 

 

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