German soldier’s WWII story screens at GI Film Festival

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

CORONADO, California – The Unimaginable Journey of Peter Ertel,” a documentary showing another side of World War II – that of a pacifistic German drafted into Hitler’s army—will be screened Thursday, Sept. 15,  at the Village Theatres in Coronado.

The 104-minute documentary will be one of the offerings of the G.I. Film Festival, which now is in its second year in the San Diego area.  A similar festival in the Washington D.C. area has been in existence for a decade.  The festival’s movies and documentaries deal with all branches of the Armed Forces.  (Schedules and prices are available via gifilmfestivalsd.org.)

Guenther “Peter” Ertel was among the German troops who blitzkrieged into France, but he acquired a “bad reputation” among the German Army’s ever present Nazi overseers.  His attitude wasn’t correct, especially because he told unflattering jokes about Hitler.  A decision was made to send Ertel to the Russian front – as cannon fodder.

Somehow, he survived both the ill-fated military offensive and the Russian winter, all the while, according to his account, purposely positioning his guns out of range of the enemy—not wanting to kill anyone nor to be killed.  Nevertheless he was awarded an Iron Cross, First Class, probably, in his estimate, because superior officers who knew better wanted to persuade higher ups in the rear that there was hard fighting and real determination among German soldiers to beat the Russians.

Eventually, because Ertel had combat experience, he was transferred to Normandy, to offer resistance to the Allied invasion.  This is where he was captured by American soldiers not long after he and a medic stopped their advance in order to render first aid to another wounded American.

Capture was the best thing that happened to Ertel after the day he had reluctantly marched with his unit out of Munich, leaving behind his young wife Johanna.  He was sent first to a Prisoner of War camp in Britain, and then shipped to Aliceville, Alabama, where to his amazement, the food and housing accommodations were better than anything that he and his fellow German soldiers had ever experienced serving their Fatherland.

Ertel was recruited by the American Army to return to Germany to teach his countrymen about democracy—a subject which he had ample time to study about both at Aliceville and at another installation established up for that purpose.  When the U.S. occupation of Germany ended in 1953, and a democratic system of government was installed, Ertel was permitted to immigrate to the United States, where he made his home in Cleveland.

He had not learned about the Holocaust until he was shown films in Alabama documenting what the Nazis had done.  For Ertel, the sense of guilt was tremendous.  Once, after the invasion of Russian-occupied Poland, he had wandered into a village where people hid inside their homes at his approach.  Spying one old man who had stayed outside, he struck up a conversation, and was invited into tea, where he saw an extended family cowering around the table.  What will happen to us? they wanted to know.  Naively, he responded that they had a nice little town, and probably nothing would happen to them, whereas he and his colleagues would soon be off to war again, with their coming back alive a great uncertainty.

When he found out later what had happened to Jews like those in that village, he was consumed with guilt and remorse.  How wrong and stupid his calm assurances had been!

In Cleveland, Ertel was hired by a company owned by Orthodox Jews.  He served first as a writer, and later as a vice president.  That Jews would hire him—a former German soldier, who though personally blameless, suffered an overwhelming sense from his birth nation’s collective guilt—was a powerful example that goodness can transcend racial, religious, and national barriers, and that forgiveness is possible.

The documentary includes an interview with Ertel, historic footage, and reenactments.  It is well worth seeing.

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected].  Comments intended for publication in the space below MUST be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the United States.)

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