It was March 30, 1996, in the waiting room of the hospital in Sioux City, Iowa. A worried looking pastor approached me with the words, “Mr. Reppmann, I’m sorry to have to tell you your wife might not survive.” It was a terrible moment. Only a few yards from where I was standing, Gitta was fighting for her life. I could do nothing but helplessly pace and wait. The operation after the car accident lasted fourteen tortuous hours. Fortunately, Gitta was unaware of what was happening and would lie in a coma for the next four weeks.
As the doctors prepared for the operation, something happened that would have caused Germans to shake their heads. A friendly nurse said, “Come with me. You can talk to your wife.”
I stood at her bedside and in a long monologue, spoke to the silent person lying there, recalling our recent marriage in Las Vegas, painting our common future in bright colors, and hoping she would not only live but be returned to health.
I don’t know if my voice penetrated her coma’s silent armor. In any case, the doctors and nurses in usually conservative mid-America believed it did. And so, while I comforted my wife, the medical staff comforted me.
Three hours earlier, Gitta had been in an accident in our old 1976 Ford, which had been converted to a camper. Shattered jawbones had penetrated her brain and blocked her airways. Emergency personnel gave her oxygen in the ambulance, Immediately on arriving at the hospital, a doctor performed a tracheotomy to allow Gitta to breathe on her own.
I was completely unaware of all this.
It was a cold and wet gray day, and the new snow had turned to gray slop on the roads. Gitta and I were meeting members of the German Bundestag’s parliamentary subcommittees for Agriculture and Nutrition at the Sioux City airport. A chauffeured bus provided by Chicago’s German General Consulate waited for them in front of the arrival hall. Three Americans got into our van with Gitta to follow the bus.
They were headed for Holstein, a town of about fifteen hundred west of Sioux City, which I’d experienced during earlier visits. The German politicians would stay with private families for two days to learn first-hand about operating a large hog farm. I’d been instrumental in getting the group to visit America’s Heartland. My advice, “You’ll never learn anything about real-life in Washington,” had apparently resonated with the Germans.
The bus travelled along Highway 20, an asphalt ribbon stretching all the way across Iowa. I stood next to the driver at the front of the bus, talking into the microphone, telling our guests about the country, and explaining the program we’d prepared for them. The tires gripped the road, causing the slush to shoot out from under the wheels. “Good tires,” I said to myself, thinking no more about it.
A little more than an hour later, we arrived at the hog farm. Before introducing the travelers to their hosts, we decided to look around the farm. I had just pulled on my rubber boots when a stranger approached and gave me the news: “Your wife has had an accident.” In the same breath, the stranger offered to drive me the forty-six miles back to the hospital in Sioux City.
As agreed, Gitta had followed the bus in our Ford. Iowa is as flat as our home in Schleswig-Holstein, where we say on Monday we can see who is coming to visit on Friday. But about a half mile before Holstein, there is a small hill that was being buffeted by severe wind gusts. That wind and the slush conspired to cause the crash. I later learned Gitta had been blown into the oncoming lane and careened thirty feet down into a gully. The police report dryly observed, “No excessive speed.” The speedometer was frozen at 55 miles per hour; Gitta’s driving had not contributed to the crash.
On the road to Sioux City, we passed a tow truck with the wreck. The van that had served us well for so long was now a mass of torn and crumpled metal.
It was Gitta’s good fortune that a sheriff’s deputy had been only a few hundred yards behind Gitta. Shortly before the rise, the van disappeared from his view. Reaching the top of the hill, he saw the wreck and immediately radioed for an ambulance. I later found out what happened next. A helicopter picked up the three Americans, who although bloodied, had fortunately escaped serious injury. Fate had a different plan for Gitta, who’d received severe head injuries when she hit the steering wheel. Pinned in the wreckage, she lay prostrate, her jawbone splintered like a piece of rotten wood. As her rescuers worked to cut her free, precious minutes passed. In the meantime, a heavy fog descended, making it impossible for a second helicopter to land. The only way to get Gitta to the distant hospital would be by ambulance over the same roads that had caused the accident.
Thank God!! Gitta survived. But she still suffers from the aftereffects. She remained in intensive care in Sioux City for four weeks before she could be moved. I decided to have her taken to what I think is the world’s best health care facility, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. We got to know the dedicated doctors, nurses, and other staff members, especially the then rehab clinic chief Bob DePompolo and his wife Teddy. We became good friends and on occasion, join them for Thanksgiving turkey.
A Dinner with Consequences
Thanksgiving Day 1995 had long-lasting consequences. That was the day I gave a lecture entitled “Democratic Revolutionaries of 1848 from Schleswig-Holstein in the USA” at the German Embassy in Washington. The talk was part of an exhibition titled “The Influence of German Immigrants on American Agriculture.” The organizer, Jürgen Heitmann, had been sent to the U.S. by the German Agricultural Chamber of Commerce and had an office in the Embassy. After my talk, he invited us to dinner at his home, but Gitta was too tired and returned to the hotel. I spent a pleasant evening with Jürgen, his wife, and Iowa farmers Glenn Sievers and Bill Storjohann. Both men’s ancestors had immigrated to Iowa from Schleswig-Holstein. Although they couldn’t speak High German, they frequently spoke Plattdeutsch and were fluent in the North German dialect, having learned it from their parents and grandparents. Storjohann was a rustic fellow, who delighted in entertaining the little group with jokes in Plattdeutsch.
Sometime during the evening, Heitmann informed me he would be hosting a visit from German politicians specializing in agricultural policies. While we talked, the idea they should see American agriculture firsthand began to develop.
“Say, Yogi, can you set that up?” I immediately accepted, thinking about the hog farm I’ve previously visited in Holstein.
This was the first decision of the evening. The second quickly followed after Storjohann asked me, “Yogi, Gitta is such a nice gal. Why are both of you still single?” Returning to the hotel, I relayed Storjohann’s question to Gitta. Her reaction was simple and immediate: “I’ve often asked myself the same question….”
Telling no one, we flew sixteen hundred miles to Las Vegas on short notice. There, we were married under the bright lights shortly after midnight on November 27, 1995.
Gitta and I were but one of around 100,000 couples tying the knot each year in Las Vegas. After standing in line for two hours on Clark Avenue with many other happy couples, it was our turn to come before the Justice of the Peace. A few minutes later, we were man and wife. No longer was it Yogi Reppmann and Gitta Ortmann. From here on, it would be Herr und Frau Reppmann. Little did either of us know how important this would be several months later on a lonely, windswept hill near Holstein, Iowa.
After Gitta’s accident, her first husband demanded she be transported back to Germany. Thanks to the marriage certificate, I could prevent this. Without it, I would have been legally helpless.
An innocent question from a Plattdeutsch-speaking Iowa farmer, a joyous Las Vegas marriage, and a gust of wind on slush-covered Iowa Road had intersected in an unforeseen and hideous way. It would be up to the wonderful staff of the Mayo Clinic to help us start putting the pieces of our shattered lives back together.
The Best of Two Worlds
Because I don’t have a green card, we live half the year in Germany and the other half in Northfield, Minnesota. When I’m in Flensburg, I look forward to being in Northfield, and when I’m in Minnesota, I look forward to being in my home state of Schleswig-Holstein. For Gitta and me, our life on two continents is the best of two worlds; our emotional batteries are always kept fully charged by the biannual change of scenery. If I could only live in America, I would miss Schleswig-Holstein, the land between two seas, and if I could only live in Germany, I would miss the beautiful expanse of the Midwest. As much as we love our beloved Flensburg, when we deplane in Minneapolis, we experience a liberation of sorts. We’ve escaped the narrow confines of Germany for six months of America’s wide vistas. But when it comes time to leave, I know how happy I’ll be to return to my homeland in Germany. Yes, we truly enjoy the best of two worlds.
In my wildest dreams, I never imagined I would live like this. Blame Karl May for my early desire to see America. Although May was one of the world’s most successful and prolific writers of westerns, almost no one in America has ever heard of him. Even though I was thin and shy as a young boy, I never avoided a fight. I imagined myself as May’s character Old Shatterhand, strong as a bear and riding across the prairie on his horse Iltschi alongside his friend, the Apache chief Winnetou. The sofa in my parents’ living room served as the buffalo I’d killed, shielding me from the enemy tribe’s fierce attack.
Anytime there mischief surfaced, little Yogi seemed to be in the middle of it. When I was eight, I had a serious conflict with my parents, my school, and the police. Two friends and I stole some chalk from our elementary school and ran across the schoolyard to the Auguste-Viktoria School where we drew swastikas on the walls. We thought it was hilarious, but the police had a far different opinion. Within a few hours, they were standing on our doorstep. As you can imagine, my parents made big deal out of it and dealt with us like young Nazis, even though my schoolyard chums and I didn’t have a clue about the symbol’s dark meaning.
Mother Hilde managed to sweep the subject under the rug. A pragmatist through and through, she marched straight to the police station with me in tow and a bottle of Hennessy in her purse. The cognac changed hands, and I was impelled to issue a contrite apology accompanied by a promise I’d be good from then on.
Chalkboard swastikas weren’t the only challenges my mother faced in raising me. Mealtimes were always a contentious combat between the two of us. I was seldom hungry, and no matter what she put on the table, my reaction was that of the “Suppenkaspar” from the “Struwwelpeter” children’s’ tales: “No, I don’t like that.” How things have changed. Today, I have to sweat a lot not to become a couch potato.
As was typical for the family of a German official — my father worked for AOK, one of Germany’s largest health insurers — our daily routine was planned with Prussian precision. Lunch and supper were served at a fixed time, as it never would have occurred to my mother to delay a meal by even a few minutes. She was just as exacting when it came to education. If her two sons were not earning exemplary grades in school, she opened her oh-so-tight purse strings to pay for tutoring.
During my childhood, it was unusual for a middle class West German family to have no telephone, television. Yes, the vaunted German “economic miracle” had passed by our house on Professor Mensingstraße. Nevertheless, looking back on those days long since passed, I now realize what a wonderful childhood I enjoyed. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how rocky my parents’ marriage had been. My older brother Bernd and I were probably the glue that tenuously held the marriage together. After Bernd and I struck out on our own, the marriage began its inevitable decline. By the last year of my mother’s life, she no longer spoke to my father.
To One whom God wants to bless….
Some of my earliest childhood memories are about travel. Every year we would visit my mother’s mother and her sister. They lived in Jena, in East Germany and the trip was always unimaginably exciting. It was not only interminable, but was interrupted by the incredible inspections as we crossed from West to East Germany. Just like in the movies. The East Germany border patrol with their stern faces and submachine guns stood before our seats in the train.
I still remember: we set out on the first train at 4:26 in the morning than we had to change in either Büchen or Bebra and we finally arrived to grandmas about 11:00 p.m. Today the trip takes only six and a half hours.
I probably inherited my wanderlust from my grandfather. He was a charismatic man of stern beliefs and had a beautiful singing voice: “The one to whom God wants to bless, He sends out into the world.” A blessing which clearly fell on me.
My grandfather was voluntarily on many trips – but not of his own choosing – he worked for the German Railway (Reichsbahn). The First World War took him almost to Paris before he lost his right leg. But when he reminisced about his wartime experiences, I always listened attentively. He told me about one of his superiors with whom he had a real friendship. And it was this man who saved my mother from being molested by Soviet soldiers in 1945.
Before My Time
It was all before my time, but my mother’s terrible experiences on the night of 14 to 15 April, 1945 in Potsdam stayed with her until her death in May, 2011. Horrible memories of this night kept returning.
She was a food supplier ( “Fourier” ) in the Krampnitz Kaserne in Potsdam. On the evening of April 14, she was riding the streetcar from Berlin back to Potsdam. When the air raid sirens sounded, she took cover in a trench next to the Babelsberg station. Babelsberg is a neighborhood of Potsdam that is famous for film studios. Before the war many actors who would later become stars in Hollywood worked there. Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg and Fred Zinnemann are just a few of the giants of American film history who left Babelsberg to escape the Nazis. But that is another story.
While my mother cowered in the trench, British bombers unloaded 1,700 tons of bombs on the city, killing 1593 and making another 60,000 homeless. The attack was part of the “Area Bombing Directive” issued by the British Air Ministry on 14 February 1942 by which “It has been decided that the primary objective of your operations should be focused on the morale of the enemy civilian population and in particular industrial workers.”
When the all clear sounded, my mother staggered exhaustedly through Potsdam. On rubble covered streets, she passed the charred skeletons of streetcars and trucks, dead animals, people wandering dazedly, burning houses and charred corpses. There was not escape from the stench of destruction. Meanwhile, it was the morning of 15 April, a terrible day for my mother. It was her twentieth birthday and her coworkers in the Krampnitz Kaserne had given up hope of seeing her alive.
On April 22, five days before the Russians marched into Potsdam, her unit moved to Flensburg, in the Grenzland Kaserne. As they passed through Schwerin, another crisis arose. Hitler and his long-time mistress, Eva Braun had committed suicide a few hours after they were married. Admiral Doenitz became the new Führer of the Third Reich and was enroute to Flensburg to form a “new government.” In Schwerin, my mother along with all the other women was made involuntary Red Cross nurses. Even though they were completely untrained, they did their best to take care of badly wounded soldiers laid out on the steps of the Schwerin castle. The officer in charge was actually the man who had been my father’s friend at the front. He was now a general and he ordered my mother to remain with her unit. So she made it to the city on the fjord by the Danish border where her odyssey ended. It had begun in 1944 in Schneidemühl (now in Poland) where she had been born. As the war ended her parents had fled westward and landed in Jena quite by accident. But they were satisfied as the city had surrendered to the Americans without a fight. It wasn’t long, however, before fate dealt them a blow: on 1 July 1945 the GIs departed and the Soviets took control.
Thus Jena became first part of the Soviet Occupied Zone and later part of the German Democratic Republic and the place where I spent my childhood summer vacations.
The American Image
For better or worse, to watch TV in Flensburg I had to go to friends’ houses. At my grandparents’ on the other hand, I could enjoy it to my heart’s content – including, for example, the Soccer World Cup in 1966 with the famous “Wembly Goal.”
But there was also the infamous “Schwarzer Kanal” the political program of East German television which viewed the world through the dark red lens of “real existing socialism.” The view presented was that the Soviet Union was governed by “our peaceful friends” (the motto: “Learning from the Soviet Union means learning to be victorious”) while the USA was in the grip of bloody warmongers.
One might well wonder what a young lad like me might have got into his head. In 1968 aircraft hijackings from the USA to Cuba were almost every day occurrences – there were 27 successful or attempted hijackings that year and of course the East German media took full advantage. The hijackings were spun as clear evidence for the way Americans were suppressed by their government. Their only escape was to flee to Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The hijackers were actually left-wing radicals or petty criminals that wanted to extort money from the airlines. In East Germany they were always presented as political refugees.
These were stormy times. Anti-war demonstrations in the US; student riots and a general strike in Paris; mobs in Switzerland; peace marches in Germany – where one might well get a crack on the head.
Youth the world over was protesting everywhere and against everything. Of course, in Flensburg as well. Especially at my school, the “Old Gym.” Either against the Vietnam War. Or against higher fares on busses and streetcars. Or against old fogeys in education. Or against our parents’ Nazi past. Admittedly influenced by my rebellious older brother I mixed in at every opportunity. Little Yogi was always out front in the street with his friends. But when the “Bulls,” as we called the police, showed up with their billy clubs, he disappeared to hide behind his mother’s apron.
We were dressed for protest. After several days our hair was dirty and greasy, hanging down to our shoulders. A glance was enough to make our conservative elders see red. Ingo, my father had a sudden burst of authority, told us “as long as your feet are under my table, you will obey!” This resulted in a burst of hilarity on the part of his two sons.
There was suddenly a different mood in the school. This was, at least in part, justified as the following story illustrates. Another stone-throwing protest was announced. Adolf von Thadden, the head of the far-right political party, the NPD, was visiting Flensburg. We students from the “Old Gym” were in the crowd. Suddenly we saw our Religion and History teacher, who we didn’t like anyway, go into the building where the NPD was holding its meeting. It was a sensation for us.
Two 13-year-olds, another student and I, decided on a punishment. We quickly decided to draw two sketches of the teacher under a Nazi steel helmet to document his pro-Nazi tendency. Then we snuck into the school and taped the two sketches to one side of a folding blackboard. We knew that we would have him for our religion class the first hour of the next day.
What happened next was inevitable. The teacher turned over the blackboard and saw the caricature right in front of his face. This lack of discipline obviously cut him deeply. He paled and hurried silently from the room. In the next days the school administration tried everything to find out who the scoundrels were who had done this so they could be expelled from school. The class was interrogated, but without result. My friend and I had kept our mouths shut and had told no one else, not even my brother, about our prank. And so the whole thing just ended with a whimper.
Jumping ahead a little in time: a few years ago, I confessed to Tim Dallmann who had taught at the “Old Gym” in the late 1960s. He told me that his Nazi colleague had even been allowed to quote Adolf Hitler at a teachers’ conference without any consequences. His summary: “We young teachers couldn’t say much in those days.”
The years 1968 to 1971 were marked by demonstrations – mostly in Berlin where activists—committed opponents of “American Imperialism”-- filled the streets shouting “Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi-Minh” or “Ami go home.” The interesting thing was that the “sit-ins” and “go-ins” had been copied from American protest tactics. And the protesters wore American styles and listened to American music. They were fighting against pluralism which, to them, merely cloaked the oppression of the capitalist class while actually ensuring that, after 1968, West Germany was more diverse and pluralistic than ever before.
The two movements were quite different, at least in part. After the murder of Martin Luther King, the Afro-American track stars Tommy Smith and John Carlos embodied the struggle for Black Power and equal rights when they raised their black-gloved fists during the American national anthem at the Mexico City Olympics. There was unrest even inside the Soviet bloc with the “Prague Spring” being the most well-known. The Flower-Power and Hippie movements agitated for sexual liberation with their motto: “sleeping more than once with the same person is selling-out to the establishment.”
Even if I didn’t actually protest against anything specific, every day at school I signed leaflets, often without reading them. But I also vehemently defended my positive image of America. My pals absolutely refused to understand this and considered me a complete idiot.
That did not bother me at all. From then until today, I am thankful to Americans for helping end hunger in Europe after the Second World War and secured West Berlin’s freedom with the Airlift in 1948/49.