My Friend Peter
Peter was the kindest man I ever met. I moved into his old house one winter in the early nineties. Rent was $235/month, there was a shared kitchen and showers and 7 tenants. On the ground floor lived the landlord – Peter, and his Japanese wife.
I lived there three years. They were thin, cold years for me. Sometimes I was employed – as a bike courier; a dispatcher, a mover; a baker; a painter, or anything else I could find. Other times I scrabbled from day job to day job, helping anyone who needed it for cash on the barrelhead. There were some grim months on welfare; some trips to the food bank, even a few meals at the soup kitchen. I was rousted a couple times by rent-a-cops as “undesirable” (read: looking like a bum.)
My clothes were threadbare, and I would look in the mirror and I could already see myself at fifty, living the same hand to mouth, job-to-job life.
Through it all two people helped me; two people stuck by me and never made me feel worthless. One of them was Peter. Peter let me work a lot of my rent off with jobs around the house. I painted this or that, under careful suprvision I did plumbing work; I shoveled snow; and I laid bricks. Peter taught me how to learn – he’d show me how to do something, tell me to “do it right, and take your time, because if you do it fast first you’ll never ever do it right.” And those months when I was late on rent; those months when I was mortified to be on welfare – he cut me slack and he never made me feel small.
Peter was old. He had been born in Germany. And he had fought for Hitler.
He liked to talk about his life; and quite a life it had been. He’d been a spy for the CIA after the fall, till the day his handler cut him loose when he was fleeing from what would become East Germany pursued by Soviet troops. “Not willing to risk an incident” said his handler. “Not willing to keep spying for you,” said Peter. He had been a stage manager; had been Volkswagen’s chief North American tester; had been a translator and had broken codes, among many many other things.
Peter said, and I believed, that his family had been opposed to the Nazis. His father was a VP in Siemens and when Peter was caught, at a youth camp, listening to Allied broadcasts, he was able to save his son and have him assigned as an aide to a prison camp (no, not that type of prison camp) commandant. While there Peter got himself in more trouble and wound up in the camp jail for a couple of days. The cells in that camp faced each other, with a row of bars in between. The prisoner across from him was gypsy man and they spent two days playing cards and talking. At the end of it, the prisoner said, “today I will be hung as a partisan. You seem like a good man so I want to ask you if after the war you will go tell my people.”
Peter agreed, and the gypsy continued. “They think I am a partisan leader – someone other than I am. I haven’t told them I’m wrong. What I want you to do, after the war, is go tell my people that I died for this man.”
As the war ground on, the Germans began to run into severe manpower shortages. Young teenagers Peter’s age were drafted and sent into occupation duties, where they served alongside older veterans. Peter was drafted and sent to France.
He said there was very little real resistance in the district he was in (or, as far as he could tell, most of France) – just one sniper they chased in desultory fashion and never caught – the chasing mostly involving staying absolutely silent and still at night while waiting for a muzzle flash to aim at.
One day he went through a French hospital town. Because it was used to care for injured soldiers it had never been bombed. While there he and a comrade saw Allied bombers overhead. The French pointed up and said “look, our planes!” Peter screamed at them to get into the bomb shelters, but most of them didn’t. After all, they were their planes. Peter and his friend got in – then the bombs started falling. A lot of the French who had wondered at their planes didn’t survive that day.
He also went through Dresden the day after the bombing. But he never described what he saw there to me.
I asked Peter why he left Germany and emigrated to Canada. His reply was “everyone pretended they didn’t know what had been going on. We all knew. I couldn’t live there anymore.”
I lived with Peter for 3 years and when I left he told me two things – one was a piece of advice on living life “never do the same job for more than 5 years, Ian, you won’t be happy if you do.” (He was right, as I found out the hard way. Wisdom, they say, is learning from other people’s mistakes. I’ve never been wise).
The second thing he said was “my family has a custom where ever year we pick out someone to help and do so for the entire year, and sometimes longer. We know we do harm all the time. It’s not balance. But we hope it makes up.”
But it wasn’t just one person. I never saw Peter act meanly, or unkindly. I never saw him treat anyone but with dignity. I never saw anyone who needed a kindness Peter could give who didn’t get it.
That man, who fought for Hitler, might have been the best man I’ve ever met.
I usually am in comments for my posts, but I’ll be travelling when this goes live, alas. I will check in later to respond.