After finishing my undergraduate degree, I started graduate work at the University of Tuebingen in Germany in October of 1976. I had not given any thought as to how I would spend the Christmas holidays, even though I knew I had nowhere to go. But then I got a letter from an American acquaintance telling me that a German family was hosting a group of Americans and that I was invited too! After an hour’s train ride, I found myself in the village of Asperglen, where I was to spend Christmas with a group of strangers.
The first impression was great. Asperglen is a picturesque, Swabian village, the kind that travel agencies like to present as real, authentic Germany. The Schempp family, my hosts, had rebuilt a large, imposing house at the center of the village. I could tell from the architectural design, the windows and the art on the walls that the house was a work of love.
Heinrich and Dorothea Schempp had designed their Asperglen house with an eye to accommodating up to ten guests. So, they told their 21 year old daughter, Annette, to bring home her American friends who were studying with her in Switzerland. I got an invite because Bill, my acquaintance, was one of Annette’s classmates.
Soon after arriving, the Schempp’s loaded us into their VW van and drove to the Protestant church in nearby Rudersberg for the Christmas Eve service. The church building was Gothic. The congregation had a brass band which beautifully accompanied the many Christmas hymns. I did not listen closely to the sermon. But that is because my attention was drawn to a large plaque on the wall listing the soldiers from the congregation who had fallen in World War II. I particularly took note of the many men born in 1923. That was the year of my father’s birth. And Heinrich Schempp’s.
I turned out to be the only American in the group who spoke German which led to an immediate bond with Heinrich. On Christmas Day he took me for a long walk in the Swabian countryside. It was the first of many. He talked about his life, his dreams and the war. Heinrich had hoped to study art and philosophy at a German university. But, like my own father, 1942 brought a draft notice instead of an acceptance letter. Heinrich shipped out as an infantry soldier to the Eastern Front. In 1944 he was wounded and sent to Vienna to recover. He ended up on the Western Front. He contrasted the intense warfare with the Russians – “I was a candidate for death at least 15 times” — with the American pace of war. Heinrich and his unit would set up a road block and hide. The Americans would arrive, stop and wait for several hours. That gave Heinrich’s company the time to withdraw and set up another road block a mile down the road. This game of hop-scotch kept them alive. His only face-to-face encounter with an American soldier came on a patrol. The 5’5” Heinrich described how he walked up a forest path and practically bumped into a very tall GI. Heinrich: “I screamed, he screamed, and we both fled in opposite directions.”
After the surrender, Heinrich hiked across Southern Germany to Stuttgart. There he found the family business destroyed by an American bomb. He then spent the next few years rebuilding with his father. Heinrich had hoped to go to college. Instead, he learned the medical supply business. He specialized in fitting wheel chairs. He married Dorothea, his childhood sweetheart, and they had three children. The business flourished. The house in Asperglen testified to it.
When my father visited me a year later, we went to church with the Schempp’s. My father too stared at the plague on the wall. He told me that he was moved reading the names of the many men born in 1923. I thought: If Heinrich and his family had immigrated to Salt Lake City in the 1920’s, then he and my father might have sat on the same church pew. Instead, my father could have been that tall GI in the forest.
During my two years in Tuebingen I spent countless weekends with the Schempp’s and their children. My wife, Janke, and I spent our first Christmas as a married couple at the Schempp’s. The German Christmas with strangers turned into a life-long friendship.