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November 9, 2021 · OPINION

Stops Along the Way: “We came so close, so very close”

By Don Bachmann
Columnist

The destruction of World War II never marred America’s mainland; those ravages were for other countries. After the war, America became the magnet that attracted the world’s displaced masses.

In the early 1960s, my family lived in one of Chicago’s multi-ethnic neighborhoods. We witnessed the “great melting pot” firsthand. Mr. Berlenie was on one side, Mr. Kuzmer was on the corner, and across the street were Mr. Kavitch and Mr. Weintz. Their sons, John, Richie, Russell and Pete, became my friends; we grew up together.

My father, who lost a brother in World War II, refused to accept them. He was suspicious of all immigrants … especially those whom he had fought against.

Mr. Berlenie was originally a Mussolini supporter but changed sides and fought with the allies by war’s end. Mr. Kuzmer was a Luftwaffe mechanic who worked on German jet engines, and Mr. Weintz was a dentist. All had accents and spoke their native tongues amongst their families; all became American citizens.

On Friday nights many of the neighborhood men gathered in Mr. Kuzmer’s basement and played cards. We kids watched the game through a cut-out window in an adjacent room that served as a kitchen/bar. Being kids, we also watched for an opportunity to sneak a beer or cigarette.

Everyone always had a good time.

On one occasion, after the game was over, only Mr. Kuzmer, Mr. Berlenie and Mr. Wentz remained. They continued to drink and began to reminisce about World War II.

John, Pete and I sat on the floor behind the bar passing a beer amongst us. We were easily forgotten.

The men spoke about how their leaders united their countries and rekindled national aspirations. They spoke of grievances addressed and justified actions taken in the name of country. And finally, they became solemn and spoke about national destinies unfulfilled.

We remained hidden and listened.

The last words softly spoken by Mr. Kuzmer — and in murmured agreement by the others — were, “We came so close … so very close.” After a long pause, they finished their drinks and quietly climbed the stairs.

Their words chilled me … John and Pete as well. We were puzzled and troubled, not knowing what to say. Eventually our silence was relieved by nervous laughter – laughter about drunken fathers and their crazy stories. But, in the end, we agreed to never speak of it again. And, we never did.

Many years later, I tried to sort it out.

Mr. Kuzmer, Mr. Weintz and Mr. Berlenie believed in their charismatic leaders’ promises and simple solutions at a moment of vulnerability – the aftermath of World War I. They were encouraged to think of themselves as victims betrayed by past leaders – “the stab in the back.”

The relentless propaganda had its effect, and they became followers of would-be dictators. Content that trains ran on time, minorities were no longer competing for jobs and national prestige was reclaimed, they exchanged the best in themselves for the worst.

After the war, with nations in ruins and all the war’s horrors revealed, these men still clung to the lies told them. They were not war criminals, but they used those lies to mask their own complicity and to propagate glorified falsehoods that justified their loyalty and behavior.

In truth, it was probably the only way they could live with what they had done or failed to do. They lied to themselves, and I pitied them for it.

Even so, their words so fervently whispered then, “We came so close … so very close” still echo in my mind and haunt my dreams.

The columnist lives near Orlean.
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