The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

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 seven 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 supervision 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, until 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 had been a VP at 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 to a prison camp (no, not that type of prison camp) commandant as an aide. 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 a 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 they’re 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. Other 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 his district; 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 at which to aim.

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 a shelter, then the bombs started falling. A lot of the French who had wondered at those 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 three 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 five 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 every 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.

(Back to the top, as I was thinking of Peter today – Ian.)

(Originally posted April 18, 2010.)

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  1. A beautiful remembrance of a very wise man.
    Today’s best reading.
    For different reasons each of you was blessed to have the other.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Peter sounds amazing and your youth sounds familiar. Glad you had someone like Peter to help you. Did he ever get in touch with the gypsy’s people?

  3. nihil obstet

    That man, who fought for Hitler, might have been the best man I’ve ever met.

    From the end of WWII through about the early 60s, discussion of what happened in Germany most often focused on trying to understand and explain how an advanced, civilized nation could commit the crimes that the Nazis led them into. If we forgot that these were human beings, not monsters, we risked not recognizing and avoiding the steps towards evil. Part of the rise of neoliberalism was the shutdown of efforts to understand what took place in Germany. It was all evil monsters. And the U.S. was the monster slayer. So we now identify the Hitler of the month, so that we can reenact fantasies of saving the world from evil through warfare.

    At the same time we quite outrageously defer to our government elected and appointed officials who create and maintain wars, attacks on civilians, black sites and torture. The White House honors give me cold chills.

    Your story of Peter is a reminder of the perniciousness of tribal judgments.

  4. alyosha

    Wonderful story, Ian. What a privilege to live with and be helped by such a man. We all make mistakes/commit horrors, large and small.

  5. Beyond the familiar opening paragraphs, wow! I’m speechless.

  6. Zach

    Thank you, Ian.

  7. Formerly T-Bear

    Guessing your friend Peter probably came of age sometime during the great depression or slightly before. That was a generation that tasted salt of hard work and the bitter draught of a reduced future. Unlike later generations who saw hope and promise of future, they were introduced to survival as their reality and salvation. Their school included the lesson that seeing the following day was more likely assured by cooperating with family and trusted friends, giving what they could, receiving when they needed. These are important lessons lost, unlearned, on their succeeding and better provisioned compatriots. It is not such a mystery those who went through those times shared worldwide a deep motivation of waste not, want not and a bone deep generosity towards those in need. You were truly fortunate to have had such a friend. Take his gift on conducting one’s life and nurture it, practice it, and someday pass that gift to another; this will repay fully what you received. Thanks for sharing this story with all.

  8. Kia

    This is a beautiful and undoubtedly just tribute. The modesty of his goodness is as remarkable as his steadfastness in it.

    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.”

    This is the heart of John Ruskin’s belief about how to educate artists, in a LOT fewer words.

  9. seattle resident

    Re the don’t work a job for 5 years, easier done when you’re young; when you’re old, but not quite old enough for social security, if the job ain’t too bad, it’s better than nothing when hardly anybody wants to hire older people.

  10. Dan Lynch

    One of your best posts, Ian.

    Humans are a mixture of bad and good. Some people, like Peter, learn from their mistakes and try to become a better person. That’s probably the best any of us can hope for.

  11. Most of us are a lot better than our countries — thank goodness. Otherwise, we’d be lying every time our lips were moving, swiping everything insufficiently guarded and murdering our neighbors in their beds.

    This could be a point worth considering whenever stereotypes begin to croon their siren-songs.

    Many blessings on Peter for his generosity of spirit — and on you, Ian, for yours.

  12. Don’t stop.

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