'That's America': Former German soldier builds new life in U.S. after World War II

Published: Monday, Dec. 31 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

Manfred Gellersen, 90, at his home in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Manfred Gellersen was a soldier once, and young. He is neither now, and like many old soldiers, he has his memories and stories. A feisty, outspoken man of 90 years, Gellersen tells his tales in a rush of words with no chronology or other detectable order. They are like bubbles that rise to the surface as he reaches back through the years, and he tells them as they arrive.

The things this tiny man has seen and done. He drove a Jeep through enemy soldiers, crashing under a hail of bullets. He built a raft and floated into the sea to escape the Russians. He saved an American captive from angry farmers. He survived the mud and snow of the Russian Front, not to mention the Russians themselves. He escaped his captors on two occasions. In quieter times, he attended church with Nazis meeting upstairs.

Manfred Gellersen was a soldier in World War II — for the other side. A German soldier. A Mormon German soldier. When the war was over he went home — and then left for America, landing nearly penniless in New York and eventually Salt Lake City, where he has lived ever since.

"We lost the war, and I joined the winner," he says with a smile.

He shows his guest the many photos displayed around the house of his late wife, his four children and 11 grandchildren. He offers information about many of them and mentions that five of his grandchildren are doctors. "That's America," he says.

He frequently punctuates his narrative with that phrase — That's America. Every time he mentions the realized opportunities of his life — his job, his house, his car, the raising of his family, the good water and food — it's the same thing.

That's America.

Under Nazi rule

Sitting at the kitchen table in his small home, the old man glances at his wristwatch. He's got somewhere he has to be in an hour, he says. Where does a 90-year-old have to go? Gellersen still works several days a week. He performs volunteer work — feeding the homeless at the Catholic mission downtown and laboring at the LDS Church's Welfare Square, among other things. A former mechanic by profession, he still repairs cars almost daily for friends, relatives and former customers.

"I feel obligated," he says. "I made money on them for years. They got old. I like to help them."

How is he able to do so much at his age, he is asked?

"Because," he says, smiling mischievously, "vee are za master race!" At this, he laughs out loud at his joke.

The war was the defining moment of his life, rerouting the path he would follow. In his kitchen, Gellersen thumbs through a book about the German war effort and points to photos of his old commanders, men he served for years. They are handsome, clean-cut men who look more like CEOs or senators than Hitler's soldiers and the evil incarnate that is portrayed in movies.

"What a waste," he says. "Hitler was straight from the devil."

But of course it was only later that Gellersen and his countrymen realized it, and then too late. Gellersen recalls being required to walk to the city square to listen to Hitler speak on the radio for hours at a time. The dictator found an eager audience, given the economic problems of the time.

"Hitler said he'd straighten it out; he promised jobs and food," says Gellersen. "That's all a worker wants. They voted him in. I was 11. We had it good under him."

Gellersen's father, Louis, was not fooled. When young Gellersen showed up at home excited about his new Hitler youth uniform, his father ordered him to return it. "You're not joining the Hitler youth," he said.

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