America didn't make a good first impression on Klaus.
Of course, growing up in war-torn Germany during the late 1930s and 1940s, you wouldn't expect that he was taught much affection for the red, white and blue. And he wasn't — at least, not publicly.
But he had heard from family members who lived in America that it was truly a wonderful place, filled with opportunity. America was the land of promise, and even as a child, Klaus had every intention of one day putting that promise to the test.
So it wasn't inconsistent with Klaus' perception of America's national character when, soon after the Allied occupation of Germany, an American soldier beckoned to him and the other children in his village to come and get some chocolate. This would be a rare treat for children who were living under conditions of extraordinary deprivation. Klaus and his brother and sister often had no more than a single potato to share with their mother (their father was an artillery officer in the Germany army, and had been missing for months) as their entire day's rations.
On other days, they would have a slice of bread each to sustain them. Candy was unheard of, and chocolate rarer still. That the American soldier was going to share his chocolate with these youngsters was an act of remarkable benevolence and compassion.
Or it would have been.
Instead of distributing the candy among the hungry children, the soldier stacked it in a neat pile, lit a match and applied it to the paper wrappers. Then he stepped back and laughed at the confused expression on the little German faces. He was still chuckling as he walked away, while the children reached into the fire, trying to rescue the scorched sweets.
"I don't remember feeling angry at the soldier," Klaus recalled. "We had been through so much — the bombing, the invasion, the occupation — we were kind of numb to cruelty. All we could think about was getting our hands on that chocolate, even if it meant burning our fingers."
To Klaus' credit, he understood, even as a child, that one soldier didn't represent the collective consciousness of the American people. The desire to take America up on its promise continued to burn within him until he was finally able to escape East Germany in the late 1950s. Decades later, tears would come to his eyes as he remembered the day he sailed into New York Harbor under the watchful eye of the Statue of Liberty, just as so many immigrants before him had done.
"I'll never forget that feeling," he said. "It was like I was coming home, even though I had not been here before."
During the next 40 years, the nightmare of World War II faded and was replaced in Klaus' life by the Great American Dream, complete with a loving wife, terrific children and a great house. Through hard work, creativity and dogged determination, he learned a new language, established himself as a top-flight electrician and built a lucrative business that will provide him with a comfortable retirement.
Not to mention all the chocolate bars he cares to eat — burned or otherwise.
When I met Klaus a few years ago, I intended to speak to him about his success in American business. But he just wanted to talk about America. He said he loves his adopted country for the safe, nurturing home it has provided his family as well as for how it has allowed — even encouraged — him to grow and prosper professionally. He loves America for the freedoms it offers and the opportunities it provides. But mostly, he said, he loves America because it has kept its promise to him.
First impressions notwithstanding.
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