In the Presence of Our Enemies
Barbara Presnell

In the Presence of Our Enemies

Americans most likely killed Edgard. Why then does Philippe not hate Americans?

I should ask but don’t. Instead, I draw my own conclusions: It’s Germans he’s despised since he was two years old. It’s Germans who began the attack on Allied forces that brought them to Malmedy and to that terrible Christmas day. Americans arrived as their “saviors,” as Philippe calls them, and American soldiers risked their own lives in an attempt to protect Philippe’s and Edgard’s.

Then, too, I think, Philippe’s hatred may be historic, considering the conflict between the two countries that dates back a hundred years or more. Perhaps it is, in a way, genetic.

Whatever his reasoning, in Philippe’s story, Americans are the heroes, and forgiving Germans is simply not an option. That fact I clearly understand. 


My son wasn’t interested in a pen pal when he was in middle school fifteen years ago, but I was. So when he brought home the form from Deutschepost Letternet, I filled it out, describing myself in order to find a match: forty-five years old, married, one child, loves animals, reading, walking, traveling. I didn’t care what country my pen pal came from. My only language was English, with a little Spanish left over from college.

I’d forgotten about the form when, months later, a letter arrived from Germany. “Dear Barbara, I am your pen pal friend,” it began.

The letter was brief and introductory. Her name was Gabi. She worked in the post office in Duisburg, had one daughter, Steffi, who lived with her, and three dogs. “Excuse my English. I hope you speak German.”

Our friendship grew through a series of short letters in basic English. We communicated best through photos and gifts. At Christmas, she sent large packages filled with presents—chocolates, stuffed animals, jewelry, a homemade scarf (at least, I think that’s what the note said). Coffee. Stollen. Always toys for my dogs. I in turn sent packages to Germany—Barbecue Festival t-shirts, Christmas slippers, Hershey’s candy, a towel for her newly designed kitchen.

Then, in 2012, I got a job teaching a writing workshop in France. My husband and I decided to go early and, along with other stops, we’d meet Gabi and Steffi.

Gabi insisted we spend the night in her house. She picked us up at the train station early on a Thursday morning. She was shorter than I expected—only about five feet—with blazing red hair. She was nervous about her bad English—we understood little of what she said and she understood us no better—but she laughed often. She was delighted by our visit. We were her “American friends,” and she was enjoying a bit of notoriety in her community because we were there.

We didn’t know their house was tiny, that to stay with her meant Gabi would sleep on the couch. We feasted that night in Didi’s backyard garden beside his fish pond, joined by Gabi’s mother and her boyfriend, Didi’s daughter Jessi, who served as our translator for the evening, Gabi’s daughter Steffi, who could speak some English, and their friend and neighbor Nikki.

Gabi took many photos, but one in particular was special: It was for her Book of Guests, an album in which she collects names and photos of everyone who visits. We wrote our names and a short message in English that thanked her for everything, including our long friendship.

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Barbara Presnell

is the author of Piece Work, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's First Book Prize, and Blue Star (Press 53), which traces her family's involvement in war from the Civil War to the present. She teaches writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and lives in Lexington, North Carolina.