In the Presence of Our Enemies
Barbara Presnell

In the Presence of Our Enemies

That night, we were stuffed with barbecue, sauerkraut, beer, and ice cream and enjoying a moment of quiet around the table. The sun was setting, and frogs at the pond had begun their evening chorus.

Jessi, dark-haired, nineteen, and just graduated from high school, broke the moment with a question. “So what do you think of us and Hitler and all that?”

Everyone paused, waiting for the answer I got the feeling they had all been wanting. It’s a subject I, too, had been considering.

Since we had landed in Frankfurt, I had not stopped seeing this as the country that almost destroyed the world in the 1940’s. As the daughter of an American veteran, World War II is most of what I knew of this country, and my impressions had been forged by American TV and film. I thought the guards at the airport seemed unusually harsh. Even their speech, throaty and quick, was clipped with a sharpness that threatened.

I wondered what my father would think of my sitting here, eating and sleeping with his enemy.

But I didn’t say any of that. Instead, I took the chicken’s way out: I gave her question back to Jessi unanswered. “What do you think?”

Steffi answered for her. “We don’t.”

In truth, we learned in the conversation that followed, they didn’t know much about the war, because they weren’t taught it in school. Didi’s father, he told us, was a soldier, and they had heard of a camp nearby where Jewish people were kept, but they didn’t know anything about it, and they’d never visited.

But that was it. They knew little else.

“It is not who we are,” Steffi said.


We have paused in our visit to “take a drink” with Philippe at a side café in Malmedy, today a small but welcoming town of eleven thousand that rests in a valley between the hills of the Ardennes. We sit at an outside table, drinking stouts. A group of students sits at the table beside us, smoking, talking, and enjoying the warm mid-day.

“They don’t understand,” he says. “Young people laugh and have a good life, and they don’t know what we had to endure for them to be free. They don’t care to listen. They don’t want to know.”

After a lunch of sandwiches, he leads us to the town square. Bombing destroyed most of the town, as my father’s journal describes and Philippe confirms, but a cathedral remains. We walk into its dark sanctuary, where elaborate stained glass and ornate statues dominate. That it avoided major damage is remarkable, almost miraculous.

In front of the cathedral is a memorial for soldiers killed in the bombing, and plaques list the names of units, including the 30th Infantry.

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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.