First Lt. Gerhard G. Hennes, a communications specialist in Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, had heard rumors of Jews and Gypsies being herded into concentration camps in Germany and Poland.
He could not bring himself to believe them.
Then, as a prisoner of war at a camp in the Tennessee mountains during World War II, the young German officer was shown proof of the extent to which Adolf Hitler pursued his policy of genocide.
In May 1945, after the war had ended in Europe, Hennes and the 1,300 other German POWs were forced to watch a documentary on concentration camp atrocities.
They saw -- Hennes says for the first time -- mass graves, naked bodies stacked near crematoriums, and the empty stares of emaciated survivors of places such as Dachau and Auschwitz.
In a darkened movie house at the Crossville POW camp, Hennes came face-to-face with his allegiance to the Fuhrer and the Fatherland.
"I have never totally recovered from the shock in that dark, suddenly uncomfortably hot, theater where from the flickering shaft of light such horrible scenes would appear and curse us all," said Hennes, holder of two Iron Crosses for heroism in combat. "That day, when spring was at its most beautiful, was the day I turned from being a hero to being a villain."
Hennes, now 82 and retired in Whitehall Township, recounted his experience in a memoir of his life as a POW more than 60 years ago.
"The Barbed Wire: POW in the USA" is a story of transformation, redemption and atonement.
In the 114-page softcover book, part of a larger memoir-in- progress "Under the Crooked Cross," Hennes traces his nearly three- year saga from Rommel's surrender to the British in Tunisia to his release and return to Germany in 1946.
Hennes went into the German army believing Hitler could restore dignity to the Fatherland, emasculated by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. He returned to Germany after the war, disillusioned and vowing to make up for his own, as well as the German people's, inaction in the face of Hitler's abuses.
"To redeem myself and my people, if that were possible at all, would be the principal motivation of my life and work," Hennes writes.
Hennes would spend 18 years providing disaster relief to people in 80 countries through Church World Service, a U.S.-based relief, development, and refugee assistance ministry. He also served as vice president for administration at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey.
He has been an American citizen since 1958.
In a recent interview, Hennes insisted he shares some measure of responsibility for not opposing Hitler's rise to power.
"I was old enough to know better," he said. "I have a share of the guilt, certainly, with regard to Germany going wrong and becoming evil."
Nationalism, not national socialism
Though he proudly fought for his country, Hennes was not a Nazi Party member. Most German soldiers weren't, he says.
Like practically all German boys ages 10 to 14, though, he was a member of the pre-Hitler Youth, or Jungvolk. Cast as a recreation program, it subtly instilled a sense of German nationalism a la "Mein Kampf."
"So, it is like osmosis," Hennes explained. "You were inside a culture crust in which you played soccer, went to Jungvolk rallies on Saturdays and, less and less, you went to church."
The son of a minister in Coblence, he did not participate in the Hitler Youth, a program for youngsters 14 to 18 that produced some of the officers who ran the concentration camps.
He was 17 and working on a crew building bunkers and obstacles on the Siegfried Line along the French border when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, starting World War II.
German youth were required to spend six months at hard labor and two years in the army. He was assigned to an Army unit shortly after the invasion.
A committed soldier with a sense of professionalism and esprit de corps, Hennes served in the 6th Signal Company, Panzer Armee Afrika. He participated in Rommel's siege of Tobruk in the summer of 1941 and fought in the battle at El Alamein in July 1942. He was taken prisoner when Rommel surrendered to the British on May 12, 1943, in Tunisia.
The young soldier, who was 20 when taken prisoner, would spend time in 16 POW camps.
He's haunted by the blood-curdling screams he heard at Malmaison, or House of Evil, in Algiers. He was led past a German soldier who apparently was tortured to death by the French.
Hearing that the French took gold from prisoners' teeth and fancied their wrist watches, Hennes tossed away the watch given to him for Christmas by the Coblence Hitler Youth Girls.
He escaped, but was captured by American troops. Turned back over to the French, he was put in a 9-foot by 9-foot cage in the North Africa heat with no shade and little water for three days.
A British lieutenant colonel, complete with khaki shorts and swagger stick, put things into perspective at another camp. You escape, he told Hennes, you die.
"For the first time," he thought, "our popularity at home offered neither credential nor comfort."
Alive, but dead
Aboard the Queen Mary, Hennes and hundreds of other prisoners arrived in America on Oct. 12, 1943. It was Columbus Day.
After seven days below deck, the POWs had no idea where they were. They gazed with amazement at the New York City skyline.
"We sensed the vastness of this new land," Hennes recalled.
POW No. 31G 3619 would end up in Crossville, a barbed-wire enclosed compound on a wooded plateau in Tennessee. It was an entirely different experience.
Instead of bread and water, there were breaded pork chops, string beans, corn muffins and Jell-O. Seconds were allowed.
"There was so much food," Hennes recalled, "we couldn't eat it all."
Beer, too. And soccer games. And a "university," where well- educated German officers taught their soldiers everything from law to civil engineering.
To Rommel's hard-core troops, it was a living death.
"We had passed from an active and dangerous life into a shadowy afterlife where, while we seemed alive, we were dead," Hennes wrote. "We ate and drank, and played soccer and learned English, yet to the Fatherland we were lost."
Good news, bad news and the Holy Grail
Unexpectedly, around Christmas 1944, Hennes got a postcard from another POW camp in Trinidad, Colo.
The sender, to his astonishment, was his father, Maj. Friedrich Hennes. A World War I veteran and reserve officer, the elder Hennes had commanded an armored battalion on the Russian front and in Normandy, where he was captured. He was transferring to Crossville.
"What a small world," Hennes thought, marveling at the odds he and his father would wind up in the same prison.
To this day, Hennes wonders how his father overcame the seeming contradiction between being a minister and a member of the Nazi Party.
"His pervasive mix of faith in the Fatherland, its leader and God seems strange, indeed, for a man of my father's intelligence and education," Hennes said.
In letters written by his father to his mother, Hennes would find grave doubts about the war. "Is this war a dead end street?," the elder Hennes wrote while at Normandy. "Over 25,000 of their shells have fallen, compared to 600 of our own."
The son, too, had his doubts. The death of his brother, 2nd Lt. Fritz Hennes, on the Russian front shook Hennes' confidence.
"I must have asked myself and argued deep inside, "was Fritz's death in vain?' Were all German deaths in vain? What if the Fatherland's best efforts were in vain?' " he writes. "These were unsettling thoughts, and I kept them buried deep in my heart and mind."
On April 20, 1945, the prisoners of Crossville gathered to celebrate Hitler's 56th birthday. The mood was somber, yet they raised their arms in salute to the Fuhrer.
"Our hearts were heavy with foreboding," Hennes recalls.
Within days, Hitler was dead, and on May 8, Germany surrendered.
"Despite long-held fears, it took me by surprise and with great force," Hennes said. "I was numb and slept poorly for days."
By law, POWs could not stay in America. Hennes and his father were transferred from Crossville to Attichy, a French POW camp, after the war ended. As Hennes left America, one vision remained in his mind's eye. It was the way Manhattan looked at night.
"The great city was lit with thousands -- no, millions -- of lights. Someone said, "It's like the Grail's castle -- luminous, distant and imaginary all at once,' " Hennes said. "And we knew that we were beholding one of the world's great sights."
Requiem to a family, a people
For his generation, Hennes contends, the past cannot be understood without the crushing experience of World War II.
Hennes was discharged Jan. 30, 1946 -- 13 years to the day from when Hitler came to power. He returned home to a defeated, unrecognizable Fatherland.
The cemetery in Coblence was littered with bomb craters. Once prosperous officers dyed their uniforms and wore them as civilian clothes.
A monument to Coblence's war dead has 7,000 names on it, about one-tenth of the city's pre-war population.
Hennes' grandmother had died while he fought at Tobruk. His brother was killed on the Russian front. His father never recovered from the hunger and dampness of Attichy and died in 1966.
"It is the story of a family who was tested and tried, and it is facile to say that, in hindsight, found wanting. It is also a story against regimentation of the mind, body and soul," Hennes concluded.
"And," he adds, "it is a story against war."