His Name Was Klaus
By Tom Eck
His name was Klaus—Klaus Wohland. It was an unusual name in our little southern California Catholic grammar school, filled with O’ Brien’s, Shaughnessy’s and O Callaghan’s, with a sprinkling of Moreno’s and Garcia’s.
Klaus came to our seventh-grade class from Germany. He was a full head taller and at least a year older than anyone else in our class. His early education had been delayed by the aftermath of World War II and the destruction of his home in Berlin. He and his mother struggled to make their way to relatives in California to begin reconstruction of their lives.
Klaus was not an outgoing person and even appeared unfriendly. He was straightforward, abrupt and intimidating. But I liked him, and he seemed to like me. Perhaps he felt more akin to my German surname. Perhaps it was our extremes—he was the oldest in our class and I was the youngest.
During the next few months of school, we talked about many things, but not always the things that pre-teens discuss. Too much of it was his vivid remembrances of the horrors of war which he tried to forget, but could not. The incessant thunder of bombings. The collapse of the walls of his home. The cries of those dying and injured. And the cold silent stares of those who lay dead. It was a lot for a three-year old to endure.
In the classroom, Klaus was as reticent as he was on the playground. He sat next to me in the back of the room. I liked to sit next to a wall, away from the ire of the Irish penguins who generously used a ruler to rap the knuckles of anyone they thought was misbehaving in class. The wall also served to thwart the cheating gaze of some other classmates who tried to read my test answers.
As it turned out, it was not a good idea.
It was barely 9 a.m. when it happened. A California earthquake. Not the usual rolling type, but a strong jolt that collapsed the portion of the wall next to me. Instinctively, I dropped under my desk, but the flimsy wood was no match for the weight of the falling brick wall. An excruciating pain pierced my leg. I heard the bone snap. I was trapped and could not move.
The other classmates managed to run outside as we had been trained to do. But there was no way I could make it out. Since I was in the back of the room, no one saw me, or perhaps in their panic didn’t care. No one except Klaus. Without hesitating, he pushed aside some bricks and lifted the crushed desk off me.
“Put your arm over my shoulder,” he commanded, as if he had experience in such matters. As I grabbed his neck, he struggled to lift me from the rubble. I screamed in pain, but suddenly we were moving towards the door. Not a minute after reaching safety outside, an aftershock collapsed the roof of the classroom.
That evening I sat with my family around the dinner table. My leg had been set and we were all grateful that nothing worse had happened. But the day’s events got me thinking. My father was a World War II veteran with an elite infantry division known as the Black Hawks. He carried a BAR, the Browning Automatic Rifle, the largest heaviest one-piece weapon. He fought in Germany, France and Italy.
Then, by dint of some SNAFU, he was deployed in the Philippines to flush out the Japanese guerillas who did not believe in surrender, even after their defeat. He never talked much about the war. It was a time he didn’t want to relive. But he had talked about an event in Germany. Perhaps because it was the only positive event he experienced among all the destruction.
“Dad,” I said to him that night, ”Do you remember telling me about that little boy you saved in Berlin? You know, the one buried beneath the bricks of a fallen building? When you answered his mother’s cries for help?”
My father looked startled. “I’m surprised you remember that, Tommy. Why?”
“Did you ever get his name?”
My father peered into the distant past. His brow furrowed and his eyes teared up. “I know his mother’s name was Johanna. Let me think… Ah, yes. His name was Klaus—Klaus Wohland.”