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A Personal Encounter With a Nazi War Criminal: Friedrich Engel

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An arts major and published indie author who writes on various subjects pertaining to humanities.

Years ago, I lived near Kaiserslautern, Germany. Every so often, I had the chance to take leave, and return home for a visit with family in Alaska. On one such occasion, I had a very unusual experience, and to this day, I find quite fascinating because little did I know who or what I was dealing with on that fateful day.

The flight from Germany all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska, is quite long and taxing. The travel time borders on eighteen hours of flying. You switch planes so many times that you become numb, blind to the strangers sitting right beside you. All you want to do is escape your cramped seat and finish the flight.

As I recall, the last leg of my flight from Seattle to Anchorage was about four hours long. While in flight, an elderly gentleman who had been sitting beside me for the past few hours started choking on his dinner. Alarmed, I reached over and patted his back. A moment after his recovery, he nodded at me and then thanked me. Of course, I noticed his German accent, and so out of curiosity, I asked him about his nationality. When he confirmed he was German, I became even more curious, and so I introduced myself. He seemed kind enough to tell me his name was Friedrich. He explained he was traveling from South America and on his way to visit family members who lived in Anchorage when he told me that. A sudden alarm that went off in my mind.

In the past, I had seen a documentary about German soldiers who fled for South America to escape the Nuremberg Trials. Could he be one of these Nazis who were on the run? I took a deep breath and asked him.

Nazi hat worn by SS officers

Nazi hat worn by SS officers

A Discreet Conversation

“Did you serve in the German Army during the World War?”

"I did.” He replied.

“You mean Hitler’s Army, right?”

Friedrich stared at me for a long moment and then nodded his head with a solid reply. “Yes.”

“What did you do in the Army?”

“I was an officer.” He replied. “They called me the Butcher of Genoa.”

At that moment, my mind confirmed what I had been thinking. Indeed, I was sitting next to a prior German Nazi SS Officer who might very well be living on the lam. I had no reason to feel scared. After all, I guessed he was midway in his seventies, and he seemed rather docile, not at all an international war criminal. So there I sat - next to the enemy. Of course, I didn’t see him as an enemy. Perhaps an enemy to the Jew, yet I have to admit that I didn’t feel any grudge towards this man. How could I? I hadn’t lived in that time, nor could I pass judgment on something that I knew very little. I found out more about this German Nazi Officer named Friedrich.

"Why did they call you that?"

“They claim I had killed a bunch of Italians ... partisans.” He murmured. Shaking his head, he finished with a definite resonance in his voice. “I didn’t kill anyone.”

I remained silent while soaking in this incredible information.

“It was not my decision.” He continued. “As a soldier, sometimes you endure things whether you like it.”

“Did you have regrets?” I asked.

“Of course.“ He replied. “But my position gave me little choice but to follow orders. If not, there were many repercussions. Like you, we Germans have families, and loved ones whom we wanted to protect.”

Nodding my head, I understood his point of view.

A Questionable Omission

“Did you ever get to meet Hitler?”

“Once.” He returned with a hint of pride in his voice. “Hitler pointed at me and then made a comment to my commanding officer I would make a fine commander one day.”

I don’t even think he was aware of my presence anymore. He seemed far away as he looked forward while remembering an entertaining experience he then changed the subject.

“There was this bank in Milan. The rumor going around was that we filled it with gold.” He began with a wry smile. “We spent all day trying to break into that damned vault. After a while, we got smart enough to wire some dynamite and blew the doors open. Do you know what we found inside?”

He waited for me to respond.


“Well, there wasn’t any gold.” He laughed. “All that we found was a woman’s brazier hanging from the end of a broomstick.”

For the rest of the flight, Friedrich continued to tell me about the war. I asked him about his position on the Jews, and how he felt about the mass extermination. He responded he was young, and very proud to be German, and that sometimes in life, young people decide, which later comes back to haunt them.

Just before the plane landed, Friedrich passed me a sidelong conspirator look.

“I will tell you something else.” He leaned in closer. “Hitler didn’t die during the war.”

“What are you saying?”

“The body they found was not his body, but one of his bodyguards.” Frederick enlightened. “He lived out the rest of his life as a yeoman farmer in a small town right beneath the very nose of the authorities.”

“How is that possible?”

“Everyone believed him dead.” He returned. “So no one pursued or questioned his existence.”

“How do you know that?” I asked, almost balking. I never got an answer. Friedrich only smiled at me and shook his head.

A headline in the U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes announcing Hitler's death 1945

A headline in the U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes announcing Hitler's death 1945

About Those Conspiracy Theories

I’m not sure whether Friedrich Engel had been telling the truth or pulling my leg about the Fuhrer’s existence after the war, but there has been a recent approach about Hitler and Eva Braun that claims the two had survived the war and lived to old age in both Indonesia and South America.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories. However, anything is possible.

I would hope not.

My Perspective

Seventy-odd years have passed since the incredible atrocities of World War II. There are very few people living today who remember the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the atomic destruction upon Hiroshima. Most of us had relied on hand-me-down stories, school textbooks, internet and television documentaries to educate the newer generations about a time when the great Axis of Evil tore the world apart.

Born a babe during the freedom-loving revolution of the sixties, I too am one of the many who’ve read about the horrible deeds committed against humanity during that climatic time. I’ve tried to keep in mind that I was not alive during these important annals of our world’s history while examining the entire spectrum with an objectivity rather than feeling subjective to something that I’ve never experienced.

The near extermination of the Jews was an inhumane injustice spearheaded by an evil leader. No one can deny this. Despite that, as a non-biased outsider, I believe the world may pass judgment on a misguided collaboration, but to scrutinize an individual for the brutality of the collective whole is unjust if we do not examine the reasoning behind each in question. Every one of us has made a mistake of some sort, and some even more than others might deem. However, I believe one man’s mistake is another man’s folly once he passes judgment when he knows nothing about that man’s heart.

Considering Friedrich Engel’s guilt, I could not pass judgment on the man. I met him as a stranger, and found him altogether pleasant, composed, and believe it or not, quite humble. Based on what the gentleman shared with me, I would like to think that he was not guilty of mass murder, or at least not the sole person to blame. However, he was the commanding SS officer in Genoa under orders of the highest authority - guilt must fall upon somebody’s shoulders, and, in this case, Engel was the highest level of power associated with that area and as tried, the German courts found the man guilty.

Martyrs Shrine of the Turchino Pass, the location of the massacre 59 Italian civilians, who were executed as ordered by Friedrich Engel

Martyrs Shrine of the Turchino Pass, the location of the massacre 59 Italian civilians, who were executed as ordered by Friedrich Engel

Afterward Thoughts

We all know the old saying War is Hell, and we also know that soldiers go through unbelievable trials of personal strife. I believe that Friedrich Engel was a man caught up in a horrible situation and the circumstances beyond his control, and he like so many other on the enemy side puppets in a Hellish theater orchestrated by an evil master who used all means to control and dictate the fate of a misguided country.

In lieu of the personal story Engel shared with me, I've found a news article by "The Guardian" dated April, 2001 by Rory Carroll which reports a conversation with Friedrich Engel two years after his sentencing. At that time, the 92 year old former SS officer expressed his partial guilt and explained his situation:

"I am responsible, but only in part, for the execution of 59 Italian prisoners of war. For me to have resisted would have been impossible. Imagine, if you can, how you would have resisted the personal wishes of the Führer."

Engel firther explained:

"Yes, I was involved. I did not oppose it. And I regret it immensely. They died as heroes, as martyrs. They didn't cry; they didn't shout, they didn't ask for pity."

To those of you, who read about my personal experience with a German Nazi, do not think for one moment that I do not sympathize with the tragedy of the Jewish community or the Italian Partisans victims executed at Turchino Pass under the orders of Friedrich Engel. What happened to these people was unspeakable, a deplorable act. Every one of us must stand amidst judgment once we finish with this world.

Friedrich Engel died in 2006, while under trial for a crime he may or may not have committed. By now, the Supreme Being, the omnipotent creator has passed his judgment, and that word is final.

Cited Sources & Works

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