Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 13, 2018

Guenther, our friend

For years, our German friend Guenther traveled across Germany, advising banks on where they should invest their money. But rather than hating being far from home in a strange city when his work day was over, he’d change his clothes and go exploring, learning about the local history and culture. Staying in a bed and breakfast was part of his plan to learn more about an area.

It was just chance that on one of those trips he rented a room from our friend Bärbel at her place in Petersdorf by Berlin. We had met her in 1991. Both had lost their previous spouses - hers to a heart attack and his to cancer.

While in his professional life, he was a financier, after hours he was all about history and the arts - two areas very important to Bärbel. They both also liked to travel. It made for a good match.

Guenther met husband Art in 1993. Art asked where he learned to speak English so well. It seems that after World War II ended, the children needed to return to school. But the buildings were in ruins and there were few teachers. So Guenther, who was 13, and some other youngsters were assigned an American officer as a teacher. The officer had a record player and a bunch of Country and Western records. Listening to those records was how Guenther learned English. In recent years, he and Art would sometimes sing “Home on the Range,” “Red River Valley” or other songs American youngsters of that time learned in school.

Bärbel and Guenther married a year or so after Art met him. They lived in his home in Nuremberg.

Daughters Mariya and Katie and I met him in 2001. Over the years, we saw the couple multiple times, often in Nuremberg and sometimes in Bärbel’s bungalow in Petersdorf. One year it was at their camp site with their “caravan” (camper) near Berchtesgaden, while another time was near Bad Langensalza, where they were celebrating Bärbel’s 75th birthday with her four sons and their families. We were always welcomed as if we were part of the family.

We looked forward to seeing them. It makes me smile to think of the way he loved Bärbel and how he sometimes gently teased her. Many things come to mind when I think of him - his grilling Nuremberger sausages in their back yard, his meticulously detailed sketches and paintings of buildings and landscapes, the moonflowers in his well-tended garden, and his insatiable curiosity.

Art and Guenther were kindred spirits in some ways. Both love to talk, have a tremendous desire to learn and experience new things, and have a deep interest in World War II and other historical topics. Guenther always regretted that he hadn’t come to the U.S. and rented a camper to visit the Civil War battle sites he had read so much about. He and Art loved to talk politics and he was every bit as familiar with what was happening in the U.S. Congress as Art was.

He also loved to practice his English with us. He always had a German-English dictionary nearby so he could add new words to his vocabulary.

Mariya enjoyed Guenther and she noted some things about him:

Guenther always explained things in such a kind and gentle manner. He would answer any questions you had not only with direct information, but with stories and personal anecdotes that made them all the more interesting. While I was always amazed by his skills with English (particularly since after years of study I can still barely string two sentences of Spanish together), I did enjoy little quirks in his phrasing. My favorite was that when something made him nervous, or was nerve-wracking, he would say that it was “nerving” - which is a phrase I still enjoy using to this day.

Katie, too, was taken with Guenther’s use of “very nerving” to describe situations that made him anxious. She also was impressed with his “interesting ideas about things, especially about history and social topics” and she loved that he was sweet and kind. “You could tell he cared deeply about Bärbel,” she said.

Although German “daughter” Nadja didn’t know Guenther well, she remembered that he really enjoyed talking and telling stories, so much so that Bärbel eventually would have to tell him to stop so she could go home.

Our family took a number of day trips to villages in eastern Germany with Bärbel and Guenther. They were veritable fonts of information about the culture, history, architecture and educational system of the area. And they always seemed to know of a café or restaurant where we could buy local pastries and other specialties.

In June 2016, we went with them across the Polish border to Slubice to go shopping. Vegetables, fruits, flowers, underwear, T-shirts, candy, household products, shoes and other items were available at the outdoor market at very low prices. Katie and I bought scarves and Art bought a T-shirt for Mariya that in German said “The early bird ... can kiss my ass.” Mariya’s not a morning person, so Art thought it would be the perfect gift. Guenther and Bärbel got a kick out of it. Guenther bought himself a hat emblazoned with a “Land Rover” logo that matched the one on his car.

The last time we saw Guenther was a few days later, when we stopped by the bungalow in Petersdorf. Bärbel served us tea, coffee and strawberry cake with ice cream. We got there at about 3 and spent until almost 6 with them, talking about our families, politics, technology and this and that.

Guenther died this past week at nearly 87 years old. But what matters is he lived a long and good life. And in the course of that life, he enriched ours with his smile, his gentle sense of humor, his knowledge and his stories. Guenther, your loss is more than a bit nerving.

Top-left: l-r, Mariya, Art, Katie and Guenther inspecting a moonflower. Bottom-left: Guenther extracts Bärbel's grandson Leander from a tree. Top-middle: Guenther and Art shop in the Polish open-air market in 2016. Bottom-middle: l-r, Katie, Bärbel, Art and Guenther behind the Land Rover. Note Guenther's hat with the Land Rover logo. Right: Guenther with his always-handy German-English dictionary.

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