Last week our friend Otto celebrated his 95th birthday. We were lucky enough to share the day with him and Gerty, his wife of 66 years – it was certainly a day to remember! But first a little story about Otto.
Otto was born in 1926 in the German speaking part of Czechoslovakia. At the age of 17 in 1943 he was conscripted into the German Army – into the elite Paratrooper division. Despite undergoing training in Jump School to parachute from a German Junker aeroplane and the less desirable Italian equivalent, he spent the next 18 months as a foot soldier on the Italian front. It was a grim experience as the British and later the American forces overtook the depleted German army. Otto and his remaining mates became Prisoners of War and were sent by ship to the deserts of Egypt and the POW camps set up on the edge of the Nile delta. He remained there until September 1948! But he survived. During his time in Egypt he had plenty of time to reflect and thus began his War Diary.
On his return to Germany, he was reunited with his parents in the German Democratic Republic. His diaries were put away and carefully kept by his mother. In the meantime, Otto returned to work in his original profession, as an office machine mechanic, married his Gerty and in 1965 they emigrated to Australia. Here they met my husband, even taking over his little one bedroom flat in Kirribilli, where they live to this day. Otto was renowned for throwing wild parties – where everyone had a lot of fun. Gerty was always a willing partner and provided entertainment on her piano accordion.
We became firm friends and when we married, Otto was our best man. Gerty wrote the script for his speech. As usual it was full of humour. We moved to the far North Coast of New South Wales and Otto and Gerty were some of our first visitors after our daughter was born.
They were great travellers in their camper van but even when at home, their van was a regular feature at Balmoral Beach, where they swam every day. Otto was known as the unofficial mayor of Balmoral Beach. They had no children of their own but were like benevolent grand parents to everyone else’s children. Dogs were a particular favourite and they were often dog sitting for months at a time.
When Otto retired he began to write up his war diaries – first in his native language, German and then with an Apple computer, translated into English. The tales of his traumatic war experiences were interspersed with hilarious escapades, such as being asked to drive a Tiger Tank, with hardly any driving experience or sending his ambulance over a cliff to avoid colliding with a Tiger Tank. The memories were so vivid that he even reconstructed a tank in his garage. The tales continued while he was a POW. Here there was less danger of being killed but instead there were three years of endless boredom. The innovative tricks played on unsuspecting British soldiers included setting a huge laundry machine in motion, with a punitive sergeant inside – so much for his luxurious soak in what he thought would be a secret bath. Otto’s skill was renowned, perhaps why he was detained for so long. In the end he even managed to fix a British de-coding machine much to the horror of the British superiors.
Otto perhaps thought he would never survive those war experiences but amazingly he has lived to 95 years. In the last 5 years, our family has been gifted the manuscript of Otto’s war memoir and we re-published it during the tedious lockdown moments of the 2020 COVID pandemic. Fortunately Otto could contribute to this process and went with us to visit the publisher. The printed copies arrived in November 2020. It can be found on http://www.humouramidsthorror.com.
On 9 February 2021, his 95th birthday, we celebrated with both Otto and Gerty, savouring fish and chips. Otto was particularly proud that he had passed his driving test and insisted we should drive with him to their favourite cafe. We set off with Otto’s walking frame wedged between Fred and I in the back seat. The only down side to this lovely day was a flat tyre, after we banged into a curb. We suggested calling the NRMA but not Otto! No, he said he would fix it. He had a jack and various devices to make it easier to change the tyre. We insisted we would return the next day and do it for him but on arrival found he had already been under the car but was not quite flexible enough to fit the jack under the car chassis!
It was a case of NEVER GIVE UP! It was soon fixed and new tyres arranged. We wished we lived closer to help more. Of course Otto would not be as viable as he is without the ongoing support of his Gerty. They are a formidable team! And are a great inspiration for living life to the full.