When the act of terrorism struck the United States, my husband and I had just arrived in Velbert, a small town near Düsseldorf, Germany. We sat gemütlich (cozy) in the living room, my mother, my husband and I, enjoying a long-awaited time together. This peaceful moment was suddenly interrupted by a neighbor, shouting, “Quick, turn on the TV, something terrible is happening in New York!”
From here on, all German TV watchers were hypnotized by CNN. Sports events were canceled. Concerts and most other cultural events were canceled. Resort hotels canceled dances and other forms of evening entertainment. That night, we attended a reception sponsored by the local bank to honor a local artist. During the reception, the bank director apologized that there would be no customary champagne since the events of the day demanded a more sober observance. Later that evening, my sister, Erika, attended a special service with her congregation to pray for the American victims, as did millions of Germans throughout the country.
The national response was as strong as the local. An eerie quiet descended upon the Germans – upon us, our neighbors, the people in the stores and kneipen (bars) where the TV sets ran nonstop, and upon the many Europeans whose shocked reactions were televised throughout the night. America was no longer a distant continent — America was us. I was reminded of John F. Kennedy’s famous words, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a citizen of Berlin”). At this moment, I, along with so many others, felt that “Ich bin ein Amerikaner.” A shock wave of memories flashed through my mind: Berlin 1943. I saw it again. I smelled it. I heard it. A nightmare revived.
During the week that followed, we witnessed — via TV — a heartwarming sympathy from all over Europe and beyond. There were peace demonstrations, moments of silence and church services everywhere. German churches, which are normally rather empty, had standing room only with many more people standing outside to join in prayer for the victims, their families and for peace. The very touching service in the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) was televised.
Meanwhile, a very moving incident occurred in the Mediterranean Sea. A German navy destroyer with the American flag at half-mast and all her personnel on deck in dress blues sailed past a U.S. Navy ship. A young ensign aboard the USS Winston Churchill wrote about it to her parents: “About two hours ago, we were hailed by the German navy destroyer Lutjens, requesting permission to pass close by our port side. Strange, since we are in the middle of an empty ocean, but the captain acquiesced and we prepared to render them honors from our bridge wing. As they were making their approach, our conning officer used binoculars and announced that Lutjens was flying not the German but the American flag. As she came alongside us, we saw the American flag flying half-mast and her entire crew topside, standing at silent, rigid attention in their dress uniforms. They had made a sign that was displayed on her side, that read, ‘We Stand By You.’ There was not a dry eye on the bridge as they stayed alongside us for a few minutes and saluted. It was the most powerful thing I have seen in my life. The German navy did an incredible thing for this crew, and it has truly been the highest point in the days since the attacks. It’s amazing to think that only a half-century ago, things were quite different.”
Of all the German cities, Berlin might have been moved the most. Many older Berliners remember the lifesaving airlift of 1948-49, initiated by U.S. Army Gen. Lucius Clay. The younger ones remember President Kennedy in Berlin and, later, President Ronald Reagan, who asked the Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” They now came in great numbers to lay down flowers and letters expressing their condolences. Their letters also urged for world peace. I heard several times the remark, “America has done so much for us; now it’s our turn to help them.”
Our vacation plan included two weeks in southern Spain. Somehow, I had thought that there we might be farther removed from the incredible sadness that had gripped Germany and its neighbors. But this was not the case at all. In Spain, too, there was an outpouring of sympathy everywhere.
On Sept. 16, the crown prince of Asturias, Felipe VI, opened a memorial session in Cádiz with the national anthems of both countries played, a gun salute and prayers in English and Spanish. A wreath, decorated in the national colors of Spain and America was put down while musicians played “Death is Not the End.” Against all protocol, the prince approached the American civilians and soldiers afterward and expressed his condolences.
President José María Aznar, before his trip to Turkey on Sept. 17, signed his name into the condolence book at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. In Istanbul, he and the Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit signed a declaration against terrorism.
On Sept. 20, Spanish political parties and labor unions congregated at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid for a time of mourning. The city of Malaga observed five minutes of silence, services were held in memory of the victims, TV sets were tuned in to CNN, and wherever we engaged in a conversation, the topic was New York and Washington.
Many tears were shed in light of such a tragedy. Tears of compassion, tears of fear and anger, tears of frustration and helplessness. But there also were other tears. Those tears were the ones of being touched by the incredible love that pours out for the Americans and for America.
Gudrun Clay, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She is a resident of Hawaiian Paradise Park.