Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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October 2002

First-Hand Reporter

Veteran resident looks back at his turbulent relationship with Germany

“Go forward until you meet resistance!” This was an order Wolfgang F. Robinow had received many times before, and, upon hearing it, the 26-year-old Master Sergeant of the 42nd Division of the United States Army knew the dangers in store for him. His job was reconnaissance—driving far out ahead of the main body of the US forces to find the enemy—a job that had already resulted in two Purple Hearts for Robinow, the medal awarded for being wounded in battle.

April 30, 1945, however, entailed something different from scouting the fields and forests of the southern German countryside, where his division had spent the last few months. On that day Robinow was being asked to drive through the ruined city of Munich, down narrow streets hemmed in by rubble and half destroyed apartment buildings with their myriad hiding places, to determine if the Germans were going to defend the city or not. He was being asked to play the broad side of the proverbial barn.

“It was pretty hairy sometimes,” understates Robinow. “We were usually between three and five kilometers in front of our own troops." As it happens, he and his men, advancing in two jeeps with sandbag-reinforced floors to protect against mine explosions, met no resistance at all that day. The streets were empty—until the early afternoon, that is. Shortly before 2 pm he drove onto Marienplatz, the first American soldier to arrive in the heart of Munich, and was met by hundreds of people—some curious, others in a celebratory mood—streaming out of their houses to greet him.

Now 84 years old, Robinow has been living in Germany, minus a brief sojourn in Amsterdam, since work brought him here in 1961. Yet despite the 57 years that have elapsed since the spring of 1945, his memory of that time remains as sharp as ever. In fact, other than a head of gray hair, there is little about Robinow that indicates the passage of time. The only thing that seems to have faded is his outrage at Germany, the country where he was born.

As a teenager, Robinow was considered by his country to be an outcast. He wasn’t even allowed to finish school. Born in Hamburg in 1918 to Protestant parents, Robinow grew up in Berlin. Following the Nazi rise to power in 1933, however, his future was determined by the fact that all four of his grandparents were Jewish.

"I wasn’t allowed to do anything except to breathe," he recalls. "I felt like a kid that was punished for something I didn’t do." With the help of relatives, Robinow left Germany for Denmark in 1936. Then, in January of 1938, his sister arranged for him to join her in Rhode Island. Arriving with no money of his own, Robinow began working at odd jobs ranging from selling magazine subscriptions door to door, to teaching dance classes in Washington, DC. And he took classes in English at Swarthmore. "My roommate was a Jew from Berlin," he says. "I didn’t know a thing about Jewish culture until then. My roommate took me home with him a number of times and that’s how I learned what gefillte fisch is."

Robinow’s army career began, following basic training in April of 1941, after which he was sent to Bermuda as part of an artillery battery charged with protecting an air strip built by the Lend-Lease program. From there, his knowledge of German and Danish led him eventually to the Military Intelligence Training Center in Maryland, where he learned to interrogate German prisoners of war. His next stop was Europe. He was appointed to the 42nd Division (the same division that liberated Dachau Concentration Camp one day before Robinow’s foray into Munich) in January of 1945.

Following the takeover of Munich, Robinow spent the final days of the war rounding up Nazi war criminals and other prominent figures of Nazi Germany. He arrested, for example, one of the "doctors" from the Dachau Concentration Camp, whom he found in a barn near Chiemsee, as well as film director and photographer Leni Riefenstahl, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Robinow admits that she was arrested more because his superiors wanted to meet her than for any pro-Nazi activities. Robinow recalls one specific arrest, that of a leading Gestapo officer, with particular revulsion. "I asked him how many people he had killed," relates Robinow with obvious disgust. "He thought for a time before replying, ‘Are you in the habit of counting the number of slices of bread you eat for breakfast in a year?’ He was released from prison for good behavior in 1963, and until his death he received a pension from the German government!”

Robinow’s schedule continues to be just as full as when he was in the services. He currently divides his time between business trips associated with his marketing consulting business, making speeches at history classes in Munich high schools as a “Zeitzeuge” (a witness of the times), and spending time with his five children, four of whom live in Germany, as well as his five grandchildren.

"I am very glad still to be working and busy," he says. "I cannot just sit still and do nothing. I get physically unwell. Years ago my doctor told me never to stop working and so I haven’t." And he still hasn’t met any resistance.

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