Herr Deppermann

September 19, 2011

Gracious Living Day by DayIn 1971, when I was twelve years old, my father, mother, sister and I moved from Yugoslavia to West Germany.

Cyrillic Alphabet

Serbian Cyrillic Alphabet

We lived in Germany for two years, my father working for the British army as we waited for asylum papers so that we could move to the United States.

I was very unhappy about the whole situation.

Any new place would have been dislocating and traumatic for a young girl, but living this temporary existence in Germany was especially difficult.

I had grown up in a country where WW II was an everyday part of our lives.

My grandfather Nikola had been a POW in Germany for two years. My grandfather George was a well known partisan during the war. My grandmother Mara spent eight months in a notorious Jasenovac concentration camp, and she was pregnant with my uncle at the time. My parents had spent their childhoods in fear of German raids, hiding in forests, witnessing death and violence.

So many young people were killed by the Germans on both my mother’s and father’s side of the family, that there was almost no room in our family cemetery plots.

As a child, I grew up hearing innumerable stories about the war, reading books about the war, seeing and hearing traces of war in every experience of my family.

I remember watching cartoons on TV, cartoons of German soldiers marching in goose step, the sound of German drums making my heart beat with fear.

And then, when I was twelve, we moved to Germany.

I didn’t know what to feel.

Even though I didn’t speak a word of German, I was enrolled in a regular German school. I seemed different from the other children. I was shy and didn’t make friends easily. I was always by myself.

No one showed much interest in me, except for one person – my teacher Herr Deppermann.

Herr Deppermann was an older man, close to my grandfather’s age. He was tall, slim, balding, with a sallow face and blue, kind eyes.

Herr Deppermann took me under his wing for those two years, and I grew to love him.

Under his tutelage I flourished, learning German quickly and keeping up with the rest of the class in other subjects. Once, when he got sick for two weeks and the rest of the class celebrated, I cried with worry that he would die.

Herr Deppermann was the one who noticed that I squinted at the blackboard, that my eyes watered, and called my mother to school to tell her that I needed eyeglasses.

When the last days of seventh grade arrived, we already had our tickets ready for a flight  to New York City.

I didn’t tell Herr Deppermann that we were leaving Germany. We never spoke about our personal lives.

When I went to see him to say good bye that last morning, I was fluent in German. English was now the language I was worried about.

German Alphabet

German Alphabet

Herr Deppermann offered me a seat and asked what plans I had for the summer. I answered something vague and evasive and then he asked me a question that he had never asked before.

“What part of Yugoslavia are you from?”

I replied that I was born in Belgrade, but that my family came from a hilly area around the Danube in Northern Serbia.

“Around the city of Novi Sad?” he asked.

“You know of Novi Sad?”

“I was there once,” he said.

I didn’t know what to say.

“Please forgive me,” he whispered.

The world around me stood very, very still.

And I became so confused, so deeply moved, that at that moment I completely forgot how to speak German.

As I shook his hand to say goodby, I instinctively said in Serbian, “Dovidjenja.”

He smiled and answered, “Dovidjenja.”

Until we see each other again.

We never did.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Betsy September 20, 2011 at 8:51 am

Wow. Ich kenne ihn nicht, aber Herr Depperman gefallt mir sehr gut.


Liliana September 20, 2011 at 8:55 am

Ich werde immer tragen die speicher oder Herr Deppermann in meinem herzen.


Jelena September 20, 2011 at 8:01 am

Such a moving story–thank you for sharing. It makes me think of all the baggage (positive and negative) that we bring to every human encounter. What a glorious surprise when we manage to connect with people despite it.


Liliana September 20, 2011 at 8:51 am

A kind word can change everything – even what we always thought was the truth and nothing but the truth.


Jeff September 19, 2011 at 9:20 am

A beautiful story, Liliana. It always seems to be the things that we didn’t do that haunt us more that the things we did.

I think you’ve honored Herr Deppermann well with this memory…

– Jeff


Liliana September 20, 2011 at 6:45 am

Thank you, Jeff.


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