Moravia, Iowa is a small farm town. It was even smaller back in 1920, but it grew by one with arrival of a baby boy named Otis. I imagine he was a happy boy, as most babies are, perhaps even more so because he was unencumbered by the knowledge that his dear mother would be dead in a few years and that his father would give him away when that matter occurred. But even that was relatively common in a small farm town at that time, so I like to imagine Otis as a happy school boy, too.
Now when Otis was a first grader a baby girl named Florence was born in Jand, Hungary. I am sure that she was a happy baby, too. My knowledge of Hungary is limited to a passing familiarity with goulash, but I think it is safe to assume that little Florence was likely born into a farm community, too.
And so although seven years and six thousand miles separated them, Otis and Florence got about the business of growing up. Otis worked his grandparents’ farm, hacking his way through the Depression with a single toy (a wagon) and no shoes (his were given to the preacher’s son). I’m not really sure what Florence was up to but I know that she developed a talent for hair styling.
But Florence made a huge mistake. For some foolish reason she chose to be born Jewish, and a basilisk named Adolf didn’t like that. He lived high in the mountains in a home named the Eagle’s Nest, where he decided that foolish children like Florence and their families should not be allowed to live. So Adolf sent his evil minions to wipe out the vile threat that was Florence the fourteen-year old hairdresser.
She was sent to the labor camps, as they were then known. I can only imagine what that must have been like.
Mama, where are we going?
They are relocating us to a safe place, Florence. We will be fine.
I really don’t know, I can only guess. Regardless, Florence and her family were yanked from their home, loaded onto a train, and driven away.
In Moravia, Iowa, Otis was yanked from his home, too. His father once gave him to his grandparents, and now his President was giving him to a man named Patton. He would replace Otis’s first name with “corporal,” give him a rifle and an ill-fitting helmet. The skinny corporal with his overbite and his Clark Gable moustache was tossed onto a ship and sent to Germany. He was twenty-three years old. His wife, Mable, and his baby boy may have waved goodbye. Maybe it was too hard.
The corporal found himself the squad leader of a half-track, which is a transvestite of a killing machine: half truck, half tank. On the back of the half-track was a gun big enough to shoot Adolf’s airplanes from the sky. Adolf didn’t care. He sat in his Eagle’s Nest and devised plans to push more human flesh through the meat grinder.
While the corporal moved his big gun from position to position at the request of his new father Patton, Florence was moved from camp to camp. She watched her mother and grandmother walk to the ovens. She witnessed and suffered inconceivable cruelty and indignities. But she survived through the magic of hair styling. As I understand the story the camp commandant valued Florence’s beauty tips more than Adolf wished her dead for daring to be born Jewish.
While Florence was surviving through her wits and beauty tips, Patton and the corporal formerly known as Otis were cutting their way across Europe. The happy boy from Moravia was nowhere to be seen. He stabbed to death two of Adolf’s officers with a pitchfork. He set up a gun position in a family’s strawberry patch, secretly taking pleasure in the thought that they may starve through the winter.
Eventually the corporal and his brothers in arms found themselves at the gates of a strange place named Mauthausen. They opened the gates and stepped into the belly of the beast. Emaciated bodies lay about like windblown newspapers. Skeletons in filthy striped pajamas stared from their deep eye sockets. The chimney spewed a cloying smoke so sweet as to turn the corporal’s stomach. Florence was here, too. Did she meet the corporal? Maybe. Perhaps he gave her his K-rations, or draped his olive-green coat around her shoulders. History has eaten those details; besides, this scene played out all over the Hell Adolf created. It may not be true of Florence and the corporal, but it is true nonetheless.
The corporal returned to Iowa after this unspeakable horror, and he didn’t speak. Well, not often and rarely of Mauthausen. He was Otis again, but he wasn’t. He was killed during the war, but it would take his body another forty years to figure this out.
Florence moved to the newly formed state of Israel, where she married and had a baby named Chaim. But they didn’t live happily ever after, either. Florence’s husband was a philanderer, so she packed up little Chaim and moved to America. Chaim changed his name to Eugene, and finally Gene. He adopted his mother’s maiden name, Klein, but later opted for the stage name Simmons. Consciously or not he co-opted the symbols of the Axis powers who terrorized his mother: The kabuki makeup of Tojo’s culture, and the SS lightning bolts of Adolph the Basilisk. He reinvented himself as the fire-breathing God of Thunder, armored, impervious to harm.
Around the time that the newly-minted Gene Simmons was creating himself, Otis’s first grandson was born. He would spend a good chunk of his childhood idolizing the flat-topped and hollowed out Otis on one hand and the larger than life Gene Simmons on the other. And as an adult that boy spent a couple of hours in a restaurant with his notebook, connecting the dots in a feeble attempt to show you just how small the world really is.
The following photos were taken by Corporal Otis Stafford at Mauthausen and other European sites during the War: