My grandfather lived a remarkable life. Some of my fondest memories as a child were Sunday afternoons spent in my grandparent’s sunroom listening to his tales. Carl Schilke had a gift for storytelling and could take you with him on his journeys. Even as his present memory faded with dementia, his stories stayed intact. A piece of history, a piece of himself, he could hold on to. When he passed in 2017, sharing his stories became a way for me to hold on to him, too.
My grandfather was born in 1919 and spent most of his young adulthood in the army. During World War II, he joined the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), a division of our military that would spin off and become the CIA. The son of German immigrants, he was attached to an armored division with a team of 5 CIC agents, collecting information and data on German soldiers as the war wound to a close.
After the war ended, Germany was split into four zones. Carl and his team of 5 stayed in the American zone for 15 months using the information they and other CIC teams had gathered to locate and hunt down Nazi war criminals who went into hiding. Together, his team captured 101 Nazis and sent them to the tribunals to be tried for their crimes against humanity. Of the 101, only 2 didn’t make it to trial. One refused to die at the end of the noose like a common criminal and forced my grandfather to shoot him, thanking him as he died. The other is a master class in the power of listening.
As the CIC team traveled around the American zone, they would set up shop in police stations to hold Nazis until they were able to be transported to the tribunals. One day, Carl’s aide came into his office and said, “There’s a German that wants to see you. He won’t talk to anyone except you.” After frisking him for weapons, Carl had him brought in.
“Look in your arrest-on-sight file, my name will be at the very top,” the German said, “I am wanted by the Allies. I was a top official in the German Foreign Office for over 20 years.”
Carl checked and sure enough, this man’s name was at the top of the list.
“You’re right,” he said. “Thank you for turning yourself in.”
“I only have three favors to ask,” the Nazi continued.
My grandfather studied him for a moment. As part of the team that liberated the concentration camp at Nordhausen, my grandfather had seen firsthand the horrors of this war. And with a binder 6-inches thick, he had detailed accounts of crimes against humanity these officers fulfilled. And yet, many times when he shared his stories, he spoke to us of the German plight. To refuse an order was certain death. Would he have been strong enough to choose certain death over cruel orders? He could never be sure. So, when faced with the option to show respect and listen when many men would have turned a deaf ear, ignored the man and followed procedure, he chose to listen first.
“If we can grant them, we will,” my grandfather said calmly.
First, the German officer asked to be put in a cell by himself. Second, he asked that both cells on either side of him be kept empty as well. They had the space at the time, so my grandfather granted the request.
Third, the German officer said, “I want you to contact British Military Intelligence and tell them that you’ve got me.”
Two days later, a British vehicle drives up to pick up the German officer. My grandfather checked the Lieutenant Colonel’s papers and authenticated the codes. As he walked them out, my grandfather turned to the German officer.
“Fill me in. What’s going on?”
The officer responded, “I am a British double agent.” He said, “For 20 years, I have been a member of the German foreign office. I worked myself up to the point where your team had me as the number one guy to arrest in the German foreign office.”
For 20 years, this man lied and fed intelligence to the British. And when the war ended and he realized his number was up, he sought my grandfather out directly, hoping to give himself the best shot of getting back home.
As he was leaving, the double agent turned to my grandfather and said, “You were very kind to listen to my requests when many others would have ignored them. Go out of town, there’s a farm. It’s got a big, red barn and in the barn is a massive haystack. Dig into the haystack and what you find is yours.” With a final nod, the double agent left.
The next day, Carl went out and found the barn. In the haystack was an Opal Admiral, one of the nicest cars of its time. My grandfather took that car as his personal vehicle.
This was a theme in my grandfather’s life. When given the choice, he often chose to give others’ respect and to listen. It is a trait that has been instilled into me, as were many of the lessons I learned from his stories. This is one of the ways I continue to honor his memory and his gifts. The next time you’re facing a problem, challenge or frustration, choose to listen and see what hidden gifts emerge.