Garmisch recounts 'Day of the Tigers'
July 16, 2008
GARMISCH, Germany - April 29, 1945, began as another sunny spring day in the bucolic villages of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a quiet German community near the Austrian border. Sixty-three years ago, as World War II drew to a close, the tolling of church bells and the whistle of a Zugspitzbahn cog train normally were the loudest sounds.
However, the early morning tranquility was interrupted by the rumble of armor approaching from the north. Alarmed villagers were uncertain as to whose forces were approaching. No organized German forces remained, just patients at a military hospital.
"Panzers!" exclaimed Josef A. LeismAfA1/4ller, 13 at the time and more curious than afraid. He asked himself: "But who are they' German, American or Russian'"
Today, in a rapid-fire mixture of German and English frequently punctuated by pass auf, or watch out, LeismAfA1/4ller, now 75 and a world-renowned sculptor specializing in wood carving, provides an eyewitness account of the town's apprehension as the U.S. 10th Armored "Tiger" Division rolled in.
"It was Sunday at five o'clock when the Americans came to Partenkirchen," recalled LeismAfA1/4ller. "We looked out the window, my mother and sisters, and 'brrrrrrrr,'" said LeismAfA1/4ller, imitating the sound of the 10th's M-4 Sherman tanks. "I think at first, the German panzers are coming, because you saw nothing from the German soldiers eight days before."
German troops on foot and on bicycles had passed south toward Austria into the Alps - but without armor.
LeismAfA1/4ller quickly recognized that the tanks belonged to Allied forces.
"We looked out, and the first panzer had a big white star upon it," he said. "And we thought at first the Russians were coming, because their tanks had a star." Both the United States and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics used a star emblem on their armored fighting vehicles, the difference being the Soviet's were red.
Having learned English in gymnasium (German high school), LeismAfA1/4ller began talking with the Soldiers, which he called "very interesting," as the Americans approached a house his grandfather built in 1904. It was one of the first homes built outside of old Partenkirchen, located southwest of the village along a highway from Munich, Germany, to Innsbruck, Austria. For the Tigers, it provided a good place to circle the wagons.
Understandably, most of Partenkirchen's citizens stayed indoors, said LeismAfA1/4ller, but he and his brother ventured outside to greet the tankers. Remembering the scenario from decades ago, he pointed to the area where Tiger crews parked their tanks around his home and built a bivouac campfire.
"On the first and second nights we had so much smoke," he said. "And that was the first time we (met) a black soldier. We'd never before seen a black man."
His initial encounter with the Americans left a positive impression; the soldiers treated his family and the villagers respectfully, with his language skills helping to bridge cultural differences. And it was also the first time he tried Hershey's chocolate and ate his first doughnuts, which "were very good," he said, rubbing his stomach and smiling at the memory.
As the Americans continued arriving, they occupied every hotel in town. Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the site of the 1936 Winter Olympics and a popular pre-war tourist destination, had lodging needed to house thousands of troops. In fact, LeismAfA1/4ller's grandfather in 1882 built one of the first gasthAfA$user (guesthouses) outside of the village, with his grandmother caring for visitors.
The Americans 'checked-in' there, too, with the troops eventually returning every hotel to their owners. However, since that day, thousands of Soldiers have served or vacationed in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, with many returning years later to rediscover places where they were once stayed.
As for the LeismAfA1/4ller residence, today it resembles a museum. After telling his story, LeismAfA1/4ller gave a tour of a family home built over time by succeeding generations. Plus there is workshop he assembled in 1953, where he and his son Thomas carve wood into every imaginable object - from bowties to benches.
There is a haunting realism found in the faces he carves, his hands capturing the moods of the subjects, ranging from deeply religious imagery to whimsical Bavarian dancers to popular Fasching masks.
Along with his original art, visitors will find the craftwork of others as well.
For example, "This is a Remington; the brother of this is in Washington," he said proudly, indicating a prized bronze statue, called Bronco Buster, placed in one corner.
LeismAfA1/4ller owns one of the original 300 copies of Bronco Buster sculpted by famed artist Frederic Remington. Another copy is presently displayed in the White House's Oval Office. The bronze castings are almost identical.
Other completed projects are on display in LeismAfA1/4ller's cellar, while an incomplete Christmas manger scene - a gradual labor of love over the years - sits prominently in his living room. He notes modifications that he has added since the war ended, especially as his children grew, such as a decorative and functional fireplace done in a Baroque style. Artist friends also contributed to his home, including an ornate hand-painted iron staircase.
The Americans' arrival in 1945 convinced LeismAfA1/4ller that the war was over. Welcomed news for him, as the troops' presence meant the Russians would not be occupying his beloved Partenkirchen, as the communists were already doing in areas of eastern Germany.
It also helped him to understand and befriend U.S. Soldiers who rode into his hometown, 63 years ago, on Tigers.