Although my father, Eli Velder, was a captivating storyteller, he didn’t talk much about his experiences in World War II. The few stories he told were usually punctuated with the assertion that it was the United States army that made him a man.
Towards the end of the war, Eli’s superior officer sent him and half of his unit to the front lines. The rest of the unit was stationed well away from military action. Eli queried the officer about his decision and was told that he was assigned to the front lines because he was Jewish. Ironically, the officers’ anti-Jewish sentiments saved Eli’s life. Not long after the deployment, everyone not stationed on the front lines was killed in an airstrike.
Eli returned to Baltimore and took advantage of the army’s educational benefits. He earned undergraduate (1948) and graduate degrees (1952) from Johns Hopkins University. On Dec. 22, 1952, Eli married my mother, Jane, whom he had met at an intercollegiate Zionist group.
Leaving the Jewish ghetto and the immigrant ways of his parents was important to Eli. He grew up knowing poverty and was determined to live a different life. He gathered the accouterments for a comfortable middle-class suburban life; a profession, a wife, a house, two children, and later, a dog. He smoked a pipe and negotiated an array of dinner parties with the intellectual class. Most of the men were high-achieving professionals or well-known local artists, all with their wives in tow. Discussions around the table reinforced each other’s armchair liberal ideals.
Eli was mentored by the charismatic and influential Dr. Louis L. Kaplan, a high-profile member of the Jewish community. It. It was he who demanded that Eli teach Hebrew to students a year younger than himself. With Kaplan’s guidance, Eli’s skills as a teacher blossomed. Eli taught at Johns Hopkins, Hebrew College and Goucher College. As his academic stature at Goucher grew, he relinquished some and eventually all of his other teaching positions.
In 1959, Eli met a major challenge; Rolf, a former member of Hitler’s youth and former pilot for the Luftwaffe, joined the very small department of education at Goucher.
Eli’s Jewish identity was deeply rooted and felt. Although he questioned the existence of God and the veracity of biblical tales, he was very observant.
With Rolf as a faculty member, Eli sat across the table from a man who had been a Nazi — the very people Eli had been trained to fight by the U.S. Army and to hate by his Jewish identity.
Nazism cast a long shadow over Eli’s life. He boycotted any products with a connection to Germany, including Welch’s grape juice. Eli even went so far as to assure an adolescent gas-station attendant that the Volkswagen he was refueling belonged to his brother.
When asked how his friendship with Rolf developed, Eli only said that they sat down together and talked. Through their conversation, they learned that during the war, they had been on the opposite sides of the same river at the same time.
The former Nazi and the Jew grew to become close colleagues. Although their social circles didn’t overlap, their friendship extended past academia. After both men were widowed, they began to spend more of their free time together. They ate out, went on day trips, and attended the theater and the opera together.
Rolf enjoyed the music of Wagner, but Eli refused to listen. His boycott against anything German applied especially to Wagner. Eventually, Eli sought Rolf’s help in understanding Wagner’s operas. Eli learned to separate Wagner’s politics from his art and came to not only appreciate his work, but eventually to enjoy it.
When Eli died in 2020, Rolf wrote a heartfelt tribute. Rolf stated that he felt “accepted without any recrimination.” Rolf credited Eli’s open-mindedness and tolerance for the depth of their relationship. He admired Eli’s teaching skills, particularly the questions he asked to stimulate thinking both for his students and faculty members.
I don’t know how my father really felt about Rolf; that was one of the many things that he kept to himself. What I do know is that he always referred to Rolf as “my friend, the Nazi.”
A Baltimore native, Ruth Velder has been living in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, for 20 years. In 2018, the Old Cemeteries Society published her book, “The Guide to Victoria’s Jewish Historical Cemetery,” which received the 2019 BC Jewish History Research Prize.