Despite a childhood fraught with hardship, Hans Berger manages an exuberant “Whoa!” when recalling the day he finally became a published author. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Friends said you [have to] write a book, and I had never thought about writing anything.”
Berger’s story, people told him, needed to be told. Born in Heidelberg, Germany in 1942, his parents opposed Hitler’s Nazi regime and found themselves caught between country and conviction. While his father was forced to enter into military service, he says, his mother and their four children — including Berger — fled Heidelberg in the middle of the night. But their plight had only just begun, as they found themselves trapped behind enemy lines in East Prussia, vulnerable to Russian attacks.
Drawing on his own childhood memories, and using his mother’s journals as a reference, Berger eventually did begin to write about these, and other, childhood experiences.
Though life was hard, he says, his family — including his father — survived World War II. At age 16, Berger — who had graduated from school and was then well into an apprenticeship at a bakery in Rosenheim, Germany — immigrated to the United States after his father, a pathologist, was invited to work on his research at the Colorado University Medical Center in Denver, Colorado.
The teenage Berger, who “couldn’t understand a word of English,” suddenly found himself enrolled in an American junior high school. The culture shock was real. He dressed more formally than American students, he had a different way of doing math and he didn’t understand American sports any more than he understood the language. Most devastating, he says, was the way his fellow students shunned him.
Later, he says, he discovered the reason: Many of his classmates were Jewish. “I found out about the Holocaust through a little kid,” Berger says. “German schools didn’t teach it. I asked my mom and dad and they said ‘yes.’ I was actually ashamed.”
Eventually, Berger graduated from high school in Colorado and attended college before serving in the United States Navy, where he worked as a baker. After his service he settled in Fresno for a time before work took him to North Carolina, San Diego and Dinuba, among others. He held jobs in the baking, sales and law enforcement industries, and graduated from the University of Indiana, before his retirement “about seven years ago.” That’s when he began to take those suggestions to write his life story seriously.
He took writing classes with local author and teacher Janice Stevens, where he learned more about memoir writing and connected with other aspiring writers. “They critique your work as you write,” he says. “You read it to the class and you make corrections to your work. That really helped.
“Without them,” he adds, “I probably wouldn’t have done it. Janice Stevens and the class, they were instrumental.”
Berger’s memoir, “A Bridge to Cross,” was published by Mirador in 2014. He is now at work on a second book based on his post-Navy life — though he says it will be a work of fiction rather than memoir.
“Everybody’s got a story,” he says. “You should write a story. My mom and dad ... she told us a few things, but my dad never told us anything. I wish I would have asked him more questions. If you write it down, it’s precious to your kids and grandkids. You leave something to remember you by.”
Hans Berger will sign and discuss his memoir, “A Bridge to Cross,” at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22 at the Betty Rodriguez Regional Library, 3040 N. Cedar Ave., Fresno and at 8 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 29 at Bass Lake Hotel, 54432 Shore Dr., Bass Lake.
“A Bridge to Cross” is available for purchase at Amazon.