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Remembering the Denzingers, and the resilience of children

6 mins read

By Scott Graber

Herman and Marlena Denzinger were our neighbors. They were architects here in 1971, working with Jimmy Thomas on the redesign and rebuilding of the First Federal Building on Bay Street. Their concrete, Bauhaus-inspired bank would be controversial for years to come. 

Herman and Marlena were older — had gotten their education at the foot of Louis Kahn in Philadelphia — and had been children in Germany during World War II. One afternoon the four of us were at a party when Marlena spotted an older man in a tartan. 

“What’s the significance of the tartan?” Marlena asked.

“I was in the Royal Air Force and this is their tartan,” he replied.

“Were you in the war — WWII?” she asked.

“I was a Mosquito pilot.”

“Mosquito?” I asked

“It was a small, fast airplane that dropped flares.”

“Flares?”

“We dropped them in order to show our bombers where to drop their bombs.”

There was a moment of silence and then Marlena asked, “Were you at Dresden?” 

“I was,” he replied.

“So was I,” she said.

As we drank our Merlot in a living room of a deteriorating, dusty, maintenance-deferred plantation near Ridgeland, we learned more about Marlena, Dresden and the older man in the tartan. Apparently she was tasked with picking-up these incendiaries — from the roof of her apartment building — and throwing them into the street. I don’t remember how she grabbed hold of these flares — if gloves or tongs or water were involved — but I was interested in their conversation. But more than this I was impressed that these two people, smiling, wine goblets in hand, had been in close proximity on Feb. 13, 1945, under different circumstances.

Dresden was bombed and burned right at the end of World War II. Thousands of civilians were killed in this raid and for many years the necessity of that raid has been debated. But on this bright, sun-washed Lowcountry afternoon I watched two people talk with remarkable candor and apparent detachment about what they did on that evening long ago. 

Eventually Herman and Marlena moved their practice to Charleston where there was more work as that city experienced dramatic growth. Slowly, incrementally we lost touch until Marlena was diagnosed with cancer. Then, I remember my wife sitting on the foot of her bed when Marlena said, “This is so unfair…”

After Marlena died Herman expanded his Charleston practice and we saw even less of him. And then we were thunderstruck to hear that Herman was in the ICU at Roper Hospital. 

We drove up one Friday evening and found Herman heavily sedated — though the nurse, Kelly, said that he could probably hear us. And so we talked (loudly) of parties on Port Republic Street, of the four of us trying to haul a cast-iron tub down narrow stairs from their second story bathroom. But the thing I could not get out of my head as we talked and laughed was the cloud that must have descended on all German children after World War II. They were not just a defeated people — they were the issue of a jackboot-wearing, black-hearted race that very nearly killed every Jewish person on the European continent. 

Just how does a child deal with that?  

We never really touched on that topic — we sometimes got close but I don’t think we hit it dead on. Not directly. Not that I remember. 

But one wonders about the consequence to children who have seen their country discredited, their fathers dishonored, their leaders put in the dock for war crimes. How do they function, as adults, when they have known worldwide condemnation? 

Herman and Marlena Denzinger somehow fought their way through any guilt they might have inherited, becoming successful architects who lived good, productive lives in South Carolina and leaving a host of brick and mortar buildings attesting to their creativity. And if one worries about their own children in these troubling and confusing times, one should take heart in the resilience of Herman and Marlena Denzinger — and the resilience of children. 

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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