CHRISTIAN CARRION — Staff Writer
Herbert Richter, 86, grew up in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. Richter was forced under threat of death to join the Hitler Youth as a child before being enlisted in the German Army, with whom he was sent to fight on the Russian front during World War II.
“Here I was, 18 years old, feeling lost and confused in a country I had never been in before,” Richter said. “It gave me an immense pain in my heart. I had no idea who I was or who I was meant to be. But we had to fight.”
Richter told his story alongside friend and American World War II veteran Herbert Geller in the Charles Garner Recital Hall Wednesday, Nov. 30, as part of a panel discussion titled “The Cost Of War, The Benefits Of Peace.” With the help of the SCSU Veterans’ Office and History Department, Troy Paddock, Geller and Richter appeared together to talk about the benefits of peace from the eyes of those who have experienced the opposite.
The discussion was billed as a prelude to the university’s first annual Day of Peace, a day-long celebration that took place on Dec. 1 and was produced by Southern students in remembrance of the life of former Beatle and noted peace activist John Lennon. Jack Mordente, veteran of the US Army and director of Southern’s Veterans Office, moderated the discussion. Mordente said that even though he has been involved with the military for over 35 years, the respect he has for those who serve still evokes powerful emotions.
“I think that nobody understands the benefits of peace better than our men and women who have seen firsthand the horrors of war overseas,” Mordente said, choking back tears.
Geller, 89, was 20 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. Geller said he enlisted in the army shortly afterwards and served in Europe before and after the surrender of Germany.
“When I think about where life has taken me, it takes my breath away,” Geller said, who married his wife of 55 years upon his return from Europe. “Years ago, Richter and I fought on opposite sides as enemies. Today, I’m honored that we can come together as friends.”
Michael Ruscoe, a freshman Inquiry instructor at Southern and chief organizer of the Day of Peace, said he has a new sense of respect for the work the Veterans Office does.
“I’ve gotten to know the Veterans Office, which I didn’t even know existed before this semester,” Ruscoe said. “The veterans we have at this school who have served our country deserve all kinds of respect and admiration for what they do.”
Richter, who later in his life immigrated to the United States and became a cartographer, said his experiences have taught him several valuable lessons.
“Over half a century later, I’ve learned that education, experience and memories are three things nobody can take from you,” Richter said. “I’ve learned that life does give second chances. It took me a long time to become the man I am today.” Geller also shared his insight into the future of the world by emphasizing the importance of peace and understanding. “I’ve often thought to myself, ‘what can we do to end the constant threats of war and violence?’” Geller said. “But I believe we can only reap the benefits of peace by eliminating the threats to peace.”