New pope made risky choices in Bavarian town during World War II.
TRAUNSTEIN, Germany (AP) -- Blinds drawn, windows closed, Joseph Ratzinger huddled with his father and older brother around a radio and listened to Allied radio broadcasts, volume on low.
It was a small and risky act of defiance in this conservative Bavarian village deep inside Adolf Hitler's Germany. But the father wanted his sons to know the truth about the Nazis and World War II, says Georg Ratzinger, who like his brother drew strength from the Catholic Church.
"It was strictly forbidden, anyone who was caught would be sent to the concentration camps, so we did it secretively," Georg Ratzinger told The Associated Press. "The German news was not true, and he wanted to hear from the foreign services what was really happening."
The clandestine sessions were just one of the passive acts of resistance, evasions and escapes by the future Pope Benedict XVI, whose choices then -- enrolling in the Hitler Youth as required and the Army when drafted as he approached age 18 -- allowed him to survive.
People who knew the Ratzingers said they were never willingly part of the Nazi machine.
Frieda Jochner, 79, who grew up in their old neighborhood and speaks with a thick, warm Bavarian accent, remembered the "Ratzinger boys" as pious and serious -- Georg as the "Bavarian one" -- a friendly joker -- and the studious Joseph as the more shy of the two.
She said Joseph Ratzinger was so involved in his studies at the Catholic seminary that even if he had wanted to be active in the Hitler Youth, he never would have had the time.
"He was very industrious," she said, taking a break from decorating the Ratzingers' childhood home with wreaths, pine boughs and ribbons.
Renate Augerer, 75, remembered the brothers from the town's school, where they were both known as being serious, scholarly, pious and kind -- two Catholic priests in the making.
"He was very certainly not for Hitler," Augerer said of Joseph Ratzinger. "Absolutely not. They couldn't do anything about it. ... You can't forget the times."
Max Fiedler, 77, said he also was compelled to join the Hitler Youth when the Nazis took over the Catholic youth group he was in and merged it into their organization.
"It was automatic," said Fiedler, who had joined Augerer at a reception in the small Traunstein town hall following a Mass in Ratzinger's honor last week.
Some 80 percent to 90 percent of Germans joined the Hitler Youth and refusing to sign up could mean being sent to a youth "re-education camp," akin to a concentration camp, said Volker Dahm, director of Nazi-era research for Munich's Institute for Contemporary History.
"You could try to avoid it but it was very, very difficult," Dahm said. "It was a bit easier to avoid it if you lived in a big city where you could hide yourself in the crowd, but in the countryside it was nearly impossible because everyone knew you."
Pope John Paul II had covertly resisted the Nazis in occupied Poland, helping form an underground theater and enrolling in a clandestine seminary run by the archbishop of Krakow.
In Germany, opportunities for outright defiance were limited -- and dangerous. Those who did resist met horrible fates, such as two famous student leaders in Munich, Hans and Sophie Scholl, who were caught distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in 1942 and executed by guillotine.
Pope Benedict, 78, has not tried to hide his enrollment in the Hitler Youth at age 14, addressing his brief membership in his autobiography, "Salt of the Earth."
"We weren't in it to start with, but with the beginning of the obligatory Hitler Youth in 1941 my brother was enrolled as was required," he recalled. "I was too young but later was enrolled into it from the seminary."
Benedict implies it was the school that did the enrolling, but he doesn't make it clear.
He said he tried to avoid Hitler Youth meetings, creating a dilemma. He needed proof of attendance to get a tuition discount, which his father -- a retired policeman -- badly needed.
So he finessed it, according to his book. "Thank God, there was a math teacher who understood. He was himself a Nazi party member, but an honest man who told me, 'Just go so we have it,'" he recalled. "But when he saw that I simply didn't want to, he said: 'I understand, I'll take care of it.' And so I was free of it."
With so little active resistance to the Nazis, small gestures of defiance were telling, said Johannes Tuchel, director of the German Resistance Memorial in Berlin.
"The color of resistance is not black and white, it's a scale of gray," Tuchel said. "It was not a single decision, not a single choice -- you don't just say one day 'I resist.'
"Every day you had to decide if you were going to go with the Nazi system or step aside. To resist is a long-term decision," he said.
The Ratzingers moved to Traunstein in 1937. The father was anti-Nazi and had to move from the town of Tittmoning to Auschau in 1932 after clashing with local Nazi party supporters.
In Traunstein, resistance came largely from communists, though there were never many in the town of about 12,000 and most were arrested and shipped to the Dachau concentration camp in the early 1930s. Though most were later released, they lived in fear of being returned to the camps, according to Traunstein historian Friedbert Muehldorfer.
Being sent to a concentration camp for not joining the Hitler Youth would have been an "extreme" punishment, but "it was very difficult for youth who didn't join, and they could be ostracized," Muehldorfer said. "It doesn't mean they were enthusiastic about the Nazis."
The Nazis enjoyed general support in Traunstein, though it was tempered by the conservative Roman Catholicism typical of Bavaria. People were disgruntled with the Nazis' anti-church attitudes and practices, such as removing crosses from school classrooms, Muehldorfer said.
The town had only a few Jewish families, largely driven out before the war began in 1939.
In 1943, at age 16, Joseph Ratzinger was called up along with his entire seminary class to work as a helper for anti-aircraft batteries, which defended a BMW plant and later an aircraft factory at Oberpfaffenhofen, where the first German jet fighters were produced.
In 1944, he was forced into the country's compulsory civil service and sent to dig anti-tank ditches on the Austrian-Hungarian border.
He recounts his work group being awakened in the middle of the night and pressured to join the Waffen SS, the combat units of the Nazi Party's elite guard. "An SS officer had each one come forward and tried, by parading each one in front of the group, to force 'volunteer' enlistments," he wrote in another autobiographical book, "Memoirs 1927-1977."
Some signed up in "this criminal group. I had the luck to be able to say that I had the intent to become a Catholic priest. We were sent away with scorn and insults."
He was drafted into the Army in December 1944 and stationed near Traunstein. With the German army collapsing and the end of the war just days away, he deserted in April or May of 1945 -- he said he can't remember the exact date. He knew he could be killed by SS fanatics, who continued to shoot or hang soldiers found out of uniform up until the end of the war.
Sneaking home by a roundabout way, he was stopped by two soldiers as he emerged from under a train overpass. "For a moment, the situation was extremely critical for me," he remembered. But the soldiers "were ones who, thank God, had had enough of war" and let him go, treating him as wounded because he had his arm in a sling.
Tuchel, the director of the German Resistance Memorial in Berlin, said that even in wartime Germany young men like Ratzinger could find quiet ways to defy authority.
"There is always a choice. You have to go into the Hitler Youth, but then it is your decision if you are going to be an active member," Tuchel said. "You have to go into the labor service, but it's your decision if you're very active. ... You had no choice to go into the army, but it is your decision how long you stay."
Acknowledging the past
Because Benedict acknowledged his past and because of the circumstances of his involvement, most people, including Jewish groups in Germany and Israel, have been understanding.
"He was a very young person when this happened, it was hardly a matter of choice, and what counts is what he's done in the last 30 years in Jewish-Catholic dialogue," said Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office.
At the right time, she suggested, the pope may share more of his past.
"We do have someone who has memories of the time, who certainly participated ... on the side of people who were perpetrating mass crimes. So I think the appropriate thing is that at the appropriate moment he is reflective about this personal biography -- it will mean a lot in the Jewish world."
The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem doesn't see a need for further investigation of Ratzinger's Hitler Youth membership, said spokeswoman Estee Yaari.
Ephraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, said there two ways of dealing with the issue.
"One way is delving into the subject and emphasizing it. The other is by doing positive things to improve Jewish-Christian relations and German-Jewish relations without necessarily emphasizing his own personal experiences or his past," Zuroff said. "My impression is that he's chosen the latter path."