Interview with Hans Greiber (February 28, 1993)

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Interview with Hans Greiber (February 28, 1993)
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Orange County (Fla.) -- History.


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Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
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This interview is part of the 'Orange County' collection of interviews held by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program of the Department of History at the University of Florida
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Oral History

Hans Greiber

as interviewed by Elizabeth Dumas Schneider

February 28, 1993

Introduction: This is an interview with Mr. Hans Greiber at
his home at 2324-C Lake Underhill Drive in Orlando, February
28, 1993, with Elizabeth Dumas Schneider. Mr. Greiber had an
interesting career as a teacher, a linguist, as cultural attache
for the German government during World War II, also as director
of the Goethe Institute.

HG: No, mistake.

ES: Mistake, already!

HG: I was not an attache during wartime.

ES: Ah.

HG: After war. In wartime I was in Russia.

ES: We must talk about that, absolutely.

HG: Right after war, after the last world war, after World War
II, I was attache.

ES: And today, you may correct me, but you are now retired and
a very enthusiastic chamber musician, very active on a regular
basis. This is how we made our acquaintance. And occasionally,
perhaps, we will hear the voice of your wife Margaret Greiber,
who is sometimes able to remind us of things and to provoke
a memory, or she can recount a memory of her own.

We had an initial interview two weeks ago today, on February
the 7th. And during that conversation you gave me some
interesting information and stories about your experiences as
a prisoner of war. So today I might be referring to my notes
from our earlier conversation.

HG: You may ask whatever you want.

ES: Well, I would like to thank you very much for your generous
time in talking to me. So: you are a Pisces!

HG: A Pisces, yes! On the 12th of March, nicht?

ES: 1905, I understand.

HG: -05. Also [thus], I am a child of the century, nicht?

ES: Right. You were born in Saarbrucken, West Germany, and
your father was the manager of a coal mine.

HG: That's right.


ES: Describe to me your earliest memory.

HG: My earliest? Hm-hm-hm...I was four years old, and my mother
often had the visits of a girl, a woman friend from the neighbor-
hood. I didn't like her, and I was crawling, I remember, and
always I drew her skirt, nicht?

ES: You pulled her skirt?

HG: Ja, I pulled, ja, I pulled.

ES: This was in Saarbrucken?

HG: In Saarbrucken, ja.

ES: Can you describe the home where you grew up?

HG: Very well. We had a big house, as my father was the manager.
We had a large house: fourteen rooms! And there were two rooms
like a ballroom, nicht? To dance in and my father gave
them to me. (Later!)

But when I was a boy, I had to collect the strawberries in our
garden. Our garden was composed of many orchards. And then
my father influenced me at an early age to cultivate
strawberries. And I liked to do it! The long lines, and the
roots and we had a garden for vegetables; there I learned
very early what vegetables .we had flower garden .it
was enormous, you can't imagine it!

ES: That reminds me of my childhood; we had strawberries in my
grandfather's garden, and one of my earliest memories is being
stung by a bee while I was picking the berries.

HG: Ja .we had hens, we had ducks, geese even, as a
specialty. And so my father, a clever man, he taught me
everything very early, so that when I went to school for the
first time, six years old, I knew all these things what the
teacher told, ja!

ES: Really.

HG: And my mother influenced me in music. She had only primary
school education. But she was clever.

ES: You have told me her name was Maria Martelena Wahls.

HG: Also she was in the choir of the cathedral of Triere.

ES: She was from Luxembourg?

HG: Ja she was there.

ES: I understand that the people of Luxembourg are Catholic,

HG: Ja, primarily.

ES: Were you raised in the Catholic religion?

HG: Yes, I was raised in the Catholic religion. But I was already
a critic--critical, when I was young.

ES: Really.

HG: Because in my fantasy I said the Bible, I said to myself,
what is with the Bible? The Bible was written in Israel, ne?

ES: Right.

HG: What did the natives in America get? What did they hear
of Jesus? Nothing!

ES: Nothing.

HG: That shocked me always at a very, very early age. I remained
critical the whole time. Ja, well, that's one thing.

ES: Right. Well, your father was Johann Greiber.

HG: Johann.

ES: During World War I he was an Obersteiger.

HG: Obersteiger.

ES: What was that responsibility?

HG: That is a manager. That's the highest official, non-
academic, practical. You know, we had specialists who had
studied at a university, or something, and we had such who had
frequented special schools. And my father had gone to special
schools, technical schools. In the coal mine's great industrial
area, there they had special schools.

ES: So what was his responsibility?

HG: To direct the whole work of a coal mine. A coal mine had
at that time between three, four and five thousand workers,
in three shifts: morning, afternoon, night.

But at night there were not so many, not because down in there
it is always dark, but at night up there the people at night
they repaired. They put rocks where there were holes, so that
the upper part of the soil didn't fall down. They made these

works of repair, most interesting!

In the daytime, in these two shifts they gained coal--
they got it, with hammers.

MG: They mined the coal.

HG: I saw it. My father took me down when I was twelve, thirteen
years old! I know how it worked at that time. Today it is
quite different.

ES: You would have been about thirteen at the start (sic) of
World War I?

HG: Ja. I was nine years old when World War I broke out.
I remember quite well all details that was to have for me.
And I listened to the talking of my .I remember, war broke
out in nineteen-hundred and fourteen, in September .

ES: Of course.

HG: Yes, and my father, I remember in nineteen-hundred and
thirteen, that is to say when I was eight years old, when he
came from the coal mine, he was weaponed, he had a pistol.

ES: He was armed.

HG: Ja. And all the officials had weapons, because it was a
dangerous time. The war was between France and Germany, and
we lived near the border.

ES: So how did this change your family life?

HG: My father went -- first, my eldest brother, who was seventeen
and a half, was a volunteer; he became a soldier.

ES: What was his name?

HG: Karl.

ES: Oh, I have seen his picture.

HG: Karl Greiber. He died, now, a month ago. And he was a
soldier in France, and later on in Russia. I was a kid.

ES: Were you the youngest?

HG: The third. There was still another one.

ES: Now let me be clear, then: how many brothers were there?

HG: We were four.


ES: Four brothers, all boys in the family, and what were their

HG: Karl, Walter, Hans, Reinholt (what you call Rene). We were
one heart and one soul, Reinhart and I; the others were older.
The eldest was born in '97, and the second in '98, and I in
'5. Seven years between us.

And then the world war. I saw the first planes attacking: that,
hah! not to be compared with modern times! From time to time
a plane flew over, then let a bomb fall somewhere, a little
bomb compared with ours [today], ne?

And one day I was sitting on a hill in a meadow, and I said
"oh, (sniff), that's not good here!" I went off home, and when
I arrived home, not too far away, a bomb fell right where I
had been sitting.

ES: Did the war affect you financially? Because of the coal
mine, perhaps in a good way?

HG: My father earned more! And he took Walter with, (Walter,
that's the second). He went with [Father]: in order to keep
him from becoming a fighting soldier, he was working. Technical
work: he was also a sort of soldier, but not a fighting soldier,
he was a working soldier.

ES: What was the attitude of the young men? You were eager
to join the fight, or more interested in working in home?

HG: Fighting. At time there were men, ne!

ES: Of course, you were very young.

HG: I was too young, but I admired them!

ES: Of course! Well. .you have told me about your school,
your early education; in fact, you have told me that you skipped
a grade.

HG: Yes.

ES: Why?

HG: Why? Because I was clever! Excuse me, the word I was looking
for was .

ES: Wunderkind!

HG: Ja, I didn't make many mistakes when they dictated the text.
You know, at the time you learned to write the words [that way].
German is much more difficult to write than English. So, I
did my best. There were forty-eight young boys who tried to

get to the high school; I was among the three youngest, and
I succeeded...

ES: Did you frequently have air raids in your town?
HG: No. At the end of the war, when the Americans in nineteen
hundred and seventeen had ended the war, the technical way of
making war began. Americans came with tanks and defeated German
troops; the French were not able, nor the English, to defeat
the Germans. But America, with its super-power already at that
time, that was the beginning of America's becoming a very
important power. Before, it was not great.

And with the tanks, and, at the end of the war with their attacks
with planes bombarding German towns and so on .[Clap,
expressing the end].

ES: What was it like being so close to the French border? Did
you know French people as friends before the war?

HG: Now, that is a problem. "Why do they speak French, why do
we speak German, and others speak Scandinavian languages and
Slav languages?" Fundamentally all these languages are derived
from an Indo-Germanic root .they are so near! For instance,
"mother, Mutter, mere, mom (as you say here)," ne?

ES: So you became a linguist quite naturally.

HG: Ja!

ES: My earlier question though: I wondered, was there a
prejudice, or hard feeling, between the French and the Germans
then, who had previously been friendly?

HG: People were always nice to each other, but, you know,
somebody is always making war. In former times these were the
kings. Now it is oil: why do they make war? To get the

MG: Hans, I think you told me once that you had a cousin who
was fighting on the opposite side.

HG: Karl, his name's Karl.

MG: Yes, you had a cousin in France.

HG: Ja, this is normal. I had relatives who lived in France,
I had relatives who lived in Luxembourg, also Belgium a little
bit, and then in Germany. For us there was a boundary at that
time; for you Americans it is nothing: if he came from there
or here it did not matter. But in Northern France, at the
beginning of the war when my eldest brother was seventeen and
a half years old, he fought against French troops. And on the
French side there was a cousin of mine who was French. And

later on there were prisoners of war, French, German. Two French
who became prisoners of war were relatives of mine.

ES: Really.

HG: One day (I was ten years old?) I listened when my father
and mother spoke about it. They had got a letter, and were
asked to help them to eat. Food was very, very rare at that
time; I was very hungry very often.

They were discussing it there in our kitchen; I can still see
them! My mother said "We must help them," and my father said,
"For what?" And so: an uncle of mine, he was against it, and
an aunt of mine was for them. The women were for these people,
and the men were, well, not so much inclined to help them.

[At this point a short "intermission" took place.]

HG: When war had come to an end Germany had lost the war.

MG: Was this World War I or World War II?

HG: One.

MG: OK. Didn't your brother Walter have to leave town .?

HG: You retell such stories!

MG: Yes, but this is interesting, dear! This is very interesting.

HG: Well! In any case, the German boys did not like that the
German girls walked with French soldiers! In modern times,
German young people don't like to have immigrants in Germany!
It's the same situation! Only different time .

ES: Well, I'm afraid I have a story on a different side. My
great-aunt and uncle Guerry were in France during the 1920's.
They were avid bicyclists, and were in one of the early races
(like they have now the Tour de France.) And they disqualified
themselves from a particular race because they would have to
cross a bridge and touch German soil. So it was very much on
both sides.

MG: Mortal enemies.

ES: Oh, dear, yes. You spoke, though, of the terrible hunger
after the war. Of course it's known that the inflation after
the war was tremendous. Was it helpful that your family had
a garden, though?

HG: Yes. To have a garden was excellent. I remember my parents
had, during the first world war, three swine, pigs. To have
meat! You couldn't go to a butcher to buy meat: you had to

have a ticket! You got it from the administration! Father
one, Mother one, and children one, for a certain time, ja?

ES: The government rationed your groceries.

HG: Ja, everything was rationed.
HG: And therefore Dr. Lara said some of the skin defects I have
date from that time. Because the blood remained .I don't
know what [the condition] is. But now I have good blood!

ES: My grandmother spoke of, in America, the shortage of elastic.
Caused her to have to have drawstrings in her underwear,
undergarments. Did you have similar problems!?

MG: Tell about your shoes that you had to wear during World
War I.

HG: It was a matter of fact that I liked to play soccer. And
all my friends liked to play soccer, but we had no leather shoes.
No, we had shoes -- wooden soles, and -- what is?

MG: Cardboard uppers.

HG: Pressed paper. And nails, little nails, with little nails
it was fastened to the wooden soles. And when you played soccer
the nails flew off, and the shoes were kaput. And when you
were kicking and you came up with your foot, like that, it was
very painful. Shoes were kaput. And then, when I came home
-- oh! Tock! Tock! Tock! Yes, I got it!. .Ja, I got it a
lot .Reinhold, too, my younger brother.

ES: Did this depression make it difficult for you to get an

HG: No. School were school, and you sent to school. Ah, and
now a joke, a reality [true one]:

We went to primary school, we went to high school, and the
university, too. No planes. From time to time, I told you.
There were three Hans' in one class, and we were the youngest.
I was the son of the Obersteiger, of the manager, the other
was the son of a butcher, and last, not least, Hans Eimaril
(a Nordic name), he was the son of the mayor.

And when planes -- hostile planes -- were arriving, then the
sirens went on. Five times, and that signalled then the planes
arrived. That was very seldom, very, very seldom! But now
the three Hans' came together, and Hans Eimaril, the son of
the mayor, he knew everything about the technique, how it worked.
He said, "Afterward we have two lessons of Latin, two Latin
lessons, which is terrible! What can we do! Can't we make the
alarm" -- alert, what is the right word?


MG: Alert, siren.

HG: I said, "Hans, what do you want to do?" He: "I call, from
a booth, to this office, and the we will have alert." Hans went
down to the booth, rang, siren! There was alert, and the whole
school went down to the cellar! And there we were assembled.
You must imagine the cellars were the way they are today. Ja,
you could walk there everywhere, and there we were, sitting,
standing, talking, and waiting.

ES: And no Latin.

HG: No ending of the alert.

ES: No "All-clear?"

HG: The director of the school -- we call it here -- the
headmaster, he went around saying, "What is that? What is that!
I must call!" And he went upstairs to his office and called,
and there was no alert. And he came down: "Sacramento, what
was going on here! Back to the classes!" So we had our
instruction again, but the two lessons of Latin were gone.

ES: Well, I would like for you to speak about --

HG: A similar story:

ES: Oh no! Okay!

HG: It's the last one! It's very short: when Germany had won
the battles, the important battles, all schools got a free day,
a day free. It was wonderful: we went to school and the
headmaster said, "Go home! Victory" --

ES: Holiday.

HG: "Holiday -- see you tomorrow!" And one day when I --
(I was always precise, at the right moment. One minute before
the beginning of, I was there, not earlier) -- I arrived, and
all came out of the school building and went home. They said,
"Hans, go home, victory!" Nevertheless, I went to the big
staircase, and there the headmaster was standing: "There's no
victory, nothing at all! There's school today!!" And somebody
had spread the news that there was victory and there was no
victory, and all students and teachers went home!

ES: Wishful thinking, huh?

HG: Ja, that was funny .

ES: Tell me about the beginning of you love for music.

HG: Also: as at the age of ten I could play the violin already,

I could play more that a hundred folk songs by heart.

ES: Where did you learn them?

HG: By hearing. I had no music. And so at that age -- also
I heard, when I was four or five years old I began, I listened,
at then at the primary school I learned some, but most of them
I learned by hearing. And knew them by heart. And the text,
that was no problem at that time. And I stood in our big room,
and went, [sings] "Jung muss Mann sein wenn dann Kurzen will
S." and "Schon ist die Jugend, bei frohen Seiten, schon ist
die Jugend, Sie kommt nicht mehr. Kommt sag ich noch einmal,
schon ist die Jugend, schon ist die Jugend, Sie kommt nicht
mehr. ." You see, I still remember some of the songs! I
could sing now for an hour!

ES: Well! If I invite you! Gosh! You said that you studied,
though: violin lessons with the concertmaster of the Saarbrucken

HG: Yes, after having had lessons with someone who played with
the coal mine orchestra --

ES: There was a coal mine orchestra!!!

HG: Oh, yes! The whole area, there were about twenty coal mines
or more. And they had in the area several orchestras. And
the best musicians of these orchestras were combined in the
so-called "Coal Mine Orchestra."

ES: Oh my gosh.

HG: And they had also a choir.

ES:They were all miners.

HG: All miners.

ES: And they would get together and play music after work.
That's fascinating!

HG: Once I played with them, they played the Tannhauser overture.
Yes, I played with the Coal Mine Orchestra, and the best
musicians (they were not great musicians, though, because of
their work). They had their uniform, and they had the choir.
And when I was cultural attache in Paris, their choir came to
Paris, to honor me!

ES: Really.

HG: I had written a song: "0, Saarland, schones Heimat (0,
Saarland, beautiful home country)" and they sang it, the

ES: Just for my personal interest, were the musicians of the
symphonies always men?

HG: Always. No women. That was not the time. At that time
-- that is now 60, 70 and more years ago --

ES: Berlin [the Berlin Philharmonic] is still that way.

HG: Women were proud of being housewives. Ja, and they talked
about what was going on, and they were very happy. My mother
who had such a beautiful voice; she sang at home, ne? And she
taught me about music, and so on, but to enter a choir: no.

ES: Um, so was it difficult for you to decide, in your education,
between music and languages?

HG: I did both together.

ES: Yes?

HG: It was a lot of work. Lot of work! I worked hard.
And,nevertheless, I wanted both, and to have free time for me.
But the strictest teacher of mine was my violin teacher!

ES: It always is! Where were you studying?

HG: Leipzig.

ES: The University of Leipzig?

HG: Leipzaig, and the University of Cologne.

ES: How old were you when you entered Leipzig?

HG: Eighteen years old. And I left Leipzig when I was twenty,
and at twenty-two my official study was ended, and I prepared
for the examinations. It was not as it is nowadays.

ES: You were getting certification to become a teacher. At
the high school level?

HG: Ja: that was the conversation I had with my father before
I left, after the Abitur, after the "maturity," (the high school,

MG: High school graduation.

HG: Graduation, ja. And we spoke: "What will you do in your
future? Hans, I know that you want to study music and to play
music. Good, I'm not against it, but not alone. Get a good
job! And we'll go through all possibilities for you, and then
you study that .. ."

And so, I decided to study languages, and music. At university,
I attended lectures, and at the conservatory I had Praktik:
theory, and composition, and I don't know [now] all what it

ES: Then you went to Cologne?

HG: After two and a half years in Leipzig I went to Cologne.
There I stayed two years, and then the examination time began.
First you had to write a special thesis. Thesis, not for a
doctorate, thesis for your examinations. For instance, in
English I writ, and my topic was "Carlisle as an historical

ES: Interesting.

HG: And there I found out that great men make history.

ES: Is this equivalent of our (American) Bachelor's degree,
or Master's, do you think?

HG: I think so.

ES: Which?

HG: I can't answer that, because I am not practical of that.

ES: You can't tell the exact equivalent. But you were certified
as a professional teacher. At what level?

HG: At first I made my so-called scientific examination, and
they admitted me immediately! I have such luck in my career!

ES: Admitted you to what? A career, a job to teach at what

HG: All levels .Generally speaking, you had your examination
at the university, and then two years of pedagogical education.
Yes. I got it -- but nevertheless, they asked me to teach
immediately. There were not enough teachers.

ES: So you were teaching languages?

HG: Languages and geography.

ES: Really. Interesting.

HG: My favorite thing, geography. Although I had not made an
examination, I had had five terms during my study, of geography,
to learn all astronomic things, and all planets and so on, and
gravitation, and these things were very interesting. Margaret
knows that I often put questions concerning our earth, which

is a ball moving up and up and turning round and round .and
we, we great idiots, we are living here and think we are

ES: So, how old were you when you became a teacher?

HG: Twenty-four. That's young, most were 26 or 27.

ES: Were you still a teacher at the beginning of the second
world war?

HG: Seond world war? Yes, I was a teacher, but not during the
time I was a soldier.

ES: Did you volunteer to be a soldier?

HG: No! That was -- in the second world war, everybody who
was healthy and under forty-five years had to become a soldier.
And so I became a soldier.

Already, in every way, this war was prepared. Before the
beginning of the war, they sent us older people (thirty years
was old, for a soldier), they sent us to the barracks, and there
we were trained, and sent home after eight weeks. And so, when
war broke out, the first day I became a soldier.

ES: Right away.

HG: And they wanted to send me to Russia, but I guess I arrived
a little late. Punctual, not too late, but a little late, and
so they had enough for the group they sent away, and so they
sent me home!

ES: Really.

HG: That was great.

ES: So you were stationed in your hometown?

HG: Ja.

ES: Where, in Saarbrucken?

HG: In Saarbrucken, for some time. And then, when we had
conquered France, they sent me as a teacher to France, as I
spoke French. And I taught French boys and girls German.

ES: You were a teacher? This was during the occupation, it
would be the Vichy government?

HG: Ja.

ES: What was your rank?

HG: What? Teacher.

ES: A teacher has a military rank?

HG: Yes, he has: primary teacher, high school teacher, the
various things called Studienrat, counsellor of education.
Then, that's the same title at the high school, and then also,
super: what was that? Oberstudienrat.

What is that [in English]? Upper, or super? Super-counsellor
or upper-councellor?

MG: You get a raise in pay, I do know that.

ES: You get more pay .so which level did you hold?

HG: The highest!

ES: The highest, of course!

HG: Only I ran through everything, but very quickly. When I
was not far away from the highest title, and they waited a little
bit, I said "I don't stay here; I go abroad." "No, you must
stay here!"

ES: What city?

HG: Saarbrucken.

ES: I was "in France" with you. In my mind I was thinking of
you in France. You said you were teaching.

HG: Ja, that city we came from.

ES: So you taught in France? What cities did you go to?

HG: Saar-Guemines. [Spells it]. And there I did something:
I have done, my dear girl, so many things! And when talking
about it I remember them. It is a matter of fact that I had
a string quartet there. When I was in Saar-Guemines. I looked
around: "I must have a string quartet," and I had one! I stayed
in a wonderful villa. And the owner of this villa was a lady
soprano, whose singing [makes kiss] was very well. I didn't
tell anything, but she heard me practicing, and she said, "Mr.
Greiber, do you play?" "Yes, I play." "Aaah, what technique
you have!" [Laughs].

ES: Double-entendre, perhaps?

HG: Ja, that was Saar-Guemines .and I said to her, "Can't
you form a quartet, soprano, alto, tenor and bass?" "Oh, yes
I can." (Singing) My quartet and I said, "We will all do

something." And there was a parson there, a minister, who had
collected all folk-songs of that area: "Passing Airs,"
(Verklingende, "disappearing" airs.) Because the folk songs,
after some time they are forgotten, modernized, just destroyed,
all these things.