March 15, 2022

LORENZEN | On the Passing of One of the Greatest Men I Ever Knew

Print More

It’s been three weeks since my grandfather passed away. It didn’t feel real when it happened, and it still doesn’t. I keep waiting for it to sink in, to process somehow, yet the fact of his passing feels like an impossibility. Even now, struggling to write these words, it feels like a false statement to say that he’s passed. I’d like to attempt to explain why.

The fact that my grandfather lived to the age of 93 is something that I can call nothing else but a miracle. He was born on a tiny German island in the North Sea, Insel Föhr, in the waning years of the Weimar Republic. As Nazism ascended in Germany, his father, my great-grandfather, wrote newspaper editorials defiantly standing against Hitler and the Third Reich. He later helped a Jewish family escape Germany during the war. 

For his defiance, my great-grandfather was drafted into what was known as a “heaven-bound” mission — defusing unexploded bombs. In recent years, we’ve learned that if Germany had won the war, the family would have been sent to a concentration camp. Thankfully, my great-grandfather survived, and the Allies prevailed.

As his father defused unexploded bombs in the frenzied final months of the war, my grandfather was drafted at the age of 16. He was put in a tank headed to the Ardennes, in what we would later call the Battle of the Bulge. Yet as the battle was lost, his convoy was turned around. He ended his military service without seeing any action. 

My grandfather was sent to Denmark as a prisoner of war. In a violation of the Geneva Conventions, he was among the thousands of German soldiers, many of them teenagers, who were made to defuse unexploded landmines. He was critically wounded twice in explosions, shrapnel tearing through his face and back. But he survived. And when he returned to his small island home, he fell in love.

My grandmother and her family were made refugees after being expelled from their home in Pomerania. They’d traveled across Germany, suffered the assaults of Soviet soldiers, and lost nearly all of their possessions. When they arrived at the end of their brutal journey in the small town of Nieblum on Insel Föhr, they found a new home. The man in charge of the refugee resettlement office was my great-grandfather. And when they went to thank him for all that he’d done for them, my grandfather and grandmother first saw each other. That was the beginning of their love.

In 1956, shortly after my father was born, my grandfather immigrated to the United States in search of a better life for his family. This column, which began in 2020, was named When We’re 64 as a reference, not just to the Beatles song, but also to the 64 years that had passed since my grandfather arrived in America. I first wanted to write a column because of my great-grandfather’s history of standing against tyranny through his newspaper writings. Like all things I do, my family’s fingerprints are all over my two years of work for The Sun.

My grandfather saved enough money to send for the rest of the family, and they began a humble life in New York City. My grandmother worked as a superintendent in an apartment building. They lived in a basement apartment, their children playing with the coal used in the building’s furnace. Yet they worked their way up, opening up a series of successful, family-run delicatessens and climbing higher and higher in pursuit of their American Dream.

As their family grew larger, filled with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, they lent their strength, their wisdom, their love and their stories to each one of us. As a child, I remember thinking of my grandfather as almost like an old tree. There was something immovable to him. He towered over everyone, not just in his imposing physical stature but also in his spirit. There was a steadiness to my grandfather, a resoluteness perfectly complemented by the constant motion of my inexhaustible grandmother, who would go to any measure to do the slightest service, the slightest act of kindness for anyone near her.

The phrase “larger than life” comes to mind as I think of my grandparents, but the truth is that they were larger than death. For years, I waited for the passing of my grandmother to feel real. I waited for that sense of closure, of moving on. It never came. And now, three weeks after my grandfather has passed, I don’t expect to ever be able to fully grasp it because his stories, his memories, his very presence is so embedded within every part of my soul. He still feels alive to me. And I know he always will.

Some people defy death. Even after they pass, their loved ones still feel them everywhere around them. My grandmother and grandfather, my Omi and Opa, were among these rare individuals. Ask each and every one of their descendents, and they’ll tell you — they still carry their ideals, their grace, their deep, unwavering love with them every moment of their life. 

As I write this column, I feel the love of language exuded by my grandmother as she wrote poetry about her love for her new home on Föhr. I feel awe for the capacity of stories to change the world because the stories imparted to me from my grandfather changed my world entirely. I feel, above all else, unbelievably grateful to have been blessed with my grandparents.

They are the reason that the name Lorenzen has such meaning. It’s more than a family name. It’s a set of ideals, of beliefs. It’s a collection of stories that guide us through our entire lives. It’s an identity. And that identity continues to grow and deepen in new ways with each successive generation continuing in the journey begun 66 years ago as my Opa boarded a steamship to America.

In his later years, Opa would often end phone calls by saying “Ich bin zufrieden” — that he was at peace, content with his life. Yet what is perhaps most amazing is that the strength, the love that he gave to all of us made us feel the same way. To have had such a person in your life, such a presence in your family, brings you peace as nothing else can.

Andrew V. Lorenzen ‘22 (he/him) is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Wednesday this semester.