Summer of My German Soldier

by Bette Greene

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In Chapter 10 of Bette Greene's novel Summer of My German Soldier, why does Patty's father beat her? How does Anton react?

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In Bette Greene’s novel Summer of My German Soldier, the story of the relationship between an innocent 12-year-old Jewish girl and the escaped German prisoner-of-war she hides, Patty is a physically- and emotionally-abused child. Her relationship to the young soldier, held, with many other German POWs, in one of a series of such prisons scattered around less-populated areas of the United States, is a reaction to that history of abuse, and to the common humanity she discovers in another human being forced into a world he never imagined and certainly never chose. Chapter 10 of Greene’s novel is titled “A Person of Value.” Anton, of course, has already been revealed as a true humanitarian, unfairly conscripted into the German Army and imbued with a strong sense of liberal values rare in the fascist state that had occupied and terrorized much of Europe while carrying out the most horrific violation of human rights in history, what would come to be known as “the Holocaust.” It is in this chapter that Anton’s presence is exposed following yet another violent encounter between Patty and her abusive father, Harry, and it occurs in the context of yet another display of the same intolerance and prejudice on the part of Harry from which Anton has sought to distance himself with respect to the Nazis. Patty’s friend Freddy, a poor and simple boy whom Harry intensely dislikes, viewing him as an inferior species, has unexpectedly appeared at the Bergen home at an inopportune time.

Patty has been punished before for associating with Freddy, despite the fact that this young boy is one of Patty’s friends in this very Christian community where Jews represent a very tiny minority. The timing is unfortunate because Freddy’s visit coincides with Harry’s arrival at home. When Harry discovers that Freddy is on his property, he flies into a violent rage, shouting at his daughter, “God damn you! . . . You’ll obey me if it kills you.” When Harry begins to beat Patty, using his belt, in the chapter’s closing passage, Anton’s reaction is described as follows:

Anton, his hands outstretched before him, froze. His face was like I had never seen it, dazed with horror. Then he clapped his hands to his eyes and backward towards the garage.”

In Chapter 11, The Bergen family’s African American housekeeper, Ruth, displays her understanding of Patty’s feelings toward the German soldier: “That man come a-rushing out from the safety of his hiding ‘cause he couldn’t stand your pain and anguish no better’n me. That man listens to the love in his heart .” Patty returns to Anton’s hiding place, where their conversation is forced, both individuals physically uncomfortable with the previous day’s violent events. Anton, observing Patty’s bruises, is curt, explaining to the younger girl that he was disturbed by the beating he witnessed, concerned that is presence may have played a role. While Harry’s brutality and intolerance is ugly and demeaning, however, Anton has spied...

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a different person in Patty’s father. He asks Patty whether she knew where her father went after the violent encounter, and then proceeds to describe what he, the German soldier, observed:

“He [Harry] stood watching the housekeeper help you into the house. Then he came into the garage and talked to himself. Over and over he kept repeating, ‘Nobody loves me. In my whole life nobody has ever loved me.'”

This glimpse into Harry’s soul does not evolve into a lesson on empathy for this cruel father, however. On the contrary, Anton proceeds to draw uncomfortable parallels between Harry and Hitler, stating that “a man who is incapable of humor is capable of cruelty.” The difference between these two men, this perceptive young soldier observes, is one of power, raising the question in Patty’s mind as to whether, under different circumstances, Harry could be as destructive a presence among humanity as is the leader of Nazi Germany. This, then, is how Anton reacts to the beating of Patty at the hands of her father.

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