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"We didn't have any roads like we have here," he goes on. "And when the snow started melting, the roads were all mud. The only way you could move was with a little wagon and a horse. Everything was stuck in the mud: tanks, trucks--everything. Terrible. We never knew if we were ever going to get home again."
There were more horrors to come, and several of them are symbolized by one of the few relics Kuster has remaining from his Wehrmacht years--a German military commendation embossed with an eagle. Attached to the award are three smaller medallions decorated with the trademark German helmet and swastika, each one representing an injury he received in combat. But as he looks at the bauble, he thinks not of himself, but of another soldier. "I had a sergeant in Italy, and he got wounded," he says. "I knew it was fatal, but he stuck to life, and he kept swearing up and down, calling Hitler a murderer. He lived for quite a while--maybe 24 hours. It was unbelievable how much he was screaming about all these lives going to waste. It made a lot of sense." When asked how he kept his sanity in the face of such tragedy, he replies, "At first it shocks you. But you get over it, because there is not time to think about it. If you start worrying about these things, you're probably going to be the next in line."
As it turned out, Italy was where Kuster's career as a German soldier ended, too; he was captured there by Polish troops. After being shuttled through North Africa with other POWs, he was shipped to the U.S., initially touching American soil at Newport News, Virginia. Upon his arrival, Kuster says, he and his cohorts learned for the first time of the holocaust that took place at German concentration camps. "We were shocked," he stresses. "We thought it was all made up; we thought it was terrible. But some of the American soldiers we had fraternized with, they started holding back, because they couldn't believe that none of us knew anything about the camps, places like Dachau. But how should we know about them? It never showed up in the papers or on the radio. So how would we know?" Nevertheless, this news caused many Virginians to see Kuster and other German prisoners as guilty by association. "When they put us on the train in Newport News, people there were looking at us like we were animals in the zoo," he remembers.
The twelve weeks he spent housed in a Fort Morgan armory adjacent to a high school were considerably more pleasant. To keep their spirits up when the workday was done, the men would sing German songs, and before long, locals started visiting in order to hear them. "Two or three times a week they would come and sit outside the fences and listen. They couldn't make contact because of the language barrier, but I think they enjoyed it." Before the POWs left Fort Morgan, the townspeople offered proof of their appreciation. As Kuster tells it, "They would bring in a hi-fi in the afternoons and play classical music for us. We would all sit in a room and just listen. It was a way for them to make a connection with us."
Upon returning to his home, which in his absence had become part of Russian-occupied East Germany, Kuster often thought about days like these and subsequently decided to move to Colorado permanently. A man from Brush, Colorado, whom he had met on a beet farm offered to help him apply for admission to this country, which was granted in 1952. After a brief return to Germany in order to wed his sweetheart, Marianne (who died last year), Kuster settled in Greeley and landed a job as a route salesman for Pepsi. He wound up in Denver a few years later, joining the Turnverein and the Gesangverein in 1962. The fit was a natural one. "I was singing with a German choir in Germany when I was back there after the war, and we had a hell of a ball. So I was looking for something like that here. When I joined, I don't think there was an American in the whole group; they were all German or of German descent. Now it's me and Hans Pott. We are the only Germans there. The others are all gone."
Keith Buckley is a member of the Gesangverein's next generation. A hydrogeologist by day, he first learned about the Denver Turnverein in 1994 from a friend who was familiar with "this strange German chorus," Buckley says. "So I showed up, not knowing anyone here, and the singing just blew me away. I was like, 'Man, this is great.'"
Since that first mind-bending encounter, Buckley has been an attendee at Gesangverein practice sessions, held weekly between the months of September and May. This year he became the president of the Turnverein, an organization eleven years older than the state it's in.
Back in 1865, when it was founded, the Turnverein was a gathering place for Denver's upper crust, including the Coors, Tabor and Kuner families. But it was hardly the only such group in the region. During the period, untold numbers of German-speaking immigrants flooded into Colorado to work in gold and coal mines, a fact that did not go unnoticed by politicians. As Buckley confirms, "The state constitution of Colorado was originally written in three languages: English, Spanish and German."