The awkwardly whittled stick, vaguely resembling a baseball bat, and the brown sphere with the delicately stitched cover, lay on the coffee table in a State Department reception room.
"This is the famous baseball," said Angus Thuermer, formerly of the CIA, now drama teacher at Foxcroft School. "It was made of a champagne cork, [Glen] Stadler's pajamas, cut into strips -- courtesy of United Press -- a lot of sticky tape from the health unit, somebody's sock, and the stitching is courtesy of the U.S. Health Service physicians. The bat we tore off a branch when the Nazis weren't looking."
These curious teasures were relics of the time 40 years ago when American diplomats and newsmen were interned in Germany after war was declared between their country and Hitler's. Last night about 27 of the former internees gathered with a like number of relatives and friends for their first reunion -- 40 years after their sojourn in a disused 19th-century health resort in Bad Nauheim, Germany.
For Americans so recently released from the witness of their countrymen being held hostage in Iran, the internment at Bad Nauheim seems almost like an old movie comedy. One hundred thirty-six diplomats, military men, newsmen, and their wives and children, were held for about five months in 1941 and 1942, served paltry rations by waiters in tailcoats, allowed to organize a "university," a newspaper, a glee club, and of course the all-American baseball games -- but denied mail and the knowledge of when they would be released.
And yet the memories last night were mostly cheerful, recollections of an adventure rather than a horror, of a time when most of them were young and never doubted they would be released and Hitler would lose the war. The Code was still in effect then -- diplomats were special people, and countries respected each other's emissaries.
"We didn't know the word trauma then," said Thuermer. "To us it was mainly a pain in the fanny."
"The only parallel with the hostages in Iran is to notice the comparison," said Robert Reams Jr., who was 8 years old at Bad Nauheim. "The Germans treated us in a civil manner. I remember that I'd drop ice balls from the top of the hotel onto the SS helmets of the guards -- yet we were never harassed. Reciprocity existed, there was a diplomatic understanding. If an 8-year-old had been in Iran he might not have survived."
George Hennan, former ambassador to Russia and foreign policy guru, was the ranking internee. And last night his compatriots remembered how he taught a course in Russian history (which was more popular than the course in "diesel engines"), played the balalaika, sang with the 8-member "quartet" of newsmen, and banned the Bad Nauheim Pudding newspaper because it was using up too much paper on the embassy mimeograph. "I was the only one from the State Department who could throw to second base," he said. "So I was very much in demand."
Phillip H. Fahrenholz, who was secretary to the charge d'affaires then and lives the life of a retiree in New Jersey, brought with him copies of reports and his diplomas from Bad Nauheim in "intermediate bridge," "gymnastics" and "advanced French," as well as a journal that he kept:
Sat. December 27: Still locked indoors. Outdoors at 2:30 once again
December 29: Cold. 27 degrees. Everybody's shivering in lounge. "University in exile" courses started this afternoon.
Mon. Jan. 29: Everybody checked off on entering dining room for lunch by Mr. Yates and secret policeman.
The only terrible thing for me was to look out the window and you couldn't go for a walk.
Eugenia Small, the widow of Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Alex Small, said, "I'm Russian-born. You have to endure these things." She said she played a lot of bridge.
The prisoners were allowed to exercise in a formal garden about 125 feet long and 25 feet wide, said Clinton B. Conger, a former United Press correspondent who helped with last night's reunion -- a task that took six months to pull together. In Germany, food was mostly potatoes and turnips, with a ration of about 12 ounces of meat a week, according to Conger, and the internees lost between 20 and 40 pounds during their stay. The breakfast rolls "looked like, felt like, and dried like plastic wood. The internees used it to putty up drafty windows and make figurines."
Meanwhile, German and Italian diplomats stationed in Washington were interned at the posh Greenbrier Hotel Resort in West Virginia. The Italians were allowed to roam in the town and fraternize with the locals, said Thuermer.
"When the hostages got home from Iran they were greeted with yellow ribbons," said Conger. "We got red tape." The American diplomats were told their party would be withheld since they hadn't been working (an order later reversed), and most of them were immediately reassigned. The other released prisoners sailed home on the SS Drottingholm, and when they arrived in New York were forced to remain in the harbor for an extra night because it was Memorial Day.
The youngest person on the boat was the 1-year-old daughter of a newsman. "We had to break her habit of giving the Hitler salute," Congers said. "She'd had German nurses, and that was all she knew."
"I do not think that just because people are interned they become physical and mental wrecks," said Stewart Herman, a minister who held services during the internment and retired recently from the presidency of the Lutheran School in Chicago. "We were,cold uncomfortable, and hungry, but the worst thing was that we didn't know when we would be released. And I'm awfully glad we weren't psychoanalyzed when we got back."