Featured Student of the Week: David Wahl

By Sarah Eckert | 2-minute read

For David Wahl, deciding to start learning German at age 73 is part of a much larger journey. When I asked him what had led to that decision, he smiled and asked how much time we had. What followed was a story that took me out of myself, a story about the power of human connection, pain that reaches through generations, and how meaningful language learning can truly be. I am so grateful to have the honor of sharing a piece of David’s story with you all.

Throughout most of my life I hated anything and everything German. We’re Jewish and my mother is German. She was born in 1927 and grew up in a little village called Adelsdorf, as Hitler was coming to power. She was eleven years old when her father was imprisoned in Dachau, the first concentration camp. When she was twelve, she was fortunate enough to be rescued from Germany on Kindertransport, or Children’s Transport, which was a train that went through many small villages to pick up Jewish children and take them to England. Had she not been on that train, I wouldn’t be here today. But she left behind her family, all of whom perished except for two brothers. I say perished but what I mean is killed. So all my life, until about twenty years ago, I was very full of hate for anything and anyone German.

When I was in college I had to take a language class and I could have taken French, which I studied in high school, or Hebrew, which I studied as a younger boy, but I decided to take German and I got a D. That’s an example of how secondary trauma can mess up your GPA. I had too much hate to learn the language.

Then, twenty-five years ago, my mother, her two brothers, two of my cousins and I were invited to return to my mother’s hometown and participate in a commemorative learning experience. The citizens of Adelsdorf wanted to hear what had happened during the Holocaust from survivors and the children of survivors. So the six of us went and had an amazing weekend.

I think in the Christian faith, the idea of forgiveness extends to other generations. But in the Jewish faith, it only extends to the generation that has perpetrated the crime. So it was a difficult kind of cross-over. But they were very genuine about their desire and that affected me. I was really touched by how open they were to hearing stories about what had happened in their streets, in their homes, to fellow citizens.

My mother refused to go back again after that. It was very hard for her. But my cousins and I have made a number of trips back, one to unveil an obelisk, a statue, in the middle of the village. It was broken and had all the names of the Adelsdorfer Jews who were killed. Right in the middle of town.

So it became a very personal journey for me and it culminated two years ago in receiving German citizenship for myself, my two sons, and our four grandchildren, which was a very fun experience for the whole family. At the end of the day, we all got passports. And we all were given back what was taken from my mother.

This week, my wife and I are going for our first trip just the two of us to Germany. Maybe we’ll be able to speak German, although Janet tells us that everyone speaks English where we’re going. But if I’ve changed, and I feel I’ve changed a lot, I think I will enjoy the Deutsch that I do hear.

David and his wife, Carol, have been taking German lessons from Janet Gesme for the past year, whom they found through the Bend Language Institute. “If you haven’t met her yet, you just have to,” he told me. “She just loves teaching languages and she’s very sweet, she laughs, she just makes it fun.”

David refers to himself as a full-time grandfather since retiring from psychiatry. He and Carol get to spend time with their grandchildren nearly every day since moving to Bend from Colorado in 2020. His advice for anyone learning a new language is to be patient with yourself and find a teacher who’s a good fit.

If I had to choose one thing that I learned from my time with David, it would be this: The barriers that divide us are sometimes momentous, but so is our power to heal ourselves and those around us through communication, recognition, and intentional connection.