Saturday, January 23, 2010

Joachim S. Porzig

Herr Porzig, a one-armed former artillery officer in the German army during World War II, was one of five or six instructors responsible for training the eight of us to speak his native tongue. As young soldiers, we often had a hard time understanding his south-German accent spoken at light-speed because we were more used to our other instructors, who all came from the north, and all spoke in the clipped, sharp-edged accent common there.

Joachim S. Porzig had had his arm blown off during service on the Russian Front. The only thing he couldn't do was put on his leather-banded wrist watch, he said. None of our German teachers at what was then called the Army Language School had ever fought against the French, English or Americans on the Eastern Front. As students, we used to laugh about it as if, perhaps, the teachers had lied about where they served in order to find work with the Americans.

Besides being an upright and impeccable man, Porzig, who died in 2002 at 86, had an avuncular side. He was not above imparting the kind of advice an older man might dispense to a younger one. He once, for example, looked me straight in the eye with utter seriousness and said, "You can do anything -- anything you want." As an uncertain 20-year-old, I was both wonder-struck and dubious about the encouragement.

And on another occasion, he told the class a little something of his father -- a man who had saved discarded nails and bits of string. Nothing should go to waste, the old man told his son ... nothing.

And I thought of Porzig this morning as I remembered the Zen Buddhist teacher Lin Chi/Rinzai, a Chinese man who grew up thousands of miles away from and hundreds of years before the Germany in which Joachim S. Porzig and his father grew up.

Lin Chi, who said, "Grasp and use, but never name."

Waste nothing.

What is useless always has a use.


  1. I recall Herr Porzig fondly from his language instruction in the late 70s. I happened to notice that his name (presume it's he) is listed as a contributor on 2003 documentary "Stalingrad."

  2. I was a student of Herr Porzig, 1966-67. He would march into class, immediately go to the windows and push them open, saying, "Fenster auf! Fenster auf! Frische Luft ist gesund!" (Windows open! Windows open! Fresh air is healthy!). Despite only having one arm he went all out physically too, as we saw in a volley ball game at a class picnic. On a class field trip to a winery up a steep winding road, as I parked and got out of my car, Herr Porzig pulled in and marched away from his small, sporty car. Two students who had ridden with him came up to me and asked if they could ride back. According to them, the car was his wife's, and had a stick shift on the floor. On the curves, he would jam his knee against the wheel, clutch with his other foot while reaching across to the shift lever with his left hand.