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March 14, 2014

German returns to area with gift to U.S. veterans

By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — A German who visited Laurens as a teenager 40 years ago returned to thank veterans who helped in World War II and secured democracy for that country.

“Our generation has lived with democracy and freedom since our birth,” said Lothar Bentz of Norderstedt, a city north of Hamburg, during an Oneonta Rotary Club meeting Thursday. “It’s time to say ‘Thank you, America.’”

Bentz, 55, has donated $7,000 to help local veterans as a gesture of gratitude. The funds will be administered through Catholic Charities of Delaware and Otsego Counties.

Len Carson, Oneonta American Legion commander, told Bentz that the funds would be spent wisely, perhaps for transportation for veterans to the state Veterans Home in Oxford.

“Thank you for your kind thoughts in remembering the veterans,” Carson said during the meeting.

Bentz and about 15 German other students visited Laurens in 1973, lived with host families, spent time at Laurens Central School and went sightseeing.

During a visit to Oneonta City Hall in October 1973, Mayor James F. Lettis named Bentz and his classmates honorary citizens. Bentz said this designation and his experiences as an exchange student in Laurens made lasting impressions that prompted his decision to make a donation locally instead of to a national organization.

At Oneonta Rotary luncheon at the Elks Club, Bentz read a letter signed by him and his wife, Maren, saying that they grew up in the 1960s after Germany already had recovered from World War II.

“America had played a major role in putting an end to that war, in supporting West Europe with the European Recovery Program and in establishing democracy and freedom in our country,” they wrote.

In 1948 and 1949, U.S. soldiers kept West Berlin alive with the Berlin airlift, they said, and in 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave a historical speech and guarantee for Germany’s safety.

“And as a leading nation of NATO, your country has guaranteed our safety with your stationed forces in Germany,” the letter said. Lothar Bentz has worked at several companies, including experience as an industrial manager.

Oneonta Mayor Dick Miller introduced Bentz at the Rotary Club meeting and said arrangements for the visit started with an email from him in September. Miller presented Bentz with an Oneonta city lapel pin.

In responding to questions about remembrances from 1973, Bentz said he was impressed with how children recognized the U.S. flag through the National Anthem or Pledge of Allegiance as part of daily life at school.

Marie Stiller, 17, a Rotary Exchange student at Oneonta High School, was among guests at the Rotary luncheon Thursday.

The U.S. role helping Germany during World War II and its post-war support is an important part of history taught in German schools, Stiller said. Germany still feels at fault for the war somewhat, she said.

Stiller, who is from Hanover, applauded Bentz’s gesture.

“It’s really important and really, really nice that he thanked Americans,” she said.

Bentz, traveling by bus, arrived from New York City on Wednesday and will return on Saturday. His itinerary includes sightseeing in New York City and in Washington, D.C., before returning to Germany.

Today, Laurens Central School will have a reception for Bentz, who will speak to 11th-graders in a U.S. history class, Superintendent Romona Wenck said. A Laurens teacher took about 15 students to Germany in spring 1973, she said, and about 15 German students visited Laurens that autumn.

The exchange was arranged by a Helmut Marquardt, who taught German and shop courses at Laurens Central School.

Anna Elwyn, former community editor of The Daily Star, wrote about the exchange in 1973. Her family was host to one of the students, she said, and her son, David, went to Germany in the private exchange program.

David Elwyn, who lives near Ithaca, and she will go to Laurens to see Bentz today, she said.

“I’m excited to see him,” she said. Exchange visits are opportunities to make textbook facts come alive to students, Elwyn wrote in her column more than 40 years ago, and such visits help foster peace.

“They are very important,” she said Thursday. “People all over the world need to get to know each other.”