John Malarkey lied about his age in 1943 (then sixteen) to fight for the Allies in World War II.
In his company, he was known for never enduring a serious wound (fortunate but shameful), and for having the most time spent on the front line (unfortunate but praiseworthy). During demobilization, he wound up stationed in Hamburg, Germany.
On May 18, 1945, just three weeks after Adolph Hitler committed suicide, a group of Malarkey’s disgruntled allies attempted to break into a wealthy German residence in Hamburg to pilfer a collection of fine German whiskeys. Malarkey happened to be at the scene, and turned back the group, many of whom were already intoxicated. The house’s owner was Alfred Lidenbrock, a linguistics professor of the University of Hamburg, a teacher of German and English literature, and a scholar of the Latin language. Out of gratitude, Lidenbrock invited Malarkey inside for dinner. That was the finest meal he’d had since 1943, and he sipped fine German whiskey with it. He called that “the biggest irony to date.”
At that dinner, Malarkey also met Lidenbrock’s daughter, Grauben, and spent most mornings of the following two weeks with her on the Hamburg wharfs.
At the end of May, Malarkey’s company was moved to Frankfurt and out of the British occupation zone. After being restationed, he kept up correspondence with both Alfred and Grauben Lidenbrock, and left post on several occasions to visit Hamburg. Lidenbrock rekindled in Malarkey an old interest of language and literature. Malarkey learned some German during this time, but learned much more about composition.
This was the arrangement for many months. Like most others, Malarkey didn’t have enough points to return home immediately. Allied forces grew impatient and angry; Malarkey was content to stay in the company of the Lidenbrocks.
He was discharged and returned home to Pennsylvania in November of 1945. His correspondence with the Lidenbrocks did not end. Malarkey was met with an enthusiastic family welcome and began working at a paper mill near Allentown. He then struggled to enter a university, but found family and work soaking up most of his time. The free time he did have was spent reading, learning German, and studying Latin.
“It was all paper, back then,” he wrote at one point. “Get up at six. Get to the mill before seven. Pat and bag for eight hours, all paper. Go home, write a letter to Professor Lidenbrock, write a letter to my Grauben. Then it’d be dinner and books; pages in front of my face again. Somewhere in there I’d be helping my father with this or with that. But all the rest was paper.”
By 1948, Malarkey was feeling quite trapped. Lidenbrock began to pry into Malarkey’s mind through their letters, and found him wanting to leave home. The professor offered him a deal:
Malarkey would move to Hamburg and work for the professor in exchange for room & board. In the meantime, Lidenbrock would try to get Malarkey accepted to the University of Hamburg. Malarkey took the deal with little hesitation.
In October of 1948, Malarkey moved back to Germany. He called that “the biggest irony to date.”
By 1952, Malarkey was fluent in German, and in spring received his degree in Linguistics. In winter of 1953, he and Grauben were married, and moved into their own residence in Hamburg. After earning his degree, Malarkey struggled to find a job in Germany’s ruined economy. He ended up working for the linguistics department of the university, and had no complaints.
In the holiday season of 1955, Malarkey was approached by Wolfgang Crome, the newly appointed curator for arachnids & myriapods at the Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin. Crome had heard of him through Alfred Lidenbrock, and requested that he come work as night-watch at the museum – for a very generous pay. Feeling pressure to provide for his wife and the baby in her belly, Malarkey accepted the offer. They moved together to western Berlin.
During the meeting, Wolfgang Crome inquired about Malarkey’s military training and expertise. Malarkey was disturbed by this questioning.
On his first night of work, Malarkey found himself equipped with an old Karabiner 98K, a German bolt-action rifle widely used in World War II. He thought this strange, nearly offensive, but was assured that it was based in tradition. Malarkey detests the rifle because of its use by so many hostile Germans during the war, and because he does not understand the bolt-action function. He was also equipped with a belt and a holster with a Walther P38, the design of which he admires.
There he was, living in Berlin and holding a German rifle. He called that “the biggest irony to date.”
Malarkey finds the Museum fur Naturkunde extremely eerie during the night. He becomes grateful for the pistol at his side, and ashamed that he would allow himself so much wild imagination. It sometimes seems as if somebody else occupies the empty halls of the museum at night, and Malarkey is relieved by the end of every shift.