Friday, January 27, 2012

Perspective and Gratitude

I spent some time visiting with my parents last week. Since I've gotten very interested in family history of late, my stepmother decided to share with me some of her own history. I've wanted to ask her about it for years, but it always seemed like it could be a touchy subject, so I never had the guts.

You see, my step-mom was born in Cologne, Germany in 1941.


I got to visit her childhood home and meet the whole family 25 years ago when I took the train down from where I was living in Norway as an exchange student. To be honest, the most salient memories I have from that trip are the incredible feather bed that I slept on at Oma's house, and the train stop in Berlin where the Soviet guards boarded and demanded to see everyone's papers.


I suppose the experience in Berlin gave me a tiny, itty bitty taste of what it must have been like to live through Nazi Germany. According to my step-mom, researching family history had become a bit taboo in Germany, because during the Nazi period everyone was required to carry identification papers, which included a family tree dating back 4 generations to prove that you didn't have any Jewish blood.


Nevertheless, before Oma died, she put together a family history booklet for each of her seven children, and a photo album full of pictures from the war and before. It was really amazing to look at those pictures. Oma had seven children all born between 1936 and 1942. My first comment was "is that biologically possible?" My step-mom laughed and said, "two words - Catholic & twins!"
Anyhow, the first thing she pointed out was that she and all of her siblings had biblical names. I asked if her parents were very devout, and she said that actually it was a very subtle form of protest against the Nazi regime. Apparently as the nationalistic Aryan master race stuff was sweeping Germany, people were encouraged to choose traditional German names.


Her parents didn't want any part of it all, and so chose one of the few other options that wouldn't raise suspicions, biblical names.


As my step-mom was born in the latter part of the war, she didn't have too many memories of life under Nazi rule, but what memories she did have where amazing.

Her father had constructed their house on the outskirts of Cologne (Köln in German) shortly before the war broke out. He was very cognizant that war was on the horizon, so when he built the house he constructed a bomb shelter with 3 foot wide concrete walls in the basement. Much of my step-mom's early life took place in that shelter. She remembers that when the air raids would come, sirens would go off and everybody had to go down into the shelter. Her baby brother didn't actually have a crib, instead he had a basket with handles so it would be easy to grab him and run down to the cellar.


When you look at what was left of Cologne by the time the war was over, it's sort of hard to imagine that any bomb shelter could be adequate. (click on the picture to see the full resolution.)


She talked a lot about how they seldom had luxuries like shoes or clothes that fit... showing me in one of the pictures how her mother had sewn a hunk of fabric onto the bottom of her dress to extend it a few inches as she outgrew it, and how the toes of her shoes had been cut off when her feet got too big to fit. She also remembered how thin they all were and that they were hungry most of the time.

I asked if her father ever served in the military. She said that he had a job working for the telephone company, keeping the lines functioning, and so was needed at home and exempt from the draft. But near the end of the war they were basically taking every able bodied man they could find, regardless of age or occupation, so he received a draft notice.


By this time, her father, who was about 5'8" weighed less than 100 pounds. So when it came time to go to the draft office, he didn't eat for three days before hand, and then drank 15 cups of coffee before going in. She recalls that he was shaking so badly he could barely walk, and that his skin literally looked gray. Her mother was terrified that it would actually kill him, but it worked, and he escaped being sent to the front.


By this time it was obvious that Germany was losing the war, yet the German newspapers and radios kept up the drum beat telling the citizens that they were winning and that victory would soon be at hand. So Opa built a radio and they listened to the BBC broadcasts from the bunker in the basement. Oma had apparently worked as a nanny in England before the war and so was fluent in English. At any rate, this was a pretty daring thing to do because if they had been caught they certainly would have been killed.

As the invasion of Cologne neared, all of the civilians were evacuated from the city.


My step-mom remembered that her father made dog tags for each of the children in case they got separated, and then piled them all into a little cart which he attached to the back of his bicycle. Seven children being pulled by a bicycle! She said they were all pretty thin by that point.

Anyhow, they waited until the very last minute, and so were one of the last families out of the city. Then, in the middle of the night they snuck back and hid in the shelter in their basement, waiting for the city to be liberated.


When the Americans finally arrived, my step-mom remembers three of them coming down to the cellar where the family was hiding. One of them, a black man (which was a big deal for my step-mom because she'd never seen a black person before) gave the children a bar of chocolate.

When the Americans left the kids tried to open the chocolate bar. They took off the paper, but were confused by the foil wrapper, and their mother had to show them how to open it. My step-mom remembers that as Oma was doling out the candy to her children, tears were streaming down her face. She asked her mom why she was crying, and Oma replied that she suddenly realized that her children had never had chocolate before.


Anyhow, the Americans came back frequently as Oma was one of the few people left in Cologne who could speak English. So she served as a translator and helped the American military post signs for the civilian population.

The stories are pretty amazing aren't they? I mean, when you think of the Germans in WWII, generally we think of the evil Nazi killers, and I think we tend to forget that there were also a lot of innocent civilians who got caught in that terrible chapter of history.

The whole thing made me feel pretty darned grateful for my easy, easy, easy life.

23 comments :

  1. Great post. My great grandparents emigrated from Weisbaden, Germany. The former bookkeeper for our office was born & raised in Austria and was a child during the war. She shared some of what her family went through, but I've been thinking of asking her to talk more about it. She's about 80 years old now.

    Your post reminded me of one of my favorite books, A Chorus of Stones. It's about war and goes into great detail about the bombing of Dresden. If you can find it, it's worth reading.

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    1. I'll have to check out that book. At the moment I've become obsessed with WWII documentaries on Netflix. It all really puts our lives into perspective.

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  2. I have a similar photo of WWII bombers, because my father was one of the pilots. He sometimes spoke of his experiences, but it wasn't until after he died that I heard the parts of his stories that he'd edited out when telling me.

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    1. Wow. It's rather amazing what extraordinary things they all lived through isn't it?

      My father's father died from injuries sustained in the war. I think he was in a tank unit and was the only one to escape when a hand grenade was thrown into the tank, but later died from his injuries. I wish someone had been able to gather his stories.

      My mother's father, on the other hand spent the war serving on the isle of Capris off the Italian coast - his job was to oversee R&R activities. Some people have all the luck!

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  3. P.S. I can't imagine you giving non-thoughtful advice! I have been rather getting lectured a bit by folk, and it's beginning to inhibit my posting anything. I could understand it if I made a habit of /asking/ for advice, but not otherwise. I have decided that advice-giving is compulsive behavior.

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    1. I can totally relate. Just because we're bitching about things, doesn't mean we're asking for advice!

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  4. Wow Cat, that's an amazing story, thanks for sharing it! I can't imagine how, or even if I could cope with an ordeal of that magnitude.

    We are indeed very lucky.

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    1. We are indeed lucky. I certainly hope that none of us will ever have to face similar situations.

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  5. Agreed- this is a great post! As the years go by, my grandparents drop little bits of things like this but never really want to divulge more information. Grandpa turns 80 this year, and I know they wont be around forever- I would love to get some stories like this out of them! Things have changed SO much in the world in their lifetimes.

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    1. It's really amazing when you think about it... sort of makes you wonder what the world will look like 80 years from now. I really, REALLY wish that I had thought to ask my Grandmother more about her life before she passed 20 years ago. Ancestry.com actually has some good suggestions for how to interview older relatives. And at least part of the reason I wrote this post was so I wouldn't forget all of the stories!

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  6. It's amazing how stupid the last 2 generations have become. How in the hell far right managed to get in thye national parloiamnets of Sweden, Finland, Holland, Greece, Hungary, Denmark, not to mention the about 20% le fronte nationale in France and so on and so on. That's what you get with hipsters that only care about tv chefs, ipads and stuff like that.

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    1. It is disconcerting isn't it? CatMan has a theory that people in the right wing movement are terrified of "leftist" thinking, because they associate it with extreme governmental control, such as people saw during WWII. So in a sense, the right wing stuff we see today is people who are fighting a war that no longer exists. They fail to see that giving away all of their power and money to totally unregulated corporate interests is just as dangerous. If someone has unchecked power over you, it doesn't matter who it is, it's still bad.

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  7. Wow, fascinating post! I've been delving into my own German roots in the last few months and have food that the "German" family name has strong Polish and Slavic roots. Also, that a large settlement of such folks with this last name were at one time living in a Jewish part of Poland at one time in the mid/late 1800s.... So, of course, I'm all the more curious about how "Lutheran" my roots are.

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    1. Ha! Well, you never know what you'll find once you get going on these little adventures.

      It's really fascinating stuff, isn't it? I mean, part of me just loves the treasure hunt of it all, but on some level I find it a tad bit meaningless once you get back a few generations and there isn't anything to connect it to.

      My mother's side of the family is all very well researched... Mormons and Mennonites. I got on Ancestry.com and it was like every place I turned there were blinking leaves telling me they had more info. I finally decided I'd just follow one line back and see how far I could get. I stopped when I got to King Olav of Sweden in about 800AD. I did the same with CatMan and ended up on the Mayflower and then with king Charlemagne!

      But the names don't mean much at that point, I'm more interested in having a picture of what their lives were like, so the stories are what really fascinate me.

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  8. What a great story. I love hearing the real life stories of family and friends through that time period. My grandfather wrote genealogies for our family that I treasure today.

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    1. You are so lucky to have those genealogies. It's sort of amazing to think what our ancestors' lives were like.

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  9. What an incredible story! I've just finished reading about a similar chapter of history in BC where thousands of Japanese Canadians living along the coast were relocated to internment camps after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. They were considered a threat to Canadian security!
    Anyway, the similarities in the "war time" state of mind are eerie. I'm amazed how people adapt to things like hunger and constant threat. I'm inspired by how Opa and Oma managed to stay connected to the outside world:
    "So Opa built a radio and they listened to the BBC broadcasts from the bunker in the basement."
    Thanks for sharing. I'm feeling pretty grateful right now too.

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    1. It is pretty inspiring isn't it. I'm still trying to figure out how he made dog tags for the kids. Sort of makes me wonder how many of us would have the same fortitude in a similar situation.

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  10. What a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing this; my husband and I were both fascinated by it.

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    1. Sort of puts our lives into perspective, doesn't it?

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  11. Beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing this. Utter fascinating and really does give some pretty powerful perspective.

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    1. Yup... I'm gonna endeavor to remember these stories next time I'm tempted to descend into an episode of woe is me!

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  12. Dammit, I meant utterLY. Me typo bad. Me no woe is me either! I STFU now.

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