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!"
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.