European Families and the War

A German living in Scotland, and a Scot living in Germany. Our Grandparents were on opposing sides of the war.

Ellen sits sipping a long drink in Irish Pub O’Reilly’s beside the Frankfurt train station. A noisy corner of the city made noisier by the football game showing on big screens. In Germany there is only one sport, and it’s almost a religion. Above the noise we manage to talk, not about the game but about something Brits joke is taboo in Germany -the War.

“My grandfather was pretty young when he was drafted to fight in World War 2 for the Nazis. I inherited around 2000 of his photos. He was a dreamer, a charming handsome man, a photographer, he probably wanted a career in photography before he was drafted. I have a photo of him pre-war on a photography trip with friends, one of whom appears to be a young Jewish man.I find that photo really moving, especially in the context of trying to date it. There is a tendency to want to excuse your own family, but at some point nobody had a choice.” says Ellen.

“He was sent to Italy where he met a vivacious Venetian lady, who later became my Grandmother. Her name was Renata, she was a primary school teacher and spoke German and Italian. They worked together in translation services, communicating between then allies Germany and Italy. My Grandfather Hans must have had communication skills to have ended up there, being the only son would have helped him avoid the front line. I have a letter from him and his friend Georg, inviting my Grandmother and her friend Ava to meet them “for secret kisses”, and they have drawn a map showing them where to go to avoid the guards in the sleeping quarters.

“Between 1937 and 1940 Italy, Japan and Germany had been allied in what is now known as the Axis Powers. When this alliance broke and Italy joined the opposition to the Nazi regime, my Grandfather became a prisoner of war in an American camp in the Veneto. My Grandfather was given 3 days leave by the Americans to marry my Grandmother, and a few months after he was deported to Germany.

In the years after the war the German system supported by the Allies, set up education and training programmes to help rebuild Germany. My Grandfather became an electrician, but he never really recovered from the war. He and my Grandmother were separated but in touch via letters. She noticed the tone of his letters was changing, so she did this incredibly brave thing. My Grandmother left her teaching post and travelled alone to the address she had for him without telling him. When he opened the door she said they should give the marriage a shot, if it didn’t work she would return to Italy.”

“I believe the Hans she found in the rubbles of Germany was now a deeply melancholic person.Given his smiles in the pre-war photographs and her progressive mind-set, I can’t imagine they were fully on board with what they were being forced to be part of.”

“My other Grandfather was hidden away by his mother for the entire war, he was hidden indoors. He held awful racist views as an adult, perhaps because he wasn’t involved in fighting he ended up never having to confront his beliefs.” Ellen reflects.

You feel quite drawn to your photographer Grandfather,emotional about him?”I suggest to Ellen.

“Yes, I think us women, we have a different point of view. It could be our fathers, our sons or brothers, honestly it could be us. I know how hard it is to be forced down a path you don’t want to go down, but have to because you have no choice. I also know the lifelong impact my Grandfather’s melancholy had on my Father. All of us are still touched by the war.”

A friendly Irish waiter attends to us, clearing our plates and taking a new drinks order, and I reflect on how Germany has surprised me.

When I moved here from Edinburgh I saw what I call “war shadows”. Old people with bowed legs, rickets caused by malnutrition in younger life. Cemetery walls like Swiss cheese riddled with bullet holes, people hid behind them during street to street combat. Plaques embedded in cobbled streets with the names of Jewish families and the date they were deported by the SS positioned outside the front doors to their homes.Most surprising has been German willingness to talk about these things. The younger generations want to show their understanding of the events.

Another German told me during the First and Second World Wars, especially in the countryside, people had little understanding of what was happening. There was Nazi propaganda sure, but being illiterate they couldn’t read it, what their neighbours and family told them, that was their information and their “truth”.

Then there is the trauma invisibly infused into the next generations not even involved or responsible. “German families struggled with alcoholism and depression, especially in the generation that grew up after the war didn’t they?”I ask Ellen

Ellen nods “Yes that’s right. One thing you haven’t mentioned is the child sex abuse. In Germany children born post war were scarred, really messed up, some of them abused. Many of the victims turned aggressors for absolute lack of society being able to talk about the war. It’s not as though Nazi ideology vanished overnight,  it was still there but neither privately or publically spoken about. I think I might be part of the first generation to see all of it with more open, un-traumatised eyes.”

“After the war the Allies put out films taken in the concentration camps. They forced everyone to watch them, to confront them with what they had been part of. Young children watched those films. Another member of my family was around 13 years old in Cologne when the Cologne bombing happened. He was playing football with his friends when the sirens sounded. He missed his spot to get into the bunker and spent the night watching and hearing the bombs drop. When the planes stopped he went back to what was left of the pitch, his friends were just splattered body parts.  How can that not impact you?”

The showing of the films would have been to shock Germany, to quell another wave of aggression, to educate and break wilful ignorance that was still there. I mention that psychological therapy wasn’t as developed, or as available.

“And even if it were, how do you clinically treat an entire nation?” Ellen asks me.

Ellen’s Grandmother’s brother died in a concentration camp, and their sister had an affair with an American soldier and they had a child. The child was raised by the Grandparents to cover the scandal and they pretended it was her sister.  “One family, all the war fates.” says Ellen.

There are many stories like this. Many, from all countries involved.

My English Grandmother who had been in the WRENS, and my Scottish Grandfather met in Lüneburg , Germany. My other Grandmother was a driver for senior officers and my Grandfather,a tank driver, served in Belgium and France. Like Ellen’s Grandparents they didn’t discuss it much, not with me anyway, their focus was on the present. Like so many families in the UK those war years are marked by an era of austerity, greater than we have experienced, even in recent years under Government austerity policies.

“How do you think our Grandparents would feel about us?”I ask Ellen“Here I am a Scot with a German born son and you a German in Scotland. We are sitting in an Irish pub talking about them and the war, families previously on opposite sides, what would they say?”

Ellen looks deep in thought“I think they’d be proud” she says firmly. “Of the peace, of the friendships we have,that we have our freedom.”

In a sense the paths Ellen and I walk are only possible because of the hope provided by a legacy of peace. The hell of those Wars brought about by deranged politicians and warped thinking; the struggle, the sacrifice. We get to live in the peace that so far has held.

“Interesting story to tell you.” says Ellen. “When I briefly lived in Paisley I inherited a book of stamps. The stamps were from letters written by pen pals of my Grandfather, the one who liked photography. One stamp was from Paisley in Scotland sent before the war. I have no idea how it got to him or who sent it. To think someone in Scotland was writing to him in Germany, at that time, really warmed my heart.”

What was a Scot writing to her Grandfather about? Were they friends? Were they warning each other? What could they be speaking about?  We’ll never know.

As 2 World Wars slide out of living memory so do some of these stories. Some we can remember and read about, but many others were swallowed up by the heavy emptiness of war. A devouring of life, love, futures and hopes, people who didn’t live long enough to have anything, others who lived but were hollowed out.

I was born in Paisley,I mention. Now here I am decades later, a Scot born in Paisley writing about you Ellen.”

“No way! I love that! THAT is a funny coincidence.” Ellen laughs.

There is really no compensation for what happened at that time. We can’t compensate for it, all we can do is build peaceful, progressive societies.” Ellen says.

There is a roar of noise in the pub, the football game is over, and we have no idea who has won. It’s time to say our goodbyes. Ellen walks me to the train, she’s staying a few more days in Germany before she returns home to Scotland.

As my train rumbles along I scroll a message she sent earlier recommending a book called ‘Utopia for Realists’.  I think about Ellen now walking down streets I used to walk down in Paisley. About her Grandfather and his mysterious Scottish pen pal. About us, now writing to each other,talking about books, art and ideas.

Do I walk past front doors and cafes today that she did years ago? Was her Grandfather’s friend someone we might know, sitting now an elderly man or woman watching TV in Paisley? What roads will we be walking soon? Will they re-join or move further apart? What is around the corner?

We don’t know, because that is the walk of life for every generation.

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  1. That really is very good, Laura. Gets to the heart of many, many aspects of what conflict, of any kind, can do to people, and nations. Really very good.
    I used to work with a German woman, who had been shown those films you mention, when she was at school. She is a sensitive soul, and… did damage to her. She didn’t need to see that – she is a thinking person, who, in fact, carried a huge ‘guilt’ about the Second World War. It didn’t matter how often I pointed out that she wasn’t even born then – she had a weight of guilt, sitting on her, which wasn’t helped, by those films. Guilt for something she took no part in.
    Yes, Laura, you describe it very well – the layers and layers of harm.
    Best thing, is to try to break the thread or unravel the weave of that harm, and, as you and your friend say ….live our lives and make a better future. And try to watch out, that those kind of ideas don’t spread again, and that those kind of ‘leaders’ don’t get to be in change again.
    And……….think for ourselves, as much as is possible.

    “We be of one blood, thee and I.” – ‘The Jungle Book’ by Rudyard Kipling

    • Thankyou Bernie, it was a moving piece to write. Speaking to Ellen reminded me how easily all that we know around us can be rearranged. We can find ourselves in a situation we don’t want, a path that’s dangerous. It’s easy to forget, because it’s not mentioned much, how a few different decisions in the years leading up to and between the 2 wars, could have resulted in Britain assisting the Nazi’s in genocide. The life and peace we enjoy, is held together with thin threads, and if ruthless individuals handle them, it can be lost.

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