May 8th


Berlin, 1945. [source: RCAF files, Wikimedia commons]

Two days after our wedding anniversary is  the day that Germany formally surrendered to the Allies, 75 years ago. In the local papers are images of bombed out cities, here in Hessen but everywhere in Germany and of course Berlin. For Lothar, these occasional surreal reminders of the war spring on him like an emotional ambush.

I will never really know what it’s like to be a German. It is grief, guilt, and a moment of disorientation that someone his age feels. Disbelief, also, that the country he sees now is also the country that went to war with the rest of Europe, twice, the country that produced the Nazi regime. It doesn’t matter if you had no part in it. It’s still where you come from. Lothar was born in July, 1949, four years after the war ended. It was more than three years after the war before his father, Martin Jobczyk, made it home to Berlin. Once Germany had capitulated, many months passed before the news of war’s end made it to the prison camps in the far reaches of Sibera, and another year or so passed before the exchange of prisoners was negotiated. Russia was in no hurry to let these captive mine workers go. Then, at last, those still alive faced the long, halting journey across the breadth of Russia.

When Lothar sees the images of bombed out Berlin, more than half the city in ruins, he remembers that despite the massive effort to clear the rubble –the work done largely by the women of Berlin with their own hands–there were still piles of broken down buildings here and there, years later. He and the other young children would play in these gutted buildings and rubble heaps, and occasionally a kid would tramp on an unexploded bomb and lose an arm or a leg. Some of these weapons are still found today when there is excavation for a new building.

When he sees pictures of people trying to go about their daily lives against the backdrop of a destroyed city, he thinks about his mother and is overcome with sadness, pity, but also admiration. In the last few months of the war the bombing raids over Berlin intensified.  His eldest brother, Wolfgang, was six at the time. He remembers the terror of the sirens, running to the cellar, the unimaginable shockwaves of the exploding bombs, the fires.  Their mother, Elsbeth, 25 years old, managed to keep the three children alive, as well as her own mother and father. She went out into a devastated city every day searching for food. Who knows what risks and horrors she witnessed or experienced herself when the Russian army entered the city, soldiers frayed past all sense of decency and bent on revenge.

Three years later, when her husband finally made it back from Siberia, he was not much more than half the weight of the man she remembered. He had been one of the “lucky” ones – less than half of the German prisoners of war shipped to Siberia survived the journey. He and the other surviving prisoners were then set to work in the mines. He endured starvation, sickness, beatings, and horrible accidents (once had to undergo abdominal surgery without anesthesia). He did his best to keep his fellow prisoners alive. The Russian guards were half-starved as well, having been sent there as punishment.  For several months after he came home, he slept on the floor with a pistol under his head. There was no word for it back then. Nobody talked about trauma.

These stories feel like the black-and-white pictures from documentaries. But this is my father-in-law and my mother-in-law I am talking about. Two people I never met but who are my family too. So I don’t want to hear “They deserved it.” I don’t want to hear that anyone deserved anything. My grandfather was a tail-gunner in an RCAF bomber and was shot down over northern Germany in January 1945 and is buried at Hanover. Yes, he was part of an aircrew whose job it was to drop bombs over German cities. But he didn’t “deserve” to die either. And his death set off a series of struggles and calamities for his young family across the Atlantic. The repercussions of war go on for generations.

Germany is not ready to forgive Germany and let the past go, although younger people are embracing a sporty kind of nationalism that is deeply disturbing to older Germans. The 2014 World Cup win was the first time the newly unified country saw such jubilant parades, and people waving the German flag everywhere. You could say it was about time that the country felt it could celebrate as a people but how shocking, how worrisome, and at the very least how deeply naïve it must have appeared to any German old enough to have listened to the Nuremberg trials on the radio or remember playing in the ruins of war.

But of course they are naïve, the younger generations. How can they not be? Despite the constant lessons of history drummed into them at school, the appalling reality that must never be forgotten, they didn’t live through war or the rebuilding of whole cities.  For the first time, there is a presentation of war-time history that feels like any other documentary on TV, not so crushingly shameful. The country’s historians open the wounds with clinical precision, document in detail the Nazi era, how it developed, how it unfolded. This cool detachment is bound to happen with the passage of time -– and that is worrisome too.

I don’t sense that there is any “collective” mood about the war; I am sure every person and every family has a different perspective. But if there is no unified feeling (and that’s probably a good thing) there is an aggregate feeling or rather a curious phenomenon that exists everywhere in the country, in every place, in every family.  Lothar and I like to watch on TV the Hessian travel and cooking shows, replete with lush green landscapes and every few kilometres a place to stop and eat. Sometimes  the proprietors of the restaurant or inn proudly point out the lineage going back a century or more, but there is always that gap in the 1930s, the 1940s. What did granddad do in the war? It isn’t talked about. It’s a skip in the record, a blind spot. You can’t go and ask questions of your friendly host about the delicious meal you just ate and tour the kitchen garden and then ask in an off-hand way, “Was Opa a Nazi?” This street, this field, is this where the Hitler Youth paraded or where prisoners were shot?  Oh, here’s the cellar. Is this where fugitives hid? I think Germany is one more generation away from filling in with complete detail every spot on the map.

I write about Lothar’s recollections of post-war Berlin and the stories he remembers from his family because it brings home to us how strange time is. The war years feel like history. But this was his family, his parents, my in-laws. Seventy years. It was so long ago but only yesterday. The Berlin he visits now is unrecognizable after re-unification and the surge in new construction, but there are still many buildings in the former East that are pockmarked with bullet holes and blackened by fire.  And in Berlin, as in Kassel, there are those strange insertions in the parade of architecture as you ride the tram. A long series of handsome turn-of-the century facades and then several blocks of modern (I have to say somewhat ugly) buildings from the 1960s and 1970s. There were large sections of the city that were almost completely wiped out. In the downtown of Kassel, the Altstadt, there is nothing from the old town except the old market hall and a medieval stone tower wedged between ugly shopping malls. But this is the Kassel I know and that endears itself to me, the city I got to know last winter: architecturally odd, cold and grey but a place that felt like I belonged in: friendly and full of life, peopled by immigrants from all over the world.

Lothar’s mother and father, after unimaginable privations, fear, and struggle,  must have embraced wholeheartedly the plain hard work, day in and day out, in the years after the war. Lothar remembers sitting with his mother in the evening while she did her tailoring work, the radio tuned to the nightly Red Cross broadcast, listing the dead, the missing, the returned. (The Red Cross has continued to this day the search for the missing or the last known locations of the presumed dead). Lothar’s parents hardly had time to grieve the dead in their own families; they worked day and night, did everything to gain a bit of security and a good upbringing for their kids. In time they could even afford to take them on vacation every summer.

Lothar came of age in Berlin in the 1960s. What a time and a place! Work was abundant and profitable and young people felt exuberant, hopeful, restless. They felt they could change the world for the better.  His father once told him to “enjoy these days while you can” because a period of such ease, prosperity, and peace was a blip in time, had never been seen before and probably wouldn’t come again.