Monday, November 09, 2009

Twenty Years of Freedom


Twenty years ago today, the East German government took a momentous decision and finally allowed its citizens to travel freely in the West. In our family this day had and still has a special resonance.

Mil comes from a little town in East Germany called Gardelegen, a beautiful mediaeval town which ended up just within the East zone after the war. Ironically, the Americans arrived there first, but Gardelegen ended up being part of the area which was given to the Russians followng the decision to split Berlin into four sectors. By then the Americans had passed on and Gardelegen was being run by the British. Mil's father was an estate manager in charge of an estate called Isenschnibbe which is about a mile outside of town .

Unfortunately, if you look both Gardelegen and Isenschibbe up the likelihood is you will find the story of a massacre which occurred on the estate in the dying days of the war. According to mil, there were several days of chaos while the Americans waited outside the town, too frightened of their own shadows to enter. During that time a trainload of slaveworkers from the factories in Nordhausen who were being shipped out by the SS (who had orders to kill them) to prevent them telling the Allies Nazi secrets, found they could go no further. They were rounded up by their SS guards, taken into a barn on the Isenschnibbe estate, locked in and the barn was burnt down. It was an horrific atrocity in which over 1000 people died. Those few that did escape were hidden by the Gardelegers, who from my understanding of the story had nothing to do with what happened and were powerless to prevent it. Mil tells me that her father had locked themselves within the walls of the estate, because everything was so lawless outside, so they were unaware of the tragedy till after it had happened. From fil, whose regiment came to Gardelegen to relieve the Americans, we have a series of horrific photographs showing the extent of the atrocity. I always had the impression from him that the Gardelegers were not accountable for it, and I'm inclined to believe it. In this country we're lucky enough not to have lived in a dictatorship. Nothing in Nazi Germany was straightforward - if you were a member of any of the professions: a lawyer, doctor, teacher, nurse you had to be a member of the Nazi Party or you couldn't work. Mil's family were not Nazis, but I don't think it is possible for us to understand the knife edge that ordinary people must have lived under, in a regime that they detested but could do nothing about.

When the Americans did move into the town, they quickly discovered what had happened (mil has always felt if they'd been more decisive and got into the town straight away it might have been prevented). They stayed for a while, and used Isenschibbe as their base. They were reguarly visited by entertainers, including, get this, Louis Armstrong. Mil still has a Christmas card he sent her dad.

I'm not sure how long the Yanks stayed before handing over to the York and Lancaster regiment, which happened to be fil's outfit, though he didn't get to meet mil till later. Mil's father built up a good working relationship with colonel in charge of the regiment. I presume this is why the colonel told mil's dad that the Russians were coming, and suggested that mil and her sister should be sent to the west. (Mil's best friend had even less time to prepare, she and her family literally had to abandon the family farm and leave all their belongings behind.). So one sunny morning in May 1945, mil and her sister set off on their bikes with a young soldier who was supposed to be looking after them. From mil's accounts he was a bit of a waste of space, and when her bike developed a puncture, she mended it not him. They arrived safely in Heidelberg where they had family and stayed for a couple of weeks. Astonishingly mil's dad was able to take a tractor to Heidelberg (which is quite a hike from Gardelegen) loaded with belongings, but he then went back to make sure the people of the estate who were under his care were ok. As a result, he along with four other key members of the town ended up in Buchenwald, where he remained for three years.

He was one of the lucky ones, in that he came home alive, but his health never recovered. The one and only time Spouse and I have been to Buchenwald (best remembered for the infamous Beast of Buchenwald, Ilse Koch who committed hideous atrocities on prisoners there), we found a memorial stone to the thousands of Germans who died in the years after the war at the hands of the Russians. We were there in the early evening and as we looked into the gloom of the wood, we realised we could see hundreds and hundreds of wooden crosses. Maybe some of those people deserved their fate, having committed atrocities of their own under the Nazis, but I'm sure the majority were, like my grandfather in law, decent enough people who were caught up in events they were powerless to prevent.

After two weeks in Heidelberg, it was clear that mil's relatives who were struggling as they had to have refugees living in their house, couldn't keep mil and her sister, so hearing that the York and Lancasters were in Wolfenbuttel, mil and her sister left to go there. Here was the lucky part of the story for mil, because she was able to get a job at the Officers Club as a translator, which meant she could have her sister lodging with her as her refugee. And it was here, that she finally met fil (who'd in the meantime met her dad in Gardelegen at some point). By all accounts they were difficult days as food was scarce, the family mil was staying with didn't know what had happened to the father of the family as he was a POW and there wasn't much money. But judging by the photos, taken when mil and fil went with friends on skiing trips to the Harz mountains, they were happy days too. I'm not quite sure at which point they decided to get married, but by then mil's father was in Buchenwald, and she had to make a huge decision about coming to England. Apparently she asked an uncle, who'd lived in England prewar what he thought. Well, he said, pondering her dilemma for a moment, England is very like Germany. There are lots of trees. I think you'll like it. A slightly spurious basis, perhaps, on which to leave your homeland, but given the choices she faced staying, I think it probably wasn't such a hard decision.

Fil by now had got back to England, and he and another friend were trying to get mil and the friend's fiancee over. Fil's friend had managed to charter a plane at vast expense, but fil was able to wangle them a passage on a boat at a much cheaper price. His friend was so grateful he promised to buy fil a drink every time he came to London, which he did pretty much until he died.

When they arrived off the boat at Hull, fil and his friend were there to greet them, as were several photographers, and fil told them to keep schtumm and pretend they weren't German. When they got on the train to London, they had a carriage to themselves, and somehow had found a record player. So they danced all the way to London, which I think is dead romantic!

Eventually, mil's sister was able to join her in England, but her mother remained in Gardelegen, building a house which she and mil's father lived in when he returned. He did manage to come over once on a false passport, and was tickled pink to go to Windsor Great Park and stand next to George VI, when he was in the country illegally. Mil and fil also went over to Germany a couple of times, with Spouse's two brothers and fil's parents. Spouse's granny told me the story of how they went to a clearing in the woods, from where they could see a watchtower with a sentry, which scared her rigid. As they waited in the clearing, people started arriving with food stalls and the like. Eventually they spotted movement in the woods. All the people from East Germany were dressed as peasants, sweeping the fields, and they swept their way into the woods where they then made their way to the clearing and found their families. I'm not sure how long they spent together before they then had to go home, but that was the only physical contact mil had with her parents for many many years. And when her father died in 1958, she was unable to go the funeral. Imagine that. Not being able to go to your dad's funeral because there's a danger that the State won't let you go again, never mind that you have become a British citizen and have a family back home.

Mil's mother stayed on in Gardelegen, having developed some kind of motor neurone disease which mil always puts down to the stress. Eventually she became so decrepit the East Germans didn't want her, so mil had to go out to get her back to the West. Even this was fraught with difficulty. Newly pregnant with Spouse, she spent three months in Germany, bribing the German guards with cigarettes every time she crossed the border. She wasn't certain of success till the very last minute, and all the time was on a knife edge thinking if she said or did the wrong thing she might end up being detained.

Because here's another thing, which from my cosy safe pov, has always seemed unimaginable to me. People mil knew did disappear. One family she knew were imprisoned for a year, just for unwittingly posting a letter from a dissident; the sister of one of her closest friends escaped from Gardelegen in a train full of wood, hidden in a fake compartment underneath. She was one of the last people to get out this way, as the next poor unfortunates who tried it were caught. While she was escaping her brother and his family were being closely questioned by the Stasi, and had to pretend they hadn't seen her for days. By all accounts, though people lived and worked, and got on with their lives in East Germany it was a tense and unnerving place to be. The tragedy of the division in families never more poignantly apparent then visiting towns which were literally split in two by the border. One we saw, near Wolfsburg where we usually stay was 30km from the nearest border crossing. So in order to visit family members you had to not only apply for a permit but take a round trip of 60km just for the privilege. It is staggering to think how difficult that must have been.

When in 1989 we first started to get wind that things were changing in Germany, mil I don't think wanted to dare think about it. She'd left her home town in 1945 and only been back that one time to get her mother. We started to hear rumours of people escaping via Hungary - in fact the daughter of one her friends did exactly that. Then we heard that there were marches, in Leipzig and Dresden, and eventually even the Alexanderplatz in Berlin - we waited with bated breath, worried that we might be about to witness another Tiananmen Square. But it never happened. So today twenty years ago, mil finally heard the news she'd waited most of her life for, that she was free at last to go home.

On New Year's Eve 1989, she rang us up rather tipsy, having watched the people of Berlin climbing on the Wall and tearing it down. In Germany traditionally people literally jump into the New Year. Mil always celebrates twice, first at eleven for Germany, then at twelve for England. Fil had fallen asleep leaving her to celebrate alone. We were rather alarmed when we discovered she'd been jumping off the sofa, not once, but twice, but somehow it seemed appropriate...

4 comments:

Elise said...

what a lovely post - thank you !

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Awh, that's a really lovely post - full of emotion and really bringing a sense of history to life. I remember watching the news coverage with my dad (who was himself from Germany, nearly Leipzig) and it was a very strange feeling. thanks for sharing your family's stories

Virginia Moffatt said...

Great post.

Didn't know how brave she'd been.
I hope she has been well enough to celebrate this week.

xxx

Political Umpire said...

Great post Jane. I have made a limited comeback, pending something more official which is in the wings, and will try and get over here a bit more often.