Sunday 14 August 2011

The Berlin Wall - ordinary people, extraordinary lives

Last weekend marked the fiftieth anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, an event which for many people under the age of 40 probably ranks alongside the Siege of Troy in terms of meaning and historical importance. So here are a couple of personal memories of a place which not long ago seemed destined to remain divided for ever.

My brother in law's wife was born in East Berlin a couple of years before the Wall went up, and her parents moved across to the West while they still could, leaving the grandparents behind. Fred, the father, built up a business as a jeweller and watchmaker far away in a small town on the Rhine. Eventually, in the 1980s, the grandparents were allowed to travel to the West because by that time they were retired, and the East German regime was not too worried by the prospect of economically unproductive pensioners defecting.

One grandmother in particular was a fairly regular visitor, and I remember sitting across the table from her thinking how strange it was to be talking to someone from a place which, for most West Europeans, might have been on the other side of the moon. People younger than her were still being shot for trying to make the same journey.

Hundreds of miles further north is the beautiful city of Lübeck, an ancient Hanseatic port which was badly bombed by the RAF. In one of the churches you can still see the crater in the floor of the bell tower left by the bells as they crashed down and melted in the heat of the fire.

Lübeck was very close to the border, and a motorway led from the city to the East German border controls. There were signs giving the distances to towns and cities in the East, but very few people made the journey. We drove up, had a look around and did a U-turn. Years later, after the collapse of East Germany,  I discovered that a short distance beyond the impressive border post spanning the motorway, the Autobahn turned into an old-fashioned cobbled main road which went on for bone-shaking mile after bone-shaking mile through the countryside.

Now, there is no trace of the border post, and the cobbled trunk road has turned into a modern motorway. It is actually impossible to tell where the border was. Strange to think that something which cost so many lives and caused so much misery could vanish so completely and so quickly.

Just to the north of Lübeck is a small village where my partner's first husband grew up. Uwe was a big man, kind and gentle, who died as the result of a terrible car crash. I came to know him and his parents, Karla and Friedrich, or Fritz as he was known, very well.

Karla was a local girl, and her first language was not German, but Plattdeutsch, which is closer to English and Dutch than High German. The language was still spoken at home by Karla's generation, but few young people grow up with it nowadays.

Karla was a devout Lutheran, and led a simple life. She had met Fritz and fallen in love with him not long after the start of the Second World War, but Fritz did not have German citizenship. His family had moved to the area from Denmark before the First World War, and Fritz was a Danish national, although he had been born and brought up in Germany. The Nazi authorities would not allow him to marry Karla unless he took German citizenship; if he refused, he was told he would be deported to occupied Denmark. So Fritz became a German, married Karla, and ten days later he received his call-up papers from the Wehrmacht and was sent to fight on the Eastern Front. Fritz ended up as a Russian prisoner of war, but was lucky enough to survive and be released in 1949. When he got home, he was so thin and so ill that his wife did not recognise him.

Things were not easy at home, either. Karla told me how the villagers in the area had tried to urge the British Army on to keep going east and take as much territory as they could before the Red Army arrived. Nobody knew at the time that the zones of occupation had already been agreed.

As the Russians rolled west, millions and millions of people were displaced from the old eastern provinces, fleeing west often with little more than the clothes they stood up in. Karla's small house was requisitioned by the authorities, and each room was given over to a refugee family, leaving Karla with just the kitchen where she nursed her dying mother-in-law. This was the home that Fritz eventually returned to.

Gradually, very gradually, things improved. The refugees found new homes of their own, and Fritz and Karla settled down to start a family.

Fritz never fully recovered from his ordeals in Russia, but he retained a sense of humour and liked to tell jokes. He took over his parents' business as a wheelwright, making and repairing farm carts, tools and spoked wheels, and his workshop was next to the house. By the 1960s there was little demand for his craft, and Fritz went into retirement.

Fritz died first, and then Uwe. Karla eventually moved hundreds of miles south to live with her other son and his family, before dying in a home on the Swiss border, almost as far as it is possible to get in Germany from her old village. She was born into a Germany ruled by the Kaiser, saw first the Weimar Republic and then the Nazis come and go; she struggled through the hard years after the Second World War and lived to see the border posts pulled down and a reunited Germany.

The family home was sold, but Fritz's old workshop and all the tools of his craft were given to an open air museum. If you are ever in the area, the museum at Molfsee is worth a visit.

By coincidence, another woman called Käthe from a village called Schlutup just a few miles from Fritz and Karla came to live in my home village in the 1950s. She was brought over to work as a cook and housekeeper in a large house, and later came to be one of my mother's best friends.

Schlutup lies between Lübeck and the old East German border post, and the Iron Curtain ran down one side of the village. Käthe had two brothers. One was a Communist, and the other a Nazi, and life at home had been very difficult as a result. As a young woman, Käthe had gone to work in Hamburg, which is not that far away, and had been lucky to survive the firestorms caused by the British bombers.

Käthe was one of the best cooks I ever knew, and a very kind and gentle woman.

Ordinary people who experienced extraordinary times, and they were among the kindest and most generous people I have ever known. We can at least hope that whatever the next few years throw at us, our children will not have to go through what so many Europeans did just a few short decades ago.

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