Another Mystery

Growing up without grandparents has only increased my need to know who they were. While I've sort of figured out my mom's side of the family and how they were affected by the Stalin years, my dad's side has remained elusive.

I’ve been working on a novel partially set in northern Germany, where my dad was born back in 1918. One thing leads to another—as things do during research and writing—and I’m wondering, what would daily life have been like for my grandmother, Elisabeth,

when she was a young mother.

Germany had just lost a war and my grandfather had returned from it with serious injuries. He became mostly bedridden (although that didn’t stop him from fathering five children). Hyper-inflation destroyed family finances. Not only that, but in 1918 the Spanish Flu was raging across Europe. 

I never met my grandmother and she died before I started school.  When I asked about her,last year while visiting Schleswig-Holstein, she was dismissed as a bitter, unloving woman. 


But my curiousity is piqued. People aren’t born bitter. Personalities are created—at least partially— through relationships and circumstances. Because she played an important part in the dissolution of my dad’s first marriage and thus in my own life, I’m now hooked. Another mystery to explore. 


What's in a Name?

At the end of the war, Germany was quite broken. It’s no wonder that organized religion took hold—replacing their faith in a crazed Führer. Going through my parents’ old red leather photo album, I came across several photos of nuns, with the label Die Diakonessen.

Who were these Diakonessen? I’ve now found out that they are still active—still working with refugees and immigrants. They're a faith-based charity made up of Germany’s Protestant churches—apolitical and social welfare-minded. At the end of the Second World War they expanded their mission to meet the intense needs of the millions of homeless. They were there for my mom as she recovered from her time in the Soviet mines. 


In the late forties and early fifties, my mom helped out in a hospital run by these Sisters. The experience must have had a strong impact on her because I was named after a set of twins she helped to deliver. I used to complain about my German-sounding names and express relief that Gabriele was at least born before Ulrike


My poor parents, how were they to know what the trendy names were here in Canada? What's in a name? Maybe it's honour towards the past and hope for the future.



Rebuilding history?

The cities of Gdansk and Kaliningrad (both former members of the Hanseatic League) were each re-built differently after the Second World War. Gdansk, now again part of Poland, has a beautifully restored old inner-city tourist area. Eighty-one Septembers ago, the Nazis had claimed the port city for themselves, called it Danzig and left it largely intact. Not until later, in 1944 and 1945, as Germans civilians fled to the harbour city to get on ships to avoid the advancing Soviet Army,was the city crushed by Soviet bombs. 

Last September I was in Gdansk, Poland finishing up a cycling trip. I’d biked in four countries and through some intense family history. The books I’ve read, both pre, and post trip, continue to enhance my appreciation of these lands. 

It was also interesting to view Lech Walesa’s shipyard office—the beginning of the end for the Soviet communism. Gdansk—a place of beginnings and ends.

A few days earlier, I’d been guided through Kaliningrad, once Königsberg. It was also destroyed by the Allies in 1944/45. When the former East Prussia was divided up after the war, Konigsberg stayed under Soviet control, and renamed Kaliningrad in honour of a Soviet hero. Because the local population was expelled, there was no effort to showcase or remember any of its history. It wasn’t until the 1990s that efforts began to rebuild the massive cathedral and even honour Immanuel Kant a German philosopher. Once quite revered by the Soviets, he's now causing irritation. Reminds me of our own changing views of history here in Canada.

Our yesterdays are complicated. We can try to erase the past by pulling down monuments, buildings, or renaming cities. It will continue to haunt our present. Educating ourselves is key to awareness, acceptance and finally, action.

Old stuff. So many stories. I was struck by how proud the guides were of both their cities and their complicated histories.

A Tale of Two Frankfurts

One place that’s confused me during my research into my parents’ history is the town of Frankfurt. It served as the eye of the needle for all returning German prisoners of war as they left their Soviet labour camps and headed back home. Turns out there are two Frankfurts. Both defined by their rivers. 

Frankfurt am Main has the Main River, a tributary of the Rhine, flowing through it. The city might be best known for its busy airport. 

Frankfurt an der Oder is on the Oder River which, for 187 km. forms the border between Poland and Germany.  The Oder river divides Frankfurt an der Oder (Germany) from Slubice (Poland).  It’s a quiet place now, but back in the late forties and early fifties it was a hub of activity.

Returning POWs first stop in Frankfurt (Oder) was the Hornkaserne run by the Soviet NKVD (until 1947). Here they were given new clothes, toiletries and a chance to clean up so they would look presentable for the 3 km walk to Gronenfelde barracks run by a German administration. In Gronenfelde they were divided into destinations and sent further on to their homes. 

It was a thrill for me, last year, to travel through both Frankfurts and to appreciate the history of Frankfurt (Oder). On the train from Gdansk to Berlin, we crossed the Oder River. I was surprised at how wide it was and how green its banks.  I couldn’t help but imagine each of my parents crossing that same river—Mom in the summer of 1947, and Dad in November, 1949. They were not yet aware that their separate journeys would eventually become one journey, together, to Canada.

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