All that Glitters is not Gold and other Tooths

Besides fragmented stories, and a fragmented family, there were other leftovers from my parents’ war experiences. For example, my dad had a deadly fear of dentists. His prisoner of war release papers stated that he had ‘defective teeth.’  In fact, he lost most of his teeth and just pretended he didn’t like any foods that required chewing. 

It wasn’t until just before he died that he finally shared his deadly fear of dentists with me. Together we found a supportive dentist who got him some great-fitting dentures and Dad smiled the smile that he’d lost decades earlier. My mom had also struggled with dental health although her fear of dentists was less than perhaps her vanity (I don’t blame her!) or the need to eat a variety of food.  She had a complete set of dentures by the time she was forty and would often express surprise that I still had all my teeth as a fifty-year-old.  Yes, Mom, Canada is a good country.

When I visited Ukraine back in 2004, I was struck by the golden grins of many babushkas. Seemed that the Soviet Union had honoured their toothless grannies with gold teeth. Nowadays we go for a more natural tooth repair, but I can see how displaying gold teeth might have had a certain status in poor villages. The bottom photo, of a younger woman in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, shows off her gold dentures.

The other place in Ukraine where I saw a lot of gold was on the roofs of newly renovated churches . . . in front of which, there would inevitably be a gold-toothed babushka sweeping the ground and possibly begging for a few coins to supplement her meager pension. Happy cats bathed nearby in warm puddles of golden sunlight. 

The act of smiling. . . of showing one’s teeth . . . can be a subtle divide between cultures. In the West we smile readily and easily at strangers. In former Soviet countries, smiles come more slowly but are sincere and meaningful when they do appear, whether glinting with gold or struggling with decay.

Cropped from
Steve Evans

Walter Kempowski

Photo: Walter Kempowski /public domain
I’d never heard of Walter Kempowski until this fall. Coinciding with Remembrance Day, I’ve now finished my third book by this noted German author, who is relatively unknown in the English world. The first novel I read, in the original German, was released in 1992. Mark und Bein tells the story of a young journalist, Jonathan, who takes advantage of an opportunity to follow a road race throughout parts of Poland that once belonged to East Prussia. Having done my own cycle trip through parts of the former East Prussia, I was immediately hooked. With a strong undercurrent of wit and irony, the author contrasts the bitter history of a lost East Prussia with the ramshackle present, still caught in a bit of a time warp.  I loved the characters, the tone, the setting and the issues and so I had to read some more.

Günther Grass Blaues Sofa 
Next, I read Kempowski’s All for Nothing which was originally published in Germany in 2006 as Alles Umsonst.  Again set in East Prussia, this book focuses on the last months of the war. It’s a time period and a location that I’ve become familiar with through my own research and family memories. My new book, coming out next spring, begins at the end of the war. For Germans, the end of the war was difficult. Hitler might have committed suicide, but the German people had to figure out how to live with their shame and loss. 

All for Nothing has put Walter Kempowski, alongside Günther Grass and Heinrich Böll, as one of the great novelists exploring Germany’s experiences of the Second World War.  Böll has long been one of my absolute favourite German writers. Both he and Grass received the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Böll in 1972 and Grass in 1999). Kempowski was supposedly disappointed that he didn't receive that particular award, however, he got many others. It's been thirty years since I've been so engrossed in books by German authors, ever since I finished my MA in German back in the eighties, and it's a treat to revisit these authors, those times and to discover new German authors.

Heinrich Böll Bundesarchiv,
B 145 Bild-F062164-0004 / Hoffmann, Harald / CC-BY-SA 3.0

I finished Kempowski’s Swansong 1945 in the final hours of Remembrance Day. This book is not a novel. It’s a collection of diaries entries from people as diverse as Field Marshal Keitel and Hitler, to Thomas Mann, Albert Schweitzer and unknown prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors and an international motley of prisoners of war. The diary entries are limited to 3 days:  April 20th, (Hitler’s 56th birthday), April 30th, (Hitler’s suicide) and May 9th (capitulation). At one point, I almost stopped reading. The entries are so disjointed and the material so dark, that I felt stuck. But I’m glad I kept going because it’s the juxtaposition of entries that gives the book its power. It’s the kind of Second World War resource that I can see myself returning to again and again. However, there are more Kempowski books to read and I am quite grateful to have discovered his work. Swan Song 1945 is only the final chapter (more than 400 pages) of Echolot (English: Echo Soundings), a ten-volume chronicle that he produced, documenting personal reflections on the Second World War. 

Walter Kempowski was born in Rostock in 1929 and died in 2007.  As a youth, he spent eight years in Soviet custody for supporting American efforts at the end of the war.  His efforts to collect such diverse points of view make his work both incredibly humble and powerful. 

Growing Up in the Shadow of War

Remembrance Day. For me, war has never been about ceremony or about monuments. For me, war has been about two broken people—my parents—and all the baggage they carried in spite of immigrating to this country to start over. 

I was cleaning out some ‘stuff’ the other day. What might look like a box containing an old airplane model to others, is a poignant reminder of my dad and his years in the Wehrmacht.

In 1936, age 18, he joined the Luftwaffe It gave him a smart-looking uniform, stability and status. When the war started he flew, among other planes, the Junker 52. According to the description on the model box, the plane was nicknamed “Tante Ju” or “Aunt Ju.”  It was a transport plane and when my dad crashed in 1941, he had 17 paratroopers on board. All died while he, as pilot, was the lone survivor, spending more than a year in the hospital. The crazy thing is that I only learned about this during the pandemic when my brother and I went for a walk. My brother said Dad always felt responsible for those 17 deaths on his plane. 

You see, war talk was boy talk and so I never heard Dad’s war stories. While my brother and our dad focused on building model airplanes, I was learning domestic stuff like cooking and cleaning. The stories I heard were about the dangers of promiscuity, of unwanted babies, of disease-bearing fleas and bedbugs. I learned about recycling, reducing and reusing. 

Growing up in the shadow of the war was not glamourous or monumental. It was shameful and quiet. As someone (Churchill?) so aptly noted, history is written by the victors. 

Science along the Amber Coast

Nikolaus Copernicus lived and worked in Frombork, Poland. Once known as Frauenberg, it's an idyllic small town on the Baltic’s Vistula Lagoon. I’d first heard about this astronomer and mathematician while studying Bertold Brecht’s play, The Life of Galileo, at university. The play had made a strong impression on me, as had Brecht’s connection to Berlin. I thought the Netflix series, Babylon Berlin, did a great job of revisiting the avant-garde atmosphere of the Weimar Republic. A communist sympathizer, Brecht left the Berlin theatre scene when the Nazis came to power. He returned to East Berlin after the war and was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954. 

Copernicus, you might know, had the radical idea that it was the sun, and not the earth, that was the centre of our universe. While visiting Frombork, I was able to climb a watchtower, (refurbished after the Second World War bombings), from which Copernicus studied the sky and developed his revolutionary (in both senses of the word) astrological models. Our world, and the influence of the Church, would never be the same.

During that 2019 bike trip, I grew to appreciate not just the natural beauty of the Amber Coast, but how much incredible history is concentrated there.  No wonder its current residents embrace the past, showcasing it like a piece of amber. 

Recent Posts

The Fabric of a Community: a tribute to Bev Morton

June 6th would have been Bev Morton’s 74th birthday.  In her honour an opening reception was held to celebrate her art at The Studio of La M...