In My Grandfather’s Shadow by Angela Findlay

A story of war, trauma and the legacy of silence.

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?
Marcus Tullius Cicero, Orator ad M. Brutum

1 February 1945

In the small german town of Jüterbog, a mother shakes awake her ten- year- old daughter. It’s 4 a.m. The little girl, barely conscious, is told to get dressed quickly. They must leave now. She may choose one doll to bring with her. She hesitates. Should she take her old, love- worn doll or the new one her father sent from Italy? In a snap decision she will come to regret, she grabs the new doll before being  bundled into the car with her eight-year-old sister and driven north to Berlin. Large parts of the city are already smouldering.
It is still dark when they reach the railway station. The mother looks round, scanning the bustling mass of coated strangers for one particular person: a man carrying a ruck-sack with six pockets. He will escort her children to the safety of their relatives in the north.
The younger child is hungry and complains that her shoes hurt. The woman is looking for somewhere to buy bread when she sees the man. He urges them towards the platform. The mother, clutching a small suitcase in one hand and her younger daughter’s hand in the other, tells the elder girl to hold on tight to the hem of her coat, so that she doesn’t get lost.  As the trio inches forward amid the jostling crowd scrambling to board the train out of the city, the child hangs for dear life on to this extension of her mother.

2 May 1945

In the guesthouse of the sleepy Italian hamlet of La Stanga, on the edge of the Dolomites, a fifty- two- year- old Wehrmacht general stares into the embers of last night’s fi re and drags tobacco smoke into his lungs. He holds it there longer than usual before throwing his cigarette butt into the ashes and stepping out into the cool May morning. Straightening his belted overcoat, he pulls down the peak of his officer’s hat to cast his eyes in shadow. Hitler has been dead for three days and representatives of the German command in Italy have signed an unconditional surrender. Today, at 2 p.m., it will come into effect. His war is finally over, but he knows that he and his men will not be going home.

First he will negotiate the handover of arms, horses and soldiers with the American infantry located a little to the west. He will ask that his men –  some eight divisions and 30,000 troops  –  are allowed to keep their rifles to defend themselves against the Italian bandits still firing in the mountains. And then he will organize transport, petrol and rations.

The mountain air feels fresh but it will be much warmer further south. His latest billet has been comfortable but, as prisoners of war, he and his troops will be housed outside regardless of the heat. Placing one leather- booted foot in front of the other, just as he has done for thousands of miles across Russia, he walks towards his new commanders.

3 August 1987

Outside Long Bay Gaol in Sydney, Australia, a twenty- two- year- old woman bangs on the heavy door. She is carrying a portfolio containing photographs of murals, and the black fabric sticks to the bare skin of her arm. A small shutter fl icks open and an eye quickly looks her up and down before blinking closed again. The door opens, just enough to allow her small frame to slip through. Inside, a guard escorts her across the cobbled courtyard and through a series of locked gates. It is then that she can smell them, the men: old socks, rancid stubble, stifled testosterone. As the guard leads the way into another courtyard, overlooked by more barred windows, she begins to relax. Four prisoners stand in front of a huge blank wall, squinting in the harsh sunlight. Any rising trepidation is quashed by a far greater sense of relief; the relief of kicking off uncomfortable walking boots at the end of a long trek.

For years she has been searching for a solution to her inexplicable sense of her own badness. ‘This is it!’ the cells of her body seem to sing in unison. ‘This is it!’

Less than a minute after ‘Little Boy’ was released above Hiroshima, the world’s first atomic bomb detonated. ‘My  God, what have we done?’ one of the co- pilots of the plane that dropped it scribbled into his logbook as a lethal cloud instantly annihilated 80,000 Japanese people. Three days later, ‘Fat Man’ made its deadly descent on to Nagasaki to deal a final blow to the enemy. Within five weeks, the Second World War was officially over.

Except it wasn’t.

Like the atomic fallout, the war persisted, invisibly poisoning bodies and minds for generations. Like all armed conflicts, it left trauma in its wake. But in this, the deadliest war in history, civilian casualties far outweighed those of the military, and it was non-combatants who experienced the unequalled levels of destruction and depravity: men, women and children, many of whom, along with front- line veterans, found it impossible to speak about the horrors they had endured.

As the chaos of battle subsided, survivors accustomed to the threat of imminent death brushed themselves down and attempted to build a new normality from the ruined homes and flattened cities. In the Allied countries across Europe, the sting of personal loss and devastation was partially anaesthetized by the jubilation of victory. People found meaning in the sacrifices made by family and friends, and governments started the process of etching their narrative into the history books. It would be one of triumph over unprecedented evil, evoking national pride as the antidote to hardship. It would be a vindication of the tactical decisions that had left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead. It had all been worth it.

There was no such balm for the losses of the German people, just deeper shades of hatred as the world discovered the monstrous truth of Hitler’s vision. Soldiers were rounded into barbed- wire encampments; Nazis, stripped of their tell-tale uniforms, blended into the moving mass of exhausted humanity fleeing westwards; civilians scavenged the wreck-age of their cities for food and debris to burn to keep them-selves warm. With the death of their Führer, the Nazi ideology and its promise of a thousand- year kingdom collapsed. Now the occupying enemy was throwing accusations of complicity rather than grenades. A fog of defiant silence descended over communities and families. With few on the victorious side interested in the suffering of their enemy, German men, women and children learned to wrap their experiences into bundles, seal them tightly and hide them away.

Years later, children and grandchildren would find those bundles buried in the backs of family closets and begin to unpack them.

This is the story of three generations of one family, knotted together and woven into an episode of history that continues to appal and fascinate. The ten-year-old German girl fleeing the Soviet troops was my mother, Jutta. The German general was my grandfather, Karl. And I was the young woman who finally felt at home in a prison.

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