Wednesday, 3 March 2010

‘Why ever have you come back here?’

My mum and dad’s neighbour died at the weekend. They’ve lived next door to Gerda and her husband, Fred, for 30 years, long enough for Gerda to remember my mother’s mum, who died in 1983, and for her to have known my daughter as a toddler. At 88, she was a crucial half-generation older than my parents. A young woman at the outbreak of the second world war, she became a part of that vast movement of people who were refugees by its conclusion.

In our last conversation, she told me again (we had spoken of it several times before) about the long trek through occupied Germany that took her back to her home village in Silesia when the war ended. Her mother’s reaction when, exhausted after a journey of more than 100 miles into the Soviet-occupied zone, Gerda finally knocked on her door was to say to her: ‘Why ever have you come back here?’

Gerda was one of the very few Germans I ever met who was an adult during the war and willing to talk freely about it. She told me once that Hitler had been ‘all right in the beginning’, saying that he had provided jobs and stability. We were never going to agree about that, but like many Germans she had paid a heavy price for her youthful acquiescence to the Nazis – including, though she never spoke about it directly, at the hands of the Soviet victors.

The transfer of most of Silesia to Polish sovereignty after the war meant that her family joined the eight million Germans who were uprooted in the east. That she was able to find a home and acceptance and to raise a family in England with an English husband always struck me as a fine example of reconciliation and tolerance.

She died of lung cancer, after an illness of just a few weeks, which adds poignancy to the fact that so many of our chats took place when she was having a fag outside at the back. I’ll miss her and the personal connection she provided to an important part of my own and our continent’s past.

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