I told my parents today, and Rudy the other day, that my reading choices of late have had a theme: war. In particular WWII. I don’t know if that’s a sign or if it’s just a coincidence. For Mother’s Day I got a gift card for Amazon from my step daughter. I ordered books. One that seemed interesting; a best seller entitled “We Were the Lucky Ones” and a second “The Nightingale” highly recommended by a friend. I finished the first one hanging on every word. It was captivating. I’m now firmly into the second.
Today visiting my folks we talk about “what’s new”. Well, in today’s bustling world and typical Canadian spring weather, I tell them about my book; it’s the only “new” thing. My parents were just kids during the war in Germany but it’s one of my dad’s favourite topics. My mom not so much. The first book is set in Poland. Interesting since my dad spent the wartime years in what is now Poland. So we talked about the invasion. Poland got divvied up between Germany and Russia as they made a pact. And then later on Germany broke the pact and declared war on Russia too. Poland got ransacked in the process.
The book was about the tribulations of a Jewish family. Their harrowing survival of the brutal holocaust by brave and ingenious tactics. It’s truly a testament to the human will to survive and the bond of family and traditions. I relayed a few vignettes from the book to my parents. Especially the ordeal to find family in the ruins. And then asked my dad about his experience during this dark time in history. He was very talkative.
In 1942 my grandfather (my dads namesake, Rudolf) was secretly shipped to West Germany. He was an in demand tool and die maker whose skills were needed to make grenades. He and his co-workers were transported under cloak of secrecy one day. The family waited for him to return home from work and simply didn’t show up one day. A few days later there was a cryptic note brought to the door advising that he was called away for work. No explanation or details. Poof. He’s gone. He and the workers he trained were shipped to Oberkochen (near Stuttgart) to set up the grenade production. He never wore a military uniform; he was too valuable behind the scenes.
The rest of the family remained in the home. As the war raged on and the German army began to falter, the Russian troops started to appear. Finally at the end of the war, the Polish militias were the rule of law. The borders were redrawn (again) and my dads family was now in Poland.
One day, out of the blue, the military police arrived on their doorstep. A Polish family is moving into their home. They had to leave. There was a DP (displaced persons) camp set up nearby. So my grandmother and great grandmother were put in the encampment until further notice. My dad and uncle were taken to police headquarters and questioned about guns and other weapons they had hidden. They were interrogated and beaten until they provided the information and coughed up the goods. My dad was 13. Then they were taken to the camp. However, after a few days in the camp, a family friend (Pole) outside of the camp recognizes my grandmother and approaches the fence to ask what she’s doing there. She explains the events. He immediately calls to a guard and enters the camp to speak to the authorities. A short while later a guard rounds up my dad and his family. They are free to go.
When they return to their home the Polish family has moved in. The four of them are billeted in the grandmothers old quarters (one room off the kitchen) until the police come for them again. Again they are forced to leave. This time they are separated and billeted with families. My father goes to a farm and my uncle goes to a different farm across the valley. My grandmother goes to a family who are friends from before the war (a Jewish family who escaped early on to Switzerland and returned after the war). My dad and his brother have a nightly ritual whereby they signal each other by waving a lantern in the dark of night across the valley. Seeing the signal is a sign that all is well.
The farm my dad is working on is a Polish family. In addition to my dad they’ve also taken in an older German woman who they call grandmother even though she’s not related. They treat him well and insist he go to school. My uncle is working for a drunk who relies on my uncle to run the farm and tend the horses. My uncle is 15. The drunk farmers wife, however, is kindly to my uncle and treats him well. He cannot attend school though. Treating well equals being clothed, fed and sheltered. Bare bones.
One day while my dad was leading the cows to pasture the old woman comes to find him. She tells my dad that his brother and mother and grandmother are waiting for him at the train station. They are being shipped to West Germany immediately. My dad secures the cows figuring the old woman couldn’t manage them and tells her that he’s going to the train and she should fetch the farmer. As my dad walks along the road towards the depot, the farmer appears on his wagon. He picks my dad up; they return to the farm. The farmer and his wife offer to arrange an adoption if my dad would like to join their family legally. Tearfully my dad declines. The wife understands completely that my dad wants to be with his family regardless of the uncertainty. She quickly packs a large basket of provisions and my dad gets a lift on the farmers wagon to the train.
There’s many military personnel at the platform to supervise the exodus of people. But the farmer drives his cart up to the train and my dad and his package of food are dropped off. The farmer is watchful to ensure my dads safe reunion with his family package intact. Then he drives away. My dad gives the package to his mother and she, with the help of other women, divvy up the bounty and hand it out quickly before the military confiscate it.
The train leaves for unknown destinations. The journey is long and hard. No food. No medication for the sick. Deplorable conditions. Gut wrenching circumstances. Death. But everyday my grandmother lines up to check with the Red Cross for any news or information about my grandfather. They have no idea where he is and haven’t seen him for years.
One day, beyond all comprehension and luck, his name appears on a list. He’s in Oberkochen. He’s alive and well. The family will truly be reunited. The war is now officially over.
More to come …. I have questions for my dad: what happened to their grandmother? What happened at the reunion in Oberkochen? And exactly how did he meet my mom?