As you most certainly know by now, my mother is German. She is a product of having grown up during the time of the Third Reich. My father, on the other hand, has always thought of himself, or so he says, as one of those conquering heroes who had the great good fortune of meeting the love of his life in the rubble that was post World War II Germany.
It has always be a curiosity to me that such a time and place could produce the circumstances and love of which I, my sister, and my children are all products.
Everyday, when I am home, I look at the wedding picture of my parents. In that frozen image, I see youth, hope, and joy. Absent understanding the circumstances of their lives, a wedding photo ought to evoke those images and emotions.
However, there is more to this story. In the years immediately preceding my parents marriage in 1950 “a lot went on”. In 1945, my mother’s family had been dispossessed of their family holdings (farm) by the Russians and Poles as part of Germany’s surrender conditions. At the time of dispossession, my grandfather was forced into servitude by the Russians on his own lands for its new Polish owners. These lands and farm been his family’s legacy to him. They were his livelihood, his pride, his joy and his bond to his past. They were lands for which he could and would never accept compensation from the German government.1 It was his opinion that there was no compensation that could adequately assuage this loss.
Coincident with my grandfather’s transition from land owner and farmer into servitude, the Russians forced marched my grandmother, who was about 47 years old at the time, into a slave labor camp (salt mine) in an area just east of the Ural mountains. After her enslavement, my grandfather, who could no longer tolerate the conditions of his servitude, escaped and marched, at age 67, over 600 miles across Poland and East Germany into Bavaria where he ultimately found my mother and sanctuary.
I suspect that there are few who would argue that Hitler’s Germany ought not to have been defeated in World War II. However, it seems a horrible trick of fate that this same man, who suffered so much in World War I, should now have everything he, and his family, had worked for stripped away, including in so far as was possible, their dignity, tranquility, security, and future. It does not seem right.
Yet, in spite of all these circumstances, I have this photo of joy, hope, and aspiration.
As I reflect on my recent encounters with misfortune, illness, age, and infirmity, I think about my parent’s wedding photo and the five short years that preceded it. I am forced to acknowledge that many wrongs occurred, many perpetrators ‘conspired’ to harm, even break, the future and happiness of my family. But, they did not succeed. They did not succeed because my parents and family chose not to let them succeed; they chose not to be broken or defeated. Instead they chose to look forward, to pull together in the face of significant hardship and adversity; they chose to persevere. They put all their energies towards a positive future, one of which I, and my family, ultimately became an integral part.
My challenges of today are no greater than theirs; my fears are no larger; my hardships no more severe. They are just different and they are mine.
As I face my fears, the most important lesson for me is that our hopes need not be made small by adversity. The challenges through which we pass make it possible for us to respect our past, reflect on our joy, and have hope in our future. Even if it is not the future we had planned, hoped for, or anticipated.
1- The post world war German government offered limited compensation to those in the “East” for the lands that were lost in the surrender of Germany. Acceptance of any compensation offer meant a formal release on any future claim of ownership or eventual ‘right of return’.