I grew up with war stories.
My grandmother liked to entertain uns with stories form the “Emmsiedlung”, and I do mean entertain. She could find something worth laughing about in everything. And the stories were funny. In retrospect, I do not remember my grandfather adding anything to her stories, or even mentioning the war , he seemed quiet, not keen on talking about those times.
Even thought the anecdotes of my grandmother were meant to make us laugh, they also meant that we knew what had happened to her family during those years. She often tried to make light of what she had been through but the anguish she had felt was still palpable. And she could switch from being funny to being serious rather quickly.
The one time she travelled secretly, without the necessary permission from the authorities, from Silesia to the Eifel on a train in order to get help for my sick father, who was 5 or 6 years old at the time, seems to me, still today, as something unbearably scary (and brave) to do.
Needless to say, I grew up with rather a resentment against Germans, “Preisen” how we used to call them. That changed when I was a teenager and began to find a liking in German literature and culture. But the deep fear and hate of authoritarian regimes is something that I felt very early and that, of course, never went away.
Another consequence of the lively stories my family told is that I felt their fear and I made it mine. The fear of being woken up in the middle of the night and having to leave everything behind, like it happened to my grandparents, that is one of the irrational fears that I carried with my for year. I remember that even when I was at university in Brussels, I used to sleep with a full outfit of clothes and a pair of shoes next to my bed, laid out so that I could get dressed in less then a minute, and i always had a bag with my most important belongings standing next to the bed as well … I don´t remember when I stopped doing this, but I must have been well into my twenties … and sometimes now, again, I find myself making a quick mental inventory of the things that I would grab if we had to leave everything very quickly (now my list includes my two cats which makes things a bit more complicated .. )
In these worrying times across the globe and also, especially in Europe, the old ghost come back to haunt me. I am shocked at people reactions to refugees. How can one not feel compassion for people who had to leave everything behind and who can never go back to their homes, simply because those homes to not exist anymore? How is it possible to treat people who went through horrific experiences as lesser humans? And how on earth is it possible that people consider themselves “decent” citizens preach, yell, scream and propagate hate and intolerance?
It is in their deeply ugly, grotesquely enraged and empty looks and stupid faces that I see the spectres of a dark past rising again….