On Thursday September 25 1941, the day I was born, my mother had been a widow for 71 days.
My mother had met my father in Switzerland in 1938, when they both were students of the theologian Karl Barth. Barth had taken a post as professor at the ancient university of Basel after the Nazis forced him out of German academic life because he refused to sign a loyalty oath to Hitler.
Both my father and my mother were active members of the Bekennende Kirche (BK, often translated as “Confessing Church”), the fraction of the official German Protestant Church that went underground when the Nazis took power. The Secret Police (Gestapo) imprisoned my father in September 1939 in Frankfurt because of his BK activity, and held him until Christmas Eve that year. He returned to his parents’ home in Essen. only to be drafted into the German Army three months later. He served on the Western front near Strasbourg without incident, and was discharged at the end of October 1940.
Later that month, my mother and father got married. My father continued his religious studies and the BK secretly ordained him as pastor in March, 1941. Two weeks later, he was drafted again, this time to the Eastern Front, specifically the Ukraine. On July 16, 1941, a Soviet bomber hit a German munitions depot outside Kiev and my father was killed instantly. My parents’ life together as a married couple amounted to five months.
My mother’s mother lived in Berlin. Her father had died before the war. She had married my father in Essen and made her life with him there, short as it was. She had the good fortune to be assigned a clerical job at the Krupp company archives, the so-called Historical Department. This was housed in a residential building and had a small garden in the back. She was allowed to bring me to work with her, and I spent my first months being well cared for and no doubt fussed over by my mother’s co-workers. It was as close to an idyll as one could have on Krupp premises, at least until the bombing started in 1942.
My first memory is of going into a bomb shelter. It was down some dirty stairs, there were a lot of people, there was a dog (a shepherd), it was noisy. I mainly remember the atmosphere: dark, cavernous, dusty, loud; and the dog, who seemed very big. This memory is probably a composite of many such trips; according to my mother’s memoirs, air raids became an almost daily occurrence as the war went on.
The bomb shelter memory could have come from Essen, or from Berlin, where my mother went to visit her mother. My mother told me that during one air raid in Berlin, she ran down the middle of the street holding me in her arms, with houses burning and collapsing on both sides of the street. We were extremely lucky not to get caught up in any of the big firestorms that devastated cities like Hamburg, Dresden, and others. I have no memory of fires or of bomb impacts. Because I was not quite four years old at war’s end, it’s also possible that the bomb shelter memory is a construct that came into my head much later from a photo or a movie. Regardless, it’s in my head. As a boy, and well into my teen years, I cringed at the drone of airplanes overhead.
One summer day in the spring of 1942 in Essen, a fragment of a British bomb came through the ceiling of the apartment where we lived and took off a corner of our kitchen table. The bombing had already cost my mother the life of her father-in-law the previous year, and destroyed the home where he and his wife lived. My mother felt that the bombing was getting heavier and more intense, and it was time to get out, if she could.
Through her connections with the BK, she was able to get a room in a parsonage in the small village of Fürstenhagen, in lower Saxony, about 30 miles from the university town of Göttingen. At the time, Fürstenhagen lay an hour’s walk from the nearest train station. Nothing there was worth bombing. It was safe, at least from the air.
From the ground, maybe not so much. The town had a creek running down the center of the main street, and this had rocky patches where stinging nettles grew boy-high. One day one of the local boys, considerably bigger than I, pushed me into the nettles. Another time, one of the local girls threw a sharp rock at arm’s length directly into my face. It hit me just above the right eye and made a bloody mess. The eye was OK but I still have a faint trace of the scar in my eyebrow. Most of the local folks were Nazis and it was known that my mother was not, so I guess her kid was fair game.
My mother was able to save some photos from the Fürstenhagen years. They seem positively idyllic. There I am with a sweet little country lass (maybe the same one that threw the stone later); here I’m stretching my hands to the sky to show how big I’ve grown; here I’m studying dandelion seed heads; and here I’m giving a shy studio smile.
I do have agreeable memories of Fürstenhagen. My mother and I would go out into the countryside with a big wooden wagon and gather firewood, pick mushrooms and edible greens, and scavenge for dropped apples and pears. The apples were treasures. To this day I eat the whole apple including seeds, all but the stem. We went over the potato fields after the harvest and hunted for spuds that had been missed. Apart from the unfriendly encounters and the chronic shortage of food, it was a country childhood. I saw a lot of green, breathed fresh air, got exercise. I saw a lot of farm life. I saw chickens running around with their heads hacked off — they really do! I saw pigs being butchered on ladders, and covered my ears at their piercing shrieks when the knife went in. I hunted in the underbrush for mislaid eggs. I stepped in cow-, pig-, goose-, chicken-, sheep-, and horse-shit. I was in the fields where people scythed grain, bundled the stalks and stacked them teepee fashion to dry. I hid in the teepees and rolled in haystacks, chased chickens and geese, got chased by dogs, and tasted milk squirted at me from cows’ udders.
It was definitely not a sterile-bubble childhood. I’ve read that exposure to a diversity of dirt in childhood builds strong immune systems. I guess that my early village upbringing deserves some of the credit for my generally robust health (knock on wood) as a grown-up. No matter what its shortcomings, Fürstenhagen was a lot better place to spend the war years than the German cities — as I was soon to find out.