Monday, August 01, 2005

On extended families and their stories

This weekend was DrH´s family reunion in Dresden, organised to celebrate two of his uncles birthdays. And I´m going to emphasise organised here because it WAS ORGANISED. To explain, the plan which was emailed to all of us beforehand:

12.30 Meet at the King Johan Memorial in fromt of the Semper Opera house
12.30-14.30 Walking tour of the city
15:00 Coffee and return to hotel
19:00 Arrival at the restuarant
19:30 Welcome speech
19:45 Opening of the reunion
20:00 Dinner
21:00 Individual Speeches:
1. The Four Flights
2. Memory of Wilhelmshöhe
3. Memory of Ottenhausen
4. Flight to the West
5. Flight to Poland
24:00 Return to hotel

To explain the evening´s speeches in a bit more detail, I have to introduce a bit of the family history of DrH. His mother was the youngest of 5 and in WWII, she, her four older brothers, her mother and grandmother fled from East Prussia (it is now Poland, but was German for many centuries). Her father was already a soldier and he died in the war, and on the way out of the country her grandmother died. The family made it to Thüringen, then under the control of the Americans and settled. Shockingly for them, at the end of the war the Americans gave this part of the country to the Russians in exchange for a part of Berlin and they were all of sudden on the wrong side, under the control of those they had fled from. What ensued over the next years, was a series of flights from East Germany to the West by herself, several brothers and one nephew and these are what were talked about.

Now a lot of these were details that younger members of the family hadn´t heard before, so it was an emotion filled evening. And when the eldest brother talked of travelling on the night of 13th February 1945 with his mother through the countryside and the sky turning a brilliant orange and them sheltering in a roadside ditch, I couldn´t stop crying. That night was the bombing of Dresden.

"Whoever lost the ability to cry relearned to with the destruction of Dresden."

My mother-in-law just happened to be visiting family in Kiel the night the Wall went up. Quite accidentally, she was on the otherside, where she stayed, but several of her brothers wouldn´t be able to visit her for 20 years. One from the East actually made it to the West but decided to return as his wife was giving birth in the East to their child. Despite the dramatic seperation of the families, they all managed to stay close, with the West German members visiting the east germans often. DrH has so many stories of going through the controls, of the hidden newspapers with news of the evil West, of smuggling in bananas for his cousins to try for the first time. The border controls, the soldiers with weapons, the jail that was East Germany. And it wasn´t that long ago.

DrH´s cousin, now a doctor in England, grew up in the East and was not allowed to study medicine. So he fled, going on a skiing holiday to Czechoslovakia and making a break for it over the top of the mountains. Yes, OVER the mountains. Mountains where there were soldiers stationed every 100 metres to stop people doing exactly that, but that he managed to cross, ending up in Poland. He went underground in Warsaw where an Uncle and cousin from the West met him, swapped passports and dyed his hair, and then he left with his Uncle on a boat to Sweden. That was in 1986. Not 46, 86. He´s not much older than I am.

It was an amazing weekend of wonderful and terrible stories. That the five children all survived the war, the aftermath and were still there to tell their history was incredible. They were surrounded by children and grandchildren - a large, loving, generous family that I´m now part of. It humbles me.

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