“May I go out to play in the ruins?”
More often than not the answer was yes.
I had my favorite spots. A small square of ground wall still standing felt like a house of my own. Another place I loved was the remains of an abandoned garden. Grass and small flowering weeds split through the seams of patterned stones that no longer lay flat and groomed, but buckled up through the hungry force of neglect. A ways down the path was the enchanted core of the garden. There, among shrubs and dandelions trying to take over, huge red petals unfolded into lily-like stars. Nobody would take the time to come with me to tell me their name. I knew irises, though, and the blue layers of larkspur. There was a pear tree, and right behind it a bush of bleeding hearts.
Everything looked normal to me, just the way it was supposed to be. Everything was also astonishing. There was glitter in every stone. Chestnut blossom petals fell like snow on the crumbling walls of a schoolyard when the March wind blew.
Once, for two or three months, the ruins were declared off limits. Two boys had found an object in a hole, which, upon adult examination, turned out to be an unexploded bomb. But how long could you keep a city’s children from playing? After a while the rules were relaxed again, so long as we promised we would stay away from anything unusual in the ruins. Not that we knew exactly how to identify unusual. The entire world was, after all, still extraordinary.
My family, refugees from Eastern Germany, moved to Nuremberg in 1955, when I was four. There were plenty of ruins left to play in for years to come.
Thinking of my dead sister Karin was as normal as it was to play in ruins. Karin had died from war before I was born.
I soon came up with a make-shift legend for myself. I was the consolation prize to my family for my older sister’s death. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been born at all. She died at three months of age during the hurried train trip our mother took with the original three children to escape the Russians.
I was glad they escaped. When the Russians reached Berlin, they did terrible things, especially to women, though for a long time I didn’t know what. Unnamed terror always looms especially large. But the price for safety was my sister. It put me under a great deal of pressure to become the best possible daughter. I tried hard, for I knew that my sister had been very much wanted, and would have probably very much wanted to live. Instead, she was erased by war.
Sometimes my mother still cried, long after I was born in 1951, which was already six years after Karin had died.
I was happy to be alive in such an exciting world, except for the few awkward thoughts. Was it perhaps my fault that my sister had died? So that I could get my chance at life? And if so, what would be the price I would have to pay for my chance?
Karin ended up in a mass grave. “Like Mozart?” I once asked. But, no, his had been a pauper’s grave. Karin’s was a normal war grave, dug in a nearby graveyard after a bomb attack on their train, which happened right around the time Karin died.
My mother wanted Karin’s name to be placed next to hers on her grave stone when she died. This was eventually done.
My mother took on a job working from home, gluing emblems on the front of military hats, yellow and red circle dots on a black diamond background. I liked the sweet smell of the glue. The work didn’t seem too difficult, though it was too hard for me. While my mother worked, we listened to music on the radio together. My mother loved Edith Piaf.
I was confused. I thought the message was that military things, especially German military things, were bad and to be avoided at all cost. Still, I did realize that my family needed the money. My father worked hard, but somehow didn’t make enough.
What I remember from the real war days was by proxy only. Still, when my brother Harald speaks of memories, they feel like my own. They came to be part of me somehow.
Boarding the train to flee was one of his first memories in life. He saw a large billboard with an advertisement for wool. “Must have made a big impression on me,” he said. I can see that. It was February, probably freezing.
During the bomb attack on their train, our mother made him and the younger brother lie face down on the floor of their compartment. “The light was blinding. There were feathers everywhere,” he said. Our mother had covered them with the feather beds she had brought with her.
Harald also stood with his fists pressed over his ears when the Germans blew up a bridge to slow down the advance of the Americans. He pressed until it hurt. If he didn’t, he was told, his ear drums might burst. He didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded horrible.
When the Americans did come, jogging across a field, our mother stuck a bed sheet in the two boys’ hands.
“Wave them. Hold them up,” she cried nervously.
I’ve often tried to imagine her heart. Nobody would hurt children with white sheets in their hands, would they? But of course they would. German men had done so. Other men in other wars had done so, and would mostly likely do so over and over again.
It so happened these particular Americans honored the gesture of surrender.
My mother always spoke highly of the Americans to whom they surrendered, whereas the thought of Russians made her shudder. And it is true, there were no reports of mass rapes by Americans. Just a photo of Patton proudly pissing into the Rhine river.
My family and I lived in the city and didn’t own a car. The City Park was within walking distance, as were the castle, my school, and the central market place.
On Sundays we often took a family trip into the great outdoors, a typical German Sunday afternoon pastime. We would board a tram, change at the railroad station, and proceed to the zoo or to a place called Zeppelinwiese. From there, we could take long walks, sometimes through fields where one old shepherd, dressed in a long dark cloak, still herded his sheep. At other times we climbed to the top of an imposing stone edifice. It looked like a Greek monument.
“No, Roman. It was modeled after monuments in Rome,” my brother Uwe explained. I was proud of him for knowing such things.
Sometimes car race practices took place and we watched from one of the many steps leading up to the top of the monument. However, for the races themselves, one had to pay admission, and we usually only went when things were free. After all, we all agreed that we had all the benefits of noise and excitement during the practice runs.
Grass grew out from between the stones, here, too, and I was especially enchanted with some huge stone bowls at the top of the monument. My father explained that torch bearers would run up there to light huge fires in the night.
“Can we come watch that one night?” I asked. It sounded beautiful.
“No,” he said. “One doesn’t do that anymore.”
Once, years later, my whole family did go there one night to hear Billy Graham and his translators, and to sing rousing songs in praise of God. The nearby Coliseum featured fabulous acoustics and I got to participate in a special church choir practice there once.
When I was eleven years old, I learned that these imposing monuments had been Hitler’s parade grounds. I felt betrayed. Something in my psyche shifted and became dull and withdrawn. How could they have let me enjoy the sun and the grasses among the stones of something evil?
Of course, had they told me anything while I had still played there, chasing yellow brimstone butterflies, I wouldn’t have understood, wouldn’t have known yet what Hitler was. And still I felt that all my games had been wrong and could now not be un-played.
I felt a pain that I thought could never be spoken, explained, or healed. I didn’t want to bring up a subject that might hurt my parents, especially my mother, as I feared it would. So I grew from a sunny chaser of butterflies into a shy, sad, troubled teenager.
I tried to be unobtrusive, or better yet, to disappear. I studied in different countries. I even tried to run away from home once. By the time I was twenty, I had left Germany for good. None of that helped a great deal. I was still who I was.
One day, while I was standing in line to donate blood, someone asked me, because of my married last name, Goldman, and my accent, if I was from Israel. I felt like someone had given me a badge of honor. But of course that didn’t change my reality either.
I did, in the long run, reduce my German accent to mostly “hard to tell where it’s from.”
I never asked my father what his rank was in Nazi Germany, or if he had killed anyone. Not asking, I could carry on with my hope that he had not.
When he, or anyone else, talked about military ranks, in Germany, in the United States, or anywhere at all, I always drew a blank. I declared that this sort of thing only confused me, that I could never sort it out—what stripes meant, and who was above whom in the grand scheme of things. I couldn’t keep it straight. More likely, though, I simply didn’t want to know.
My great mentor in life, Lem Goldman, was also for a long time my father-in-law. Sometimes he told the story of how he signed up for the military, having to lie about his age—he was too young—for the express purpose of going to Europe to kill Germans. He was sent to the Pacific instead. I never dared ask him if he had ever killed, either.
Sometimes I would look into the eyes of strange men I met and wonder silently if they had ever killed anyone when it was prescribed, allowed, legitimized. In actuality, I never had the nerve to ask anyone, and was never quite clear if this was for my own sake or for theirs.
I loved Lem’s stunningly beautiful and piercing eyes. His features made him look like a stereotype patriarchal god, strong nose, strong bones, thick graying hair. He played pranks on Jehovah’s witnesses, whom he disliked, by telling them, “I am Jehovah.”
He loved telling stories to children, whom he liked very much. He often took days off from work to visit schools in his town. His specialty was telling stories in the voice of Cookie Monster. Once, close to Christmas, I went with him. The children, seated in a half circle around us, drew closer around him by the minute, as though drawn by an invisible magnet. I taught them how to hum “Oh Tannenbaum” in German.
Lem told me how full of hatred he had been, and then “along came a Beate.” When he died, the organist at the funeral played, among the traditional hymns, the theme song from Sesame Street. I wished I could have reached for him there and then and asked him, “Would you come out and play with me in the ruins?” Had he been able to, he probably would have replied, “And shall I bring Karin with me?”
Lem’s son, Chris, some years ago received a peace award. Lem would have liked that.
I always thought how lucky I was to have escaped the reality of war in my life, until one day I realized that I hadn’t escaped at all. War is in my genes, in my memory, and in my sadness. Children of war and of warriors are never born in innocence. We are born with the legacy of bloodshed in every breath we take, with guilt and shame mixed in our blood, and endless cries for mercy and for peace, heard and unheard, in our genes.
Sometimes I stop in a mall, in the post office, in the park, in a playground, in streets where grass grows through the cracks of cement, just to look at the busy faces around me of so many children of war, busy with the beauty of their lives.
Dona Nobis Pacem. Give us peace.
About the Author
Beate Sigriddaughter was born and raised in Germany. She came to the United States in her teens and graduated from Georgetown University. She now divides her time between Denver and Vancouver. She has published a book of poems, as well as short fiction, poetry and essays in a variety of literary and trade magazines and ezines. Two of her stories published in Moondance in 2004 received nominations for a Pushcart Prize. Recently she has completed a pro-peace novel, entitled “Parcival,” which looks at women’s experiences in and around war. Further information is available online at www.sigriddaughter.com.