A family just like any other
Remember barley soup? Or did you only have oranges at Christmas? We had our first phone when I was about 10 years old. There were only three TV channels. At noon there was a three-hour break and it was over, I think, at midnight with the national anthem.
We were many children. Playing, in fact during our whole childhood, took place outside. We played games like “story ball” or “French skipping” etc. It was normal that there were at least three children in each family. Fewer was the exception. My mother was a housewife. My father was a docker. Also normal in my early childhood.
For many peers, I was born in 1964, such reports bring a smile to the face. We gladly enter into conversation about it.
If it wasn’t for my father
My daughter, born in 1995, loves to listen to me when I talk. She often laughs and asks many questions. From my childhood and youth I too know the great interest in listening to my parents. How was your childhood and youth? My parents told me that I asked many questions. I tried to imagine everything and compared what I heard with the reality of my life.
Their reports were often marked by deprivation. Hunger, lack of clothing and health care or of the possibility of obtaining more or higher education were described. My mother, born in 1927, was still small during the Great Depression. A schoolchild and young girl during the National Socialist era.
My father, born in 1909, witnessed the First World War as a small boy. Great hunger. Turnips were on the menu. He had no shoes, only Sundays for church. For both of them social advancement through higher education was not intended. Higher education required money. This is what my grandparents needed to provide for the family. Both were to remain in their respective social classes. According to Nazi ideology, my mother was to become a “mother”, my father a National Socialist and soldier.
But my father decided differently. He was an antifascist and chose resistance. He didn’t want to hate, he didn’t want to kill or to stand above others. He was against war and poverty.
Not belonging, even after the war
When I walked the streets with my father, he stood out. He didn’t have a “sign” on him, but he was visibly tattooed. No longer visible to me. For the world around, he was. Tattoos stood for seamen, a societally rather lower situated working-class group of people. I have experienced pejorative looks, sometimes disparaging comments. Today they are normal. Almost everyone has tattoos.
Then came the time of the lawsuit for restitution for the purpose of receiving pension. I didn’t understand why my father had to sue at all?
Strong, despite concentration camp imprisonment
My father was interned as a protective custody prisoner from 1939-45 in Fuhlsbüttel, Sachsenhausen, Neuengamme, Dachau, Mauthausen → Gusen 1 and 2. It was perfectly clear to me that due to this long and hard concentration camp imprisonment his health suffered such great damage that he could no longer work.
He received a minimum pension, had to fight hard and long for the restitution pension. He did all this without a lawyer. I can still see him sitting there today, writing contradictions. Again it took a long time until he even received an answer. Repeatedly the concentration camp caught up with him. His state of health got progressively worse.
Flashback: I was little, about three years old. My father had been drinking alcohol. He stood on the balcony. He shouted: “You sent me to concentration camp. Look, now I’m standing here. I am alive.” My mother said, “Go and bring your dad in, please.” I went out, I took his hand. My father looked at me. I said, “Come in, Dad. Stop shouting.” He smiled, went in with me. A lot of things are inside of me. I can only tell this to other selected “children” and my now grown-up daughter. Why is that so?
It is very important to me not to portray my father as somehow “small” or “weak”. He never was. Although he knew himself that the concentration camps had changed him. I don’t want pity, at best compassion, conversation, participation at “eye level”.
During the lawsuit for restitution, our life, including my life, continued, even though this “struggle” burdened family life.
I remember coming home, for example. My father standing in the hallway, a letter in his hand. Our eyes met. I immediately knew what it was about. “Dad, mail from the Restitution Office?” He nodded in agreement, gasped (damaged lungs from the tunnels in Gusen) and went dejectedly into the living room. I read. Another negative answer. I could not believe it. Now I had the impulse to go to the balcony to shout: “Stop hurting him! They are talking to a resistance fighter! Do they realize that?!”
I did not do that. Instead, I went to sit with him. “Daddy, why don’t you get a lawyer to handle this? You don’t have to do that to yourself. You’re in the right.” “Girl, whom shall I give this to? They all went through Nazi school.” I stroked his back. A little later I saw him sitting down, writing.
My father often spoke of his concentration camp imprisonment. Sometimes he told me about it because I asked. Sometimes because there were external reasons. For example, press reports, summons as a witness to a post-war Nazi trial in Munich, invitation to the liberation ceremony in Neuengamme, etc. But sometimes also because a stimulus, a smell, a sound, a word seemingly suddenly evoked inner images from the imprisonment. Then he felt very bad.
He told me quite a lot about his pictures. I just listened to him, was just there until he got better.
An important legacy
I remember a lot of things like it happened yesterday. When I was 15 years old, he gave me his “release certificate” he got from the Americans. He had always carried this with him until then. It was very important to him. Now I should have it. We talked about it. He told me that he didn’t need it anymore. I promised to take good care of it. He smiled and said, “I know that, my child, that’s why you’re getting it.”
Then, finally, it was over. After almost 12 years, the Office of Restitution, on the advice of the court, proposed a settlement. My father was assisted by an attorney. My father only agreed to a settlement because his health was so bad that he would not live to see any more years through the courts.
And so it was. He died almost three years later. A few days before, we had a last hour-long, intensive, clarifying, close conversation. In this conversation my father said: “When we old people are long dead, you young people must never forget the Nazi era! You hear me?! Especially you, as young Germans. No more war from German soil! Do everything you can do. Talk to the people. Be there for your mother. Take care of her. She’s had a hard life. She is your mother!”
We held hands while I promised to do what I could do. Until she died, we were there for our mother. And I talk to the people. I keep thinking about my father, who was a proud seaman and a resistance fighter.
Translation: Nathalie Döpken