11 June 2011

the past will never leave us

I don't know how many times I have checked what age my parents were at the end of the war in 1945, how many times I needed to reassure myself that they were both still kids (not teenagers, because being a teenager for me implies listening to the Stones, messing around with hair and make-up and not getting out of bed before lunch. And that's definitely not what they were doing).
In my family, immediate and extended, the stories were few and far between. There were decades of deafening silence. At the time - in school, at home, at family gatherings - there were only sighs and code and the feeling that something big and momentous was kept well hidden. Instead, we had this fixation on careers and prosperity.  After all, the economic miracle had to be performed, the country had to be put back on the map by all these well dressed people driving in shiny cars from their semi-detached homes with the good china on Sundays to the holiday beaches across the Alps, while any mention of the endless pain and suffering caused by Nazi Germany was neatly supressed. 
I wonder how many children my age knew subconsciously that their parents' souls were kept under wraps. I know now that I did.
Of course, I have found out much. The ‘never again/ let’s face history` wave was hitting schools and media at the time I became the bookworm daughter and so, starting with the big picture  - the stuff of documentaries, books and political/historical debate and discourse - I carefully scratched away layer after layer with seemingly innocent questions and comparisons trying to place public figures, politicians, actors, artists, elderly teachers and neighbours, distant relatives, closer relatives, my grandparents... until I had to look at my parents and I found two people with their individual share of trauma and loss and confusion, disorientation and displacement. I know it sounds preposterous and I would gladly just unload my disgust and my anger and my condemnation - and I have done so when I was younger, only to be met with more sighs and more code and withdrawal. There is still so much that I will never know and so much I will always doubt. I picture my mother as she plays with us before bedtime with the songs and nursery rhymes and stories from her childhood and I remember how this memory disgusted me so much later on when I was a teenager thinking how all this was soiled and ghastly.
Last Sunday morning I sat in a beautiful cafĂ© with my father, part of a gorgeous park full of modern sculptures we had just walked through taking pictures and comparing impressions. According to his guide book, the park once belonged to an equally gorgeous villa - now an artists' retreat  - built in 1946 by a local industrial magnate as a summer residence outside the city. Which immediately makes me suspicious, obviously.
And so there we sat under the trees eating strawberries and cream and I said, come on: 1946 and such a mansion, what did he make his fortune with and how did he manage to hold onto what certainly must have been a large chunk of it through the war and denazification.
And my father gave me this look, this long look and he said: You know, this will always stay with us here in this country, this past will never leave us and believe me, I have carried this shame with me all my life, this shame and this enormous feeling of guilt that I trusted and looked up to people - my teachers in school, my parents, my brothers and cousins - who really must have known what was going on and who did nothing. I trusted them and accepted their judgement. I was healthy and young, I could read and ask. How could I have been so ignorant, so stupid and so inactive!

1 comment:

  1. I can't imagine living through what your parents did--the trauma, fear, and guilt. I'm sure they felt helpless at the time. We do the best we can to function normally in the midst of tragedy. Denial and suppression is not healthy, but your parents surely wanted to protect you from the ugly truths. What a burden your father carries. It's so sad--but good that he's talking about it now.