SANDY GRISHAM: Persecution, Potsdam and Poland

By Sandy Grisham

Plain and simple, no visit to this part of the world can be made without recognizing the traumas of wars. World War II had its particularly horrendous side, and Berlin, as the last headquarters of Adolph Hitler, and the former home of the Berlin Wall, does not try to hide it.
They are currently placing small 4-inch-square brass plaques in the sidewalks that stand as testimony to the Jewish person or persons who lived in that location. The date of birth, date of capture, place of internment and date of death are all included. One could easily walk past the markers, but once alerted to their purpose, they are never overlooked again. Each time we walked to the café, I saw it: Hier Luis Kautsky, born 1864, captured in Holland 1938, interned in Westerbork, transferred to Auschwitz 1944, died Nov. 1, 1944.
The city has created both a museum and a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The Holocaust Memorial is near the Brandenburg Tor (Gate) in the city center. It is acres of rectangular-shaped, deep gray cement blocks across an undulating landscape that seems to go on to the horizon backed by tall buildings. Some are large, some are smaller, but to me, they clearly represent coffins. Others may see something else in them, and that is the beauty of modern art: We each bring our own interpretation to it. I saw caskets. I saw the gray color of death. I saw masses of lost souls who paid the ultimate price.
A subterranean museum to those who suffered continues the mood. It, too, is brilliantly done: After a brief introduction to the events that led up to the mass murders, there are large photographs of those who were interred. Some families were totally wiped out; in others, at least one person may have survived. There were representations of every nation whose citizens had experienced the “final solution.” In the next room, there were the words of the victims themselves, sometimes discovered on their bodies, and sometimes spirited out by a variety of means prior to their deaths. The intent of this museum is to personalize this tragedy, and it is well done. One can hardly imagine how these things can occur in a human society.
Holiday with Michael
We spent the Fourth of July with Michael’s parents (Willie and Monika). Fate has thrown us together for the fourth time, and we are almost becoming best friends. Every time we are together, they teach me more about our parallel lives and most un-parallel experiences. They are a mere 3 to 5 years older than we are (born in 1933) – a lot when you are in 7th grade, but not much when you are 70. They suffered a childhood scarred by the war – they were on the losing side.
Willie’s father had gone into the military under Hitler in 1939, returned for one furlough in 1941, and they never saw him again. He died somewhere on the Russian front, sometime shortly before the end of the war. He was a Nazi soldier, and had voted for Hitler. Willie says with a wisdom born of endurance, “You do what you must to survive.”
During the days of Perestroika, Willie received a letter from the Soviet Red Cross in the Ukraine telling that his father had died in a prisoner camp there in February 1945. He is buried in a mass grave in the central area of that country, but records of those so buried were not kept. There is no place to say goodbye.
Monika was from Cochem, on the Mosel River, and her father also died in the latter days of the war. He was a river steward, not a Nazi, and even spoke openly against Hitler. She shared with us that at a certain point on her way home from school, she would go through an old arch, and she could see her house. She shuddered if she saw soldiers near – she lived in unending fear they would take her father away. In the early months of 1945, our American planes strafed the river and killed her dad. He has a lifelong, perpetually maintained gravesite in Cochem because he was a war fatality. She can visit her dad’s gravesite, and remember he told her, “You stand up for what you believe.”
These two survivors have differing opinions on just how to be one of those left standing. Pray that they never have to decide again.
So, while Vaughn and I were safely tucked in by our dads (because they were in “essential industries”), these two wonderful people lost their fathers. I know war is hell. And, I certainly agree some wars, that one in particular, must be fought. As my dad said, “Old men make wars, and young men fight them.” But the children pay the price, too. I just wonder about the collective psychology of losing your parents and a war when you are still in elementary school.
The war has scarred them in their own ways, but they have had a good life, and they have raised an extraordinary son in Michael. We cherish their friendship.
We rode trains to Potsdam and to Poland in the next several days: Potsdam, the summer home of Frederick the Great, and Stettin, Poland, site of a viable port and industrial city before it was bombed. Both have extraordinary architecture that has been refurbished or rebuilt. Both gave us a clearer idea of the price of war, and the resilience of mankind. Smiling tourists, outdoor cafes and wonderful antique stores reflect the better life in both places. FYI – we were told Poland has not experienced the current recession: It is doing quite well economically, and its representative to the European Union Council is now the president of that organization.
Sorry to have been so somber in this column. It is just the way this part of Germany hits me. Remember though, what John F. Kennedy said when the wall was built to divide the city, “… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’”
Me, too.
Sandy Grisham and her husband, Vaughn, live in Oxford. She is filing a weekly report from their around-the-world trip. The Grishams are retired educators. Her email address is sandygrisham@gmail.com.