In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm.The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard.
The story of the War Babies is often overlooked because they played no active part in the war. Yet these are the ones who, from the moment of birth, or even in their mother's wombs, experienced sirens, bombs, fighting, parental deprivation, food rationing and other extreme events. This is a cohort of individuals who came into the world without an experience of 'before', of 'normality.' In whatever country they were born, they were war's innocent victims. For the War Babies and their children, the war will never really be over until they find peace in their hearts. As we think of all the children suffering from warfare around the world today, let us take the time to hear the wisdom and experience of the War Babies.
Six-year-old Baerbel in 1946.
When General Alfred Jodl signed Germany's unconditional surrender on 7th May 1945, five-year-old Baerbel Gergen and her mother Hilly were on a train heading West, together with hundreds of other starving and exhausted refugees. Having fled the advancing Red Army, they were on their way home to Worms. Now, as citizens of an occupied country, their welfare was partially in the hands of the occupying US army in the territory of Germany they were passing through, as well as the French army, which occupied Worms and its environs.
Their onward journey was by no means straightforward. Sometimes they had to walk for long stretches where no trains were running. Sometimes they rode in a normal passenger train and sometimes in cattle cars. Often, as the train slowly rolled through a town, American GIs would throw their own rations into the train in an effort to help the hungry travellers. At one train station an American soldier gave her a small tin of chicken soup. She brought it to her mother who said, "Don't take it, don't take it!" Hilly did not want to accept anything from American soldiers.
"Are you crazy?" asked a fellow refugee. " Take it for your little girl, she needs food. Even if you don't want to touch it, take it for her."
Another time, an American soldier grabbed her and gave her a bear hug so tight she could hardly breathe. She took him by the hand and brought him to Hilly, saying, "I've found us a Daddy! I've found us a Daddy!" How badly the little orphan girl wanted a father!
At last, after the long, exhausting and chaotic journey, Baerbel and Hilly arrived in Worms. They were home at last--or so they thought. The pair went straight to their house on the outskirts of town and knocked on their neighbour's door to collect the key. "We don't have the key any more," the neighbours told them. 'There is somebody living at your house." Shocked, they went to their home and rang the doorbell. To their astonishment, a maid in a white apron and black dress came to the door. It was a bizarre sight to see a uniformed servant at a time when most people were suffering so much deprivation--and in their own home too!
"What do you want?" asked the maid.
"I want to get into my house," Hilly replied.
"Just a minute." But little Baerbel pushed by her, ran to her room and tore open the cupboard where her toys were.
"Get out of here, you filthy brat!" said the maid, grabbing her.
As it turned out, their house had been requisitioned by the government and allocated to the Lord Mayor of Cologne, a city about four hour's train ride from Worms.
"He lived in our furniture, he used everything we had--and we had nothing."
Their house had belonged to a baron who ran the leather factory, which used to manufacture the fine leatherwork for which Worms was famous. Baerbel's father was an important member of the upper management and had been assigned the house as part of his compensation. After his death, Hilly continued leasing the house. But now the house had been snatched away and his widow and daughter were homeless. All of the Gergen's heirlooms and mementos--their silver, books, special cameras, items of sentimental value that had belonged to Baerbel's father--all were taken over by the Mayor and for the most part never returned.
Although their house was a large one with several floors--in fact it is currently home to four families--there was no question of Baerbel and Hilly being allowed to share it. They were sent out into the country to live in the attic of a farmhouse. Hilly was given a just a few pieces of her own furniture to furnish the attic. Fate had left them destitute. Their reluctant hosts--the wealthiest farmers in town--were unwilling to feed them, saying they needed the food for their pigs. The attic was unheated. In the winter there was ice on the windows and they had to wear hats and gloves indoors. No longer refugees on the road, Baerbel and Hilly were still enduring displacement, hunger and hardship.
The village was seven kilometers from Worms, so Baerbel had to start first grade at the village school. But she and her mother simply did not fit into peasant life. Hilly was a sophisticated woman who wore lipstick, scandalizing the villagers, while Baerbel was mercilessly teased for her 'weird name.' Once she did move back into town, she was half a year behind the other students!
Eventually Baerbel's wish to have a father came true, when Hilly met and married a local dentist named Walter. Now they could move out of the country attic and settle in the comfortable house near the cathedral that is Baerbel's home to this day. Her new father loved and cherished her and never raised his hand to her. But still Baerbel's troubles were not over. Walter was a veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the most horrific battles in the annals of war--and one that relatively few German soldiers survived. He was wounded in the leg at Stalingrad and a piece of shrapnel and a fragment of leather boot were later removed from his leg. Inevitably, more than his leg was wounded. Like many of today's Iraq War veterans, Walter was prone to frightening outbursts of anger. PTSD was not known or understood at the time and no therapy was offered to traumatized veterans, so the family was left to manage as best they could.
Piece of shrapnel and leather boot that were removed from Walter's leg.
Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Worms were being held to account for their actions during the war. While families such as Baerbel's had always been opposed to Nazism, others were in a different position. Hilly was working for a doctor who had been a Nazi. When questioned by the Americans, he said,
"Yes, I was a Nazi. I don't like all the stuff Hitler did--some things were good, and a lot of things were not." His interrogators were astounded by his bluntness.
"You are the first person we have encountered who admitted that he was a Nazi!"
Everyone else was denying that they were ever connected with the Nazi party. Baerbel's uncle by marriage was also a doctor but refused to join the Nazi party. As a result he was in and out of prison several times during the war. Inevitably he would be let out because of the shortage of doctors. His wife, Baerbel's aunt, was also arrested at one point, because she sent her maid to a Jewish department store to buy a zipper.
Baerbel's maternal grandmother was known Oma Lies-chen. She was also called Frau Doktor because she was engaged in alternative healing practices. Before the war, a prominent Jewish family, Isidor and Else Kiefer, lived next door to Oma. Isidor was a tin manufacturer and longtime chairman of the Jewish community. But by 1933, life was becoming very dangerous for Worms' ancient Jewish community--especially for those who were wealthy and prominent. There were beatings, murders and deportations. In August 1933, a large group of Jews from Worms were sent to the new concentration camp at Osthofen. The Kiefers left for America in 1934, via Belgium. After the war, they used to send care packages to Oma, complete with dresses for Baerbel that had been outgrown by their daughter. Why did the Isidor Kiefers send gifts to the city where they and their community had suffered so terribly? Did the kind-hearted and selfless Oma risk her life to help them in their hour of greatest need? Later, in 1961, Baerbel visited this family in their apartment hotel in New York, on the day she arrived in the USA. She brought them some lilies of the valley, which she had picked in their garden and smuggled in under her coat. This would have meant so much to the family! Isidor was closely involved with efforts to rebuild Worms synagogue--the most ancient in Germany--after the Holocaust, as well as the Jewish cemetery and museum. He is especially noted for extensive research on the history of the Jewish community in Worms and his incredible collection of papers and archival documents, covering the history of Worms' Jewish community from the 11th Century to the 1930s.
By the mid-1950s, television was becoming a feature of middle class German homes. And with it came footage of the camps. Fourteen-year-old Baerbel, who until then had heard nothing about the Holocaust, was horrified and shocked, experiencing a profound sense of betrayal. She and all her friends were furious with their parents. How could they have let such atrocities happen? We have spoken in other blogs about moral injury. For the War Babies of Germany, and indeed for their children, simply being German in the postwar years was a profound moral injury. Baerbel and her contemporaries felt immense shame and guilt for actions they could not have influenced, for they were just little children. All of Hitler's attempts to create a master race had resulted in generations of Germans who felt morally inferior to the rest of humanity.
It is easy to draw the wrong lesson from the Holocaust and all the other Nazi atrocities. Those of us who grew up in the postwar years have tended to lay blame on the German people as a whole. We imagine that some inherent defect in the German character and German culture made these appalling events possible. If we allow ourselves to hold such beliefs, we miss the real lesson. The Holocaust showed us, not the evil of Germans, but the evil of which we, humanity, are capable. Whenever we mind our own business, look the other way or 'just obey orders', when we ignore human rights abuses, or fail to speak out on behalf of the vulnerable, we become a part of the same pattern that allowed the Holocaust to take place. Empowered by the pain of what happened in their land, generations of Germans have learned to speak out for peace. May they, like Baerbel and her family, serve as inspirations to us all!