Footprints of the Nazis

Image result for hanover in world war two
Post-war Hanover

A life – This is the seventh instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs)

Postwar Europe was a unforgettable monument to Hitler’s destructive genius. The train which was supposed to take us to Hanover got lost in the chaos that still existed in Europe in 1947. We took a wrong loop of the track and traversed areas of Northern Germany, reaching Hamburg before turning back.

We arrived at Hanover eight hours late, having rattled uncertainly through endless suburbs of ruined cities, nothing but mountains of broken bricks, and half houses still standing, looking like the half of a doll’s house where you can re-arrange the furniture. In these grotesque rooms, pictures were askew on walls, and cupboard doors hung open, chairs still sat round marooned dining tables and empty fireplaces waited to be lit by ghosts.

I was awed into silence by these gross and hellish scenes. But at nine, I couldn’t even begin to guess the human tragedies, the broken lives, the blasted families, and never realised that maimed and starving people were actually trying to live in these apocalyptic holes and hills of smashed bricks and rubble. At the station where we stopped to disgorge some of the people crushed into the crammed carriages, thin white – faced children banged on the windows begging for food, and scrabbled at the side of the tracks looking for odd lumps of coal.

We were seated in the restaurant car, eating the first white bread that we had ever seen, quite unlike our war- time rations, but the thrill of this exciting new food was dulled by the pale dust- smeared faces outside the window.

Finally, Hanover at midnight. The station was the usual bedlam, the engine hissing and roaring, people calling and shouting and waving, and the lighting so poor that it took longer than usual for everyone to sort themselves out and find each other. When everyone had trickled off and the train had pulled away again, my stepmother and sister and I were still waiting on the platform.

My father was nowhere in sight. What felt like a very long time later, loaded down with our luggage, we found our way to the Ahtee-o, which I later learned meant RTO, or Railway Transport Office. We didn’t seem to be particularly welcome at that time of the night, but something had to be done with us.

The telephone lines through to Belsen to contact my father were simply the military ones, and though Belsen was only about twenty miles away, it seemed to be a very difficult operation to find him. Every conversation was filled with a hail of military terms and abbreviations which flew back and forth like a secret code. Through bleary, sleep-filled eyes I watched the impatient RTO sergeant trying to raise a distant Orderly Officer, who had to get through to the Officers Mess to find my sleeping and delinquent father.

Halfway through, my sister wanted to use the loo. This caused consternation. The nearest ladies was miles away in another part of the station. But we three females set off. The next shock was ready to rise up and hit us. I had assumed that all the people I had seen at the station were in the process of going or coming – to catch a train or leave one. Now we discovered that they had all settled down for the night again, thousands and thousands of people sleeping on every available bit of floor- draped up and down stairs, propped up against walls where there was no room to stretch out.

We had to step over all these sleeping bodies, avoid their belongings and move half a dozen people out of the public lavatory in order to use it. The ragged, hungry refugees did not seem very happy to be woken by three well- dressed English females in the middle of the night. It certainly wasn’t a comfort stop for us. My stepmother seemed to be as anxious and insecure as I felt. And then there was the long drag back to what seemed now, like the comfort and familiarity of the RTO.

Finally, at three o clock, unable to raise my father, it was decided that we should be taken to spend the rest of the night in a transit camp – another unfamiliar military term. Once again, we braved the sleeping, homeless hordes, and emerged at the front door of the station to climb into a waiting jeep. As we walked down the steps, I looked out towards the city, and there through the black ruined outline of a broken church window, the moon shone in a clear pale sky.

We were awakened next morning by the embarrassed arrival of my father, who had given up waiting for the train to arrive the previous afternoon, since no-one knew what had happened to it. I knew my stepmother felt that he had let us down, and I thought so too. He took us to our new home where my sister and I had to feel out a whole lot of new rules. Not only was my new parents’ honeymoon over, but so was ours.

When we had lived in Yorkshire my stepmother had worn very fashionable clothes, to my old- fashioned eyes, which I knew my grandmother would have thought were ” very fast”. But my stepmother would wear these wonderful clothes to breakfast, and when she heard a favourite tune on the wireless, she would jump up and waltz round the room with my father, humming and laughing and even kissing him. My sister and I hardly knew where to look during this extraordinary adult behaviour, but now, that was all over. No more smart grey trousers, no more incredibly high -heeled, navy suede court shoes, which I hoped she would leave to me in her will. Just the same boring old skirts and flowered tops day after day. No-one told us that these were maternity clothes.

On the 11 February, 1948 our stepmother was not at the breakfast table. While the maid served breakfast, our father told us she had gone into hospital in the night. When we asked why, he said he didn’t know. At school we felt both scared and important. At play-time everyone discussed it, with guesses as to what the matter might be. They ranged from appendicitis to her death bed.

Finally, someone said: ” She was getting a bit fat. D ‘you think she’s going to have a baby?” “She wasn’t getting fat”, I replied indignantly. “And anyway, they’d have told us if they were going to have a baby.” Back home for lunch, our father was sitting at the dining table waiting for us. He was smiling broadly. “You’ve got a baby brother,” he said.

By then, we knew the right way to behave, so we both exclaimed with excitement. But underneath I felt a little pain in my chest. I never examined it, but I knew that it was because they hadn’t wanted to share it with us. After that we seemed to be two groups in the family. My sister and I who were there because there was nowhere else to be, and my father, stepmother, and the baby, who I adored. Them and us. We had bread and jam at afternoon tea. “They” had biscuits or cake.

And now life took on a darker tone… We slept on one side of the house, my parents at the other end. Every night they would march into the bedroom to say good night. If we had been good, it was okay, and it was usually okay for me as I was chronically law-abiding.

But my sister was always in ‘trouble’, and every night after the post mortem she was spanked. Then the two tall adults who seemed to tower over us, marched out again, leaving my sister to cry herself to sleep. To my eternal shame I didn’t cross across to her bed to comfort her, but lay wretchedly curled up in my own bed trying not to hear her sobs.

After my best friend was murdered by her father, who shot the whole family one night, I was moved to a small bedroom near my parents. I was the first person at the scene, I had knocked repeatedly on the door to collect Mary for our early morning riding lessons, but there was no answer. By the time I got to school later, the door had been broken down and the heart-rending scene discovered.

I suppose my parents thought I might need some support, but I never talked to them about it, as I was worried that Mary and her brother had gone to hell, and used to send myself to sleep praying that they had gone to heaven instead. Since my parents didn’t believe in God there was no point in talking to them about it. It’s only now as I write that I realise how it must have been for my eight -year- old sister left alone to cope on her own at the other side of the house when I was moved.

We lived in the only residential street in the concentration camp, known as Hoppenstadt Strasse with notices each end in German and English – Langsam fahren kinder – Drive slowly children.

The houses we lived in had been the homes of the German prison guards during the war. Now, one side of the street was reserved for officers’ families, and we each had one floor of the houses, which meant that we had two flats which had been roughly connected to make a roomy home. Our home, I learned many years later from my stepmother, had had the distinction of having housed Josef Kramer, the notorious commandant of the camp, known as the Beast of Belsen. It never felt like a happy home.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Having a long car journey to and fro from a very sad funeral, leaving at 5am, I couldn’t face eating bready sandwiches for breakfast -on- the -run during the dash to be there by 10am, so the day before, I made something from my recipe book, called Jenny’s zucchini slice, to eat instead.

Grate three good sized zucchini/courgettes. In a large bowl, beat five eggs, and add three chopped slices of bacon, a cup of grated cheese, a cup of self- raising flour, half a cup of oil, and an onion (did my usual, and pre-cooked it in the micro wave), the grated zucchini, salt and pepper. Stir everything together and spread in a shallow, greased baking tin. The mix should be about an inch and a half deep. Bake in a moderate oven for roughly three quarters of an hour, or until a knife slides out clean. It’s delicious hot or cold, eaten with salad for a meal, or cut into slices to eat on a journey like ours.

 Food for thought

 “I can choose either to be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure. It’s all a question of how I view my life.”            Paul Coelho

 

 

 

 

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46 Comments

Filed under army, british soldiers, cookery/recipes, family, fashion, life and death, spiritual, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, world war two

46 responses to “Footprints of the Nazis

  1. What an extraordinary and horrible story. The mind boggles at you all having to travel that far and to that dreadful place to be with your father. What a dreadful period in our history. The vegetable slice sounds lovely. c

    Liked by 2 people

    • How lovely to see your smiling face pop up Celi… after the difficult first few years of my life, I wrote about , it just seemed the way life was…
      life seemed full of hard times back then …
      enjoy the vegetable slice !!!

      Like

  2. I clicked “like” to let you know I had read it. It was a very disturbing time & place & circumstances for a little girl to experience. And an astonishing place to have lived. I have a friend who grew up in Hanover, the child of a German Nazi officer & his American wife (from before the war) who stayed with her little girl in Hanover throughout the bombing of Hanover, the war & its aftermath. I met the girl 16 years later in university in the USA. She would never talk much about what she had been through. Her mother also survived & I met her when came to America to visit her daughter. The father was killed in the war. Thank you for writing your memories & sharing them with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for reading, I always appreciate your visits and your comments…
      I would think your friend must have had horrendous experiences, judging by the state of Hanover when I saw it…
      And it must have been very hard coping with the death of her father plus coping with the idea of him being a Nazi…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, her experiences were too horrible to tell us about I imagine. And her family’s particular circumstances seemed so very very odd & difficult to her American friends, & yet she & her mother were both lovely, cosmopolitan & sympathetic people. The mother just must have found herself in a dreadful position & stuck it out, instead of fleeing with her child. I think your memoir is very special, poignant &beautifully written, Valerie. I hope a book is forthcoming.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Even though I am not of an age to have experienced the 1940’s, this feels almost like awakening old memories. While reading it soon seems as if I have become part of the story, recalling each event with you. I always enjoy your regular blog, but this is something else altogether! 🙂

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  4. I have loved this series, Valerie, mostly for your very special writing skills but also for a look into times my parents lived through but whose memories didn’t seem as sharp as yours, perhaps on purpose. I can, however, remember them saying that they thought life was hard for everyone back then, and probably it was… at least harder than our life has been.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Ardys, I really value your visits and your comments … yes, I suspect your parent’s assessment was right… I used to look at my son when he was in his mid/late thirtes,and think how men like my father were commanding hundreds of men, fighting dreadful battles, far from those they loved, at the same age, while women and children coped with very different challenges, including bombing and rationing !!!
      Thank you for your generous words about my writing… as you would know, acknowledgement of a skill is such a gift, as well as the joy of doing it for its own sake….

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Your traumatic early childhood experiences brought back to my mind a similar harrowing event. My family in the process of ethnic cleansing had just been expelled from Pomerania (now Poland) with millions of other Germans. I was four years old at the time. My mother with the children had left the overcrowded train to catch some fresh air and perhaps to get some food. All of sudden I was all alone in the chaos of people milling around. Horror struck I heard a whistle blow. I cried out ‘Mother’ as the train began to move. Some kind man grabbed me and passed me through the half open window into the arms of my mother. An experience I will never forget!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Oh Peter, that must have been utterly devastating… that time in Pomerania was horrific, I’ve read quite a lot about it, and knew another survivor, in east Prussia whose parents were killed, and his grandmother looked after him and his three siblings, and the deprivation and starvation they experienced, since they were unable to leave, had left a permanent mark on him. I also have an extraordinary novel called Death in Danzig which chronicles that time in that part of the world.. tragic times for so many… it truly was a world war…. thank you so much for your amazing comment

      Liked by 2 people

  6. This series is fascinating. I’m wondering if you know what happened to your mother and if you ever saw her again.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You record history beautifully Valerie and bring the period and place to life. It’s odd that amongst so much destruction and the evil that had been around you were still able to find joy and beauty with your riding lessons.
    xxxx Huge Hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear David, It’s lovely to see you reading this series, and to know that you enjoy it….thank you for your lovely comment…
      As for what you say about joy and beauty – beauty was the one thing that sustained me in the hard days to come…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Harrowing, indeed. One’s heart goes out particularly to your sister, and your father doesn’t come across at all well. Of course, the utterly abnormal circumstances must have led to abnormal reactions.

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  9. Liz

    Throughout this wonderful series I have been marvelling at your powers of recollection, but it occurred to me reading this post in particular that all your various experiences are impossible to forget and must be indelibly etched on your mind. The litany of tragedies, small and large, which you had to endure would be written off as unrealistic if they were in a novel. Thank goodness you are able to view life with the perspective of Paulo Coehlo – what a great quote.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. This series is amazing. My heart breaks for your sister too. This should be part of a book! I want to know how everyone ends.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You are amazing at writing down this piece of history. It allows us to see a difficult time in the eyes of a child. I agree with Kate, this should be a book and story that needs told.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Dear Patti, lovely to see you as always… thank you so much for your generous comments, it’s wonderful that my story should be interesting to others, and it’s so encouraging…

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  13. I am grateful for your posts for they are a call to action, a reminder of the enormous responsiblity we have to our children, especially during dark and troubling times. Your posts are a tribute to resilience and determination. They are also a reminder to be ever vigilant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Rebecca, thank you so much for your thoughtful and perceptive comment as always.. the things you say made me think about the different takes we all have on events and history, and yes,the enormous responsibility we to all children.. thank you again dear friend…

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  14. I’m delighted to see you sharing this in a series Valerie, so very moving the touchpoints you’ve shared. I’ll be going back to read the earlier parts. Thank you for writing and sharing this, you’ve had such incredible life experiences, they so deserve a wide audience, thank you for the preview and keep going indeed.

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  15. Now I need to go back to your earliest posts, since this one is closing your series.
    Although I was fed by many World War II stories, I’ve not heard many from the postwar period. My parents were young too and probably didn’t grasp the challenges around them, as adults did.
    They remembered more of the more graphic scenes during the war: evacuation, bombing, and of course D Day, which happened basically in their backyard.
    Sometimes, I think that this period has made some of the most resilient people. And like Coelho writes it so well, it is up to us to view the world one way or another.
    You certainly have a half-full glass approach on life, which I think is contagious when I read your blog posts.

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  16. Dear Evelyne,
    What a wonderful comment thank you, and so much to think about in each sentence you wrote…. first of all, I’m delighted you are reading my posts, but this isn’t the last !
    It’s part of a series, which is continuing…
    Your parents must have had hard times indeed, after the war… I always flinch when I read about D-Day and the destruction of that beautiful part of France, the ancient villages and cities and churches, the deaths of people and of animals… Churchill, – who adored France – was extremely concerned about this scenario in the lead-up to the invasion, and over the bombing of France and the resultant deaths, but Roosevelt argued with him and simply saw it as collateral damage ..
    .In spite of my huge admiration for Roosevelt, I think if it had been 90,000 Americans, he would not have been so relaxed about it …
    Yes, Coehlo’s quote is wonderful isn’t it… no victims when we see life like that … thank you Evelyne, for your kind words about me and my blogs …very much appreciated

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  17. Though your memories are fascinating to read Valerie, I can’t imagine that the atmosphere of that place would have been conducive to a happy home and your piece does seem to have loneliness and fear in it. And yet it was your ‘normal’, this must surely have been an experience that contributed to your resilience and positive approach to life.

    Like

    • Andrea, I so enjoy knowing that you have been reading my memoir.. I really appreciate your perceptive comments… I was particularly struck by your description of things being my ‘normal’ and it gave me much food for thought … thank you for reading…

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Dearest Valerie,

    What a horrible place for a child. The atmosphere of such a place must’ve been incredibly heavy. Then to have had so little meaningful communication. I feel the girls’ desolation and loneliness that must’ve beset them. Your stories are so filled with emotion and descriptions you’ve made me feel a part of an incredible journey. To have found your best friend and her family murdered…for that I have no words.
    I’m glad to have finally gotten around to reading. I thought I’d have more leisure time after retirement. I hope you’ve been able to regroup after the sad event of late. My love to you and himself.

    Hugs and shalom,

    Rochelle

    Like

    • hello Rochelle, good to read your comment as ever… thank you for your appreciation and enthusiasm…
      Yes, retirement is not the leisurely procession of days we always think its going to be, is it !!!
      Himself is digging in the heat, and pausing to throw seeds for the baby quail and murmur sweet nothings to them…
      thank you.. there have been lots of unexpected minor earthquakes and dramas over the last few weeks , but things are calming down !!!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. “I can choose either to be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure. It’s all a question of how I view my life.” Paul Coelho

    I am so thankful that you have given us this amazing gift —the story of your life.
    There is so much I want to write —to say words of comfort for you and your little sister— and words to shame your parents—but who am I? I can only say it is too sad that your Grandmother didn’t get to keep you.
    On the other hand, your amazing spirit and gift of memory give us a glimpse into a world only those who actually lived it can understand.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you dear friend for your warm and loving comment … the parents were like many others back then, who had no idea of child psychology, and no imagination either…
      I’m so grateful for your encouragement, it really makes a difference – as I will explain when I write… hope you’re feeling warm and relaxed in the balmy world of you -know -where !!!
      Love XXXX

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Wonderfully decribed, Valerie – I’m going to go and read this life story from the beginning at my leisure where I can really enjoy it. Thank you for writing it.

    Like

    • Lynne, thank you so much … I really appreciate your encouragement and enthusiasm… it’s harder to write than I had thought… so much to edit out, trying not to use too much detail and of course, always conscious that family are very disapproving of what I remember and write !!!

      Like

      • You’ve lead such a rich life, Valerie, so much social history in there which I so enjoy. I’d love to read your whole memoir one day, and I won’t be the only one! Just to let you know I don’t get notified when you reply to me here on your blog, and i don’t think you get notified when I reply to you on my blog – so this is me just letting you know that I do reply, and am very appreciative of your support in return…Hopefully we can cope with the bumpy communications!

        Like

      • Dear Lynne,
        I don’t seem to have any problem reading and receiving your comments this end… wonder how I can get my grateful replies to your comments to you…
        Loved your remarks in this comment, thank you…..

        Like

  21. Oh, Valerie! Where to begin? Your writing brings all this to life so remarkably, the film runs in my head as I follow your awful little lives, you and your sister.
    I am glad that you are not letting your disapproving family ‘edit’ this for you and that you are keeping it honest and very moving in its simplicity. Your description of the destruction of the houses as “half dolls’ houses” is so apt.
    Sorry you have had a sad funeral to go to and hope that Jenny’s Zucchini slice did its job. It sounds delicious and may be our lunch today! 🙂

    Like

    • Dear Sally, have just discovered this lovely and so encouraging comment from you, written, I see four weeks ago. Apologies -. am so sorry I missed it… but it is a lovely surprise to find it !!
      I really appreciate what you say about this series, thank you as ever, kind friend, love Valerie

      Liked by 1 person

  22. IN all the reading I have done about this subject I have never read one so compelling; such a personal account. And from the eyes of a sweet, innocent child. Your writing takes on a different dimension; it is wonderful, and I thank you for sharing it with us.

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  23. Dear Ronnie, what a lovely surprise to find your comment, and read your kind and encouraging words. Thank you so much… you would know how much honest appreciation from another writer means, and I loved it that you valued the history as I saw it…very best wishes to you, Valerie

    Like

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