I noticed a report last week that after the Queen left Berlin in a bright yellow outfit, she then changed into a sombre, slate grey coat and hat by the time she reached the concentration camp of Bergen- Belsen.
We just called it Belsen in my day. We had travelled through Hitler’s monument – Post- war Europe – which seemed from the train to be nothing but mountains of bricks and ruined suburbs with a few half houses still standing. They looked like half a doll’s house where you can re-arrange the furniture. In these grotesque rooms, pictures were askew on walls, wardrobe 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 understand the human tragedy, 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 brick and rubble.
At a station where we stopped to disgorge some of the passengers crushed into crammed carriages, thin, white-faced children banged on windows begging for food, and scrabbled at the side of the track looking for odd lumps of coal. We were seated in the restaurant car, eating the first white bread I had ever seen, quite unlike our war-time rations, but the thrill of this exciting food was dulled by the sight of the pale, dust-smeared faces outside the window which didn’t open.
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 them-selves out and find each other, I thought. When all the debarking travellers had trickled off and the train pulled away again, my stepmother and I were the only people still standing waiting to be met. I had assumed that all the people I had seen were in the process of coming or going – now I discovered that they had all settled down for the night again, thousands and thousands of people sleeping on every available inch of floor, draped up and down stairs, lying propped up against walls where there was no room to stretch out.
When we had picked our way over the ragged, hostile bodies to the main entrance of the station to get into a military jeep to take us to a bed for the night, I stood momentarily at the top of the steps. Straight ahead, the moon was shining through a large, gothic-shaped empty window high in the wall of a bombed church. There was no sound of traffic in the ruined city and no street lights, just silence and the un-earthly beauty and light of the silver moon. And then blessed cold fresh air sitting in the open jeep after the foetid atmosphere of the station.
The next day we arrived at the site of the former concentration camp and moved into our new home, the spacious former digs of Josef Kramer, the notorious Beast of Belsen. Hoppenstadt Strasse was the only residential street in the camp, and had been the quarters of the prison guards and their families before the liberation by shocked British soldiers.
We children were not told the history of the place, but it was as though the energies of the past were impregnated in the walls and streets and trees and stones. It felt like living on shifting sands of uncertainty and fear of all the things we didn’t understand and that no one ever explained.
Violence seemed to be the atmosphere we breathed. There were different layers of this violence. One was when I went to collect my best friend for our early morning riding lesson, and couldn’t raise her. Later at school I learned that her single father had shot her and her brother and himself – Mary in the kitchen, her younger brother on his way to the front door. I had nightmares for months about Mary and whether she had gone to heaven or hell, and what her brother’s last moments of terror were like as he fled from his murderous father. I didn’t feel I could discuss this with my new parents, my father just back from ‘abroad’ after seven years overseas, and a new stepmother.
There were hordes of unpredictable Yugoslav guards in navy-blue greatcoats who patrolled the place guarding it, though I never knew what they were guarding it from. They had a reputation for being dangerous, and every now and then one would shoot himself or a comrade. And yet another aspect of the incipient violence was that a single British car on the road at night was such an irresistible target for angry defeated Germans, that my father was run off the road and injured several times travelling between Hanover and Belsen.
Behind our house I played for hours in a pine forest, rich in bilberries, where the hungry Germans would come in autumn to pick this source of food in a starving land and demolish at the same time my little ‘huts’; while a mile down the road was the Displaced Person’s camp, which had previously been a well-appointed Panzer training depot. DP’s, as they were known, were the survivors of Belsen, still waiting for passports or permission to make their way back home across the bomb-blasted continent to find the survivors of their scattered families. To a puzzled child they seemed un-accountably unfriendly when our paths crossed.
One fine summer’s day the DP’s torched the pine forest and our homes were in danger until the fire was checked. They were trying to hurry up the authorities, and it was a desperate gesture to show their frustration. But the Allied authorities were dealing with twenty million people trying to get back to homes and families, and many of the refugees had no homes, families or even countries to return to. The problem grew under our eyes, as German refugees, another two million in the next few years, fled from the eastern sector and the Soviets.
They came straggling down Hoppenstadt Strasse with bundles wrapped in tablecloths, or blankets tied on the end of poles like giant Dick Whittington bundles. Sometimes they were found sleeping in our empty garages, or taking desperately needed clothes off the washing line, and were hurried on or arrested by the implacable Military Police.
These were the times of tension too when Russia began the process of harassing and interfering with traffic to and from Berlin, which finally culminated in the Berlin Airlift with thousands of planes ferrying food into besieged and beleaguered West Berlin. I didn’t understand it, but I felt the anxiety of the grownups. And we had to learn to use new money, which had changed from one set of cardboard to another, I never knew why.
We, the victors, shared the hardships of starving Europe. Our meagre rations were delivered once a fortnight in a cardboard box. I remember my stepmother looking at a small pile of cucumbers, our vegetables for the next two weeks, and asking in despair what we could do with cucumbers for a fortnight. We drank revolting tinned milk, as there was no organised milk supply and no pasteurised herds.
We sat in the dark every night for two hours when the electricity was switched off, and played games like twenty question to while away the pitch black hours. Like everything else, candles were in short supply. We had a puppy who seized the darkness as another opportunity to chew the rubbers that my father used for the Daily Telegraph crossword.
Horses were still an integral part of country life in this part of Germany, and this is where I learned to ride. The British regimental riding stables were run by an aristocratic Prussian officer – not of course using his military rank now- but known merely as Herr Freiser.
I was his star pupil and my father said I was learning to ride like a Prussian officer. Herr Freiser took great pains with me, never guessing that I was terrified of the huge jumps he put me over. Fear runs along the reins, I remembered from reading ‘Black Beauty’, and hoped I was bluffing the far-too-big cavalry horse I rode regularly. A big brushwood jump was one thing, but the fence on the wall was too much, and I came off every time, never knowing what had happened until it was all over.
Herr Freiser’s tall, blonde, classically beautiful Prussian wife regarded me with loathing, as though I was a pet cockroach he was training. I decided she hated all English, and was probably still a Nazi lady.
They lived in the groom’s cottage by the stables and were lucky to have a home and a job in their ruined country, though she obviously didn’t think so. Their gilded furniture, rescued no doubt from their ancestral Prussian schloss, was piled right up to the ceiling in one room, while they lived in the other. Herr Freiser seemed as frightened of her as I was. I realised that he was probably a collaborator with the enemy in her eyes. She would stalk through the stable yard in her immaculate jodhpurs, her glare like a blue flame from her icy blue eyes and thankfully ignored me.
Next week – part two -Belsen – The power of one
Food for threadbare gourmets
Sometimes the pine nuts in pesto are a bridge too far for a tight budget, so I use walnuts instead. Grate half a cup of walnuts in a grater, and then grate half a cup or more of Parmesan. Finely chop about two cups of basil, plus three chopped cloves of garlic, and mix it all together with enough extra virgin olive oil to make the consistency you want- about half a cup. I then add a few table spoons of the hot pasta water help it all amalgamate. I also like this mixture over broccoli.
Food for thought
‘Ruskin had the romantic’s gift for seeing the inanimate world as if it had that moment left the hand of the Creator’.
Oliver van Oss, scholar, man of letters and great headmaster.