My grandmother, known to us all as Mutti, caught one of the last trains out of Gotenhafen before the Russians came in 1945. She carried in tow, in order of age, some of my uncles and aunts: Jens, eight years old, clever and restless, though behind in school; Inga, a tough kid, it seemed, who didn’t need much worrying over; Suse, a baby girl, her darling and the comfort of her bed; and Andreas, who was still being potty-trained. Inga is my mother. The train was so full they had to be hoisted in through a window. Mutti stood on her feet the whole 20-hour journey, her legs swelling under her like grilling sausages. By the time the train reached Berlin, she couldn’t walk and had to be hauled from the station in a handcart. My grandfather, Kaha, stayed behind to do his job: he was a naval engineer, working at the shipyard. He guessed that bad times were coming and sent his family as far from the advancing front as he could. It was not the last time his family would be separated, nor the last long journey they would make.
Kaha died ten years ago, and Jens, a retired lawyer living in Rome, did the duty of the oldest child and sorted through the family papers, which he sent me. They ‘should have been different,’ he told me last summer, unhappily but with a certain satisfaction. He meant in part my grandfather’s expressions of love: they struck him as cold, perhaps, or self-centred. And he may have traced to the paterfamilias some of the cracks that spread out and inwards in any large family over time – along geographical lines, as much any other. He had settled in Rome, married to a French woman; my mother had ventured still further afield. Her trips ‘home’ – to that trim post-war cottage built on a stretch of wooded shoreline running into Denmark, where our family eventually settled after Gotenhafen have always been fraught with the anxieties and pleasures of the prodigal returned. ‘Homecoming’ is a word with a fracture written into it: if it were really home, we wouldn’t have to come back to it. And my mother has spent, not only most of her adulthood, but at this point, more simply, the majority of her life, in America, married to my American father.
But Jens had something else in mind, too, when he said, ‘it should have been different’. In his introduction to this family album, he wrote: ‘perhaps I should have cut a little from Father’s letters – the odd word or phrase confounds us when we come upon it. But such were the times.’ What he meant was, we all lived under the Nazis then. We all shared in the life they had made for the country. Most of these remarks appear as asides to the domestic gossip of their common life. He wrote to Mutti that he ‘does not believe we’ll win. Though I do whatever I can, towards victory. But if we don’t drive the Russians out of Oberschlesien by March, all kinds of materials will run out. We can hold out here that long. How will I see you again? The dinner-table is very jolly, since we’re all more optimistic, now things in our region are looking up. But I believe, as before, that the decisive stroke won’t fall here. Has it already fallen elsewhere? God grant the end is sufferable.’