My dear Callum,
It’s now been seventeen months since we last saw each other; I hope very much that we’ll see each other at least once more. I know you’re busy, but come and visit. Whenever suits you – just try to remember to let me know a couple of weeks in advance so I can arrange myself.
I also hope very much that you’re not put off by the conversation we had when you were here. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I’ve since started to think that maybe you would be feeling guilty. But then we’ve never telephoned that much anyway, so who knows. In any case, it doesn’t matter.
I don’t want to make you feel worse, but I did understand what you were trying to do: hear my stories about Russia before I get too addled to tell them. It’s not a happy thing to realise, and I admit that it irritated me. But on reflection I can see that your thinking was right: I am at an age when people tilt very quickly towards – shall we just say, towards a place where people tell no stories.
[ Return to the review of “We Germans.” ]
Your questions were ridiculous, though – awkward, faux naïve. You should have seen yourself edging up backwards to what you really wanted to ask: did you see terrible things? Let me answer that for you now: yes, I did. And: did you do terrible things? It’s hard to say, but certainly not in the way you presume.
What surprises me is this: do you imagine that your mother didn’t ask the same questions when she was your age? Or that they haven’t kept resurfacing, like chunks in soup, ever since I came back? Your mother’s generation were less polite about it. And rightly so, I should emphasise. Those aren’t polite questions.
But even if I’d wanted to give you a proper answer when you were here, I wouldn’t have been able to. You have to understand that even experiences that extreme don’t stay sharp in the mind for ever.
What you end up doing, what I ended up doing, is finding some phrases that simplify eventful years down to something that can be said over coffee, and then you remember that phrase instead of the silent figures who stand behind it. I’ve tended to say that it was a cruel time to be alive, but that some people, as we all know, had it much, much worse. And that we should be grateful our times are so peaceful now.
The reason for developing these platitudes is as feeble and mundane as not wanting to think about the 1940s every day. Like anyone else, you want some coffee and conversation about something pleasant – maybe even more than other people would. If we who lived through it do talk about it, and we do more and more now that we’re old, we talk about Hitler and world history instead of about ourselves. I sometimes think my wine circle sounds like a group of petitioners each trying to get a two-line amendment into history’s verdict.
So when you gave me your clumsy interview, nothing from those years occurred to me as quickly as it would have needed to. By the time I was thinking about it, rather than about how angry you’d made me, you’d already left again and were back in London, living your life and perhaps forgetting all about this conversation with your grandfather.
I, on the other hand, have more time than I know what to do with. That is, if you measure in days and not years. It recently struck me again how young your oma was when she died. Seventy-two! I hardly even know anyone that young any more, apart from my family and the people who work here. I really thought we’d have longer together.
But anyway: lots of time, lots of quiet and nothing to do. And my memory, once you’d kicked it, began, slowly, wheezily at first, to turn over.
With very old memories, it seems that the more you roll them around, the more they pick up. Faces I hadn’t seen in decades now appear among the other diners in the restaurant, and I catch the whisper of forgotten names in the chatter at the bakery. Of everything, it’s the people who come back first. Sometimes it’s not unlike a reunion. Many I’m happy to see again.
Then come sounds and sensations, more and more of them. The motorised snorting from the gun carriage I drove into Russia on. The hunger – my goodness I remember the hunger, when it’s in your arms and legs, as if you can actually feel the muscle cells breaking down. Just the memory of it was enough to send me to the Greek’s for a plate of souvlaki and chips, more than I could ordinarily hope to finish. I knew what I was doing, of course, but it was reassuring to be able to do it.
These mundanities are probably not what you wanted to hear about, but this is what there is. Since our conversation, I’ve felt again the constant mild sunburn, the tight aching skin on my forearms and the back of my neck, in that first Ukrainian summer. The thick, standing heat that I loved and that lay on us like gravy – we’d string poncho canopies across the back of the gun carriage and doze in the shade, stripped to our underclothes, while we jolted through the countryside. The coppery dust churned up from the dirt roads would stick to us while we daydreamed, and if you didn’t find a river to jump in, you’d have to scrape it off as red paste in the evenings.
[ Return to the review of “We Germans.” ]
As these sense-memories have come back from the brink of oblivion, they’ve started stretching out towards each other, joining up and thickening into incidents, conversations, things that happened. The more I write down, the more there is. An old burn on the back of my left hand has begun to itch again. It wasn’t all sunbathing. I heard shellfire the other day while I was walking in the park, the dull thump of my howitzer. And just this morning, in the lift, I suddenly found myself running a sweat, my face purple, my heart in the grip of a fear that had long been dormant.
It’s all made me think that perhaps I can do something with this time I still have. The plan was that your oma and I would be travelling and enjoying our retirement. Well, life isn’t fair, we know that. There you go: another platitude. But can you imagine what she’d say if she knew I’d been watching television in the afternoons?
I know she’d be pleased to think of me using the energy and lucidity I have left. Working again, after all those years of working towards being able to stop. It feels good. She’d be pleased whatever I was doing, but you were always her favourite; she’d be happy I’m doing something for you, even if it’s only writing you this long letter.
I read somewhere that in medieval Japan old samurai used to write down what they’d learned about how to live, to help educate their sons and grandsons. Each generation added their own experiences, so that as a young man you could be handed the advice of centuries. I’ve always liked that idea. Especially because I wish you and my father could have met. He was a reader, the bookish kind of minister, who decorated his house with shelves. I think you would have liked each other.
And there’s something about my time in the East that I want to explain to you. I can’t quite articulate it myself. And I don’t want you to jump to the pantomime conclusion: it’s not that I have some confessions to get off my chest before the end. I’m not trying to clear my conscience. What’s on it is on it.
I wasn’t a Nazi. No court would find me guilty of anything, even an omniscient one. What I want to tell you isn’t about atrocities or genocide. I didn’t see the camps and I’m not qualified to say anything about them. I read Primo Levi’s book about it, the same as everyone else. Except of course that when we Germans read it, we have to think: We did this.
But this isn’t about that. What I want to tell you about is something quite different. It’s to do with courage. I don’t think anyone who sees real courage ever forgets it, I suppose because it’s so unlike anything else in our characters. It’s as bright in my mind now as if I were again lying in that scrubby Polish field long ago, with an appalling man named Lüttke lying on top of me.
I saw it in war, in captivity and once, years later, in peacetime: after your uncle Jochen came back from the hospital, his friends, who didn’t know his leg had been amputated, knocked on the door downstairs and asked whether he wanted to play football. He was a child, a terminally ill child, and he could have just turned over in his bed. I think your oma wanted him to.
But he went outside and played football with them on his crutches in the yard behind the house. And didn’t just play – and fall over – but laughed and shouted and was happy. That’s courage. And I have not forgotten it.
Callum Emslie: I’m not sure exactly what kind of disease my uncle Jochen had, just that it was in the bone marrow in his leg and that he died the day he turned twelve, in 1968. He’d clung on to see his birthday. That story of him playing football on his crutches I’ve heard from at least four people: my grandparents, my mum and one of the other boys, who’s since become a mildly creepy evangelical Christian. He retold it to me at my opa’s funeral, about half a century after the game.
It’s true that I asked my opa some less than tactful questions on that visit. And as for that guilt trip about seeing him at least once more, yes, I saw him a bunch more times. I may not have been a gold-standard grandson, but I think I did alright. It wasn’t like he lived down the street: his flat was on this domesticated wooded hill outside Heidelberg, in the easy-going, wine-producing south-west of Germany. I went every summer when I was a kid. Even when I was a student and in my cash-strapped twenties, I forked out for the flights every couple of years, which at the time I thought was often enough. As I get older I think more about how alone he must have been.
But I liked going. I admired him, basically for being so unimaginably stoic. A few years before he died, he was walking in the woods by himself and had some kind of leg spasm. He must have gone down in a heap and couldn’t get back up. There was no one about, so he dragged himself arm over arm back to the road to find help, and then tried to pretend it hadn’t been a big deal. That was what he was like, and that was when he was nearly ninety.
In all the times I saw him after this conversation, he never mentioned the long letter he was writing. Presumably he finished writing it after a while and put it in a drawer: when he died, my other uncle found it among his things, addressed to me. That was only a brief year or so before my wife and I first got together – I often think how close the two of them were to overlapping.
My opa had actually started writing a memoir once before, soon after my oma died. It had nothing to say about the war or his time in captivity, but started on the day he and my oma met, when he got back to Germany. It was mainly about holidays they’d been on, their kids’ birthday parties, happy days. He gave up on it when his grief took a different turn. He had to live a long time without her.
That visit when I asked him about Russia, I’d assumed he’d be keen to talk. From my late teens to my mid-twenties, whenever I was telling him about reading French and German at university or getting my first paying jobs in TV afterwards, he’d say something like, ‘When I was your age, I was in a trench outside Donetsk’ or ‘I was just starting my second year in the Gulag.’ The lesson was simple: don’t forget how lucky you are to have been born when you were. I thought that if for once I dared ask directly about it, laptop recorder poised, I’d get hours of powerful oral history. I imagined that I could play the recording to future generations and say, This is the voice of your great-great-grandfather. Pretty moving stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. But, as he says, nothing came of it. The only bit I remember is that, hoping to prompt a colourful story of hardship in the Gulag, I asked what the Russians had given him to eat. He considered for a while and then told me, ‘I suppose it will have been somekind of soup.’
So even though I’ve put in notes to clarify anything that would be obscure to non-Germans, the background I can add is meagre: he was conscripted out of school into the Wehrmacht in 1940, helped invade the Soviet Union in 1941, fought in the artillery on the Eastern Front for four years, was captured in what is now Austria in 1945 and sent to a Russian prison camp north-east of the Black Sea, where he was kept until 1948. That doesn’t tell you much.
[ Return to the review of “We Germans.” ]