I am always struck by the pictures. This beautiful teenager looks like she doesn’t have a care in the world. But she saw what no human being should ever see. She experienced a world of fire, a world of starvation, a world where all seemed lost, yet somehow she had enough hope in humanity to later marry and bring two beautiful girls into the world.
After Kaffe and Kuchen at Tante Eva’s she often gets out the old photo albums and the diaries. Eva was a star student back in the 40’s, she was a respected member of the BDM (Bund Deutsche Mädel), and later was given the opportunity to work on a farm and serve her country. She is so humble about her life. She is not proud of what her country did back then, but at the same time she is thankful of the ways in which the war empowered her. When she tells stories of those times she warns us that war is always wrong, it is always bad, regardless of which side you are on.
“See here”, she says, “Look, my father wrote down what Lisa and I wanted for Christmas.” When she was 6 or 7, she and her sister discussed with their father what they wanted most. They had little money, but Valdimar wrote it all down anyway. A veteran of World War I, he kept meticulous records of his life.
She then gets out another scrapbook, this one is full of teenage girls in uniforms, swastikas hang from the buildings, and the girls seem to be flirting with the cute uniformed boys. I ask “Who are these boys in the convertible?” She says without emotion “Oh, they were inviting us to a party, we showed the boys a good time, the next day they were heading out to the Eastern front. They probably died. Everybody died on the Eastern Front.”
Valdimar was sent to the Eastern Front, too. He later died in a Soviet prison camp. But he went missing long before they got word of his death. Eva went everyday to the Red Cross office, hoping that one day, she might get the word, some sort of sign, was he alive or dead? She just wanted to know what had happened to her father.
She remembers one of the last times he was home on leave. The air raid sirens sent her family into the neighbor’s cellar. Her father sat next to her, holding her hand. He looked across the dark and musty space at the local Metzger. “You have a farm across the river, yes? If things get bad, promise me that you will take my family with you to the farm. Take them out of the city.” Eva said she was numb as she sat there. She was too scared to feel or react to what was going on. She had endured bombings like this many times, but each time she stayed strong as stone, not reacting. Her mother and her sister Lisa needed her to be strong.
The all clear sounded. As the occupants opened the doors to the fresh air, the bright light of day blinded her. And when she regained her focus she spied a tiny sparrow sitting on the steps of her apartment building. It was alive but unmoving. It was stunned. It couldn’t move. There was smoke and fire trucks, sirens and people yelling. Yet the bird remained frozen. Versteinert. She said that at that moment she broke. She fell to her knees and cried, cried for the first time since the bombings had started. The bird, she explained, was the only living thing that knew how she felt. Stunned. And what can you do in that moment but just keep living, doing your daily tasks, staying strong as stone.
Unfortunately, things only got worse in Hamburg. In July 1943 allied bombers blanketed the city, day and night, with incendiary bombs. Operation Gomorrah killed over 42,000 civilians and wounded around 37,000. The Americans bombed by day, and British bombed by night. Her street was a wasteland. In order to escape, the family piled all they could on a bicycle. Eva had to push her bike over the streets filled with charred corpses. This horror, the starvation and lack of supplies that came later, turned Eva’s hair grey.
And every time I hear her stories, I get a little teary. In America we celebrate this generation. We glorify them as heroes. The World War II survivors are the most revered because of the sacrifices they made for their homeland. Yet in Germany, for too long they were afraid to talk about the war. For too long no one wanted to hear this generation’s stories. But isn’t she too from the Greatest Generation? She was brave at an age when most girls just needed the courage to go after their first kiss. She served her family and neighborhood at a time when her vibrant city was reduced to flames and rubble. She had to come to grips with the loss of her heroes, she had been lied to and manipulated by the propaganda machine. She had lost her father, her teen years, her innocence. She survived so that we could forever be reminded …War is always wrong. It’s always bad, regardless of which side you are on.