My big brother is four years older than I am and we live continents apart. On each visit over the decades I’ve asked him to talk about our childhood, especially the death of our mother. Why do you want to go there? he’d always say and go all silent. Over time, I stopped asking. About four months ago, after the all-too-early death of his son’s wife, I saw him almost faint with grief. His latest letter contains a postscript [which I’ve translated with a few comments in brackets]:
We had a pretty happy early childhood. With mother we lived in a good-sized apartment [on the army base]: a large kitchen and spacious living room. Also central heating and a large cellar where our father did pottery. The furniture was a bit pretentious [for a sergeant’s home]: hand-made by our cabinet-maker grandfather as dowry. We even had a ‘gentlemen’s sitting room’ with inlaid chessboard, ornate writing desk, and glass-fronted bookcase; it was hardly used. Loving grandparents on mother’s side.
A long way to kindergarten, partly on foot, partly by streetcar; starting in 1944 an even longer trek to school. Our dear mother always seemed as if everything was too much for her; yet neatly dressed and a good cook. During Allied air raids the three of us would run for cover in the forest nearby. Because of black-out regulations my job was to go outside at night to make sure no light shone from our windows.
There were dozens of horses in nearby stables [father was a riding instructor], chickens for eggs, and a Spitz [dog] in the apartment; father mostly absent. In early 1945, after a night-time fire bombing, our home town burned down. Ami-panzers [US Army tanks] rolled up to the barrack gates: Everyone out!!! That was the end of happy days. You were two years old and I six and a half.