Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Braunschweig 23.7.1998: Inge's Rescue and Little Red

More Mareile stories. It seems that after the war she and her family were hungry. They had prayed for the Americans, father than the Russians, to liberate them. When the troops came, they instructed families to pull down their black-out shades as the troops came through Königslutter. Mareile peeked out of the corner of a shade and saw black soldiers in a truck—the first black people she had ever seen. Later, she and her brothers went to the barracks and begged for food, saying, “I have hunger.” When her mother found out they’d begged, she was furious. The black soldiers called Mareile “little red.” She liked their friendliness.

Care packages of food and clothes came from America. Mareile’s family were virtually the only Catholics in town who weren’t refugees from the east. The priest refused to give them food and clothes, reserving these for refugees. Because the family were truly hungry, Mareile’s mother begged. At this, the priest said they could have a package, if the mother came by night so no one would see her. It was full of glorious food, things unattainable in Germany: raisins, white flour, chocolate (Mareile claps her hands and her eyes dance as she tells this).

There were no shoes to be bought. If one bartered an item of one’s own at some exchange center, one could obtain shoes, etc. All Mareile had to barter was her doll. She did so, for shoes. Each day she’d go to the shop to visit Inge, looking for her in the display window. One day, Inge was gone. That Christmas, Mareile received her as a gift. A friend of her mother’s had bought her, to keep for Mareile. Mareile still has Inge—as Maria says, “Inge still lives.”

Because the family’s house had been bombed (in one night, 20,000 people died in Braunschweig), all their clothes were destroyed. When Mareile’s father returned from the war, he had nothing to wear. A neighbor’s husband had been in the SS. She gave one of his uniforms of black wool to Mareile’s father: the best material in der Welt, Mareile says. Her mother turned the uniform inside out, and it became a new suit for the father, with tailoring. Mareile received a new coat from a care package, all gray wool and too small. Her mother sewed brown fabric onto the sleeves and hem, to lengthen the coat. Mareile wore it for years—ganz schick!

Mareile’s father was a judge in Braunschweig. As Hitler rose to power, the father didn’t want to serve a state ruled by Hitler. He moved the family to Königslutter, resigning his job. People told him he was crazy to forfeit his career.

And more on yesterday: after the tour of Königslutter, Mareile drove us back to Mascherode by way of the Elmwald, from which the chalky stone for the Königslutter cathedral was mined. She told us that after the war, people would forage for mushrooms and fireweood in the forest. She and Walter spent many days hiking there.

It is a beautiful forest, with a mix of conifers and deciduous trees. After we passed through it, we entered very attractive farmland, with rolling hills of cattle and horses—something like Virginia. In the flatter land near Braunschweig, as one descends from the mountains in which the Elmwald is found, sugar beets and grain grow, along with asparagus. Mareile tells us that this sandy and peaty soil is the most fertile in Germany. Here great-grandfather came here in the 19th century, from Thuringia, to seek work in the Braunschweig factories. Catholic families in southern Germany migrated in this period, as the many children overtaxed the farms, causing the land to be divided and divided again. Unlike the Protestant proletariat, though, the Catholic workers avoided some dehumanizing aspects of industrialization, Mariele thinks, since the church kept community and spiritual life alive for them.

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Like so much about the war in Europe, what Belmont Abbey did just ever quite make sense. If I tell myself they abused so many people because they were financially insecure, then I remember the wealth the monks have. If I say they persecuted people, then I have to ask how the rest of the faculty stood by passively as this was done. No answer is ever sufficient, just as with attempts to explain or understand what went on in Germany from 1920 to 1945.

Is it better, then, to live in the questions, than to have the answers? Am I nobler and deeper for being perplexed? Or is my refusal to forget, to settle for life-as-it-is, a sign of some dis-ease, some craving for a security life never affords anyone, inside myself?

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Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark (London: Vintage, 1997):

“Much of it must have been ornament, people making strange little alliances in their heads between things they had heard or read about, seeking to assert themselves in those endless conversations, implying they were in the know, there was much else they could tell but . . . ." (pp. 182-3).

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Mareile again: We didn’t know what was happening to the Jews. We knew they’d been sent away, yes, but often one by one, so no one noticed. My parents said that it only began to be clear to them, what was happening, shortly before the war.

Then, after the war, our school was forced to watch films showing in detail what had been done. I cried and cried. After that, whenever I had any pain, I told myself, It can’t be as bad as what the Jews suffered. When I had dental work done, I didn’t have an anaesthetic, because no pain I experienced could be as bad as theirs.

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