A Life Span
Not many people know or knew that my Grandmother was German. She was born and raised in Berlin and when WWII broke out she was just a young teenager. My Grandad was posted in Berlin at the end of the war and that is where he met my Grandmother, Helga Geisler. He couldn’t speak a word of German, nor she a word of English, but somehow they communicated, fell in love and eventually she moved to England where they married and settled down in Welwyn Garden City.
Of course I’m going to be biased when I talk about my nan, but she was one of the loviest women that you could ever wish to meet. Kind, affectionate and she always had time for you. She sadly passed away just after Christmas in 2013. More recently my father, Helga’s son passed away in 2018 and it was when I was sorting through some of his paper work that I found my Nan’s hand typed memoir (of sorts) that she titled ‘A Life Span’. This was accompanied with her papers for entry to the UK and some old family photo’s.
It is those papers, photo’s and memoir that I am going to share with you in this blog. Whilst this is history that’s personal for me, it’s also history that I feel needs to be shared. After all, isn’t our history the memories and accounts of the people that experience these events at the time that they actually happened? If it’s not shared then it’s not known and therefore it doesn’t become history!
The main reason for sharing this is because she recounts her memories of WWII. Reading about how the war had an effect on a young german teenager certainly put things in to a new perspective for me being British, not least because if she hadn’t survived then I wouldn’t be here writing this intro to her story.
Helga with her family and their car.
A LIFE SPAN – BY HELGA GEISLER – DECEMBER 1989
My home town is Berlin and I was born to a happy, loving couple. Father was a long distance lorry driver, a happy, easy going but hard working sort of chap. Always willing to help anyone, always cheerful. Mother was the more serious type but with a good sense of humour. We were a happy little family at that time, living on the outskirts of Berlin. Five years after I was born my Sister Hilde arrived and so life went on much as it had before except now we had moved into town and I had to start school. I believe I was quite eager as I liked the company of other children and was also some what inclined to get into mischief (do you think my Mother was glad to see me go?) Anyway, as Hilde got older my Mother wanted to help bring in some money but the only way she could do this and look after her family properly was to become a concierge. She found a position in quite a nice part of Berlin and we moved into the flat which went with the job.
She had to look after two, 4 story blocks of flats which was quite hard work but she never shirked her duties and was always helpful to tenants and was soon recognised as what they used to call “a jewel”. Dad had a little car (this was a rare thing in those days for the working classes) but as he was able to look after it mechanically by himself we could afford it. So we had many lovely outings, I remember picknics and rides through lovely countryside. Much to my Mothers joy, she loved the country.
Mum took a lot of pride in her girls. As she was a good needlewoman, we had lots of new clothes, we were also taught to wear hats and gloves when going out, other than playing. All very proper! She herself was always of neat appearance and I gather that some tenants thought she ought to look more the part (apron, headscarf possibly with hair still in curlers, fag dangling from her mouth) well, that was just not like her. In fact she probably looked better than some of them. Dad never had to wait for his Dinner and if he was late it would be kept warm for him. Oh, what Dinners they were too! Mum was a superb cook.
I particularly remember our christmases. The kitchen would be full of wonderful aromas, apples baking in the old German style tiled oven, a twig of pine tree in the warming compartment throwing out a lovely smell. Mum would be standing red cheeked from the heat of the oven baking all those well remembered cakes, all shapes and sizes. We were always eager to help knowing full well that we’d get any left overs.
But to move on. The war had started. Dad was put on driving jobs for the German “war effort” he and his old boss had no choice in the matter. Matter of State came first! Mum was pleased of course, it meant she didn’t have to worry about him being shot on the frontline. He was no youngster by that time anyway!
Life in Germany was similar to that in England in some ways but, all entertainment was stopped, the Nazis started their reign of terror. We soon got to know what this meant. First it was the Jews. We had a number of friends who were Jewish and one by one they went, some managed to get away to England & America just on the outbreak of war. Others were caught by the Nazis and we all know what happened to them.
I remember seeing some of them being brought out of their flats opposite from ours and herded onto a lorry to be taken away. We never saw them again! Mum and her Mother had lived in a certain amount of fear because they were partly jewish. By now the bombing had started and we had to get used to getting up in the middle of most nights to go down to the cellar. This was something we had in common with the London people. It’s crazy to think that on both sides innocent people sat in shelters being bombed by each others airforce, people who, under different circumstances might have become friends.
Eventually things got so bad, the German Red Cross organised for Mothers with children to be housed out of town, in some cases, as accommodation got scarce, even out of the country, namely Poland. Our family was one of the latter, we were put on a train to Poland. That is, My Mother, Sister and I. Dad of course had to stay behind to keep the flat occupied just in order to keep it. Mum didn’t have to stay on to work, those days were such, much of the usual normal things went by the board and I don’t think anyone cared anymore wether things got cleaned or not. Everyones safety came first. And so we arrived in Schrimm, a small county town in Poland. This little town was right near the river Wharte and in summer it was quite a nice setting and it was in a German occupied part of Poland.
A group of German Mothers and their offsprings were standing in the centre of town waiting for billets to be found for them. The Red Cross had worked hard to get everything sorted out but in the end there was just “us” left and no accommodation free. So, in the end a local Nazi leader, (one of those typical Bigshot’s, who had set himself up on a lovely dairy farm which really belonged to a Polish person, he was now having to act as overseer, a job “kindly” given to him by this Bigshot) offered to put us up in an attic of his house. Well, we didn’t really have any choice, it was
either that or sleep in the station. For her children’s sake our Mother accepted the two rooms offered to us, thinking that at least we were still together. The wife of the Bigshot was a “right Madam” if you know what I mean. I found out later, they were Nobodies before they joined the Nazi party.
Anyway, we settled in, I was just sixteen and my Sister 5 years younger. I quite liked it there, the school I joined was very nice and I got on alright with the Teachers. It was my first experience of mixed classes and good fun. I was always amazed how daring the boys were. The teacher had to suffer quite a bit I fear.
Our stay in the attic of “Bigshot’s” house became uncomfortable because he was making passes at my Mother and his wife found out about it from my Mother. She feared the consequences but could not let this horrible little man get away with things. Anyway, his wife saw to it that we were moved. This time we were offered the upper part of a house belonging to an elderly German couple. They were quite nice and once again life went on in an orderly fashion.
It was here that I became interested in boys! I usually preferred the older ones (I always thought the young ones so silly). There were plenty of boys and men about because we had a garrison of soldiers as well as a troop of young Land Army lads in the town. I was never short of boyfriends but very naive and when one soldier paid me a lot of attention I thought this was love!
Helga with her younger sister and parents.
The soldier I thought I was in love with was transported off to the front and I was heartbroken (what does one know of love at 16?) But all I do know is at the time it hurt. Anyway we promised to write to each other. After a time the letters suddenly stopped and from the Red Cross Information Service for Servicemen I heard that he had been lost assumed dead. What a blow that was but on reflection I realise that nothing could have ever come of our relationship, he was a good bit older and quite possibly married, just enjoying the company of a young girl while away from his home and family, he had never made any promises.
Well, when one is young one gets over these things very quickly and so did I. I was soon taken up in the limited social whirl in that little town and life became reasonable enjoyable once more.
There were other upsetting things happening there which left a deep impression. For example, the farm we had stayed on had all it’s workers banned from social contact with us, this rule was laid down by Mr. Bigshot himself. But Mother would have none of it, we used to wait until dark and then visit these poor polish people in their huts called home! Mum would take clothing which we had outgrown for their children and in return we would get meat from secretly slaughtered piglets. We were caught one day and feared the worst but luckily Bigshot only gave Mum a good talking to.
I am still surprised that he didn’t just report us. He was a despicable little man! I saw him once from our window, wielding a big stick, hitting the Polish over-seer with it, no doubt for no reason other than that he was Polish.
Talking of reporting, around this time My Mother’s Brother was put into a concentration camp (he had communist views) and shortly after that Mother’s Mother (our Grandmother who had always shown us so much love) was also put into a different camp and all because she dared to speak out against these camps. We had got word of what goes on in there and she knew the people suffered.
But to get back to my story, one comical incident comes to mind, during the time when we were friends with the local polish people, we were given half a piglet (meat was almost impossible to come by) and Mother decided, we would take it home to Berlin to see my Father. Well, can you imagine, taking half a piglet on a journey when guards would keep popping up asking for papers and snooping into luggage. Our little piggy was safely tucked away in a small suitcase. Mother spread a coat over it and I had strict instructions that, when a guard comes, I should sit on it whilst she deals with our travel permits etc. Well, we got away with it but goodness, was that suitcase heavy. It was a wonder that nobody got suspicious. So, even in bad times, we could laugh and we all had a wonderful meal.
The next winter was terribly cold and in the two rooms we had there was no heating other than the few sticks of wood we burned. Mother would hang washing in the loft and within a very short time it was frozen hard as boards.
One exiting thing was when the little bridge in town was threatened by pack ice, big heavy ice flows had got stuck around the base of the bridge and was gradually blocking the water and it was thought the pressure would eventually break the bridge away. So the army had to come with explosives to break up the ice. Needles to say, half the town was out to look.
Time went on and the war was going badly for Hitler. It was during this awfully cold winter that the Russian troops were gaining ground. The fighting was coming nearer and nearer until in the end we could even hear the gunshots. There was a buzzing of rumours going round in the little town, people were beginning to feel uneasy. Then, all people who had come from Berlin were called to assemble on the market place within one hour and with just a few belongings. So we rushed home and gathered together what we could. Most of it had to be warm clothing as blizzards were forecast! Mother and Hilde and I rushed back to the house where we stayed and grabbed what we could in the way of warm clothing and Mum also had to think of food as we had no idea what sort of a journey home we would have. We even made time to gather some of our clothing to give to our Polish friends before we left. All other belongings had to be left behind, some of them quite dear to us but there was nothing for it, we simply could not take them. We knew, we would never see them again, it was a sad day indeed. We made our way down to the market square to find lots of other people there. Again, it was the Red Cross who had organised the only form of transport they could muster, hay carts and other open farm vehicles.
The farm vehicles and horses were just taken from local polish farmers, who, needless to say had no choice in the matter. Each cart was decked out with a thick layer of straw (amazing how warm straw can be! ) Imagine our surprise when we saw Mr. Bigshot and family nice and cosily installed in a covered horse drawn carriage. Well we were all very cross to see this horrible man strutting about as if he owned the town but he was obviously making sure that he and his family were safely away from any trouble coming! At last we were on our way, aiming for Frankfurt on the river Oder.
What a journey that was, shortly after we started the blizzard came. We, the horses, the Polish driver and in fact the whole cart soon looked as if we were all made of ice. We were completely covered in thick white snow and ice.
Needless to say, it was bitterly cold, we had been going for hours when I noticed our driver was slumping forward, in broken polish I told him I would take the reign’s for a while to give him a rest. He was absolutely exhausted, poor man. I am sure he’d much rather be at home with his family specially as we could hear guns in the distance all the way. Gradually we were getting hungry and although Mother had brought bread and German Sausage, these items were frozen stiff, we just couldn’t get our teeth into them.
It was a terrible journey, the blizzard just did not let up. I felt sorry for the poor horses, their coats and manes were thick with snow and ice and they kept slipping on the icy roads. After what seemed hours we reached a small place where it had been arranged to have a change of horses as well as hot drinks for the cold weary travellers. We were so glad to get down from those carts as we had got terribly cold and stiff. After an hour or so the sound of those guns was urging us on our way. Again we had to endure the most terrible cold winter weather. The countryside we were passing was so deep in snow one could hardly recognise were we were.
Our horses had endured much, although they were fresh from the little village were we changed, they were simply not suitable horses for such a long distance journey, especially in this sort of weather. They must have been pretty hardy though because they got us to Frankfurt, (on the river Oder I must mention) at the point of exhaustion.
Helga in her late teens.
Several horses had to be shot on the spot, at this I had to cry, I felt so sorry that after these lovely creatures had taken us to safety, they were rewarded by being shot. My young heart could not bear this but there was little we could do.
All the while we could see German troops coming over the Bridge in Frankfurt, I do believe we were the last Germans to cross. Then we saw the soldiers fitting explosives to blow up the bridge in order to stop the Russian troops to enter Frankfurt at that point. At last we felt reasonable save. A soup kitchen had been set up nearby so at least we were able to rest up and have a hot meal.
It was then that we realised how many families had travelled from all different areas to Frankfurt for safety. We had lost sight of Mr. Bigshot and his family and never saw him again, I often wonder if he got what he deserved?
By now Mother was most anxious to get home somehow but nothing further had been organised, there just hadn’t been time. We all had to make our own way as best we could. Needless to say, all forms of transport were very haphazard at that time so we were really lucky to get on a train going south and from there trying to make our way north to Berlin. The trains were in a terrible state and very overcrowded, some windows were broken, bundles of people’s belongings everywhere, even some livestock! And on top of that no heating, people were huddling together to keep warm. Somehow we got back to Berlin and we were a reunited family again.
Not for long though! The end of the war was getting nearer and the last fighting on the eastern front was gradually nearing Berlin. The German propaganda machine had done it’ s work well, we were all scared of the Russians and all the horrible things they were supposed to do to us. Father was terribly worried for us, we all knew the worst of the fighting would be in Berlin and so it was decided that we must part once more. We knew the owners of a Youth Hostel a distance south of Berlin and they agreed to let us and several other families stay in the hostel which was not being used anyway. So, off we went once again, just taking a few belongings and we arrived at the hostel prepared to rough it for a while, hoping to see the war out in comparative safety.
The hostel was sited in a lovely forest nearby a lake not too far from a little village. Under normal circumstances it would have been a lovely place to spend a holiday, but we were not in the mood for holidaying. Once we were settled in (several of us having to sleep together) we were joined by a young Polish man, he was in Germany as one of the forced labour people and was now set free to fend for himself. We had nothing against him, to us he was just another human being looking for shelter and in time (he spoke German) we became quite good friends. One day a whole small army of French soldiers came through the hostel, apparently they had been set free too and were on their way home to France. They stayed just a couple of nights and as they had several food items we did not have, we struck a bargain. They would supply the food and my Mother would cook it. And so it was, one evening after the meal we stayed together and started a sing-song. Amazing, in spite of the times and the circumstances we could still be cheerful.
Well, the French left to make their way back to France, we quite missed their cheerful spirit. Not long after they had departed the sound of guns became much nearer and we were getting extremely worried. still expecting the Russians to torture us if they caught us, our friend (the Polish chap) and Mother decided we would go into hiding in the woods. And so we set off, leaving all our belongings in the hostel, to start digging a hide-out.
Starting to enjoy life again.
We started walking through the wood and had hardly gone a few yards when we heard an aeroplane overhead and, thinking it might be the enemy we threw ourselves on the ground near some bushes. We heard the plane diving and some shots rang out but obviously not meant for us. When all was quiet once more we carried on until we came to the small lake and had to dive into a small cave to seek cover as the plane returned. We were beginning to realise though that this pilot was looking for Russian soldiers and German deserters, we had spotted a few of those, quite young boys and really scared. When things went back to normal we looked for a good spot to start digging, all the while hearing the guns in the distance getting nearer. George, the young Polish man had been very helpful to us and had intended to stay with us in our hide-out.
We had not quite finished when we heard a commotion, people shouting outside. We stepped out of the hide-out and low and behold, there stood a Russian soldier. I didn’t know what to think but Mother, would you believe, burst into tears in sheer relief that for us the war was more or less over. In spite of the fact that the soldier was holding a machine gun, Mother did not seem afraid of him and started speaking to him although he didn’t understand a word of German. What he did next, surprised us all, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a bar of chocolate, handed it to Mother and pointed to us girls. He then tried to make us understand that he had children at home too. Well, that broke the ice as you can imagine. We were then given to understand to move on to another part of the woods and found to our surprise that the other families had already been rounded up (they obviously had the same idea as us to hide in the woods). So there we all were, woman (young and old), children and young teenagers. To our horror, a line of Russian soldiers had their machine guns trained in our direction and we feared the worse.
But then an officer stepped forward and explained that as there was still some fighting possible we should now go back to the hostel as it would be safer there. We certainly didn’t need to be told twice, so in spite of feeling uneasy we made our way back to the hostel but this was not empty! A whole troop of Russian soldiers had moved in and we had to take what was left of the rooms. These soldiers had been on the war front for some years we were told and their spirits were likely to go a bit high at the sight of young girls and boys! So it was decided that all the younger ones amongst us had to go into the cellar to keep out of sight. We were really worried but the older members of our group kept an eye on things up above. Things went reasonably well until May 1st, this is a day the Russians celebrate no matter what and so it was here. They had plenty of Vodka and one of the officers called us together and explained that he would not be responsible for the troops as after the years of hardships and fighting the soldiers would not be denied their celebration.
Needles to say the drink led to looking for women, they tried to get down to us in the cellar but were prevented by a Russian woman soldier who didn’t hesitate to brandish her gun at them. But little did they care. They managed to get hold of some young women and it is just possible that these young women weren’t all that opposed to the attention they were getting. The tragic thing was, the next morning when we thought they had all got over their drunken orgy and were sleeping it off, one of them, quite a young man, came out and stopped the first woman he saw, which happened to be my Mother. Needles to say, she didn’t argue with the pistol he was holding toward her, she really had no choice but to go with him.
A day out in town.
So sadly she was one of many who were raped at gun point. She was lucky in as much that he didn’t beat her or do any other ghastly thing to her. She told me all about it years later and I still think it must have been terrible and that she was very brave. She told me too, that she thought at the time if she didn’t go with him he might have come after one of us girls.
Gradually things settled down again and the day came when the Russian troops decided to travel on. Boy, were we glad to see them go. I must mention though how helpful our Polish friend George had been, he seemed able to converse with them and saved our skin many a time. As he had lost his own parents he looked upon my Mother as ‘mum’ and she quite liked that.
When the last of the soldiers had gone we all came out of our hiding places in the cellar and went outside. As I had mentioned, the hostel was situated in the middle of a wood, you may imagine our surprise when we went into the woods and found all sorts of goods which the soldiers had stolen from the nearby village shops, used and dumped here. It was like walking into a fairy tale and you will understand when I tell you some of the things we found; about a dozen pedal cycles leaning against trees a large linen basket full of stale bread, lots of ladies clothes draped on bushes and household linen just about everywhere. We even found a dead cow, goodness knows why they had killed it because it wasn’t touched.
Well, we all searched amongst all these goodies and took what we fancied, for myself it was a bike. Soon after all these happenings we decided it was time to go back home to see how things were there. Some how George managed to find a small cart to which he harnessed the one and only horse there was at the hostel. We loaded our few belongings and off we went taking George with us. It seemed now quite unthinkable, after all he had done for us, to go off without him.
As we trundled along the country lanes we met lots of other people, some on foot some with carts, some with wheelbarrows, all making in the same direction. They must originally all have come from Berlin one would suppose. Also along the way we occasionally came across scattered Russian soldiers still handling stolen goods, some with bikes they didn’t even know how to ride. But it gave everyone watching a laugh when they fell off.
And so we eventually arrived back home where our Father was delighted to see us back again, but, our apartment had been used as a sort of headquarter by some Russians who did not even understand some of the household gadgets like a sunken sewing machine, they just couldn’t understand what it was. Some of our records were trodden into the carpet, my Parent’ s twin beds were torn apart and one half thrown out into the garden. Happily the main items of furniture were in quite reasonable condition.
My Father had to act as some sort of caretaker come butler for them but at least it gave him the chance of keeping an eye on the apartment. By the time we had arrived home the Russians had left and Father managed to get the place cleaned up. When we got around to looking about the immediate neighbourhood we found some of the people we knew quite distressed. We heard stories of rape and pillage and it made us realise how lucky we had been at the hostel. Apparently the Russian soldiers here too had been drinking and celebrating until they were senseless and then went looking for women.
My Grandad (second left) in Berlin, 1946.
One or two young girls I had known quite well were repeatedly raped and assaulted. One of them was so badly affected that she had to stay permanently in a home, the other one carried on with life but it left a deep scar. Although my own Mother had been raped, we were still lucky in as much that it was by only one man, some women had suffered the attentions of up to 10 men. One cannot imagine what this must be like as love and affection had nothing to do with this sort of experience.
Well, gradually we got our live’s back to some sort of normal again. Dad got himself a new job as driver for a small local firm, I was by now old enough to look for a job and became a lift attendant in large office block belonging to the British Control Commission of Germany. Now this might seem funny as I had office training but everyone wanted jobs with either the British, French or Americans. They were the nations represented in three corners of Berlin and took control at that time, East Berlin came under the Russians and we didn’t envy them. In the west, by working for the Western Allied Forces it usually meant meals of sorts were provided. At least the Western Forces brought affluency with them. Our own shops were empty, so far nothing had got back into their stock and if on the occasional days there was run our of potatoes having arrived at the greengrocer people would be queuing by first light of day! We were glad to have the allied troops there and never forget the help of the American air lift bringing general food items by the plane load to Berlin.
Life began to throb in the town again. Food wasn’t plentiful but gradually things did begin to appear. Dance halls and Cafes were open again for the young folk of which I was one of them. And of course, we got to know our Allied Forces! They were everywhere and hungry for female company. Friendships were soon struck up and Berlin once more became the city where it all goes on! Quite a few young West German people came to Berlin for the bright lights. Having been deprived of the lighter and brighter side of life and some grown up during the war years, they were making up for it now.
Returning from a Birthday party one evening in summer 1947 I met Peter, my future Husband, he had offered me a lift home but we walked and talked instead and arranged to meet again. From then on we had a wonderful time together. We seem to get on very well from the start and although my English was non-existent, somehow we managed to converse. (A good way of picking up a language). We met as often as we could and did all the sort of things young friends do. We visited the Cinema, Theatre, even the Opera, as Peter was very fond of classical music. Through him I also learned to appreciate Beethoven, Mozart, Puccini etc. etc. and have never stopped.
We were becoming very fond of one another and my family liked Peter very much too so it came as a shock when Peter was told that his regiment was being transferred to somewhere in West Germany. This meant we would have to be parted for the first time but we promised to write to each other. Unlike a lot of Romances that finish as soon as the lovers are parted, we really did write to each other, every day! This was quite a laugh really because the post office was not working properly yet so it was arranged our letters would be forwarded by the British Forces Mail.
Part 2 of Form EE/231.
Each day I would come home from work and the first question would be: is there a letter for me? On the days no letter reached me I was really sad but to make up for it there might be several the next day. My Father being a bit of a clown and a tease would sometimes tell me that there was no letter and when I walk into the living room he had them all strung up on the curtains! with my limited knowledge of English, I am quite proud of myself having written all those love letters. Peter said they were o.k!
During this period Peter came to Berlin on short leave several times and during one of those visits we got engaged, spending part of that day at the Cinema and can you believe the title of the film was: “Great Expectations”! We were both so happy and nothing could have spoiled our happiness except the day we were to part once more. This time it was to be for a little longer because Peter was due to be demobbed from the Army and had to stay with his Regiment until then. But with a constant exchange of letters, time soon passed. In any case, once it was agreed all round that Peter and I would marry I was busy getting all sorts of documents, which were required, signed and approved. In the midst of all the happy preparations for my coming journey to a new Land and a new Life the terrible news reached us that the Russian Authorities had closed all borders leading to Berlin.
On the face of it, there was no getting out of the city. My heart sank and of course Peter was worried as can be because there was lilterally nothing that we could do ourselves. But each day. I went to the British Authorities in Berlin where I was told that something would be sorted out, the Russians had no right to isolate Berlin in this way. This is were the American Air Force stepped in with their air lifts. Eventually one day, I was told to assemble along with others at an agreed place from where we would be taken by coach to West Germany, Hannover. I was over the moon and after a tearful farewell from my family I boarded the coach and off we went not quite knowing what awaited us at Hannover. But I should have known better than to doubt the organising abilities of the British Army. The journey had not gone without it’ s drama however. At Helmsted, a small town where we crossed the Russian border or should I say East German border, we were stopped by Russian soldiers and told to get out of the coach. It was then thoroughly searched and it drove to the other side of the checking point. We were asked to go into a small hut to have our papers checked, all the time the Russian soldiers were brandishing their guns in our direction. This was nerve wracking and some women started to cry in fear.
When it was my turn, the soldier inspecting my papers started arguing over my Christian name and I got really worried. In the end he said I could go but would not give me back my Birth Certificate. But at last we were on our way again. After a couple of nights at a transit camp in Hannover we travelled on to the Hook of Holland where we boarded a large ship. Once aboard, we really realised for the first time that we were leaving our homeland for good. When I say ‘we’ I mean a small group of young women who were all going to England to get married and we all became travelling companions, we were literally all in the same boat!
The night time crossing went reasonable uneventful, some people were sick and kept to the lower deck. I was up by the rails looking out into the night, too excited to sleep I suppose. I remember one of the crew trying to teach me the values of all the different British coins. This was quite tricky for me as I was used to decimal coinage, so I was somewhat puzzled how 12 pence could make 1 shilling!
Papers to a new life.
I spent some of the English money I was given in the ship’ s shop not really realising if I was getting value for money or not but at that time I didn’t really care. In the chilly morning we arrived at Harwich and only had to wait a short time to wait for the train bound for Liverpool street station. Once on the train I was beginning to get really hungry and used the last of my English money to buy breakfast, secretly hoping that I had enough to cover the bill. I was very interested in the passing countryside and found that it didn’t really look so much different from my home country. We were getting nearer to London, I could tell by the way various people were getting fidgety. So I got my things together too and all of a sudden a great fear got hold of me. Will Peter be there to meet me as promised? will he spot me before I get lost in the crowd? Will I recognise him in his civilian clothes?
All these questions suddenly worried me but I needn’t have done. As soon as the train moved into the station I was by the door and I had hardly opened it and looked out on the throng of people, we spotted each other. How lovely to be met by such a happy, smiling face! When we got near to each other we just fell into each other’s arms . After the first excited meeting we left my luggage at the station and proceeded to find a cosy little Cafe to have some coffee and cakes. This was a real luxury to me, coffee and cakes having been so scarce in Germany. So we were able to chat and I took in my first impression of London. Peter hailed a taxi to take us to his home and on this journey I had my first nerves, meeting my intended Mother in Law!
But I needn’t have worried. When we arrived I was met by this dear, white haired old lady, Peter’s Mother, her cheeks flushed from recent cooking. She had been busy preparing lunch for us all. As Peter’s Mother was so much older than my own Mother, she seemed like a Grannie to me and this helped me warm to her. Later, as the rest of the family, Peter’s Father and Sister, came home to lunch we were able to gradually get to know each other a little. This was the start of a relationship which had to be good as we had all got to live together for some time. The housing situation was such that there was no hope of immediate accommodation. But luckily, we all got on well together and Peter’ s Parents were kind enough to give us a room to ourselves which we turned into a little love nest.
Here our fist Son was born just over a year later. We did try so hard to get accommodation but nothing doing. Because of the great London slum clearance scheme we went right down to the bottom of the housing list. So the years went by, we were very happy, we all got on alright but because of the circumstances we couldn’t really have any more children. In spite of our good relationship we wanted to have a home of our own and a bit more privacy, which, living with other members of a family was sadly lacking. So, after some nine years Peter looked around for a job with the idea of having living accommodation provided. He was very lucky to get a job in Welwyn Garden City, where we moved as soon as all matters were finalised.
A letter from passport control.
Here we settled in very quickly and were a happy little family, in a nice house which we had offered to share with Peter’s Mother since his Father had died a few years earlier, and all should have been well. But then came the day when Peter started feeling under the weather and gradually became more and more depressed. Things improved after Peter was put on some drugs for depression but after a while they did not seem to have the same effect and Peter became depressed again. Eventually he had to enter the mental hospital in St. Albans and his stay there was quite lengthy and after that repeatedly from time to time.
This lead to him being retired from his job, as they could not hold it open for any longer after months of absence. I think they were really being kind to us. In any case it had worried Peter. Being on a much lower income now we had to do some thinking. The family had offered to have Peter’s Mother anyway because the Doctors felt there was a connection between his relationship with her and his illness. This decided us move to another, cheaper rented house. Of course it was smaller and Stephen had to change school but we soon re-adjusted.
Before the move to the new house our little Martin was born, we were all delighted, although Peter was in hospital at the time. Stephen was so pleased to have a little Brother to protect and he never once showed any jealousy toward Martin. I suppose as he was already 11 years old he was able to cope with this new situation. Stephen now went to the local Grammar school to which he had passed a scholarship and we were very proud of him. Martin was a lovely baby with beautiful golden curls of which many girls would have been proud of. I was often stopped in the street as I pushed the pram, for admiration from complete strangers.
After some months of trial and error with treatment by various drugs, the doctors had a discussion with us to explain the possibilities of brain surgery. This was decided on in the end as there did not seem anything else left for the doctors to try. Peter had the operation and recovered fairly quickly. We did not however notice any change in him. We had hoped for so much. One or two more severe symptoms had been removed but Peter was still left with the depression, for it did not take long after the operation before it started again. So we were more or less back to square one. During the following years Peters illness was finally diagnosed as Manic Depression. There were times when he was so severely depressed that he tried to commit suicide on a number of occasions. There were times of very bad tempers, lack of interest in anything, music, outings, the family, even himself.
This led to him neglecting personal hygiene and things would get so bad from time to time that he had to be back in hospital. And so the years went by, the boys grew up. Stephen missing the once so loving Dad who had turned grumpy and disinterested and Martin who had never really known his Father any different. I often think and hope that I have made up to them for the lack of having an attentive Father, although they both understand that Peter cannot help himself. We all realise and accept that this is an illness like any other, only harder to understand and to live with.
Letter from the visa section.
More from the passport control.
During the years I had taken the children to Germany for a visit, (we could not afford for all of us to go) and my Parents were delighted to see their Grandchildren. I got in the habit of going to visit once a year and as the boys grew up I eventually went on my own. By now I had got myself an office job in a local firm and this helped with our finances which enabled us for Peter and I to travel to Germany together and this we both enjoyed very much.
We used to visit various towns we wanted to see and each Spring I visited my Parents on my own. This worked out very well. Peter was very good in letting me go off on my own, he never minded and understood that I liked to see my Parents at least once a year. They were very dear to me and when my Father retired, they moved to a little village in Bavaria. This was really lovely and what my Mother had always dreamed of, getting out of the big town. She really liked the countryside and it was lovely in their little village with farms and woods all around. Sadly, my Father didn’t live long enough to enjoy it all for very long. After he died my Mother got very lonely, village people were very kind but she didn’t really have any friends, it takes years for outsiders to be fully accepted into a village. It was only a year later that she had a stroke and died in the local hospital. As luck would have it, I was able to spend a week with her just before, little knowing it would be the last time I was to see her alive. I treasure the memory of that week, we were so happy together, she was glad to have my company and I enjoyed hers, going shopping together visiting Father’s grave and generally having a very nice time together.
Now my spring visits stopped and Peter and I went alternate years to Berlin, where we saw my Sister and the between years we continued holidays in Germany general. We did this in spite of his depressions, always hoping these trips might take him out of himself but most holidays were spoiled to a certain extend by his varied moods. It always took him at least two days to settle after each journey. But all the same we went each year. Now the time has come where he told me that he just cannot cope with trips abroad any more but made it quite clear that he doesn’t mind my going to see my Sister each year.
So, most of the time we accept the way things are, Stephen has in the meantime married and has a Son of his own, whom he adores. Martin too is married now and lives in Canada. He met his Canadian wife here in college and they make a very happy couple. No children as yet, but who knows, they are both enjoying their jobs and life in general.
This is as far as my story goes. I know that both my Boys are settled in their lives and Peter and I carry on with ours as best as we can always trying to cope with the ever-present illness. After all past problems during which our love has been tested numerous times, Peter and I are still together and hopefully gradually drift side by side into old age.
Helga in the early 1970’s