On a Wednesday and a Friday every week, they would visit their grandmother’s beautiful home in the suburbs – big enough for a family, but she was all alone. As they approached on the winding path to the grand front door, she watched them with an inscrutable expression, hunched in a corner rocking chair that nicely faced the picturesque view from the living room window. A portrait of their great grandfather stood proudly above the fireplace with his smart uniform and badges and a moustache like a furry flag across his upper lip. They both waited, father and daughter, as if equally frozen in history, until the sounds of excited children filled the room.
Deep down she felt guilt knowing that she would soon burst their bubble of childhood happiness, taint their innocence the way her father had hers. Amalia had contemplated this for months. And now she finally had them with her again, perhaps she shouldn’t ruin their visit. But no. It was time. Her girlhood choices had torn the family apart for too long. The children needed to understand their family history. And their mother would return from the shops soon, meaning she only had one hour.
As she began to talk, four children sat and listened attentively to a story that would forever change them. The fire place had a low flame and a soothing sound of crackling along with the cosy heat. She sat a far distance from the fire; the sun still shone brightly through the window adding heat to the room. Nanny almost sounded scared as she said in a low tone “My father, your great grandfather, was a very bad man.”
Karlsruhe was a beautiful city. It was the year 1939, unusually warm for the late autumn season that year. The great buildings stood tall and had German patriotism written all over them. Neatly decorated with red, yellow and black flags, each colour represented German values of strength and boldness. Not even a hint of white: they would never surrender. Behind those walls was the power to win the war. Behind those walls people were methodically and carefully prepping a war that they were going to win. These weapons were soon to make history. A history that had an even darker counterpart. The camps. One was located many miles away near the communications tower in the suburb of Grünwettersbach. Also, and conveniently, the location of her family’s holiday home.
Amalia wore the same cute pink bow in her voluminous curls every day and a smart lace-hemmed dress that flowed around her knees. Everyone knew when Amalia was up and out of bed because you would hear the clickity clack of her heels as she pranced down the stairs of her family’s beautiful suburbian mansion. She greeted people that crossed her path in her usual polite manner, “Guten morgen!”
What a happy child she was, but with so little childhood. She had that rare blend of innocence and knowing that only the child of a war criminal could. Not that she knew everything of course.
Each day she would watch him go about the house, wearing a dark grey boxy uniform that really accentuated his fiercely broad shoulders. Amalia’s father always carried a stern intimidating expression as if he were incapable of smiling. Except of course when he looked at Amalia. She was his everything, a fact he constantly reminded her of. And while she had always looked closely at each of his badges, she never actually knew what any of them were for. It must be something important that daddy does, Amalia wondered. She knew her father was responsible for many deaths of those awful Jewish people. The ones who were a danger to her.
But somehow, something inside her was beginning to know. She would quiver on the inside every time her father closed the heavy doors to his Office, the room with the round oak table, on which rested a delicate miniature model of the prison that she found strangely frightening. Whenever she would hear the gunshots heavily ricochet around the hallways, an oppressing silence creeped through the house. No one would make eye contact and not a single word or sound left the trembling mouths of the servants as they continued their chores with their heads down. Amalia would watch them intently for clues. Why were they not proud of Father’s work, as she had been taught to be? The fireplace blazing and crackling in the distance would be the only thing each time to bring her back to her senses…
They looked around at their Grandma’s childhood home, sitting by the same fireplace from the one in her story. The fire was beginning to grow, oozing more heat so the room was no longer cosy and rather more suffocating.
“Imagine flinching constantly because you lived in fear, caused by knowing what your father did.” They shook their heads in disbelief. How could great grand-pappy do that? The kindly looking man with the fluffy moustache in the painting they had hung in their own living room?
These were children of a different time. A kinder time. A time that had led their mother to hide the past from them. They sat up eagerly, intrigued yet nervous to know more.
Grandma sat directly facing the fire, close enough to make anyone nervous. The flames reflected on her face, which was stern with anger. The children looked at each other concerned, anticipating nanny’s next movement. Was she going to cry? They had never seen her cry. Or was she going to yell? None of them could tell.
“It was when I was 11 years old, around your ages my children, that the nightmares started, and I needed to make my choice.”
“Mother please don’t scare them with your stories. It really is not necessary.”
Four heads swivelled in sync. Their mother had returned. Amalia flinched and the sound of her daughter’s voice instantly drowned out her thoughts. Only then had she realised how dangerously close she was to the fire. Amalia instantly backed away and tried to gather her thoughts. She knew that her family forbid this story to be told. It was the only condition under which she had been allowed to see the children at all. But she had to. They needed to understand her past; they needed to hear the truth. So she found her voice, just as she had done many decades before. The voice of a fiery young girl who would not let lies rule her world.
Amalia remembered the first nightmare clear as day. She had had a usual day, no particular surprises. Heard a couple gunshots coming from the backyard; seen soldiers hurrying the Jews into the back of their trucks. Acts of horror that were cloaked in the lie of normalcy.
But everything was changed forever the moment Amalia saw a girl that looked just like her.
She stooped her head outside the window. She wore a dainty dress and the same cute pink bow in her curls that young Amalia had favoured. They must have been wealthy and bad, Amalia tried to convince herself until the soldiers separated her family forcefully. They sectioned her with what looked like her mother while her father struggled and fought to keep his family together. But the more he tried to make his way towards his family he was severely beaten. And when the soldier turned around, to her very disbelief, Amalia saw her father.
His next actions would burn her soul.
It was that night that the truth visited her, to show her what she could not see before. Showing her what she had to do.
“In the distance a bomb had just gone off. I was somewhere but it wasn’t Germany. I couldn’t put a location on it. Then barbed wires and people that dressed weirdly, they were numbered. Then I was in the middle of the battlefield except I was all alone and smoke surrounded me. Surely I must have been choking in my sleep at that point. I can still feel the way it hugged my lungs, squeezing me tighter and tighter, my brain unconsciously taking my will for oxygen. Then they came rushing towards me, the soldiers. They had bombed the Niederwalddenkmal and the central area of Karlsruhe and this house right here was next. I tried to wake myself up but I couldn’t; it was all too real and I was sure I would die. The next thing, I smelt a consuming fire and I remember it was intense. But only me and grandpappy were on fire. The fires began to blaze out of control and on the inside I could feel the burning sensation consuming my body.”
Amalia gulped heavily, although her lips were dry, and grasped at her throat as if it helped to rehydrate her body.
“Mother. I beg of you.”
“No my child. I was faced with a choice. And in a world of war, no choice is pure. Let them hear…”