In old family photographs I sometimes catch a glimpse of her: a stolid, middle-aged woman always in the background or at the margins. All that remains of her life now is in a small cardboard box in my sister’s attic: some papers, postcards, photographs, a bible. This is Gertrud.
Tante Trude, as we called her, was a fixture of my childhood. In summer we accompanied her into the woods to pick berries. In winter she let us ride on her small hand cart as she gleaned pine cones and twigs for firewood. She helped at harvest time, raking hay, picking hops and digging up potatoes, usually relegated to doing the simplest tasks along with us children.
Gertrud loved us and we took her for granted, as children often do. How fortunate we must have seemed to her: growing up in a time of peace and safety, with education open to us, our carefree adolescence, our freedom to decide our future. My sister Anna was the one she loved most, treasuring her postcards and photographs, proud as a mother of her achievements.
Born in 1911 in Breslau – now Polish Wroclav – then the capital of the province of Lower Silesia and a prosperous, picturesque city, Gertrud grew up during the First World War. Her family were landless peasants, she a plain girl and a slow learner. She left school at 15 and worked in factories or as a maid.
Sometime in the early 1950s Gertrud and her aunt and uncle arrived in our village in Bavaria. Refugees from the expulsions of ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania, nine million in all, were flooding into every town and village in West Germany.
In 1944 Hitler declared the city of Breslau a fortress against the advancing Russian army and in January 1945, in the middle of an icy winter, ordered the civilian population to leave. Gertrud accompanied her elderly aunt and uncle on this march, while her mother and sister were due to follow a few days later. She would never see them or her hometown again.
Sometime in the early 1950s Gertrud and her aunt and uncle arrived in our village in Bavaria. Refugees from the expulsions of ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania, nine million in all, were flooding into every town and village in West Germany. Even our tiny hamlet of a dozen farms saw the arrival of three families.
There was a small, two-room cottage on our farm where Gertrud lived and cared for her aunt and uncle. It had earthen floors, no running water, and her room was tiny and unheated, with just a single bed and a dresser for her few belongings. On the wall was one small picture of two women, her only photograph of her mother and sister. The native villagers, still traumatised by the war, treated the new arrivals with reserved kindness accorded to those whose suffering surpassed their own. But they remained outsiders, ‘refugees,’ their lost world and its memories of little meaning to those around them.
After her aunt and uncle died in the mid-1960s it was decided that Gertrud should live with my widowed uncle, in another village, as his companion and housekeeper. With no family and only a tiny refugee pension, what choice did she have? So she swapped one damp old cottage for another much the same and the company of uncle Adam, a good-natured man, but simple, with a gruff and insensitive manner. He made fun of Gertrud’s strong Silesian accent, her cooking, her clumsiness. She talked of Breslau more and more, and wept.
She never stopped searching for her mother and sister, faithfully studying the lists of names and photographs published by the Red Cross, who had taken on the gargantuan task of trying to reunite families separated during the chaotic flight westward at the end of the war. Most likely they were among the many who died in the bitter cold during those long marches, or they may have made it to Dresden, only to die in the bombing and firestorms of that city a few weeks later.
It was my sister’s name she called at the end, over and over, as she lay semi-conscious in a hospital bed, dying of a cancer diagnosed too late. But Anna, away at university by then, came too late. Gertrud had fallen into unconsciousness and died that night, alone, at the age of 66.
Of those who live through the maelstrom of history’s monstrous and momentous events, some land on their feet. They get crushed yet pick themselves up again. But there are also the Gertruds, survivors whose lives become forever broken by displacement and loss. They are too damaged to pick up the pieces, not tough enough or able enough. When I look at the news now, with its endless footage of war and human misery, among the streams of refugees carrying bundles, among the bewildered or resigned faces in refugee camps, I can always see Gertrud.
Photograph by Raymond Deane
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