|Hamburg in ruins (Image via Wikipedia)|
When I wrote to the employment office in
to find work, I was offered the choice between working in a department store and finding my own accommodation, or as a nursing orderly in a council care home, with a room provided in the nurses’ hostel. I chose the latter and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I arrived in early March a shy and rather unworldly girl and left for Hamburg in mid-June, having grown up more than I would have thought possible in three months, thanks to the work I had done and the people I had met while doing it. France
The first few weeks of work passed in a blur of new surroundings, people, language, and a demanding 47-hour working week, which left me exhausted by the end of my shift at 7pm. Gradually, however, I adjusted to the routine, learned names and faces and started to make sense of the local accent and dialect.
As I did so, personalities began to emerge, first among my colleagues, who were kindness itself to this young foreigner, then among the residents, most of whom were fascinated, and indeed charmed, to have “eine junge Engländerin” (an English girl) changing their beds, dishing up their food, and later feeding, washing and caring for the more incapacitated among them.
Forty-six years on, when I think back to those days, three in particular of those residents still come vividly to mind – their names, their faces and, above all, what I learned from them.
The first I only knew for a very short time, as she died on Good Friday, only a month after my arrival. Her name was Frau Kaakschlief and she was totally paralysed, so that we had to do everything for her. In constant pain from dreadful bed-sores, which nothing seemed to alleviate, helpless and increasingly weak, she still managed to summon up the most beautiful smile and a whispered “Danke” whenever anyone did her the slightest service.
I came on duty that Good Friday morning to find my colleagues in tears. Frau Kaakschlief had died in the night, and though none of us could have wished her back, we missed her dreadfully and I doubt any of us ever forgot her smile, her patient courage and her amazing dignity.
The second was Frau Fliege and I remember her, not for her words, for she could no longer speak, but for the harsh injustice of the illness which had reduced her to this state. She was in the last stages of tertiary syphilis, caught from her soldier husband during or after the war, and undiagnosed until it was too late to avoid the worst this dreadful disease can do. As I sat by the bed to feed this tiny, bird-like figure, or helped to change her and her bedding with monotonous regularity, I learned a great deal about the unfairness of life, but also about the deep humanity of my colleagues, who treated even this shell of a woman with unfailing care and respect. I was growing up very fast.
The third unforgettable resident was totally different. She could definitely speak, and did so with great humour, considerable intelligence and a wide experience and understanding of life and human nature. Her name was Frau Vagt, but she was known universally as Oma or Granny Vagt.
Oma Vagt was a short, strong, stocky woman, with a broad face and even broader grin, who had worked hard all her life, and though by then over 80, went on working because she wanted to. By the time we day-shift workers came on duty at 7am, Oma would be up and busy in the ward kitchen, sorting out individual coffee pots for everyone’s breakfast. Later she would help with the washing-up and would have helped with the cleaning too, if we had let her.
Every afternoon I had a two-hour break in my twelve-hour shift and quite often would go to Oma’s room (shared with 3 others) and chat with her. She loved company, was a born raconteuse and enjoyed nothing more than an opportunity to reminisce about life in
before, during and after the war. Finding in me a very willing listener, she was in her element and we spent many happy hours together. Hamburg
One unforgettable afternoon the conversation turned to the wartime bombing of
. Back then Oma and her family had run a dairy in a working-class area near the docks, called Rothenburgsort. In late July 1943 the Allies launched a massive bombing raid on Hamburg which culminated in the deadly firestorm that totally destroyed the docks and the surrounding areas, and killed and injured tens of thousands of people. Hamburg
On that sunny spring day Oma described to me how everyone in her street had had to make a fateful decision that night - whether to shelter in the cellars under their homes or try to escape to surrounding areas which were being less heavily bombed. As she put it to me very starkly “Those who left, lived. Those who stayed, died.” She and her family made a run for it, as did a few others in her street. When they went back after the fires were finally extinguished, it was to find that their homes, their friends and neighbours, indeed their entire district, had disappeared.
Shocked and horrified, I sat by Oma’s bed and listened to her telling her story quite simply and unselfpityingly, with no note of anger or hatred or reproach in her voice. This was what happens in war, her attitude said, and it didn’t prevent us becoming friends across all the barriers of language and nationality, of age and experience, which could so easily have divided us. This lesson in tolerance and acceptance sank in deeply and has in part moulded the person I now am.
Three elderly women, in a different country and in what is now a different age. Three women whose names and faces are indelibly engraved on my memory and who between them taught me lessons I still treasure and try to live by, not so much because of what they said or did, as because of who and what they were.
Three unforgettable women....