Friday, May 06, 2011

Lessons for life

Hamburg in ruins   (Image via Wikipedia)
Sixty-six years ago this weekend, on May 8th 1945, World War II came to an end in Europe. Twenty years later, as a very young 19 year-old, I was working in Hamburg, scene of some of the most devastating bombing of that war. I was spending six months abroad, first in Germany, then in France, to improve my spoken-language skills before taking up my place at Oxford University to read modern languages.

When I wrote to the employment office in Hamburg 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 France 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.

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 Hamburg 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.

One unforgettable afternoon the conversation turned to the wartime bombing of Hamburg. 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.

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....


  1. Wow, what a story! Both yours and theirs.... thank you for this moving reminiscence.

  2. What a powerful story and a lesson in how much we gain by being open to the lives of others. Beautiful.

  3. Gosh, that was quick, you two!

    Thanks, Penny and Broad, it was an amazing period in my life and I'm so grateful for what I experienced and learned.

  4. What a hugely poignant and moving glimpse of a part of your life and the impact on it of others' stories.
    We tend to forget, I think, that in war there are no winners.

  5. Thanks, Ray. You're right about there being no winners in war. The scars carried by both sides take a very long time to heal, but hopefully we can learn from them for the future.

  6. This is so very moving; I too intended to start with a 'wow' but was beaten to it - this has to be one of the most wonderful posts I have ever read. (And I've read a lot!) Thank you.

  7. What a lovely story. We have so much to learn from our elders, it's just a pity that such a gulf has grown up between the seniors and the young these days. As a student I worked in our local hospital, initially on the geriatric unit. I will never forget some of the people and characters I met

  8. What a lovely thing to say, Annie. Thanks so much. After all these years I'm still moved myself when I think of those women - so ordinary to the onlooker and yet so special.

  9. Thanks, Wylie Girl. I couldn't agree more with your comment. I've always enjoyed being with older people and it makes me angry to hear them being referred to so dismissively as wrinklies (and not only because I now qualify as one myself). Young and old could learn so much from each other, given the chance.

  10. Hello Perpetua:
    This is a most moving account of what clearly was a very impressionable time in your life. We could picture so clearly the three women and can imagine the impact which they had upon you then and, in some ways, continue to have to this day.

    The horrors of war are unspeakable and, so often we feel that nations seldom learn from history. But, what is always encouraging is the indomitable human spirit which, whatever fate determines, has a capacity to endure.

    Thank you so much for your comment on our recent post, to which we have replied.

  11. Hello Jane and Lance,and thank you for your commen. I completely agree that we seem very loathe to learn the lessons of history, but at least we can comfort ourselves that we managed to make friends and allies of our former enemies in Europe.

  12. I am so glad that you shared this moving story and these lives with us. My mother visited Germany as a teenager in the fifties and has only negative memories, so it is good to hear of more humane and constructive encounters. (I have good friends in Germany and love to visit them, but my mother finds that hard to cope with, sadly.)

    Also, it is very touching to hear about the attitudes of you and your colleagues to your patients. With my father-in-law in a care home, needing specialist round the clock care, I do sometimes wonder about the real attitudes of his carers. They seem a nice lot, including several young, sweet-natured women from Eastern Europe. I love to listen and learn from elderly friends and acquaintances, but I know that I could not do the work that these young carers do. May each of us find carers who can remember the humanity behind the symptoms, should our turn come to be dependent on the kindness of strangers.

  13. Dancing Beastie, I think many of our parents' generation found and still find it hard to look past what happened in the war. I knew people in my home village who couldn't understand how I could have a German penfriend (in Hamburg) and visit her, and also welcome her, after what Germany had done in the war. I simply said that since both she and I were born after the war and could bear no responsibility for what happened then, it was up to us to form new bonds of friendship with our former enemies.

    As far as those who work as carers is concerned, I don't know whether I was particularly lucky in the colleagues I worked with back then, but their attitude was just as I described. In two 3-month periods working there, I saw only gentleness, patience and a great deal of dedicated hard work. They were considerably older than me, but I became very friendly with two in particular and remained in contact with both for many years until they died.

  14. Thank you for writing this post...I do wonder if my mother would receive the same respect for her dignity if she could no longer look after herself.

    As for war, I agree with my father-s viewpoint..
    Let those who want war..politicians and those who pull their strings...get into an arena and get on with it.

    If it is, in any sense, a just war, then you can be sure that no politician will be pushing for it.

  15. Thanks, Fly. I very much hope your mother would get the same kind of treatment. I know there are some horror stories, but I really do want these to be the exception.

    Your father's viewpoint on war would get many people's vote. As well as politicians, I'd stick in the arena all those who profit from war (probably the string-pullers you refer to) as the thought of making money from others' suffering makes my gorge rise.

  16. Hi Perpetua,

    Firstly, may I add my endorsement of the positive remarks of your earlier commenters above. I found your post both facinating & moving.

    However, I do find the continued animosity of some British people towards Germany and the German people, as mentiomed by damcingbeastie in her comment & by you in your reply, so difficult to comprehend. Sadly, it it regularly perpetuated (no pun on your blogger name intended!) by the UK tabloid press, especially when England play football against Germany.

    Here in the Czech Republic, which suffered Nazi occupation from March 1939 until the last days of WW2 in May 1945, the 8th May is kept as the Liberation Day public holiday & wreaths are laid at memorials to those who died at the hands of occupying German forces. But there is no current animosity towards German people as my German wife has been very pleased to discover! Instead, German & Austrian tourists are warmly welcomed & Germany now ranks as the the Czech Republic's biggest export market & trading partner.

  17. Wow! What a powerful story, thank you for posting.

  18. Thank you for your kind remarks, Ricky. This was a very important part of my life as a young woman and I still look back very fondly to the experience.

    The people I referred to in my reply to Dancing Beastie were middle-aged when I was a young teenager 50 years ago. I can honestly say that I haven't had anyone express any anti-German sentiment to me since that time. It may be that knowing of my fondness for Germany and my German friends people have just kept quiet, but I really don't think so.

    The tabloid press are another matter and their lazy reliance on outdated stereotypes in this and many other areas frequently drives me to despair. Britain's being an island with a distant imperial past has a lot to answer for sometimes.....

    It's good to hear that your experience has been quite different in a country with much reason to feel distrust and even hatred of Germany and the Germans. There's a lot we could learn from their example.

  19. Thank you, wife of a curate. Some memories never fade as they are part of what makes us the person we are now and this is very true of this particular time in my life. It was also a surprisingly enjoyable experience, with much laughter and friendship among the sadness and difficulties.

  20. I was touched by your story. Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Thank you, Calina, and welcome to my blog. This was a very important time in my life and it's good to know that the post I wrote about it, well over a year ago, is still being read.


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