The neat thing about growing up with your grandma looking after you is that you hear a lot of stories. Like, a LOT of stories. Sometimes I feel like I know her life back then as well as I know my own. There are stories I have heard a million times but every once in a while, between these familiar stories, a new one is intertwined. Such a thing happened today over Sunday lunch with my Granny and it pulled at my heartstrings like whoa.
Hilde was a childhood friend of my Gran, they went to school together, grew up together, later they got married around the same time, had families of their own, their husbands were friends with each other; everything was connected. I knowingly met Hilde once and she was this sweet old lady. I went to camp with one or two of her grandchildren once but I also know about her childhood.
I can’t remember how many siblings she had, but it was at least one younger brother. Her mother died young, leaving the family in her husbands care, only he went crazy. Maybe he was always that way and it only got worse or he had some kind of illness. My Gran’s memory doesn’t extend to that sort of knowledge as she was still a kid back then herself. Anyway, he started to wander around and Hilde had to go look for him. Then one day, the Nazis took him away and sent him to Hadamar where he was put in a gas chamber. Hilde only got a letter saying he died of appendicitis, which was obviously a lie. Even my Gran knew it back then but of course, my great grandfather was not very loyal to Hitler which might have made her see things more critical.
Hilde’s family was extremely poor, even more so after her father was killed. She survived because of the generosity of the people around her. Neighbours gave them food as well as they could. Some bread here, a little bit of soup there. I can’t imagine what it must have been like, especially since she was not much more than a child herself. In all of this, knowing (or maybe not wanting to really know) how her father was treated by the Nazis, she was an avid member of the BDM (Bund Deutscher Mädel) which was the female equivalent of Hitler Youth. Back then, every girl was involved in that organisation but you could choose to what extend. My Gran was a member, sure, but she mostly attended so she would not rouse suspicion. Hilde on the other hand was all in, she went to fancy retreats with the BDM and whatnot.
Granny said, she could never understand why Hilde chose to do that after everything that happened. Maybe she was just trying to protect herself, to not rouse suspicion, after all her father was killed in a death chamber because he was allegedly crazy. Personally, I think it is because this was her escape, she could stop being the poor girl when she was treated as someone special and promising along the BDM ranks. I guess I will never know the full truth. It was a very confusing time to understand as a whole.
Why I am telling you all this is because today, my Gran had lilacs on the table and they were beautiful. We talked a lot until she mentioned Hilde, poor old Hilde. She died years ago and I was sad when I heard because even though I hardly met her, I knew her from all those stories I was told growing up. Hilde married her husband in the winter, it was probably the late 40s or early 50s and the only thing she wanted was her bridal bouquet to have lilacs in it. Now this was still a bad time all over Germany. Most places were destroyed during the war and had to be rebuilt, there was no infrastructure like there is today and you could not easily have lilacs in the dead of winter but somehow her husband managed to get those lilacs for her and he said: “Hilde had a lot of nothing growing up, so she should at least have lilacs for her wedding.”
This made me cry for the woman I hardly knew but do know. It makes me cry even more tying it out right now. Sweet, kind Hilde. They are tears of mixed feelings. (Shut up, I’m a girl, if I don’t have mixed feelings, I’m probably sick.) I felt happy because she found a man who loved her enough to give her lilacs even though it must have been quite the hassle finding them back then. I felt sad because of the terrible childhood this woman must have had and how difficult growing up during World War II must have been in general but especially so when your father gets killed by the Nazis. And through all of it, Hilde remained one of the sweetest women according to my Gran. She got to lead a rich, good life after that, had children and grandchildren and died of old age.
I can’t help but think of all the other children who grew up under similar circumstances back then for I know, Hilde hardly was alone in her destiny. Children still grow up like that, maybe without Nazis, but that’s just semantics. I marvel the strength of those women.
And I’m sorry veterans, you may have fought to protect your countries but women like Hilde are their own kind of heroes and not to turn this into too much of politics but we need feminism because stories like Hilde’s must be told and recognised as well. Women are amazing creatures who, for too many years, lived in the shadows of men, not being recognised as to how truly astounding they are.
I love my Grandma for enriching my life with these stories. I hated history in school because it is so clinical. Hitler gets elected, builds an army, invades Poland, then France and Russia. The allies strike back, blah blah blah. My knowledge of WW2 is Granny hiding from planes on the fields when they were cutting grass. It is her seeing a wounded soldier die (I’m not sure if he really died). Of thinking she won’t live past the age of eleven. Spending too many nights in the bunker. My great grandmother letting prisoners of war hide in their cellar because those people were not allowed in the bunker and the cellar was better than nothing. Of tracing a map my great grandfather took from work so they could know where exactly the planes with bombs were when they were announced over the radio. Of my great grandmother taking her newborn son out of the bunker for as much time as possible because the darkness and cold damp air was not good for the young boys lungs and too many kids his age died during that time. I could go on and on and I know this only covers the horrors on this side of the war but it is personal to me. All of it is part of who I am, what shaped my growing up. I guess the only thing I can do for Hilde and for our society in general is share these stories so they can live on even after the people died because it means they are not forgotten. They life on in words on pages or the internet like this one.