Sometimes I struggle to separate my time in Freiburg from Germany’s past.
Every now and then – I’ll see how ‘white’ the city looks and I’ll think ‘Aryan’. I’ll come across German order and regulations and think ‘fascism’. I’ll hear a university choir singing Haydn, and think ‘Hitler Youth’.
I don’t like it when I draw these connections. It’s not at all fair.
Sitting in hipster cafés, understanding Freiburg’s support for refugees and being in an international university environment – the stereotypes don’t at all stack up with reality.
But even with all of the evidence right before my eyes, I do feel uncomfortable from time to time. It’s something I’ve felt particularly acutely in Berlin but it’s also a response to various German institutions. And it’s a different question that better answers why I am sometimes uneasy:
‘How did you end up in Freiburg?’
My response: ‘It wasn’t planned’ – it felt like a good study option and I knew there was a good swing dancing scene. On face value, it didn’t have anything to do with my own family connection to Germany, and subconsciously it probably had everything to do with that past.
In 1925, my Granny was born in Beuthen, Oberschlesien (Upper Silesia) – the last in a long stretch of generations. The city of now about 200,000 was a hub in a prosperous part of the Germany industrial economy and remains significant in Europe.
But look on the map, and you won’t find it.
Beuthen is Bytom and Silesia is part of Poland. These days, it’s closer to Hungary and Slovakia in a changed post-World War Two landscape.
Growing up, it wasn’t part of my history that I really connected with. In many ways, my own connection to Germany was overshadowed by the terrors of the Holocaust. It’s a history that naturally came back to my Granny and her sister having to flee ‘home’ as part of Kindertransport. It’s a history that came back to my Great Grandparents being killed at Auschwitz for their religion alone. I found it difficult to look past the personal impact of political horror.
With all of those apprehensions about the ‘German mentality’ under the surface, I definitely needed convincing to take up my offer to study in Freiburg.
What helped change that mindset was a lovely connection to the language. Right from Day One – I really enjoyed learning its sweet sound and logical nature.
Fundamentally, it gave me an insight into the language of one part of my past. A little piece of the soundtrack of Beuthen. an insight into the feel of conversations around the kitchen table and a stronger understanding of how my Granny saw the world.
Language is something which despite my family’s experience under the Nazi Regime, lives beyond the personal devastation. It was in German that they loved and cared for one another. In that language, music was enjoyed, books were devoured, businesses were established and life was celebrated. It’s in a handful of cherished written records that their voices still exist.
I needed that language over Easter. Not to speak it but to imagine. For now, Bytom is just shell of my Granny’s childhood. It’s unequivocally physically, linguistically and culturally removed from Germany. And when I was there three weeks ago, all I could do was imagine what it sounded like, what it felt like and how the city exchanges would have been.
I’m grateful for the support, stories and information which my Granny shared before embarking on a journey of the city. It was a special insight into how her childhood felt and the structure of family life.
Walking past her old school with her hand-written notes, swimming pools and following the routes of her daily walks was a deeply special experience. Against the back-drop the grey, black and creams of Schlesisch architecture and its sprightly squares – I could think of the adventures and misadventures of a playful and sporty childhood.
Without any doubt, the most moving part of the visit was seeing her old family home. Now significantly renovated and with a Polish Street name – quite incredibly, the original building is still there. To see the home full of happier memories and the basis of life’s adventures was spine-tingling.
Standing on the corner of the old Kant Straße, I could imagine my Great Grandfather, a magistrate, lost in thought over his different cases. I could imagine my Great Grandmother indulging her penchant for coffee and I could feel the potential for normalcy which so often gets lost in history.
Knowing that I would probably never be back, I took the moment to slowly to travel back in time. And it was there that I heard them all speaking, casual banter as my great grandparents were hurrying the children along for another day.
To hear their voices, to hear their language and to hear their hopes was an unforgettable experience. It was a beautiful reminder that beyond our history, or culture, religion and politics, that we’re all just humans getting along with whatever is in front of us.
I’m looking forward to the next time I see my 92-year-old Granny back in Melbourne, to share with her my experiences in her Heimat. To make sure she knows that her childhood, family and past won’t be forgotten and to tell myself that Germany and German are bigger than one part of history in one part of time.
(Kant Straße at Easter)