My English family came from Sussex, though we’re supposed to have Huguenot blood via my grandmother’s family. One of my great-great grandmothers was a blacksmith!
On my mother’s side, the family come from Silesia, or Slask, as it’s nowadays called. After World War 2 most of its German inhabitants were expelled and replaced with people who had been expelled from the Polish Ukraine. This was a deal that Churchill did with Stalin and Roosevelt: Poland would lose the Ukraine, but would get Silesia, and the inhabitants would be moved out. It caused enormous suffering and many deaths to all the people involved in this displacement.
But before all that happened, my German grandfather (Opa) was born in a small village called Giersdorf in the Riesengebirge, nowadays called the Krkonose mountains, and his father was a smallholder and the village postman. Here’s great-grandfather in uniform, with his family. My grandfather is the one with the poodle bow. My rather scary looking grandmother, sadly, died of tuberculosis not long after the photograph was taken.
My German grandmother (Omi) was born in Upper Silesia, which was and remains an important and very polluted industrial area, and I think her father was the manager of a steelworks – he was definitely better-off than my grandfather’s family. Her mother also died of tuberculosis, when she was seven years old; so did two of her sisters. Two brothers were killed in the First World War. One had his head blown off at the battle of Verdun, something that haunted my mother’s nighmares, when she was a child. Omi had a Polish maiden name, as have many Germans from the East, and I remember that she spoke some Polish, though she was ethnic German. I think she must have met Opa when he came to work in Upper Silesia as a policeman. Here’s my mother with a friend, when she was a baby
When Hitler came to power, my grandfather was in enormous trouble because he’d belonged to a social-democrat police association, and had refused to join a Nazi one. He was scheduled for demotion, but it might easily have been worse. My grandmother told me that Party women would come round to the house and say to her: ‘You’re scum. You’ll end up in concentration camp.’ Most people who ended up in concentration camp in those days never came out alive. I used that story in Last Train from Kummersdorf. In the end, my grandfather tried to shoot himself, but my grandmother stopped him. She put on her best clothes and went off to see an important person, and my grandfather was spared. After that his career did rather well, but my grandmother attempted suicide and she was never the same again. To the end of her life she suffered from severe depression.
My mother remembered being taunted about her mother, and how people told her she should be sterilised because she had ‘bad blood.’ She was always afraid, every time Omi was hospitalised, that she might be murdered in the hospital – as well she might have been, since when she was really ill she spoke freely about her loathing for Hitler. I can remember her telling me that he was Antichrist.
My grandfather went to work in Graz, Austria, when Germany annexed Austria (the Austrians were largely delighted). It was there that my parents met and fell in love, when my father was there with the British Army – he was in the medical corps.
After my father went back to England, local Nazis wanted to shave my mother’s head, and she and her mother had to move. Later they were sent back to Germany, where my grandfather was working as a policeman in Cologne, but when they arrived, they found out he had been arrested. He’d been accused of war crimes, but finally he was released. When my father left, he had no idea when (if ever) German women would be allowed to come to England and marry British men, but a year later my mother came to him in London and they had their wedding. Their marriage was very happy and my mother contributed much to her new home through her job (she was a teacher).