Monday, October 6, 2014

Growing Up In West Germany, With One Parent From [REDACTED]

Growing up in West Germany, I frequently felt like I was living in "The Twilight Zone" - The pervasive, all-around cultural denial that there was anything at all wrong or even noteworthy about this divided Germany situation into which I had been born. Adults took it for granted. The division was presented as established history, fact and future in schools. There were no discussions about how long the division might last. The answer was obvious.

My peers weren't a lot of help, either. My parents had kids about 10-12 years later than average, which put me in school with people whose parents had just missed having personal memories of WWII. Mine weren't so lucky. Between them, they saw enough suffering, death and cruelty by age 20 to last a thousand lifetimes.The fact that both of them escaped those years with their lives is nothing short of extraordinary.

As a result of their wartime experiences, both my parents struggled with severe, undiagnosed and untreated PTSD throughout their adult lives. This made for some highly unusual childhood memories. Like the time when I was 5 and walked under a railroad overpass holding my mom's hand just as a train passed overhead. Suddenly, my mom was curled up in a fetal position on the sidewalk, terrified, wailing for the noise to stop. Or witnessing similar reactions when she would dive under the coffee table for cover when the sound of falling bombs suddenly came on TV. Another time I found her huddled in the farthest corner of the darkest basement room, her right hand frantically kneading the sand in a large sack next to her. My question "What are you doing, mommy?" went unanswered. My father, struggling with his own demons, dismissed these things as trivial. My peers couldn't relate and thought I was making things up. My extended family stubbornly adhered to the "Don't talk about the war" code of silence.

When she was 14, my mother lived through the firebombing of Dresden, a grand Eastern German city that she adored. She grew up in bohemian luxury with her parents and brothers until February 14, 1945, when wave after wave of white phosphorus incendiary bombs reduced the city to charred rubble, to horrific suffering and torturous death that would be compared to Hiroshima. With her brothers and father drafted into the war years earlier, my mom and grandmother fled their bombed-out home with only the clothes on their backs, in the middle of winter, for six long weeks, barely surviving on the kindness of strangers. From south east Germany, they walked hundreds of miles, always hiding from the advancing Red Army, to my hometown in the north west, where my grandmother had family.

The alarming behavior I had noted with much consternation as a child was caused by my mother being in Dresden when the bombs began to fall. As a constant reminder, she had a large scar on her arm where a chunk of white phosphorus stuck and burned deep into her flesh. In the months prior to the bombing, Dresden residents lived through many bomb alarms and drills. My mother told me how much she hated those because they seemed pointless; no bombs ever fell after the warnings. One of the measures Dresden residents took was to equip their basement rooms with large sacks of sand, since burning white phosphorus cannot be extinguished with water. During the two days and nights of bombardment that turned my mother's beloved city into unrecognizable rubble littered with charred corpses, my mom huddled with my grandmother in the corner of their basement, digging her right hand into a sack of sand over and over again in utter terror, hoping, praying that they would be spared, that the next wave of bombs wouldn't turn their hiding place into a fiery coffin.

I went to school with the same kids for nine years and did not come across a peer who had one parent from the West and the other with firm roots in what was then East Germany. Or anyone with a parent struggling with war-related post-traumatic stress. Or if they did, they didn't talk about it. The area of West Germany where I grew up was relatively untouched by WWII and it was easy to pretend the war hadn't changed Germany forever. There was no one I could go talk to about my deepening confusion. There were no support groups for "children of parents with severe PTSD". In fact, the term PTSD didn't even exist. It wasn't until the mid-80s, after I had earned my first psychology degree, that I began to comprehend the nature and scope of my parents' emotional wounds. 

My mother's PTSD also meant that Dresden was a non-topic while I was growing up. Just like she believed the Berlin Wall would never fall, she was convinced she would not see her city again, that it was forever lost to her. I quickly learned not to ask questions about Dresden, or about details of my mother's childhood there. When I did, the topic would invariably bring the worst trauma of her life to the surface, triggering overpowering emotions that distressed her and confounded me.

Once unimpeded travel became possible in late 1989, both my sister and I decided one of the very first things we needed to do was to visit Dresden with our mother. We did so a number of times in the years after Mauerfall. My first trip to Dresden came in late 1990, just after the first all-German elections and six months after the currency union.

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