World War 2: Through the Eyes of a Child
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And now there was no patch of light from the street lamp to fasten my eyes on till morning. For adults it was a different story. My father was not called up because of his age and because he had not sight in one eye. How that man lived, never mind stayed sane I will never know. Bigger bombs and land mines were now in use. Because Liverpool was the first target there were no individual shelters available yet.
And for some reason our areas had no public shelters. Dad was proved right the night all our back windows were sucked out. The next day our next door neighbour left a note on her kitchen table for her husband, called a taxi, packed her bags and took her children to Llandudno for the duration. She wanted mother to go with her!!
I loved being there but mother hated it and arranged for her brother who still had the use of his car as he needed it for his business — he was a dentist — there was no petrol for ordinary civilian: their cars were up on brick in their garages with the wheels removed to take us to her own parents in Sale, near Manchester, leaving Dad at home alone. The war had finally broken their marriage.
How I hated my time in Sale and I missed my father. Then one night there was a landmine in the next street.
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We were living in a huge old manse — my grandfather was a semi retired Methodist minister. In the morning my grandmother went to o[pen a window and the handle came off in her hand. I remember the houses that had been cut in half — beds hanging from half-floors, the pretty wall paper still intact on one wall. Rationing started at this time and with it national identity numbers. I was told to remember mine and it is indelibly printed in my mind to the day NHWX May we finally went home and my parents decided to try again Mother became pregnant again.
She had neither the space, the money or the will to cope and had been banking on going back to teaching the minute my first sister was five — there were no nurseries in those days. Otherwise the shelter was obsolete. It had come too late. There was no more severe blitzing of Liverpool.
Schooling was still a problem so in January I was sent to the fee paying prep department of a local high school. How my parents scraped together the 3 guineas a term I shall never know. The rationing and the queues were terrible. Shopping was one of my chores.
My poor mother, hearing that potatoes were going to be scarce, ordered a whole sackful — only to find that the whole lot were rotten … and the government rationed bread. I am sure that if the Germans had realise how close to starvation this country was early in we would never have won the war. Stories began to emerge about the horrors inflicted on prisoners of war and in the concentration camps. I used to peg my eye lids open wit my fingers in a total state of horror.
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I tried not to hear the things but they were every headline. But there were the good times too — parcels from New Zealand and America. Vera Lynn, Gracey Fields and the rest. Thank God for them all. Then, wonders of wonders D Day. Everyone glued to the radio. And Easter VE Day. NEVER will I forget the bonfires -which of course had been banned like fireworks for 6 years- people brought all the mattresses out of their Anderson shelters and piled them in a huge cone and then TORE DOWN all the huts belonging to the ack ack station and piled on all the floor boards, ceilings, walls, everything till the thing was as high as a house with all the hoarded fireworks interspersed and a great effigy of Hitler on the top.
To read these memories is to be brought closer to a place of understanding: by seeing them as children, even as we look at them as old people, we acknowledge the ambiguities of who they are. Yet the majority either deny the misdeed or break with their parent. Grandchildren thus often possess the family memory without having experienced the events themselves.
Helwig found this when she had children herself. It opened up a whole dialogue between us. This was her real aim — initiating a conversation. Helwig hopes that by bringing together recollections from childhoods in Nazi Germany with portraits of a generation whose memories will soon vanish, her book can help change that. The deeds and responsibility of the perpetrators are concealed. Thus also the suffering of the victims, the role of the spectators The silence is often passed on to the next generation. Kriegskinder is published in a climate that gives a renewed urgency to these conversations.
In her foreword, Senfft acknowledges how collective silence can infect wider groups. Below is a selection of six portraits from the book, which is out now, published by Hatje Cantz. She is married to an upholsterer; it has a nice smell of leather, but ants run through the apartment.
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My aunt puts down herring heads to divert the ant trails. In the apartment, there is a gorgeous sofa and on it are some small booklets.
I suffer the worst shock when I realize that they are about concentration camps and that those camps were in Germany. Those pictures View image of Peter, born in Credit: Frederike Helwig. They shoot the big Keeshond who lives there with us because he barked. He was my friend. One of the soldiers places me on his horse and rides with me through the village.
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On my birthday in , my mother decides to try and flee to the West with us children, my grandmother and a few other relatives. We walk the entire day, for miles, and she does not hear what I am trying to tell her. Dead people and horses lie on the roadside, all mixed up. We sleep in barns, abandoned factories, in trains, in camps where they have delousing showers and thin soups from field kitchens. Sometimes they bomb us. In the course of this my grandmother and other relatives die.
Only my mother, my sister, and I survive. All the glass panes shatter. My mother sits with us children in a sand pit at a playground because she thinks this way nothing is going to happen to her. There the mother and daughter lie on the bed, naked, raped with their throats cut. My grandmother shouts at the drunken Russian until they leave.
View image of Gisela, born in Credit: Frederike Helwig. When we hear on the radio that Silesia must be vacated we join the crowd heading east. Every evening when it gets dark the road must be vacated and everyone has to look for somewhere to sleep. We are sitting with her at dinner when the animals jump wildly across the table and chairs. My grandmother finds cats disgusting and is appalled. But the woman forces us out of the apartment and into an old mine.
Panic breaks out when the air raid sirens go off. More and more people push into the mine, some fall and are stamped to death. The cats have warned and saved us. View image of Hannelore, born in Credit: Frederike Helwig. The doctors can only observe that the appendix has burst and the pus has already reached the abdominal cavity. They say the only thing that may help is Penicillin. This is only available on the black market. My youngest aunt somehow manages to secure the medicine, but it is too late. She is enveloped in a smell of putrefied flesh.