What tangled webs we weave when first we practise to deceive… Walter Scott
Lay down one lie – even a necessary one – and other lies then become impossible to avoid. To a lesser or greater degree we have all experienced this: as children perhaps when we’ve been caught out stealing the cookies from the cookie jar, as adults who have promised the delivery of a piece of work (without beginning to know where to start it: I’d back myself to be smart enough to find out!) But to lay down one lie about who you are fundamentally means that you will be committed, with those people, to living that lie forever… and to do that with those who you are most intimate with means you must never be otherwise, never be who you really are. And you must close off doors, and pathways and never go back. And so it was with Ilsa.
The book that Magda took to get translated was a work of extraordinary diligence from her parents. Walter, her father – front to back in the book – spoke of his time in Germany, and gave just a hint of his experience of being in the regiment that liberated Bergen Belsen, an experience so traumatic he never shared it openly again. He witnessed such horrific sights that this taciturn, rocklike man locked it down in a place so far within him that he could not quite resolve the deep, unerring sadness that often fell upon him. In passing, within the exercise book, he mentioned his wife – not Ilsa – but the first one he would leave to marry her. But the deal was that he could open his heart this once, tell his story and then each would know how bad it was for the other and then they’d reach a pact that meant they would never need to speak of it again. This suited Wally, it meant he could survive. The law of unforeseen consequences been what it is, it also meant Ilsa only had to explain herself only once.
Rest assured if you lived in mainland Europe during the Second World War it was bad for everyone. And so it must have been for Ilsa.
She wrote her story back to front in the book in Gothic German script that was borderline unfathomable much like the woman herself. The translator called and said, “Words just don’t translate… or I can’t make it out.” Truths that shaped her throughout her life…
Ilsa wrote that she had been married and her husband, like most men, had joined the army. Together they’d had a child Barbel, a girl. Her husband was sent to the front where he sadly died. Soon after, she wrote, so too did Barbel. Aged 4. Her soul Ilsa said, had died. Then, her entire family had been wiped out. By a bomb. Sisters, mother, father, all. She was alone. In the world, the only one left.
She had, she said, been in Dresden during the horrific bombing campaign surviving on her wits. Sometimes starving; going for days and days without food. Seen bodies charred and black, witnessing children eating rats to survive. Then, as the war ended, and Hitler killed himself, she became, like thousands of other people, displaced.
What this meant was that she could leave, find a place of refuge. In the midst of this she met Wally but she also, according to her testimony flew half way across Europe with two German airmen who flew to Prague before realising they were flying towards the Russians so flew back to Bergen Belsen figuring they’d be safer with the British. That was, of course, where she met Wally.
This then, offered some explanation as to why Ilsa was so difficult, why she was angry, explosive, challenging. Why she could turn on her kids as though they were somehow responsible for the world’s ills. The siblings felt, at last, that even though her words had come from the grave, they were finally able to make sense of the woman who had dominated their lives. Who wouldn’t be a bit mad if such tragedy had befallen them?
Such tragedy befell many – it has to be said – and they didn’t turn into raging, unhinged dervishes… but still it was a framework to understand it all, a way to move on.
And also, they reasoned, after the war she was a German living in England. Jeered at for asking for red cabbage in the green grocer (“We feed that to animals here, love.”) and snubbed by some she encountered she built an external, perpetually cheerful persona – on the outside – to survive. And that just wasn’t sustainable on the inside.
So as Magda, Steph and Fred reflected they came, they thought, to understand the ways of their mother better. Displaced, hurt, in emotional pain it made sense that she only came alive when she went to Germany or when they celebrated Easter or Christmas German style. And who wouldn’t be traumatised by having lost a husband or a child? By having your entire family wiped out?
And then the letter arrived.
It was 2005, or thereabouts. It was written by a woman called Elis. She was not German but Slovakian and the partner of Christine. Elis wrote, ‘Forgive us for contacting you in this way but we are looking for Ilsa Cole (born Ilsa Knauer) and according to the records this was her last known address. I write on behalf of her niece Ingrid and her sister Maide. We would appreciate a reply if you can help. Thank you.’
Elis signed the letter on behalf of the family and explained that Christine was Ingrid’s daughter, a great niece of Ilsa.
At first the siblings wondered if it was some kind of hoax? A mistake?
Still reeling from the revelations of the exercise book they wondered how a Family who had been wiped out could possibly be living still – where?
They looked. In what had been East Germany…
So, the siblings wrote back…and another letter came, explaining their was a big family…in Germany, desperate to meet them.
To be continued/…