It wasn’t a hoax. The letter Elis wrote did come from Ilsa’s family.
Magda, Steph and Fred were at a loss initially about what to do. What do you do when you discover that who you thought you were for all of time was troubled first by a diary and its two distinct entries, written 40 years previously and then, still reeling from that, a letter written by someone you’d never met and who promised a different truth from life and a country you’d visited as a child (without ever visiting those who existed within the letter…) What did you do when the truth you’d lived and been fed was a lie?
It was a confusing time.
More letters were exchanged. Then more.
Eventually plans were made for Magda, Steph and Fred to visit Germany. It was a time of great nervousness – what if they were not who they said they were? What if this family was not family? There was history, of course, there was a history of lying.
They each prepared themselves for the visit in different ways. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t been to Germany many times – to visit some friends of Ilsa, a couple who the children had called Oma Plenk and Uncle Gustav. Not real family, but close. Every year, they had all poured into the VW Beetle and traveled across the continent. Isla and Wally both smoked, so the children suffered in the back of the car, but still their visits to Germany when Ilsa was most happy held lovely memories for them. But this was different. Finally, they would meet real blood relatives, people they had never knew existed.
Later Magda described the shock of walking into a party thrown for them with 50+ faces looking back at them, all faces that looked like one or other of either her, Steph or Fred. They had been a tight-knit unit of three and now, here they were, belonging to this enormous clan. How had this happened? How had all these people existed on the planet belonging to them but with no pathway? There were stories here, lives that existed, had pain and joy that they would never know closely or intimately but suddenly they had an opportunity to share their lives going forward.
If, like me, you have always been grounded by a large and marauding family it is hard to imagine how these first meetings felt for Magda, Steph and Fred. But I know that the change in each of them was palpable. They suddenly became connected to the world in a way that they had never been before. Each was shocked by looking at relatives and seeing their faces reflected back: of belonging, of having history, of coming from somewhere, of being suddenly rooted.
The real story did not come out quickly and there were a number of back and forth visits that happened in the following years. Magda was particularly drawn to Maide, her mother’s older sister (who Magda looked exactly like; there was no debate about their shared genetic history, it was there for all to see.) Maide was very sad about Ilsa’s death and always lived in hope that they would be re-connected. Once, she said, they had been close.
There was another, much younger sister who did not share the enthusiasm of Maide and her girls to meet with Ilsa’s children. She felt that Ilsa’s leaving had had a catastrophic impact on her mother, and her mother’s health and if memory serves me, she had struggled with mental health problem, precisely because of her daughter’s ongoing absence, her total disappearance, her loss. At the time of Magda, Steph and Fred’s arrival in Germany, their grandfather had been gone fewer than 20 years but their grandmother had died early and sad.
To set the context of how this was able to happen, it is important to understand how things were after the Second World War when East and West Germany were divided and where the whole became two halves. West Germany grew prosperous and generally socially liberal, whilst East Germany was under communist rule. There was even a physical barrier, the Berlin Wall and that didn’t fall until 1989 and wasn’t removed until 1992. This is in living memory, and those who lived in the East had a certain mentality imposed on them that was hard to shift even when the wall was removed. In any case, with the lack of communication between the East and West it was easy for Ilsa and her young family to visit the West without any fear at all that she would ever see her family or be found out.
Ilsa’s family grew up in Meiningen which was a town in the East. Father, Mother and three girls, Ilsa and Maide close in age, and then the younger sister some time later. Their father worked for the railways as a station master, their mother was a seamstress, a job of work that the girls were also likely – at some point – to undertake. This was not a future that much excited Ilsa, according to her older sister, but it was what it was.
Their father was enthusiastic about the National Socialist Party. Indeed, it was said that he was one of the first members. It is easy with the weight of history to condemn this man, but when Hitler was driving his policies forward he spoke to the heart of what people wanted, he made what people considered sense (we all know how dangerous this can be…)
As a station master I have often speculated about whether Magda’s grandfather was in fact fully aware of people being shipped in large quantities across the country during the war to destinies that he knew where not places of promise, but it is hard to say. But all such journeys were recorded, meticulously, by those who were working on the railways, and so I assume he must have.
Magda, Steph and Fred had perhaps thought that they were on the other side: the side of the good guy. They had to re-calibrate who they thought they were.
Eventually, they shared the diary with Maide and she told them how the story within it was actually the story of a girl down the road from where they lived and not Ilsa’s story at all. She had never been married. She had never had a child. Maide said Ilsa was just the kind of girl who wanted to escape, who felt that there was more out there for her than seamstressing and a nice German boy. (Oh the irony that she ended up with a silent, older man – not remotely exciting in the end – taking in sewing to make ends meet.)
It was all, therefore, a lie. No one had died. Her family continued without her, struggling to understand why she left and did not return. She had not married, and had no children before meeting Wally. She just wanted a different kind of life to the one on offer.
And that was what she got.
Not glamourous, not particularly unique, just an ordinary kind of life that operated in a void because Ilsa had chosen to walk away and never turn back. No wonder she was angry. No wonder her kids could never get it right. No wonder a profound sadness permeated all their lives.