The white porcelain coffee pot sat atop the smouldering pile of rubble. The sun glinted off its distinctive vine pattern as the plumes of smoke rose around it. So ludicrously impropable and so vastly insignificant, the scene was seared into a story that would be told half a century later.
The story begins yesterday morning over breakfast here in Klein Machnow. Here, on the outskirts of Berlin, I am staying with Elizabeth and her family.
Aunt Edith has been visiting for the last few days.
How I wish I could share a photo of this kind old lady. My camera has died so words will have to do. In her nineties, she stands a little under 5 feet. Yet she is as spry as a 70 year old! She wears colourful 1970’s blouses and horned rim glasses that remind me of my grandmother. Her hair, is as white as our breakfast plates and is pulled into a tight bun at the back of her head. There is a twinkle in her eye as she tries hard remembers the occasional English word.
I am a Canadian who grew up hearing much about the second world war- from my grandparents, novels, movies, in text books, in highschool, in university. A distinctly Canadian perspective of course. Its one thing to read about it, its another to hear it from the lips of those who actually lived it. Going through France, Belgium and Holland I have had the honour of meeting elderly people who shared their experiences of the 1940’s. What an honour.
However, reflecting on this as I gazed at the allied monuments I have seen so much of on my journey, I have begun to sense a void in my understanding.
I have heard much about Heroes and Sacrifice and Great Battles and Daring Exploits. However, there are two sides to a war. The way our home country paints history is always partial. Details about the humanity of the other side always seem to be the first to be ommitted.
Caught in the midst of the war were mothers and families that experienced parralel destruction and tragedy. Here in Germany as in the allied countries. Not all Germans were SS officiers in grey uniforms. I have personally heard so little about the German regular folks. Just as there were unwitting allied families caught up in the war, so too were there German families and folks that would have been enormously happy if it had never happened.
Aunt Edith was one such person.
As we sat sipping our coffee, the conversation turned to moments that have been long buried. Terrible things were broadcast on loudspeakers to the city about the impending destruction. Her family’s home was near Dresden. In 1945 she listened as a rain of bombs fell down upon the neighbouring city. Air raid sirens screamed and her family scuttled into the cellar. The next morning she watched from the balcony as the city burned.
The next morning, her father bicycled to work in what had once been Dresden. Charred bodies lay strewn across the street. The building where he worked was completely destroyed. He stood there and took in the scene.
There, high on a pile of the smouldering remains of his factory was his white vinelaub coffee pot– a special product of a nearby porcelain maker. It glistened in the sun as the smoke curled around it. The chances it would have come to rest at the top of the demolished factory were so proposterous. He couldn’t help but stare.
Its funny what we remember isn’t it? It must have been one of those intensely vivid moments for Aunt Edith’s father that melt into the surreal. Time slows to a standstill and we take in the most intricate of details. The significance of a coffee pot is on par with a corpse, a demolished building and a scorched city. The tragedy so thick that is overwhelming.
This is war.
The trials of Auth Edith’s family is so similar to what I heared from the great-grandmother in Normandy, Alain telling me of his destroyed hometown of Caen, and the bombings of London. These similar stories are a profound reminder that were all connected.
Are there really two sides to a war?
Perhaps that’s the problem right there.