My late mother’s one surviving friend, Edith, lives in a nursing home in the United Kingdom, not far from the town to which she immigrated in 1946 from Berlin.
I grew up in the same town and return to England annually to visit Edith. Now in her 90s, Edith always permits me to ask a few questions about her life.
Edith, why did you agree to leave Berlin to come to this small town?
I was always fascinated by London. I wanted to live near London so I could go to the opera and concerts and theatre.
London? But this town is nowhere near London!
I know. But when Leslie [a British church organist] asked me to marry him, I asked where we would be living. He showed me a map. I could see that London was only half an inch away. (We laugh.) I was happy to come. I didn’t like my parents anyway.
I see. Nazis?
They supported Hitler almost to the end. When my granddaughter was born, I called my father. He asked me her name. I told him, Sarah. He was furious — how dare you call a great-grandchild of mine by a Jewish name?
What was it like to be a teenager in Berlin during wartime?
Terrible things were happening. One day, I ran to my church and asked my priest, “Wasn’t Jesus a Jew?” “Of course,” he said. “Then why are our Jewish neighbours disappearing and others taking their homes? Why are they attacked and no one helps them?” He put his finger to his lips and hushed me. “My child,” he said, “we live in difficult times; we mustn’t ask questions.”
What was it like for you here in the United Kingdom after the war?
Sometimes hard, especially to begin with. I joined a wonderful choir in the town. Two women said they would not sing with a German. I told the director I understood. It was too soon for me to join. I would withdraw and come back in a few years. He said, “No. If you leave, I will leave. Music is a great healer. We all work together.” So I stayed and no one left.
You never sang in our church choir on Remembrance Day.
You remember that? You were so young to notice. I stayed away so that people could grieve and not feel embarrassed by my presence.
Edith, do you think it’s time we let go of Remembrance Day? Some feel it glorifies war. They say we should focus on peace.
Of course we should focus on peace, yes, but first we have to understand why it is so important. Remembrance Day is about remembering how easy it is for any nation to follow the wrong leadership and fall over the precipice into chaos. We remember the horror, the devastation, the depravity and the colossal losses and waste of human life. But most important is to remember what human nature is capable of when we lose our way. We all have much to seek forgiveness for.
You and my mother both suffered in wartime, yet despite your differences you were friends.
We, too, were victims, living on different sides of the conflict. She knew all about suffering and grief. It made her compassionate. When I came to your home, your mother and I did not speak about the war. She made me tea — (Edith tears up)
She brought out her best china for me.
Rev. Angela Bailey is a retired United Church minister in Ottawa.
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