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My Mother, The (Shameless) Refugee

15/09/2015 8:06 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Dylan Mohan Gray

This is a photo of my mother, born Sigrid Jekutsch, as a small girl with her two younger brothers, Reinhard and Friedrich-Karl, near their childhood home, the beachside hamlet (pop. 844 in 1939) of Groß Kuhren, Ostpreußen (East Prussia), on the Baltic coast.

My mother was born into a well-off family in a notably harmonious, reasonably prosperous, multicultural and multilingual corner of Europe. Lutherans, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews lived alongside one another, speakers of German, Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Yiddish, Belarussian and Russian. The charming, cultured city of Königsberg, which had joined the Hanseatic League in 1340 and been a centre of European intellectual life even before the Albertina University was founded there in 1544, was located closeby. The 18th century had been dubbed the "Königsberg Century of Enlightenment", and the city was an internationally-renowned centre of philosophy and mathematics, home to brilliant minds such as Kant, Herder and Hamann...

"Sigrid, my mother, barely seven years old, fled along with her mother and younger brothers by small boat... I knew from the few times we discussed it that the scars she carried were deep..."

My great-grandmother was Jewish, and following the maternal bloodline my mother and her siblings were considered to be Jews as well, though raised very much as Lutherans like their father and grandfather. My grandmother, the oldest of sixteen children, had incensed her wealthy landowning parents by marrying the 'unsuitable' teacher of the family-run school, though later this union proved more than fortuitous, as in his position as a high-ranking Luftwaffe (air force) officer he was able to obtain false documents for numerous members of the family, thus helping them avoid persecution (and worse) under the Nuremberg Laws. Nonetheless, my mother remembered being the object of occasional anti-semitic slurs and remarks, such as when once when she was perhaps all of five years old she saw the local ferry she took to get home beginning to pull away from the riverbank as she approached, and called out to the boatman, whom she knew well, to wait for her. "Stop squealing like a bloody pig, you filthy little Jew," came the not-so-friendly reply.

As described by my mother, however, such occurrences were rare blips in otherwise idyllic childhood years. The multitudinous family was happy, thriving and enjoyed, according to her possibly rose-tinted recollections, a blissful life in a picture postcard setting (see below).

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Groß Kuhren

Though the Second World War had begun when my mother was less than two years old, the conflict had remarkably little impact on Ostpreußen until the second half of 1944. Even though as is now well-known the war against the Soviet Union had turned badly for Germany long before, the German military authorities continually reassured the 'Volksdeutschen' in East Prussia that things were going well and that comprehensive victory on the Eastern Front was predestined and inevitable. The population was therefore thoroughly stunned by the devastating British air raids of late August 1944, which, after 700 years being virtually untouched by war, reduced their beautiful capital city of Königsberg to rubble almost instantly. It would later become clear that Winston Churchill had ordered the historic city's destruction because he believed it to be a "a modernised heavily defended fortress", which as it happens was untrue.

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Königsberg, before and after Allied bombing

A few months later further panic spread among the East Prussian population with reports that the people of the tiny border village of Nemmersdorf had been viciously slaughtered by soldiers of the advancing Soviet Red Army. The German Wehrmacht saw the opportunity to make use of this terrifying incident to try and steel the people's resolve and strengthen resistance among the East Prussians and other 'Volksdeutschen' toward an enemy characterised as ruthless, bestial and uncivilised. The massacre featured relentlessly in German propaganda, with horrific allegations of mass torture, rape and extreme brutality perpetrated by 'barbaric' Soviet troops against the civilian population of the village repeated in graphic detail (these claims were almost certainly exaggerated for effect). German authorities required East Prussian civilians to watch propaganda films explicitly highlighting Red Army 'atrocities' at Nemmersdorf in order to convince them that surrendering to the Soviets would be unthinkable, and tantamount to suicide. Though Nazi efforts to instil horror in the population were intended to encourage East Prussians to fight the 'Reds' to the very last man, they largely had the opposite effect, with many in the territory concluding that their only realistic hope for survival was to flee westward at the earliest opportunity.

The 'Gauleiter' (Nazi party chief) of East Prussia, Erich Koch, quickly decreed that civilians were strictly forbidden from escaping the territory without permission, and that anyone so much as seen to be preparing to leave would be summarily executed on grounds of "Wehrkraftersetzung" (seditious undermining of military morale). When it was finally clear that the Red Army's advance was destined to succeed and the territory would fall, the Nazi leadership was unsurprisingly first to abscond, in many cases abandoning their own troops, leaving total chaos in their wake.

The winter of early 1945 was an extremely harsh, bitterly cold one, and large numbers of children and elderly people quickly died from exposure while fleeing west. Meanwhile, sweeping toward Berlin, the Red Army blocked the land route to the German heartland, forcing several hundred thousand East Prussian refugees -- including my mother, young uncles and grandmother -- to desperately attempt escape across the icy, rough and treacherous waters of the Baltic Sea. They did so often on rickety, unseaworthy and dangerously overcrowded vessels, many of which capsized and sank. Larger transports commandeered for the evacuation were often ruthlessly attacked by the Allies; in one famous case Soviet torpedoes killed as many as 9400 refugees escaping on the converted passenger ship Wilhelm Gustloff. This is now regarded as the single worst maritime disaster in human history.

Sigrid, my mother, barely 7 years old, fled along with her mother and younger brothers by small boat. She almost never spoke about the war... I knew from the few times we discussed it that the scars she carried were deep and would never even remotely begin to heal. The sea voyage was the single most frightening thing my mother ever endured. People died all around her, including her beloved five year-old brother, my uncle Reinhard, pictured above left. The other boy in the picture, my late uncle Friedrich-Karl, would be handicapped for life by injuries suffered during the flight.

311,000 civilian refugees died fleeing East Prussia in 1945, my uncle and other relatives among them.

My grandmother, Käthe, mother Sigrid and uncle Friedrich-Karl eventually managed to reach land in Denmark, where they were immediately interned in overflowing camps, forbidden contact with the outside population and banned from attempting to learn Danish. Considered by Danes to be dangerous aliens and enemies, they were treated with exceptional hostility and harshness, denied adequate food and shelter or basic medical care. In fact, the Danish Red Cross and the Danish Association of Doctors decreed that refugees were not to receive any medical treatment whatsoever, and banned their members from providing it. As a result, in calendar year 1945 alone, 7000 refugee children under the age of five from East Prussia died in Danish camps, overwhelmingly due to malnutrition and various common and treatable ailments. In all, 80% of the younger children who landed as refugees in Denmark did not survive the first few months in the squalid concentration camps. Many were subsequently disposed of in mass unmarked graves. My mother and uncle were lucky to be among the 20% who survived to see New Year's of 1946. In the intervening decades, neither Danish medical organisation has ever formally apologised for this shockingly inhuman dereliction of the Hippocratic Oath, simply stating with little trace of remorse, that they would have been viewed as collaborators had they extended care to the refugees, including all those luckless babies and toddlers.

By 1949, Denmark had expelled all remaining East Prussian refugees from its territory.

My mother and her family eventually made it to Germany, supposedly their 'homeland', but in fact a devastated country, bombed into rubble, where those lucky enough to have made it through the war were now embroiled in a daily struggle to stay alive. Arriving refugees from "the east" were universally despised and often subjected to violent attacks. My mother described being repeatedly spat upon, ostracised, mercilessly beaten up and told to "go home". These were commonplace experiences for refugees like her. All told, around 1.2 million East Prussians (more than one-half of the territory's prewar population, over 500,000 of whom had perished) succeeded in reaching West Germany, just a fraction of the over 12.3 million refugees the destroyed country (both East and West) struggled to integrate after defeat in 1945. Eventually, the pervasive hostility she faced and the brutal social realities prevailing in Germany in the years following the war compelled my mother to leave the country of her own accord at the age of sixteen, never to return.

For years after arriving in Germany, despite being unusually well-educated, my grandmother was unable to find employment beyond a variety of menial odd jobs, because people were unwilling to hire a "foreigner", particularly a woman, since need was so great among Germans and men were given priority as 'breadwinners'. Even today, at times when my 7 year-old son complains about the food on his plate, I instinctively tell him (though I'm sure he's already grown sick of hearing it) that when she was his age, and for long years thereafter, my mother, his grandmother, more often than not had nothing to eat but whatever food she and her family could manage to scavenge from garbage cans... always making it clear that the point is not for him to feel guilty for not being poor, but rather to never forget how immensely lucky we are to have good things to eat and a safe place to stay and call home... and possibly also to remind myself how, though at times it seems nigh on impossible, everything we blithely take for granted can disappear in an instant.

Watching the news these days, I think of my mother. I think of her little brother dying at sea, perhaps washed up like refuse on some inhospitable shore (this was clearly not a question I could ever have asked any surviving member of the family). I think of my grandmother, the strongest, most dignified woman I ever met, who struggled like a tiger in the face of endless humiliations and indignities to save her family and keep them alive.

Distant though the prospect may (and usually does) seem, it could easily be any of us.

......................

Postscript: My mother came to London in the 1950s to study nursing, not having been able to scrape together enough funds for medical school. She met my father, a young biology graduate from Canada, at St Stephen's Hospital, Chelsea, where he had been admitted for food poisoning after eating questionable fish soup. At their wedding in Hammersmith, my grandmother, who spoke no English whatsoever, is said to have effortlessly danced and toasted everyone present at the table. Later, moving to Canada, my parents adopted my sister, Anna, and me, having specifically requested mixed-race children, who were viewed at the time as the least desirable category for placement. My parents separated and divorced not long thereafter, and my mother raised the two of us alone. She studied at night, retrained herself and went on to teach at university, something she loved with every grain of her being. On holidays, our house was always full of foreign students stranded far away from home, a happy version of a refugee camp. My mother treated all of them like her own children, and none of them ever forgot her. I eventually followed love and my roots to India, a country my mother had dreamt of since childhood, but never had a chance to visit. She was too unwell to attend my wedding, and less than a year later succumbed to cancer. As the tumour rapidly took over her brain she lost capacity seemingly by the hour, and in the last few days before her voice finally abandoned her she only remembered how to speak German... not as I had known her to do, but with the peculiar, endearing accent of her childhood home in the Baltic.

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