Adjacent stories: 1949 — Grandpa Wilfried


How Germany lost the war

Grandpa Wilfried told me this: I am very glad you are listening to me. My grandkids usually don’t. None of them. And I have five. Four boys and one girl. At least, the older one of my son Horst sits with me in the kitchen, when they come and visit. But I have told them many times that I need their help jotting down my memoirs. It’s all up here, but I need help with the writing. It’s hard. I only went to school for three years. I was born in 1900. My mother gave me to my granny. Maybe I was better off with her. I don’t know. I have always visited with my mom until our dear Lord called her back. He will know whether she did right or wrong. I have long forgiven her. Yeah. I grew up on a farm. Do you know where Pomerania is? That’s where I grew up. After the war, the Poles got it. They live in my house, too. On a farm, everybody had to chip in. Didn’t matter how old you were. I would herd the geese or the goats, and later look after the cows. I did go to school. I was very good. I learned the Bible verses pretty quick and could spell them. Kids of different age were in one room, and the teacher had to look after all of us. I would sit in the front. And in my third year, he would ask me to look after the younger kids. I was a teacher, too. I would teach them how to recite the Ten Commandments. I can still do that. Never have I beaten a pupil, even if they misbehaved or made a mistake. Then I had to leave school. They needed more hands on the farm. In the field. But I was not always working out in the fields. I worked my way up and saved some money. When I met my wife Lisa, I was driving the horse carriage. And on Sundays, I would take the farmer’s family to church, and on market days — to town.

Ach, the market. But that was much later. Do you want to hear that too? I love markets. Chatting with the people. Selling fruit and berries and vegetables. After we got married, we had a grocery store in our house in Pomerania. In a small town only forty kilometers east of the river Oder. Close to Frankfurt. Not that Frankfurt, the other one, Frankfurt an der Oder. “Because Frankfurt is whopping, they part it in twain: Frankfurt an der Oder and Frankfurt am Main.” Did you know that one? A lot of the stuff, we could grow ourselves in the garden plot at the back of the house, but for the really special things I went to Berlin. Lisa took care of the store and the garden. I used to play cards with the lads on the train to Berlin. Lisa never liked the cards. Devil’s work, she said. People argue and fight too much. Too much. But what’s the fun in playing cards, if you don’t play for money. I don’t see the point. We only played Skat — you know Skat? clever little game, that. 32 cards — we only ever played for a quarter pfennig. I won a couple of marks here and there. Thanks God, I never lost much. My son Horst’s oldest always wanted to play, when the family visited grandma and grandpa. He had a lot to learn. Skat is not child’s play. When I asked him, he would say: I have money. I would win everything he had on him. Couple of marks usually. He knew gambling debt is a matter of honor and paid up. Maybe, he had also figured out that I would always tell grandma how much the boy had lost again. It made her heart bleed and she gave him more than he had lost. Win-win. We both had more pocket money in the end. Pocket money. I would give the whole wages to my Lisa each pay day. We had lost the store and the house, when they kicked us out at the end of the war. I would have loved to have a store, but Lisa said No. She said we don’t have the energy to start all over. I am still not sure, but she knew better most of the time. So, we both worked. Ja, I just kept the pocket money, so I could buy my cigar and maybe a beer. They have this very nice restaurant right in the middle of the park across the street. Have you been to Frankfurt? It’s not too bad. The other money I made selling fruit and veg and herbs at my stall on market days, I kept it. We had lost the house, the store, the garden. I was still a prisoner of war, when they were kicked out. Lisa had a couple of hours to pack and leave. She put a few things on a trolley, sat Horst — he was five then — on top, and she and Elsa, my daughter, started walking towards Frankfurt. Twenty kilometers. Although we were even closer now to Berlin, I never really went there again. I had such a good time at these markets. Everybody was so nice. Always time for a chat. Always time for a little joke. That’s what I like — chatting with the people. Mainly girls. I have never done anything wrong. A little bit of teasing. A funny anecdote. And then I would come home to Lisa. 

I love anecdotes, would always tell them to my grandson. You see, I want to smoke my cigar after lunch. And when Horst’s family came, we were a lot of people around the table. I only smoked in the kitchen, never in the best room. The chatter of the family was too much for me anyway. I did not want to say much, who wanted to listen to me anyway. My grandson came with me to the kitchen; he didn’t seem to mind the smell of the cigar. The others always complained. Took me a day or two to finish a cigar in the ashtray. I wouldn’t think he was interested in the family conversations either. They were not for kids. So I would ask him questions and tell him anecdotes. He wanted to become a school teacher. A bit like me, really. I always asked him whether I had told him this tale before. He always said no; sometimes I wasn’t sure. A polite boy, he just let grandpa talk and listened.

There was this narrow bridge across the river, no other bridges nearby. So, to get from the village to town you had to cross that one. One day, a carriage with two horses and with the driver sitting in the front came from the east. The driver made the carriage was not touching the bridge railing on either side. It was only when he reached the middle of the bridge, that he looked up. The horses stood still. There was another carriage right on the middle of the bridge, coming from the west. He had not seen them coming. And the other driver saw him too late as well. Now here they were facing each other on the narrow bridge. A good day to you, the other driver said. And a good day to you, he said and added, you will have to back off, I was on the bridge first. No, you were not, was the answer, and it is you who will have to back off. The driver thought for a moment and then said: Listen, this has happened to me last week. If you don’t clear out from the bridge, I will do with you as I did with him last week. The other driver scratched his head and began to push back the horses and the carriage. When he was off the bridge, he drove to the side of the path and let the carriage pass. Then he said to the driver: Wait a moment. I did what you told me to do. Now tell me, what did you do to the other driver last week. The driver smiled quietly and said: Well, when he did not drive off the bridge to let me through, I did and let him pass.

Ja, anecdotes like this I would tell my grandson. I would interrupt once in a while to ask him questions, what he would have done as the driver. So that he could learn a thing or two. I just don’t like fighting, it’s better to back off to keep the peace. And I truly do not like war. Our dear Lord does not want us to be at war.

I was too young – bless the Lord – when the first war was. You have heard lots about the wars, right? But as the second one went on, they took everybody. Hitler had closed our church already; we didn’t want to have any part in the united church of the Reich. Give to God, what is God’s, and give to the emperor, what is the emperor’s. I had to go to war. And they gave me a rifle. I had never touched one. Thou shall not kill, so it is said. They took us to this shooting range, all us grown men in uniform. Them rifles are dangerous. I panicked. Maybe just a little. I didn’t know how to hold the darn thing. I didn’t know how to aim. I didn’t know how to shoot. But it was them who got frightened. My drill sergeant said: Stop this, Wilfried! Right now! Put down the rifle! I was sent to the kitchen. My Lisa has always been a good cook, as a woman should be. They learn that kind of thing. I didn’t. Then they sent us to the frontline. And I was still in the kitchen. These huge pots. It wasn’t that difficult. You just put any stuff they give you in these big pots, pour water in and stir it up. It went well. Mostly. One day, I must have dropped in too much from the sack barrow with the salt. I didn’t like that soup, anyway. So, I didn’t even taste it. When the lads came back from the trenches – pretty awful out there – for their lunch, they were spewing and spitting. Somebody must have told them that it was my fault. Things always were my fault. And if I didn’t do them right, they were still incorrect. I said this many times. They had to go back hungry. Back to the trenches. I guess they were not in good shape that afternoon. I had to hide for the rest of the day. And they lost that position that evening. The next day we had to go back west. The Russian captured us all soon after. Anyway, my son Hans often said: “Dad, you lost Hitler’s war. because you ended up in the kitchen, the boys couldn’t eat properly, they lost the battle, morale went down, and we all know how it ended.” Hans was happy too that this horrible war ended.

I think enough said. Thank you. It doesn’t happen very often that somebody is listening.

Why is this an Adjacent Story? Michael Praetori provided the answer. How did these stories start? In 2020 — Just me.

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