Weddings and funerals are two occasions that can bring extended families together and this weekend my family congregated together to celebrate the wedding of my youngest cousin. Due to my little people, Hubby and I were unable to attend this festive occasion in Cape Town. (A sore point, otherwise I would normally grab any opportunity to visit the Mother City.)
My father, knowing my interest in the family history, was sitting around the kitchen table at my aunts with my Great Aunts and was asking them for information on the family. He phoned me with some fascinating facts about my Great Great Grandfather who came to South Africa from England to fight in the Boer War. He never returned to England as he fell in-love with an Afrikaans woman and decided to stay under the African sun and marry her. They couldn’t understand each others mother tongue but apparently my Great Great Grandmother said that they understood the language of love. Clearly, as they had 5 children together! He returned to the battlefields when the First World War broke out and went missing in action at Delville Wood. After doing some research into the battle of Delville Wood I was horrified at the accounts from survivors and I wished I could have turned back time to tell him not to go! He is remembered at the Thiepval Memorial and maybe one day I can return to Somme in France and visit his memorial grave.
Eventually at midnight last night I decided it was time to go to bed as I spent the night researching this man that came to South Africa to fight for Queen and Country against the ‘Boers’ and stayed to marry a Afrikaans girl. I had time to reflect on how ironic the family connections have mapped out!
My Grandfather on my mothers side of the family was a Prisoner of War during World War 2, captured by German forces in Egypt, and taken to Italy. He never saw my Grandmother for five years of which one year he was on the run in the forests of Italy as he had escaped his camp. My Irish Great Grandfather tried to counsel my Grandmother that maybe it was time to list him as missing in action but she refused to believe that he was dead. That exact same day she returned to her room which she was renting, and saw a telegram on her bed. She said that although it was winter in Cape Town she perspired right through her jersey from fear. She opened the telegram and instead of bad news it was from the Red Cross informing her that her husband had been found by the American Forces and would be returning home.
Until I met the family of my Hubby, my view of Germans were what I was taught in textbooks. What an honour it was to speak to his Grandmother who could recount her version of the the Second World War to me. They lived in East Prussia, and she stayed for as long as she could until the Russians started to invade. She closed the door of her home, leaving everything behind and with meagre belongings set out to escape to Germany as it was the only choice due to the link between Germany and the then Prussia. Three Months she walked with her two children, a 4 year old daughter, a 18 month old son and her aging mother. It was hard times, sleeping in refugee camps along the way, picking the odd onion and potato up off the railways to eat and she escaped being raped twice by Russian soldiers. Hubby’s Aunt recalls walking as if in her sleep as she was so weak she wanted to lie down and die, both her and my Father-in-Law had bellies swollen due to malnutrition. A German soldier saw her walking and threw her his ration pack, she said after eating a bit of it she felt revived and swore it saved her. Here was a family who due to the war, saw the Russians as the enemy and the Germans as their saviours! They were given shelter by a farmer, which was a barn in which they had to live with another family, but it was a roof over their heads. My Hubby’s Grandmother worked the fields and his Great Grandmother knitted for the farmers wife. They believed that they needed to show the farmer that they were not there to squat on his land but to be of assistance as these people were told that they had to take these refugee families from Prussia.
My Grandmother on fathers side is the daughter of a Russian Jew who escaped the Iron Curtain although I don’t know much about my Great Grandfather I still find it fascinating that he ended up here in South Africa.
So there you have it folks, I have a Great Grandfather and Grandfather who fought the Germans in both World Wars, my Great Grandfather on my fathers side was a Russian Jew and I went and married into a Prussian/German family who fled their homes during the Russian Invasion of World War 2.
I remember back when this first struck me. We were having a braai at my parents house and my Grandfather, who was a POW in the Second World War, sat next to my Hubby’s Grandfather, who was forced to work for the Nazi’s, (fixing tanks), and watched how the two of them sat side by side talking, drinking their beers. Strange to think that during the war these two would never have spoken to one another but there they were, united as a family under the African sun. Everything comes around full circle.