It was Christmas Eve, 2002 and we were sitting on the veranda of my father-in-laws home, wet from a late evening dip in the pool, trying to cool down from the heat of the KwaZulu-Natal summer. We had nuts, marzipan and lebkuchen to snack on while the candles of advent were flickering in the fading light. I remember that the conversation was centered around Christmas and it’s traditions when Hubby’s grandfather, who at this stage was in his late 80’s, looked out into the distance and said ” I always used to love the Christmas time but it never felt like Christmas again after I left Memel.” I couldn’t quite comprehend at the time the gravity of his statement.
During July this year my father-in-law and his sister embarked on a tour of the old East Prussia. A country which no longer exists. Strange thought that. Memelland is now part of Lithuania and known as Klaepaedia. In the time of my husband’s grandparents it was a thriving harbour town and although its governance seemed to switch between that of Germany and Lithuania, it had its own monetary system, its people spoke German with a different dialect and used words that were considered “old prussian”. During the war the Prussians fled their homes due to the invading Russian Army who assisted the allied forces in World War 2. My husband’s grandfather came from a family of seven children and he never heard or saw them again after the war. He heard that his father had died of malnutrition as he was too old to flee. It was a miracle that my husband’s grandmother, aunt and father survived the 3 months on foot to reach the only place where they felt they would be accepted, into war-torn Germany. What was left of their memories of Memel and Prussia were a few photographs and the stories that were told around the table on a rare occasion, like it was on this particular Christmas Eve. I think it was too painful for them to relive their memories of Memel, of what and who they lost during the war.
My father-in-law and his sister returned to the places they had been told about, although they were born there, they left too young, with no memory of their birth country. They walked along the shoreline of Nidden where their parents would sunbathe in their youth , they were shown original buildings that had not been destroyed and monuments that have been erected to remember the people of East Prussia and those who died trying to flee its borders.
While looking at the many photo’s of this tour, that had taken them back to their roots, I realised what my husband’s grandfather was trying to say all those years ago. I realised that he had lost his home and culture, even though they lived in Germany and eventually South Africa, part of his heart lived on in Memelland. A place he was forced to leave and could never reach again as it fell behind the iron curtain. When it was finally lifted he was too old to go back and make his peace. His children have gone, they have tried to piece together the names of places to the stories they were told, taken photo’s of the churches they were baptised in and tried to connect with what made them Prussian.
Amongst the gifts of German chocolates, spaetzle and toys for my boys, was a small bag of sand. They couldn’t take their parents back to Memel but they brought some of Memel back to South Africa and although it is only symbolic, we will scatter the earth on their graves, it’s the best we can do.