It’s 1994. I’m seven years old, and Mum has just returned from a trip to Germany without us to see Great-Grandma Johanne. Mum, in the midst of her own grief at the loss of her mother, my grandmother, Irene, had the difficult task of counselling her grandmother through the death of her daughter. Great-Grandma Johanne was, at 89, too old and frail to come to the UK for her daughter’s funeral. Mum arrives home with a pile of unsorted documents that ‘Mama’ (the name she uses for Great-Grandma, because her own mother referred to her like that) has given her, telling her to keep them safe. They are put in a drawer in the study. Other documents and pictures are still in my great-grandmother’s apartment because they are too precious for her to give up.
It’s 1995. We arrive as a family at the nursing home in Bad Grund, Germany, that Great-Grandma Johanne has moved to. My brother and I don’t speak much German, and she can’t speak English, but we sing her some German children’s songs Mum has taught us and she plaits my hair, telling us that she always wanted to be a hairdresser but her mother wouldn’t let her. Her apartment has been cleared by the local authorities and with it seemingly all the photos and documents that Great-Grandma didn’t give to Mum the year before. They are never found.
It’s 1996. We are at the cemetery in Seesen, standing around my great-grandmother’s grave, listening to the liturgy in German. When the vicar begins the Lord’s Prayer, my parents start praying the English words at the same time. Her grave stone bears her name and dates, and the place she was born: Rudienen.
In the years following I ask my mother more about her German heritage. Where is Rudienen? Why did Great-Grandma Johanne and Grandma Irene end up in Seesen? Why did Grandma come to Britain? Why didn’t she want to talk about where she grew up and why did she pretend not to be German? What happened to Great-Grandma’s husband Oskar and her son Odo?
It’s the year 2000. I begin formal German lessons at school and enjoy the sense of connection I feel with a culture that seems to pulse through my veins. People ask me why I chose German instead of Spanish as a second foreign language and I explain a little about my German heritage. They ask me what my German family’s name was, because my surname doesn’t sound very German. I say Szameitat, and they look at me strangely. That doesn’t sound very German either, where were they from? Memel, I say. ‘Where’s that?’ they ask, wondering which bit of Germany it’s in. I explain it’s now called Klaipėda and is in modern day Lithuania, and they look even more confused.
I ask Mum if I can look at Great-Grandma’s documents again as I am fascinated by the past and we are learning about the Second World War in History. My beginner level German prevents me from understanding much, but I can’t stop myself poring over one document: a letter my grandmother wrote in 1944 as a refugee to her father back home on the Eastern front. She was only 12 when she wrote it, and I am 13. The letter is simple and conversational, and I can understand nearly all of it.
The other documents are impenetrable. They are mostly legal documents, with a few letters thrown in. Most of them date from the 1960s. Mum tells me that they are details of a compensation claim for a widow’s pension, because Great-Grandma’s husband Oskar had been a policeman before he died in the war but had been imprisoned by the Gestapo and sacked from his job unfairly. They had also had property confiscated, and the compensation from that had been handed down and is now in trust, the interest on which is paying for my school fees. My curiosity is piqued. What did Oskar do to get imprisoned by the Gestapo? Why did he get sacked from office? Where was their land, and why was it confiscated? When did they leave Memel and where did they go? And what happened to my great uncle Odo? Mum says she’s had a go at deciphering some of the letters already. I make a promise to myself that one day, when my German is better and I have more time, I will sort through the documents and attempt to make sense of the story. I even dream of writing a book about it one day.
It’s 2005. I’m 18 and about to embark on an undergraduate degree in German and Linguistics. Over the summer before I go up to university, I ask to dig out those documents again. My A level German is a bit more up to the task and although the handwritten letters are largely still very difficult to decipher, I can understand enough to start to see a broad picture emerging. I translate one of the legal documents but I know that it would take too long to translate them all and I am not fluent enough in German yet to read them easily without translating them. I put them away again with a view to come back to them when my German skills improve.
It’s August 2008. I’m back at my parents’ house after having spent a year in Germany as part of my degree. I am avoiding university work and decide with Dad to sort through my great-grandmother’s documents and put them in date order. Since I am now a lot more fluent in German, I am able to read through them much more quickly, but as they are at my parents’ house and I am about to move back to Oxford for my final undergraduate year, I have little opportunity to work through them systematically. I am hopeful that at some point in the future my parents will entrust them to me so that I can peruse them at leisure.
It’s April 2013. I’m married now and doing a PhD in the history of the German language, but I still haven’t forgotten my resolution to make sense of my great-grandmother’s compensation documents. During a visit to my parents with my husband, I skim read through all the documents over a period of days. Each time I look through them I realize how much I have forgotten in the months and years that pass between the times I have access to them. I know that the only way I’ll be able to get to the bottom of the tale is to have unlimited access to the documents. Sensing my parents’ current unwillingness to part with them, I start to consider digitization as a viable option so that I can read them electronically, and blogging as a way of sharing my findings with those who are interested in the history of the former German territories in Eastern Europe.
It’s March 2016 and on another visit to my parents I ask to get the documents out again. The last few years have been a blur of looking after our needy first born and I am newly pregnant with our second (the PhD is still on the go too). I scan and save as PDFs about two thirds of the documents. I don’t have time for any more than that and the third I don’t scan are documents like life insurance receipts and other bills that do not tell me a great deal about the overall story. I save them to our desktop and my smartphone and spend a lovely holiday in North Wales reading, transcribing and writing notes. Pregnancy fatigue and toddler intensity take over my life and again the Szameitat story sits on the back burner.
January 2017. Despite now having two small children, I feel like if I don’t start now, I never will, and decide to set up a new blog. In those rare moments to myself over the last few months I have become more familiar with some of the documents, especially the handwritten letters written in the latter part of the war. Many of them were written by Johanne to Oskar, and the reason we have them is stamped across the yellowing envelopes: Gefallen für Großdeutschland (‘fallen for Greater Germany’). My great-grandfather Oskar Szameitat was killed in October l944 defending the city he called home, hit by an artillery shell only a few streets away from where he had lived: Hospitalstraße 22, Memel, East Prussia, Germany.
Property always seemed very important to my great-grandmother Johanne and her daughter Irene, and you can kind of see why. They’d had the land that they owned outside Memel confiscated and handed to Nazi sympathisers. When they fled from the Russians, they naively assumed that they would one day return home (neither ever did, despite the borders opening up in 1987). My grandmother used to keep her money in diamonds because she didn’t trust the banks not to go bust. The only time she ever hinted at her traumatic past was shortly before her death, warning us not to put all our money in real estate, because you never knew when you might lose everything. In Johanne’s letters to Oskar, I kept noticing the question Steht unser Haus noch? (‘Is our house still standing?’) It was always the second or third thing she wrote, and it clearly mattered to her a great deal.
The Lithuanian street name for Hospitalstraße is a direct translation: Ligoninės gatvė. By looking at old maps of Memel and comparing them with the modern old town of Klaipėda, I could work out where Hospitalstraße is now and, well, Google translate did the rest. Imagine my excitement when I realized a few months ago that you can access Google Streetview there too. I hastily looked up and down the street my grandmother had grown up on. Practically all of it must have been destroyed in the war, as it was mostly made up of modern residential flats, but I could make out just one older imperial looking building. I scrolled over to it. I nearly cried. The number etched into the stonework over the house, underneath the date the house was built (1905), was the number 22. Ja, Mama, euer Haus steht noch, I heard myself say quietly.