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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Anecdotes of and reflections on the 14th of July

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For different reasons, the July 14th is a quite special day for me. It was my mother’s birthday, who broke with her West Prussian family tradition of longevity by dying of breast cancer aged 68. Her mother lived until the age of 89 and her grandmother died when she was 99 years old.

I remember attending a great-aunt’s 100th birthday and yelling in her ear. She was hard of hearing, but mentally fit. Six weeks later, she decided that she had done her earthly duty, and they found her dead besides her bed at the nursing home she was spending her last years.

From what my late father told me, his father died on July 14th, 1959, eight years before I was born. He had survived World War I as a medic on the Eastern Front, but after World War II German Communists and their Soviet masters put him in a labor camp in Brandenburg that the National Socialists had opened. He was accused of being a Nazi for guarding an old bridge as a senior member of the Volkssturm, a compulsory militia established in Germany in October 1944.

Over 60 years old that the time, he spent about two years there, including the winter of 1946/47, then the coldest of the century. My father said that grandpa only survived because his wife to bribed the guards and managed to smuggle a thick coat into the detention site.

During his stay as a soldier in Galicia, now divided between Poland and Ukraine, Jews living in that part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were extremely friendly towards Germans. A Jewish gentleman walking with him on the street would point out other members of the Tribe, saying “He is one of our people”. Considering what happened around 25 years later in that part of Eastern Europe, that nowadays sounds tragicomic.

One of my two sisters in law turns 70 today and I felt honored to receive an invitation for the celebration, though I had to kindly decline it. While she is an avid collector of ceramics from Bunzlau in Silesia, her father was an ethnic German from central Poland that landed in Lower Saxony, a West German state created by the Allied occupying powers in 1946. On his death bed, he went back to the roots and only spoke Polish.

Last, but not least on this very personal list is my dear Moritz, the cat that died exactly five years ago on this day. Although I found a nice playmate for his brother Max, which I named Leni and love very much, I miss him like crazy.

He only struggled for five days with diabetes, but I still feel guilty that I didn’t dedicate more time to him when I still had the chance. Whenever I remember how he looked at me while I opened the door to go spent the night at my girlfriend’s home, my eyes get moist…

To touch politics a little bit, July 14th is also the French National Day, the anniversary of the storming in 1789 of the Bastille, an armory, fortress and prison in the heart of Paris. It initiated a bloody revolution that ended absolutist monarchy and led to the decapitation of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette in 1793.

For generations of Germans until the end of World War II, France was the Erbfeind or hereditary enemy, the long dispute about Elsass-Lothringen, known in French and English as Alsace-Lorraine, and the Rhine border being a relevant factor.

Though in 1944 Paris regained control over the territory for good and did its best to destroy its century-old bilingual tradition, every time we drove through and I tried to use my very rudimentary French, the locals would answer me in German…

Relations between the two countries have definitely improved over the last decades, but I don’t believe in the much-trumpeted French-German friendship. Their national interests aren’t compatible and flowery words can’t conceal that. Anyway, I wish all my French friends a happy Bastille Day!

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