The words on the back of the photograph of the young man read:
"In remembrance of my beloved son Gerd. For my little, dear Nelly! From Frau Marie Weers.
Gerd was born 25.3.23, on a Sunday, in the morning at 8 o'clock."
Each day people's lives are changed forever in big ways and small by those whose lives touch theirs.
This is how it was in 1941 when Kaatje (Kitty,) my mother's sister, who was 11 at the time, came home in a state of excitement. She couldn't wait to tell the family about the wonderful new friend she had made. His name was Gerd von Minden; he was 18 and in the Kriegsmarine; the German navy; on a boat docked in the Schie river in Rotterdam. Before long, Kaatje brought him home to meet her family, with his 19 year old friend, Kurt Reske, who was from Prussia
They found a place of friendship, and family, in our family, while they were stationed in Rotterdam from 1941-43. Oma used to wash and starch parts of Kurt’s uniform and he would bring them bread, which he had access to because he was a cook on the ship. Mum was in her 15th year when these boys--for that is what they were--came into her life.
When Mum shared this part of our history with me when I was a teenager, she struggled. But she wanted me to know, and I knew that whatever she was trying to tell me was very hard. I tried to guess what it might be, but my guesses were far off and for many years afterwards I tried hard to reconcile myself to what she told me.
A dark spot of shame grew in my heart, even as I tried to understand. Not shame of her--how could that be? But it wasn't the history I wanted. It was only in recent years that I came to terms with it through writing the story and sharing it--and letting go of judgements I had no right to make.
We see things in black and white and yet real life is not so simple. I don't know what I would have done in their situation. Would I have forbidden my children to speak to the enemy in the streets? But these were boys, more like older brothers than anything. They gave the children chocolate and made friends of them. My uncle, who loved horses, made friends with the soldiers in the cavalry.
In 1943 Gerd was sent to the Adriatic Sea – they never saw him again. He died on the 12th of October 1944. He was 21 by then. The boy who they knew was terrified of dying in the water, drowned when his ship was torpedoed. Kurt’s boat was sunk too, but he survived, although in ill health. He was sent home to Germany with TB. Kaatje too, died in 1942, of blood poisoning. She was only 12.
Kurt, who is in the group photo above, fell in love with Mum. He kissed her only once, and they lost touch when he and Gerd were sent away. In 1944, when Mum was 18, he wrote from Germany, and asked her father for her hand in marriage. Mum never saw the letter, but her father wrote back and said that if he really loved her, he would not ask, because of his illness.
I look into Gerd's eyes in the photo and grieve a life lost so young, an only son. It seems important to tell the small part of his story that I know, here. I'm glad that he found a welcome somewhere, when he would never see his own mother again.
As the war swirled around them all, there were darker shadows yet to come in all of their lives
Nelly's story will continue in two weeks. Next Monday, Christopher's story continues.