I’ve been retracing a path of family history, following portions of the route that brought my parents together in England during World War II and eventually resulted in my speaking German (well, a kindergartner’s “German”) almost as early as I spoke my mother tongue.
During the U.S. occupation of Europe after the war, my military family spent two tours in Germany, the last of which holds my oldest memories.
In the winter of 1960, we sailed across the Atlantic to a very new life. As military housing was at a premium, we lived “on the economy,” first in a hotel that I still visit, then in a tiny village 45 minutes from Frankfurt. A family named Geis welcomed us into the ground floor of their home while they squeezed upstairs to make room for us.
Contrary to popular belief about German-American relations at the time, they were unfailingly kind and astonishingly generous, especially since they had very little after the war. While they no doubt welcomed the money they received for sharing that clean, accommodating space with us, they always felt more like grandparents than landlords to me.
What I remember most is how cheerful and happy they always were. I later learned that Herr Geis, like my family, was a recent arrival in Germany. Before that, his wife and children had waited nearly 15 years while he was a prisoner of war in a Russian prison camp, wondering whether they’d ever see him again. I understand now that after he came home, they saw every day as a new beginning and treated it like something too precious to waste on anything but gratitude and joy.
It was during Easter week that this couple and I shared one of my earliest intercultural exchanges. One day my parents had some appointments and errands and the Geises offered to watch me while they were away. My four-year-old self delighted in the day’s pursuits, which actually involved little more than following along behind the couple as they did their chores, preparing their field near the Main River for planting, and helping me discover some stray potatoes they’d missed at harvest time.
After we’d eaten those at the mid-day meal, together with eggs we’d collected from their hens, they introduced me to my first Easter eggs.
We were coloring them when my parents appeared at their kitchen door, bearing some traditional American fare — Hershey bars and a big bowl of popcorn — that they’d brought as an Easter gift and thank-you.
Most Germans had never seen popcorn, since corn was grown only for animal feed in Europe in those days. That bowl lasted for hours as the Geises removed a piece at a time, holding it up and marveling as they named the creature or object that its shape approximated. Eventually, we all began to do the same amid lots of laughter, and a pretty good vocabulary lesson on both sides of our collective language barrier.
This event stands out in my memory because it signals such a perceptible shift in my family’s bond with the Geises, the kind that meant they’d become regular guests at our military-base quarters on-base quarters long after we’d moved from our temporary shelter in their house.
I didn’t know of any other American families who shared this kind of friendship, and after my mother’s horrific experiences during the Blitz in Britain, most anyone would have forgiven her if she’d been hesitant to embrace Germans.
As I travel through Germany all these decades later, I feel eternally thankful for parents who were always able to see the humanity in any situation, above and beyond past history or politics. I realize today what a vital part of peace-building this is.
Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details –