Today I walked by the house in which my aunt Gerda lived in 1981. It is in Langstraße in Hanau. (It’s “long street”, for those who are not familiar with German.) The building was from the 50s probably because Hanau had been completely flattened by allied bombers at the end of WWII. On the corner of Langstraße, on the large parking garage is a small black and white picture of a printing house that stood there before it was completely destroyed. Across the street from that corner is a memorial of the people who were shot by a racist not so long ago. Hanau is a complex place. We were not supposed to arrive there. But we did. It was the summer of 1981 and after many attempts to stay in West Germany we ended up visiting aunt Gerda. It was not a good visit.
Today My mother is in the hospital nearby now. She has just left intensive care. I hope she is going to recover.
It’s 40 years since we first pulled into Langstraße. It was July and we had entered Hanau from the East, bypassing the US Army buildings. The miraculous survivors of the bombings of Hanau.
We had driven for days. There were many dramatic moments on our journey in a blue Fiat 125P, pulling the little Polish fiberglass caravan.
Our 24 hour visa for West Germany had long lapsed. My parents were either arguing, sitting still for a few moments or they were trying to keep up the incredible excitement of us escaping to West Germany. It was all so we could have a better life. In reality it was also so my father would be able to stay alive. He had worked in the emergency service, extinguishing fires in coal mines. It was just a matter of time until we would lose him to methane or fire or the Earth just shutting down a shaft.
We had no idea what would happen next in that July, but we knew that we had to do this and that this was the next chapter of our lives. Even our dog seemed to feel that. She was so incredibly sad when she saw that we were preparing for a trip. My parents figured out a way to get the dog to come with us.
And even my mother’s winter coat was being smuggled with us into the unknown world of the west. My father took the piece of clothing apart and created a fitted cover for the back seat. I had to sit on the buttons when we were crossing any crucial borders.
It’s also likely that this is how I saw it all as an 11 year old. It was happening. I was in it, happening with it. I did not question the forces that were driving us. I had no idea how incredibly courageous it was of my parents to do what they did. I never met my German grandfather. My father also never met him. My grandfather had been taken into Siberia before my father was even born. That connection between father and son has fractured even my relationship to my sons in some way. I am still barely able to comprehend the incredible weight of everything now. Back then, my grandfather existed as words on a piece of paper and as a wedding photo in uniform. His death certificate and that very photo were the two documents that my father turned into negatives. My hands were small enough to tape them to the inside of the bumper of our car without leaving any traces of manipulation. I also painted over them. My mother did not even know we had done this. But still it was too dangerous to attempt to leave for West Germany through the DDR.
We crossed into Czechoslovakia at some insane early hour. And we crossed into Austria in the early morning, I think. I have this memory of us dancing in the fog on a field near a road to Vienna. By then we had made it out of the Eastern Block. We were together. It was a miracle. We now needed to head to the uncle who had been sending us care packages from his address in Berchtesgaden.
I do not quite remember if we drove through Vienna or not. We might have. It was just a giant place we needed to get through. Then on and on and on. Officially we were on the way to the Vatican. The Polish Pope, Jan Paweł II was the official destination. I still have not managed to visit Rome. There was no way for us to go to Italy. We had barely any money. All we owned was with us at this point. I think the total of cash was something like 2000DM. It was money my mother somehow managed to exchange for all the stuff we had in Poland.
I do not remember the German border. I do remember Berchtesgaden. It was a somehow magical place. The mountains are beautiful there and the houses looked like Heidi’s home town. But bigger. It was a bit as if someone had started with some kind of play of what would be beautiful in that landscape and then added a lot of power.
We arrived at the place where my uncle wrote from in the evening. It was a big pension. The 11 year old me was most fascinated by the cigarette machine. It seems curious again. I am sure it is no longer there.
My dad took me with him to see uncle Ernst. He was his mother’s oldest brother and the closest my father had to a dad. Uncle Ernst was a technician, I think. I knew him from photos where he actually stood in as my father’s dad. A very well put together gentleman in a suit.
He left Poland many years before us. He and his wife Gerda had two sons. But their marriage did not survive the pressures of immigration. My uncle had all kinds of jobs. I should probably remember what they were. I think one of them was DJ.
It might have been that when he was that, he met a woman who was as old as his youngest son. Whatever happened next was not very clear to me at that time. I only knew that he had ended up in that pension in the Bavarian Alps. A lovely place.
The people running it were a father and a son. We did not understand them, because we didn’t speak any German. But it was very clear that they were incredibly kind and accommodating.
I do not know what exactly I expected to see when the door opened to where uncle Ernst was. But he was certainly not the well put together man from the photographs.
He was a shell of a human, surrounded by all kinds of objects we had sent him over the years. On the wall was a big world map. I think there were little flags in places where the pension was sending packets to. We were on the map as well.
Near my uncle were boxes of beer.
I think he didn’t actually wear a shirt. He looked like a crazy mans traded on a desert island. He spoke so loudly as if we were still somewhere far away. He was happy to see my father. But he was too out of his mind to help us in any way. We had arrived in West Germany, in that strange promised land, just to discover that the problems here were pretty significant. We were on our own.
Maybe the experience of encountering my wild uncle was so overwhelming that it erased much else what followed in the night and the following morning. I think my uncle had a beautiful view form his room window. But this might be also pieces of a memory collage assembled in the head of an 11 year old forty years ago.
We had to keep going. We only had a 24 hour visa for West Germany. And we didn’t want to get kicked out. This again is my interpretation of what my poor parents must have experienced or thought.My father was just 36. My mother an incredibly determined 34 year old. She had the idea and the plan and the energy to plan the whole trip and to get us wherever we were. She was also the one who knew the most German. Her father wanted to teach her. It was his mother tongue.
But she was a young Polish scout. Silesia was going through a time of cleansing. German was a language of the horrible past that had caused the misery around her. Never mind that my grandfather had lost his legs after the war and was not able to take care of his family and children, causing an amount of pain I can’t even fathom.
My mother wanted to learn Russian. She became a Russian teacher.
My grandfather still managed to teach her how to count in German.
All my father and I were able to say was “Hitler, kaputt” and “Achtung, achtung, Fliegeralarm.” both not very useful words, despite being used very often in the television shows I watched as a child.
My parents somehow determined that we had to go to meet with my uncle’s ex-wife. She lived in Hanau. At this point she was the closest relative with the ability to form a coherent sentence, or so it seemed.
I do not remember our journey north. We arrived in Hanau in the evening. My father parked the car and the caravan in front of a shop called C&A. I liked the colors of it. I liked the colors of everything.
Germany looked so bright and joyful. It all seemed somehow related to that fantastic reality of the few LEGO sets my mother managed to get for me after standing in line for hours and hours. Back in the early 80s, Poland was the place where the expired LEGO sets went. But I didn’t know that. It didn’t matter. I loved the bricks and dreamt of being able to discover more of them.
We walked back on Lange Straße. The dog had stayed in the car, I think. My aunt lived on the top floor of the building. She lived with her youngest son. His name was also Ernst. He had a nicotine addiction. The substance had managed to not just gather on his lungs, it crawled up his fingers and around his mouth and his big nicotine colored beard. His older brother was okay. I am not sure he was there on that evening. I think he is the last survivor of that family now. I remember him being quite well put together, in a bright suit. But maybe that was a picture from a much later encounter.
Aunt Gerda didn’t have much time for us. We sat around her coffee table, the back wall was slanted as this was the very top floor. She told us to head back to Poland. That was her message. It was very to the point and clear. She didn’t want us there. And she was convinced that nobody in West Germany would actually want to welcome us.
Unemployment was something she mentioned. I am not quite sure what else. This was not a very long visit.
Soon we were out in Lange Straße again. It was still a very long bright evening in July.
Not sure what exactly my parents discussed and how. My next memory is of my father and me crossing a large square or a bus station. That place is still called Freiheitsplatz. Or freedom-square. We must have passed the very place on which the Grimm Brothers were born. I know that location as it was the stop for the number 3 bus, the one that brought me to school for many years. We walked past the giant former police building. The one with, legend has it, a very elaborate basement system. Also one of the few not destroyed buildings? Now the tax authority. We walked past a small cafe where I, many years later managed to confuse my friends by behaving in ways beyond flamboyant.
We walked into the modern new police station. My father and I looked at the two police men behind bullet-proof glass. My father put together his wrists as if to offer to have them put in shackles and said “Azyl.”
The policemen looked at us, the tired and dirty father and son. It took them seconds to respond. “No Asyl. Asyl, Frankfurt”
They kicked us out.
We left Hanau fairly confused; drove to Frankfurt and spent the night where Hanauer Landstraße still ends.
Our adventure in Germany somehow just begun.
It is fascinating that the circle of experience brought me to the exact same spot after forty years. My parents live in Hanau. I moved out around the age of 21. I lived in Offenbach, where I studied and then in New York for many years.
I am writing this during a heavy rain in London.
Just spoke with my mother and father.
My mother is doing much better now. But her situation is still not completely resolved. She is no longer in intensive care, however fell out of bed and one could maybe interpret some of her reactions as not very clear.
But she survived a very bad side effect to one of the drugs that were prescribed for her.
She had found herself at the very edge of life and death. Just a bit more and I would be writing about my late mother.
I spent two weeks in Hanau with my father. Because of the COVID pandemic, only one of us was allowed to visit the hospital two times a week. We managed to be there more often. My mother was at first not conscious. She still tried to punch someone in her dreams it seemed.
She dreamt of many members of her family. They all came to visit her. The living one and the ones who are no longer in this reality with us.
It’s funny how language allows for a little drip feed of information, revealing and hiding and dancing with a string of words.
As I am noting down these fragments of our story, I know that they are just little glimpses of something that has in some shape or form happened to all of us. But it is also a bit like a dream, infused with the sense of importance. Worth remembering. Worth noting, worth observing.
Thinking about it now, it is very funny that a lot of my art deals with the interconnectedness of everything, often manifests as what looks like circles. And how interesting that this was also the return to the fairly average, Long Street.