When a man suffers, the pain for him at that very moment might seem horrific and with no reason. And yet somehow it is that pain that could make those after him somehow connect to him and make him understand that he was not just a name or a picture, but a human with the ability to survive horrors and to still emerge with something akin to kindness. His story might be remembered, even if very imperfectly and with major gaps. But that suffering will stand as an achievement for which some of those who will come after him will be grateful.
My Grandfather, Gerhard Georg Riedel was born exactly one hundred years ago today. He was the fourth child in a family that was connected to cloth and the land. The place he was born in was famous for the abuse that families like his had been exposed to. Langenbielau was a true center of cloth in Europe and also a center of worker abuse and unconfined capitalism. Gerhard Hauptmann wrote “The Weavers” about Langenbielau and families like the one into which my grandfather was born. The work was banned from the stages at first because it contained, as a censor put it “a portrayal which specifically instils class hatred”. Karl Marx was apparently inspired by the work. But so were some others who put “socialist” in their name because they wanted to get as many people as possible to chain themselves to their horror machine.
I know so little about my grandfather. It really is mainly his suffering that he has left behind. I wish I had tried to find out more about him maybe thirty years ago? Had I only asked more questions when those who knew him were alive.
I am still trying to assemble him from the fragments I keep finding in archives.
When he was a young man in Langenbielau, he met a young women who had been sent there for forced labour. Her name was Erika, or Eryka. And they seem to have really hit it off. She spoke some German. He spoke absolutely no Polish. He knew how to say a few rude things. But not much than that.
My grandmother became pregnant with twins. And so Gerhard or Georg and Erica got married. Both in their early twenties and already brought together by the war. They got married in Kattowitz, the large Silesian city where my grandmother was from. His first son was called Gerhard, just like him. The second, somehow weaker little boy was Rudi, Helmut. My grandmother was proud of Gerhard and Rudi was the one she would show off less.
By the time my grandfather was 20 he already lost a child. Gerhard got sick with pneumonia and passed away. I would maybe be able to ask Rudi a bit more about his father. But Rudi does not like to speak with me at all.
1941 was the raging war. It’s when German troops were sent to Russia and when the wind of death blew through Europe mercilessly. By 1943, my grandfather’s older Brother Helmut had been killed somewhere in Russia.
I think he might have lost track of his youngest brother Kurt.
Death seems to have been everywhere.
In early 1945, the Red Army advanced into Silesia and the hatred sewn by the Nazis was now hitting those who were not able to run, or not allowed to.
My grandfather was captured right after visiting my grandmother. He was sent off to Siberia for forced labor. My father was born during that time. And so when my grandfather was finally released, his two sons were in an orphanage while my grandmother worked in a coal mine, trying to somehow make life possible.
My grandfather was released into Karl Marx Stadt. He never saw his boys again. The echo of that pain is still haunting us and will possibly for a few more generations.
Rudi became obsessed with being the only one who was worthy of his father’s name. My father struggled with his identity for decades.
The only objects lest of my Grandfather seemed to be three photographs and a cigarette box, into which my uncle had carved his initials.
My father visited his father’s grave.
It was only during the COVID-19 pandemic that I tried to somehow make sense of my grandfather’s life. Wanted to find out more about who he might have been, that happy young man who returned from Russia as a living skeleton.
I am still in the process of discovery. But already the journey has been incredible.
I am not sure if my grandfather knew that his younger brother Kurt had not been killed. He managed to escape from the war machine and fled over the mountains to Bavaria. There his young wife died while giving birth to their second child. But he then met a young widow with whom he was able to start a new life. It was their son who put together a family tree through which I found that part of the family.
I do not know what happened to my grandfather’s sisters. As records are slowly released, I hope to find out more. I am worried it will be frightening.
Not sure if my grandfather knew that his mother had survived the war as well. She ended up in Karl Marx Stadt too.
Langenbielau was one of those places in Silesia that was taken from the families who lived there for centuries and given to families whose villages and towns had been taken away by Stalin in the east. This is an incredibly tragic story for everyone involved. I do hope to be able to return to Bielawa some day and perhaps meet the people who live where my ancestors used to live.
I think I have reached the point where I understand.
My father called me this morning to remind me that it was my grandfather’s 100th birthday.
And when I played with one of my three sons this evening, the two year old created a little playdoh object with three chestnuts in it.
Happy Birthday! He said.
I hope that made my grandfather smile. He is with us.
Gerhard Georg Riedel. Born on the 10th of October 1921, passed on the 12th of February 1960 in Karl Marx Stadt, now again Cheminitz.