As a teenager and then university student, I was a prolific letter writer.
With a penchant for languages, I saw letter writing as a practical way to broaden my horizons and bring academic teachings to life while indulging my enquiring mind.
Mine was a people-focused pursuit. I wrote to friendly faces I had encountered on my summer travels with my father. I wrote to students who sought to exchange languages skills. I wrote to strangers who occasionally went on to become lifelong friends.
Once, after reading a feature in a German magazine, I even wrote to a tree!
Anyone passing by the Bräutigamseiche in Eutin, Schleswig Holstein, can help themselves to a letter.
Mine was fairly standard for a young student looking to practice her German. I introduced myself and invited the reader to drop me a line.
Then I forgot all about it.
One day, a letter from Northern Germany arrived.
The penmanship was elegant and the writer went on to say that he would be delighted to exchange random thoughts with me in Goethe’s tongue.
His tone was engaging so I replied.
This was the start of a correspondence that was to span several years. It was regular, but not intense. We discussed life in our respective countries, cultural differences, and of course food.
Meanwhile, I had started studying German at university in London.
My tutors welcomed initiative so I was able to focus all my studies around one central theme: Jews under the Third Reich.
Like all other French youngsters my age, I had watched much WW2 footage in high school during history class. Every time, I was deeply disturbed by it and wanted to understand how the Holocaust had been allowed to happen.
Little did I know I’d eventually come across some clues.
One day, my pen pal invited me to stay with him and his family.
I had not mentioned the exact nature of my studies to him, anxious as I’ve always been to never imply that Germans and Nazis are synonyms.
I went to stay with him and his wife who wasn’t around much as she was a nurse. He played the perfect host for a while and showed me the sights; we ate Abendbrot on little individual wooden cutting boards in the evening.
We talked at length, an old man and a young student both acutely aware of the significance of the other’s presence in their respective lives.
He was itching to know why I had decided to study German.
At that point, the conversation inevitably drifted toward my grandfather.
Papi, as we grandkids fondly called him, was born Eastern Europe. Sometime during his early years and for reasons they took great care to conceal, his family fled to France where they settled and started anew.
Papi became a French citizen in 1933 so when WW2 broke out, he donned a French army uniform and shipped out. He was soon captured by the Nazis and promply dispatched to Germany where he toiled in many different forced labor camps.
This is where he learned German and the power of resilience.
When I was little, my grandfather occasionally mentioned helping out some German tourists who had gotten lost and needed directions.
He lived in a village where discombobulated Brits and Germans would spontaneously appear. There was no GPS or smartphones back then and the place was so tiny most people couldn’t find it on the map because they had missed the sign and had no idea what it was called.
Whenever Papi talked about the tourists, he concluded that it was a pity so few people these days bothered to learn other languages.
“We must never forget what the Germans have done. But we can’t and mustn’t hold the new generation responsible for the atrocities perpetrated by those who came before. We have to keep building Europe, we have to keep talking; this is the only way to safeguard peace.”
I heard countless variations of this speech over the years, and it stuck.
Despite having had a front row seat to genocide, my grandfather saw little point in recrimination and preferred to embrace pragmatism.
This is the only commentary he ever made about his traumatic time as a POW. We instinctively knew not to ask questions, it was a tacit family wide pact. I wasn’t at a stage in my studies when I could confidently defy this edict but it was what I was working toward.
Meanwhile, Papi made sure to teach his eldest son — my father — the list of all the places he had been held prisoner.
Nie wieder. Plus jamais. Never again.
My grandfather wasn’t an educated man, he spent most of his life as an agricultural worker and could barely write, but he was wise.
My pen pal appeared visibly moved by my grandfather’s story and decided to open up about his own past under the Third Reich.
At once, my history books sprang to life as I realized I was sitting opposite a former Hitlerjugendführer, i.e. a former Hitler Youth leader. He explained to me how he had preached Hitler’s doctrines to many a young German and organized various activities.
I immediately defaulted to interview mode, censoring my inner dialogue, and jotting down all I could. The voice that was asking questions wasn’t my own, I was in a state of shock, completely numb, but I needed to learn more. Duty of remembrance and curiosity compelled me to gather as much information as possible.
In the middle of our intense exchange, the real person behind the pen pal got up and retrieved two large books from a wooden chest.
Those were Hitler Youth books written in Gothic script. He then explained to me they were albums into which young Germans would stick pictures of their then idols — Hitler and his entourage. I can’t recall where they got them from.
I was horrified and taken aback in equal measures. All Nazi-related material was supposed to have been surrendered and destroyed after the war.
I asked him why he still had the books and he replied they were “a nice souvenir.”
Because he was rather nostalgic for bygone glory and didn’t view Nazism as reprehensible in any way.
I asked him if I could borrow the books and he agreed.
I took them back to the UK, brought them along to my presentation about Hitler Youth, and sent them back to Germany without any accompanying note.
I thought of donating them to a museum in England but they were not my property.
Shocking though this may sound, being in possession of such memorabilia isn’t a criminal offense under German law although rules surrounding its use are complex, controversial, and open to interpretation.
I had come face to face with history.
I never wrote to him again.
While in Germany, I had befriended his daughter, also a university student, but a few years older than me. She talked to me frankly about her father, whom she loathed with a passion. Julia had seen an ad for an au pair job in California that an American family in her local paper and she asked me to help her write an application letter in English.
I crammed as much enthusiasm, helpfulness, and heart into it as I could so she might stand a chance to escape her toxic father for a while.
And then I went back England and carried on with my studies, delving deeper and deeper into the Holocaust until I lost sleep and became haunted by it.
But I continued to study German regardless, went to live in Hamburg for a while, and completed my studies. To this day, German language and culture remain an intrinsic and much, much cherished part of my cultural identity.
Against all odds, Germany has become France’s best friend since 1945 and the two countries built the EU together.
So that history could never repeat itself.
One day, a postcard from California dropped onto my doormat; it was from Julia.