My family lost their home during WWII. A familiar story as so many were displaced, had to literally run for their lives and could never go back. At least, they were alive, when so many got murdered.
My family were smallholders in an area called the “Sudetenland”, which describes the land on the fringes of former Czechoslovakia. It was never a country or anything like that, just a region that had been mostly German speaking for centuries. In fact, we know that our family had lived in the same area for more than 500 years. After the 2nd World War, the Czechs expelled all German speakers – unless you could prove that you were not a Nazi sympathizer, which was almost impossible. I never will understand the violence, fear and horror that my grandmother and her family experienced.
Despite the fact, that I will never understand what it has been like to lose everything, however little that “everything” had been, I know that this loss had defined my grandmother greatly. She longed for the forests and mountains of her youth and she missed that rural life. She would have been a great farmer’s wife and although my grandparents settled in Western Germany, in a Swabian village, living in a flat was just not the same as living in a house in the country surrounded by fields and animals.
I know that life had not been easy for the displaced and resentment from Western Germans towards those refugees was great. My grandparents lived for a couple of years in a refugee camp. There are some black and white images of them standing next to a fence with barbed wire on top, it did look a bit like a prison to me. Now I know that Germans killed millions of Jews during WWII, I don’t want to make a judgement of who had it worse, I am just telling the story of my family and of what it means to have a home.
The resentment of the local people grew, once they were forced to share their homes with those refugees. The stories that my grandmother would tell, made my blood boil at times, but now I can understand both sides: Imagine some official body tells you that one bedroom has to be made available to someone you don’t even know and you have to share your kitchen and your toilet with them. Our homes are such private places, the intrusion must have felt threatening. And to my grandmother it was degrading. Local people referred to them as people who had lived in earth hovels, who had no manners and who were thieves hardly better than the lowest of the low.
Over time, my grandmother made peace with where she lived. It was a fragile peace and she often suffered from depression (I know that it was depression now, when I was a kid, I did not understand the mood swings, withdrawal and anger). She would put a lot of work into her allotment, she loved the woods and day trips to the Black Forest reminded her of home. The landscape of the Black Forest and the landscape of the Ore Mountains are similar in many ways.
I was born in the 1970ies and I grew up with this little Swabian village being my home, but I learnt loss of home and the meaning early on, literally on the lap of my grandmother. The stories of her childhood were my bedtime stories, I learnt about the loss in stories too and about the fear. I grew up being scared of Czech people (who I learnt later are lovely). Every year, we went to the get-togethers of the displaced Sudetenddeutsche, keeping the loss always at the forefront of our minds. When I was kid, I loved going to those meetings. The flags, the ceremony, my grandmother was happy there, among people she had been friends with when she was little and who now lived all over Germany. I loved the food, the cakes and the places we stayed at. My favourite was the garden centre that one of my grandmother’s friends had established, they had a lovely house and those greenhouses were magical places to me. There was a lot of laughter, but also tears. Some had a dogged determination, that one day, they would go back home. Of course, this will never happen, but it gave them comfort. As I grew older and my leanings were more liberal and on the left end of the political spectrum, those meetings and the feelings displayed become uncomfortable to me. Now, in my 40ies myself, I wish I could go back and simply love the people that were there. My people as it turns out. Listen more to their stories. I do realise that the politics of it all, were just a side show, the main show was grief.
My uncle and my father never moved away from the Swabian village I grew up in. Well my uncle once moved for a couple of years to the town right next to it, but moved back because he felt he lived too far away. Their sense of home was to hold on to what they knew. I did often wonder if that had something to do with them drinking loss of home with their mother’s milk.
I grew up with the urge to flee the village for many reasons and at first I went to Munich, which was not far enough for me and then finally to the UK. The thing with moving away is that most of us that do still feel a sense of loss despite the choice we made. No one forced me to move, well, maybe in a way my hand was forced as I wanted to live as far away from my father as possible. I am not unhappy with my life here, in fact, I love my family and I don’t mind where I live. My home is where my little family is. I love also my house house and I have met some wonderful people over the years. This feels like home, but it’s not my “Heimat” and I do miss my “Heimat”.
Heimat has no equivilant in English, it’s best to be described as a combination of where you are from, the social context of your life there and the way it connects you to the tradition of the place. I get weepy at times when I see a picture of Spaetzle, and that is just one of many little things that connects me with the place I used to call home. And then there is also that longing for the Ore Mountains, which has less to do with my Heimat. The longing for the place where – according to my grandmother’s fairytales – life was wonderful despite poverty and hardship. I realise that she told stories and they were embellished, still, I do feel the loss of that home at times quite acutely. And I don’t even know why.
I often feel that as an expat – at least in my experience – we either start to love where we are from more than we did when living there or we start to resent it even more when away from it. For most of us, there seems to be no way back and in that way I am not so different from my grandmother: She longed to go back but could not due to the politics of the time, I long to go back but I cannot because I fear that I will hate the reality of it and destroy my family’s happiness. The reasons may be different, but the reality is the same.
So I make my home away from home, my home that is not my Heimat and the Heimat which remains – at least for me – an unattainable dream.