Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Make Your Grandpa Tell You His Story

Before he died, my Opa (Grandfather) wrote a family history with the help of my mother and her sister. I think he wanted to leave us with a sense of who we were and where we had come from since he and my Oma (Grandmother) had immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1953 and almost all ties to our past had be left behind in a war-torn Germany. I finally read the memoirs this past week, and it was the war-torn part that affected me most. Even though I had known my Opa for over twenty years and had spoken to him countless times, I never once heard a story about the war or his experiences after he was drafted into the German army.

Thanks to his efforts writing it all down, I now have not only a clearer vision of why he was the man he was, but I have a one of a kind primary account of what the war was like in the German army during the Second World War.

I read of the Master Sargent who liked to make sure the men guarding the munitions dump weren’t goofing off, so he’d climb the fence and try to break in. If he was able to get to the guards, they were thrown in the brig for three days. Apparently the man did this on a regular basis to the chagrin of the soldiers until, “this routine ended one night when one of the guards shot [and killed] the Master Sargent in the process of climbing the fence.” According to my Opa, the guard was exonerated of wrongdoing and, “We were all happy with the outcome.”[1]

He also wrote in some detail about the lockjaw he contracted after he had his jaw shattered by a Russian bullet and subsequently wired shut for six weeks. To cure the lockjaw he said, “Over the next two months I ran around with a pair of clothespins in my teeth. The spring inserted between my teeth put enough pressure on the teeth to gradually loosen their grip.”[1]

Finally, I learned that his father, my great-grandfather had spent his last days in a Russian forced labour camp, where he contracted typus after being forced to drink the blood-soaked water of the Oder River, which he and other prisoners were clearing of dead bodies under the stern eyes of their Russian Masters.[1]

Since reading these memoirs, it has occurred to me that it will soon be too late to collect any more. Various projects at organizations such as the Center for History and New Media collect the stories of those who went through more recent events such as Hurricane Katrina or 9/11;[2][3] such a project is commendable, but the veterans of the Second World War are every day diminishing, and with them the invaluable stories vanish forever. Veteran’s Canada has a dozen or so stories of Canadian War Veterans.[4] The Digital Memory Project Digital Archive has many dozens more.[5] But given the thousands of veterans still around, why have so few given us their stories in these online repositories?

Perhaps my Opa’s memoirs provide the answer. I mentioned at the beginning that my mother and her sister helped him write the memoir. What they actually did was type it into a word processor, because he couldn’t use one himself. He never owned a computer. Even until he died his watch was analog, his typewriter produced one copy of whatever he typed, and he never owned an answering machine.

If we want these stories, we have to find a way to get them. Those that have already been written were likely done in pen and ink. And while I’d love to be able to sit down and collect everyone’s story, one by one, I’m just one man. So, until I figure something else out, a little help, if you please. If you still have grandparents, please, go talk to them. Get those stories written down. Because they’re wonderful. They’re who we are.


[1] Herbert Eichler. The Eichler Family History. (2002?)

[2] “Hurricane Digital Memory Bank” The Center for History and New Media. http://www.hurricanearchive.org/

[3] “The September 11 Digital Archive” The Center for History and New Media. http://911digitalarchive.org/

[4] Veterans Affairs Canada http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/general/sub.cfm?source=links

[5] “The Memory Project Digital Archive” The Dominion Institute. http://www.thememoryproject.com/digital-archive/main.cfm?nointro=true

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