|mural at Savignyplatz S-bahn station, Berlin.
Photo: David Wilson
In any case, I can imagine that if, every time my mother heard a siren, or fireworks, or thunder, her heart rate sped up, thus constricting the oxygen flow to me, I would learn to be afraid of the same sounds - and I do still find fireworks an unpleasant noise, though I've learned to tolerate them, and also not to be afraid of thunder.
I used to hear my grandmother talking about her family, who were expelled from their homes in Silesia 'in the snow, just with the things they stood up in,' or talking - endlessly, my brother, who was older at the time, tells me - about the Nazis and concentration camps, and about what my grandfather went through when he was persecuted for being a leftist in 1933, and about her own fear of being 'picked out' for looking Jewish (she had auburn hair). What I took in was fear, dread, shuddering, associated with certain names. 'Hitler' was the chief of these, because my grandmother - not unreasonably - believed he was Antichrist, something that wasn't a healthy thing to believe during the Third Reich, especially not if you screamed it aloud, as she did, when you were taken into psychiatric hospital because you had a nervous breakdown. I knew Hitler was dreadfully evil before I ever knew the details of what he had done.
She talked to me about these things, because she had nobody else to talk to, and I tried as best I could to comfort her. She told me about children as young as twelve being raped to death by Russian soldiers (I used to lie awake, brooding on those raped children) and how, when the Russian officer shut her into the room where he intended to have first go, she could hear a woman screaming upstairs, and knew what was happening to her.
But my mother would always end by assuring me that my brother and I were secure - that was the word she used. In my childhood, there was the Atom Bomb and the Cuban missile crisis, but I didn't live in a war zone. Very true. Later, too, when I began to want to write about Nazi Germany, she was angry with me, saying none of this was anything to do with me. Other people have asked me why I write about these things, and the same implication is there, that it was not my issue, because I was born in England with an English father, and didn't experience it.
Of course, fiction would be pretty impoverished if we all only wrote about what we've experienced, as my co-authors in this blog and their many readers know well. But actually, I did feel as if I had experienced these things, and the research and reading I have done, as well as the fiction grounded in that research, are the result of a deep compulsion to give a shape to inchoate horrors in my own psyche, to find out what these internalised terrors represented. What was behind my grandfather's temper, for example, his shoutings and rigidities, and my grandmother's shudder when she said 'concentration camp.'
|photo: David Wilson
It's odd, really, that many people find it so hard to comprehend how profoundly the next generation can be affected by the things their parents went through. Perhaps it's just too unsettling a concept. As far as my mother was concerned, I think she wanted to achieve for us what she had never had for herself, a safe, whole world to grow up in, and with her own anguish and trauma so vividly alive - till the end of her life she had nightmares of hiding in the undergrowth while the Russians searched for her, poking among the bushes with a stick, which at one moment came within inches of her face - she couldn't cope with our pain and anxieties - and I can see how they must have felt insubstantial to her.
I'm writing about this, not in any spirit of complaint or because I feel unfortunate - I don't, and neither did my mother; she knew she'd been lucky compared to many - but because I do think it is important to understand the phenomenon. Not least because that passed-on trauma is surely an ingredient in the long-standing, protectively-nursed hatreds that send nationalities and ethnic groups to war with each other; the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.
It's like the gut bacteria that are passed on to the infant from the mother via the birth canal, which science is discovering are far more significant to us than has ever been guessed; we are habitats, actually, populated by ideas, impressions, emotions from the past. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good reason for writing historical fiction.