In the kitchen, reconciling with the enemy
I've been tracing a path of family history lately, following the route that brought my parents together in England during World War II and eventually resulted in my speaking German almost as early as I spoke my mother tongue.
During the US occupation of Europe after the war, my military family spent three tours in Germany, the last of which holds my oldest memories. It was early spring when we sailed across the Atlantic to a very new life. As military housing was at a premium, we lived "on the economy," moving into a tiny village 45 minutes from Frankfurt, where a family named Geiss welcomed us into the ground floor of their home while they squeezed upstairs to make room for us.
I say "welcomed" because, contrary to popular belief about German-American relations at the time, the Geisses were kind - generous, really - even though they had very little, particularly after the war. But while they no doubt also welcomed the money they were paid for sharing that clean, accommodating space, they always felt far more like friendly relatives than landlords.
What I remember most is how cheerful and happy they were. I later learned that Herr Geiss, like my family, had only recently arrived in Germany. Before that, his wife and children had waited 15 long years while he was a prisoner of war in a Russian prison camp, wondering whether they'd ever see him again. I understand now that after he came home, they saw every day as a new beginning and treated it like something too precious to waste on anything but gratitude and joy.
It was during Easter week that year that the Geisses and I shared a curious day of cultural exchange. My parents had some complicated errands to run, and the Geisses offered to watch me while they were away. My 4-year-old self delighted in the day's pursuits, which actually involved little more than following along behind the couple as they did their chores, prepared the field behind their home for planting, and let me discover some stray potatoes they had missed at harvest time.
After we had eaten those potatoes along with eggs we'd collected from the hens, they introduced me to my first Easter eggs. We were coloring these when my parents returned bearing some traditional American fare: Hershey bars and a big bowl of popcorn that they had brought as an Easter gift and a thank you.
Most Germans had never seen popcorn because corn was grown only for animal feed in those days. That bowl lasted for hours as the Geisses removed a piece at a time, holding it up and marveling as they named the creature or object that its shape approximated. Eventually, we all began to do the same amid lots of laughter and a pretty good vocabulary lesson on both sides of our shared language barrier.
This event stands out because it signaled a perceptible shift in my family's bond with the Geisses, the kind that meant they would become regular guests at our military-base apartment long after we had moved out of the temporary shelter in their house. Few other American families had this kind of friendship, and after my mother's horrific experiences during the Blitz in Britain, almost anyone would have forgiven her if she'd been hesitant to embrace Germans. But my parents always seemed to see the humanity in any situation first - above and beyond history or politics.
A German friend recently shared a story with some parallels to that of the Geisses, a story that offers a German family's perspective. Toward the very end of the war, on Good Friday, my friend's family expected their tiny village to be overrun by US soldiers. German troops were retreating, and my friend's family was trying to decide whether they should stay or hide in the hills above the village.
In a previous war, their village had been completely wiped out in a similar situation, with every person killed, so they were quite fearful. They also had a family member who was a prisoner of war overseas and who would later become my friend's father. Like the Geisses, these folks were just trying to eke out a simple life in terrible times, during a war that they wished had never happened.
They decided that since it was Easter weekend, they would stay home. Within hours, several vehicles pulled into their farmyard and US soldiers ordered them upstairs while the soldiers took over the lower floor of the house. My friend's aunt remembers how young these soldiers looked at the time.
As she and her sister peeked down, she saw that the soldiers were having trouble lighting the cook stove. To her family's horror, she bounded downstairs to help them. (Her sister would later tease her that the reason she'd done this was that the soldiers were so handsome.)
That night, soldiers and family feasted together on fresh eggs and the soldiers' rations. On Easter morning, the family came downstairs to find the soldiers gone, along with a basket of hardboiled eggs they had colored that week. In its place was a stash of chocolate.
"My family hadn't seen chocolate for years," my friend says, "and this, combined with how carefully the soldiers had left everything in its place ... gave everyone great heart, and the ability to believe that maybe things would be all right after all." The miracle of his father's return a short while later was the best evidence of that. As spring bulbs began to bloom in the yard, his family knew that, despite the ravages of war, they'd see green fields again.
It's no coincidence that Easter's arrival in spring, and the essence of its significance - resurrection - reminds us of the precious gifts of restoration and renewal that unfailingly come to all human affairs. It assures us that, no matter what has happened, no matter how long our personal winters go on, the new life in the spiritual pulse of spring always offers us another chance.
• Sunday is the 60th anniversary of the declaration of V-E Day, 'Victory in Europe' Day.