Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Can you imagine...

...not knowing, for a whole year, whether or not your wife and son were alive? That was the predicament Siegfried Knappe found himself in after World War II. From Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949:

In May 1946, exactly one year after I had surrendered in Berlin, the Russians finally permitted us to write home. I was permitted to write a postcard, with another postcard attached to it for an answer. I was allowed only fifteen words* in my postcard, and Lilo was allowed only fifteen words in her response. I wrote that I was well and healthy. Waiting and hoping for a reply was sheer agony. Finally, after more than two months, I got Lilo's reply on July 24. It was a day sent by heaven! Only when I received it did I know for certain that she and Klaus had survived the war. She knew that I was alive, because the old retired general who had been released from the gentlemen's prison in Kopenick delivered the letter I had written her from there. Lilo wrote that she and Klaus were well and that we had a second son, whom she had named Alexander and who had been born exactly one year earlier -- on July 24, 1945! She had sewn a photograph of her and our sons onto the back of the postcard, and I blessed her for her ingenuity. Receiving that photograph was like getting a new lease on life. I still had a small oval locket with a picture of Lilo that I had saved through countless searches by Russian guards. When I got the postcard with the new family picture, I cut it to size and put it on the other side of the locket. The locket stayed around my neck during all the rest of my period of captivity.

The elation of knowing that my family was alive was just as quickly squelched as my eyes fell upon the barbed wire that kept me from them. Knowing they were alive made me miss them all the more. Until now I'd been steeling myself against news that they had not survived the war. Until now, I had survived one moment just to be able to survive the next one. Now I had something to live for beyond survival. Until now, I had looked upon each new day as a small miracle and a gift. Now that I knew I had a family waiting for me, each day of life became even more precious.

From May 1946 on, we were allowed to exchange postcards with our wives twice a year, although I won an extra postcard as first prize every time we had a chess tournament. The postcards provided me with a motive to win. However, when things went badly for the Russians in the Cold War, they would hold our return postcards and not give them to us, so we could not count on receiving them.

Not knowing whether I would ever see Lilo and our sons again was the worst part of captivity. Sometimes the Russians told us, "You are war criminals -- you will never go home." Then when things were going better for them in the Cold War they would tell us we would be home by Christmas. Sometimes their deliberate psychological machinations would get the better of me and I would become despondent, but with time I finally just adopted the philosophy of the Russian peasant: "Tomorrow will be better." It helped me to accept the uncertainty of captivity.

It also taught me the value of patience, a lesson that has served  me well throughout my subsequent life. Patience is also a characteristic of the Russian peasants, and now I know why.

* That's less, I figure, than the 140 characters in a tweet -- not to mention a blog post!

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