As you read Die Zeit, you’re translating for me
the story of the war that’s begun not far
from Siegen, and I remember the spires of your small city in Westphalia,
the old-book smell of Klaus Feiertag’s shop on Kampenstrasse,
the few gabled half-timbered buildings that survived the bombings,
the intricate iron door-strappings and fittings,
the ornate hinges and handles you love to photograph,
the fishtail fans, the Celtic mazes, the orbs and eyes and swords of iron,
details of roof windows, sills and sashes, beams and gutters, soffits and fascia,
swirling patterns carved into slate walls,
every element crafted with attention,
the squat chimney pots like gnomes looking out over the rooftops to the far mountains,
the towers on the hill guarding the city destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly through the ages.
I imagine you as a teenage girl loving this city
climbing the long-cobbled road up Siegberg hill,
the old palace of Oberes Schloss converted to a museum.
Although you hurry past the painting by Rubens, your townsman,
The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus
depicting muscled Castor and Pollux gripping two naked women
while a black-winged putto looks on,
you stop to read the 3,000-year history
of the men in your family tunneling through red rock
of iron ore, dust clogging their lungs, killing them slowly.
And you think of the women dying of childbirth,
dying of endless work, of grief, of hunger and rape.
You hurry across the hard floor of greywacke stones set in a herringbone pattern
and outside, climb a medieval bastion to look down at the city
spread out below and the Hüttental Valley beyond.
You love this park in the spring when 60,000 tulips are in bloom
and in summer the outdoor concerts of oompah music.
Dicke Turm means Fat Tower, but tourists sometimes call it Fat Dick,
a cruel name for a handsome edifice with a carillon that chimes every two hours.
Even older and taller in the medieval core of the city stands the Nikolaikirche,
a red and white church tower topped by the Krönchen,
a gilded crown, the shining symbol for medieval Siegen.
And you think of this beautiful city, your city, your father’s city
attacked by British bombers in 1944.
Your father, just a boy, hid beneath the stairs
as the house came down around him.
After the bombs stopped falling, people emerged
from basements and tunnels where they’d been hiding
to look for food and fresh water.
Every building was a smoking ruin.
Even the church tower was half-demolished.
You’ve told me of The Aktives Museum
where Siegen’s one synagogue burned down during Kristallnacht.
And you’ve told me of Walter Krämer, hero of the resistance
from Siegen, prisoner at Buchenwald
who taught himself medicine to save his fellow inmates.
Blessed are the essential workers, as we say in our own dark days.
The zoo nearby has white-cheeked gibbons and laughing kookaburras
and children can make friends with goats and donkeys.
Here you eat schnitzel and roasted potatoes
with a tall glass of Krombacher brewed nearby.
You walk the cobbled streets of this city
founded before the Romans came, before
the Franks, the Burgundians, the hundreds of chieftains
who fought for control of farms and mines, rivers and forests
providing meager work for your family. Your father drove
a truck for forty years through the winding rutted roads
delivering groceries to villages
where people have lived for a hundred generations
of rain and snow. The church registry
lists a thousand years of your ancestors
and beside every man’s name his occupation
as miner or farmhand. Your grandmother cooked
for the mine owner’s family, and your grandfather’s
bookstore was raided when he refused to display
Nazi propaganda. Too old to fight,
he was sent to villages in the low country
and given a shovel to bury
rotting corpses. When he found
the hand of a child beside the road,
he threw the shovel in the bushes and walked home.
Captured by the Americans, he spent six months as a POW.
He said it wasn’t bad, at least they fed him.
You remember his kindness to children,
how you learned to read in the nook beneath his desk,
but also, how easily he broke the necks of the caged rabbits
and how you ran from the dinner table,
hid in a closet and wept for them.
The ruins of war lay across the city like a shadow.
The boy hid beneath the stairs
as the house fell around him.
I’ll say it again and say it differently
because the horror of war must never be forgotten.
The boy hid beneath the stairs
when the Good Guys came to kill him.
You were told not to wander through empty lots
of charred bricks, broken blocks, girders
sticking out of the ground like bones
because bombs lay forgotten beneath the soil.
You were warned not to talk to the soldiers
who leaned against street lamps watching you
walk by, as soldiers of other wars had watched
your mother, your grandmother, her mother
back to a time when men charged each other
with bronze spears and drank mead
from the skulls of their enemies.
Now tanks are rolling
down the streets of your fear as we sit over coffee
in our comfortable house far from war
in a country sliding toward war
and our leaders speak of protecting democracy
but never speak of killing children.
Your voice carries a hint of your first language
like baggage from a past your family has survived.
You often say We are the ones descended
from survivors. We will survive as will our children.
Your brothers and their wives in the old country
are safe now, but in your blood is the ancient fear
like the winter sun that shines on the broken stalks
of our garden, the same sun that shines
on the frozen fields of war far away
but growing closer.
Author Note: This is a first draft I wrote on the morning of Thursday, February 24, 2022, after my wife Eva and I heard on NPR that the Russians had invaded Ukraine. For Eva, who is German with family and friends living in Westphalia, the news was difficult to bear, recalling the stories she’d heard as a child about the bombing of her hometown of Siegen during the war and the hardships her family suffered in those years, including the leveling of Siegen on December 16, 1944, by the British. Siegen has a rich architectural history with roots that go back to the Bronze Age, and Eva grew up watching the city being rebuilt. The idea that Europe would again be at the edge of self-destruction is horrifying.
Photo by Photobeps/Adobe Stock