The narrator evokes a trip made with his family by car along the roads of a Europe that has just recently come out of the war....
The wheels clattered as they rolled over the cobblestones.
The warm evening air flowed in through the rolled-down window and the street was sparingly lit by droopy street lamps.
One could still make out the dark bomb sites along the roadside.
We were on our way to Hamburg. It was 1953. I was twelve and showing signs of puberty with pimples and a voice that was changing.
There were four of us in the car; my father, my mother, my big sister and me. We had been on a journey through Europe – down through Germany, over the Brenner Pass, around Lake Garda, up along Lake Como, over the Saint Gotthard Pass and once more through Germany to then get back home, to Copenhagen.
Germany had been at war. Now, eight years after the end of the war, everything had been neatly tidied up: roads had been re-established, at least in the towns, but the houses were still bombed-out ruins. Scorched walls, half-broken-down walls, houses without roofs, houses where walls were missing. Gaping holes, where there once had been windows. Trees and bushes, which pushed their way up through the ruins and gave everything an optimistic morale: you can destroy a town but a tree will always find a way to still grow.
War II in a vivid and direct way. The narrator evokes a trip made with his family by car along the roads of a Europe that has just recently come out of the war. We thus have a picture of men and women who, remarkably and with energy and patience, have rolled up their sleeves to begin the task of reconstruction amidst the rubble.
The main scene of the story occurs one evening in which the family – exhausted and towards the end of their fatiguing journey – must stop to repair a punctured tyre. The boy, who is now the writer of this story, will not forget something that happened on that occasion.
A German ex-soldier, with one leg missing, observes them from the side of the road. The boy cannot help but feel hatred and mistrust for this man, whose face and body bear the signs of his ordeal but whose eyes exude human feeling. “Nicht so bőse”, “Don’t get upset, don’t worry”, the man says to the boy who is annoyed because of his tiredness and the setback that has just occurred.
The boy then feels shame for his contemptuous behaviour towards the man. And the incredible thing is that even after such a long period of time this apparently small and unimportant event still resounds in the memory of the narrator.
This story is, in our view, an example of how the small story which permits us to enter deeply into the intimate feelings of an individual can take us into the broader historical sphere of which the personal story is a fragment.
Through this story we seem in fact to touch, see, and almost smell the reality of a Europe emerging from the war.
But some stories, like some photographs, not only depict something which happened in a certain place at a certain time, but also fix an image – a scene that seems to go beyond time and space – to give it metaphorical and symbolic meaning. Such stories are fragments of history which, for some strange reason,
happen to depict fundamental aspects of the whole of history of which they are a part.
This story, thus, has certainly been chosen because it touches a historical period which is at the base of the birth of Europe and because of the author’s narrative talent. But the reason is also perhaps linked to that final image, to that sense of shame never again forgotten.
The feeling of shame which pervades the boy, in fact, in some way tells us something – it has resonance for us as well – now. It reminds us perhaps that a society which vowed not to repeat the errors of the past was built on the immense grief and suffering of men and women.
Do we remember this lesson well enough today? Can we fulfil the vow once taken in the past by our fathers and mothers?
A Europe of democracy and peaceful co-existence is a difficult goal and its achievement requires continuous efforts in the midst of present-day complexities. But this goal must constantly remain on our horizon of meaning and little stories like this one will help us not to forget it.
Project partners included: UNIEDA, the Italian Union for Adult Education (coordinator), ADN – Archivio Diaristico Nazionale di Pieve Santo Stefano – Italy, VIDA -Associação Valorização Intergeracional e Desenvolvimento Activo - Lourosa – Portugal, EIC - European Information Centre - Veliko Tarnovo – Bulgaria, DPU - Danmarks Pædagogisk Universitetsskole, Aarhus Universitet – Denmark, FDC - Fundació Privada Desenvolupament Comunitari – Spain, SL - Sozial Label e.v. –Germany
“The wheels clattered as they rolled over the cobbles. The warm evening air flowed in through the rolled down window and the street was sparingly light by droopy street lamps. One could still make out the dark bomb sites along the roadsides. We were on our way to Hamburg. It was 1953. I was twelve and showing signs of puberty with pimples and a voice that was changing”.
In the years following the Second World War, when Denmark was occupied by Germany, a desire to travel and see other countries and cultures – primarily within the borders of Europe – slowly started to grow.
It was a desire that had long been impossible to fulfil due to the many years of war, occupation, demarcations and poverty.
Yet, it became increasingly popular to set out on a ‘Grand Tour’ at the end of the 1950s when Denmark was once again getting back on its feet after the lean post-war years. Car, motorbikes or bicycles were got ready, the new gear for camping was packed and off we went!
This is a story about a journey in the early 50s, a motor car journey through Italy, Switzerland and, not least, an impoverished and scarred West Germany, with endless tailbacks, Umleitung, construction sites, cranes and ruins – a country in reconstruction.
Denmark is a small country and borders in the south on the big Germany. This has affected Danish policy for generations and Danish culture has – and more particularly has had – close relations with its neighbour, as can be seen even in the characteristics of the Danish Royal Family and Palace. Admittedly,
in continuation of the notion (or ideology) of the national state, shared roots and interests were marked, and – first and foremost – so was the demarcation between very different mentalities, prehistory and languages.
After the world war and the end of the occupation, the common national attitude to the German people generally was that they were the ‘enemy’ with whom one would keep formally polite and distant relations. Yet, they were also simply human beings like you and me – and this attitude prevailed well into the
60s. The following dialogue between mother and child in Dræby’s story accurately depicts the Danish attitude to the Germans in the first years after the war:
“Are the Germans evil?” I asked my mother, and thought of everything I had heard about the Nazi horror. “Some were”, she replied. “I suppose most of them were not. But the good ones let the evil ones be evil. She pointed to the ruins, “And they all paid the price”.
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