do not mention the war

My Father and I

In Identity on September 4, 2019 at 09:00

My father died on 4 July 2019 and I couldn’t help but think of Bruce Springsteen’s song „Independence Day“ from his seminal record „The River“. However, this song of emancipation does not apply to my dad and I because we never enjoyed a father-son relationship. If anything we had a non-relationship marked by his absence for most of the time. In fact I did not know my father well. All I know is that he was never independent and had to rely on others to help him, to support him. He did not have an Independence Day. This is largely due to his childhood of which there are no memories he may have passed on or stories told. Yet something must have happened there that made him the way he was.

Who was he?

I know that my dad was a teacher for PE and German in East Germany before 1989. He was a teacher afterwards too, but the subjects changed as did the schools where he worked. The changes in his work places are down to the needs of the schooling district on the one side. The other side was his personality. Before 1989 he was a party secretary at his school and thus there was a protective layer for him to rely on. By then the problems related to his drinking began. Surely, the fall of the wall may have contributed to it but that is only speculation.

Further, he was an athlete, part of a 4*400m relay that has set a record in the GDR during the 1960s. He also won the student title in the GDR over 400m in 1966. Later he became a handball and volleyball coach. This is one part of his heritage to me: my penchant for sports. There were only a few instances I recall now where we were a good team: watching sports, mostly football but also winter sports, cycling and the Olympics. What could have been a bond between us ended too soon: in 1994 he took me to my first Bundesliga match at Hamburg where HSV hosted BVB who were en route to their first league title since 1957. Dortmund annihilated Hamburg 4:0 that night. Once we went on holiday we watched Eintracht Frankfurt on their journey through Europe during the early 1990s. Sadly, this didn’t continue.

During the 1980s we often went to summer camps during the school holidays; my dad went with us as a lifeguard because we were always close to lakes and someone had to take care of those who couldn’t swim. In one of these summers he drew an image of a cycling peloton racing down a tree lined alley. In the front row of course were the yellow jersey as well the green and the polka doted one. Sadly, this drawing is lost; it would be the only artefact left of him that I know and I would keep it safe. The peace race was a huge event in East Germany and of course I followed it closely, reading about it  and watching it on television. Later I went to Wernigerode to see a stage arrival there as well as in Magdeburg. The jingle is very remarkable to this day. It is painful that this race has been terminated due to financial reasons. It makes me sad that this image is now lost.

He also had a nice collection of coffee table books about the Olympic Games in the second half of the 20. century. When he had to move house in 2013 these were sold, my dad could not hold onto them and pass them on. By that time his mental state had already suffered heavily from cigarettes and alcohol consumption. In this collection was one volume of the 1936 Olympics; as an historian of sports this would have been a treasure. It’s all lost now. I do hold myself responsible simply because I did not react quick enough to contact his wife (he re-married in 1994 after divorcing my mother in 1983). They had to move house into a smaller property, hence most of his possessions were sold or given away.

When I was about seven or eight years old my dad gave me an album with some stamps in it. I now think that he did so because he had no other idea for a gift. Little did he know what he has started. There was a period in my life where I collected stamps very passionately. With the end of the Cold War and the GDR, it was natural to focus on this subject because there is a starting and an end point. Did you know that East Germany was the country that issued the most stamps? The government clearly had an idea how to distract people from reality. Of course, I also focused on sports and can claim to have a collection of all East German olympic stamps, if not 100% then at least close.

What Remains?

There is little personal that remains. Save some photographs and some old passports there is nothing left. The moment in the chapel a few feet away from his urn were the last moments of direct contact for me with him. This I realised a day after the ceremony. This is it, there won’t be any cards, calls or conversations. Not that there have been any since 2015 when he was diagnosed with Korsakov-Syndrome and had to live in a care home. Nor before that. Since 1997, when I turned 18 and he 50, I can recount the meetings on my two hands and still have three fingers or so left. There were not even many phone calls during the last years.

When he had to move out of our house in 1983 I stood next to him and asked him if he would return one day. This question, utterly naive but also so normal for a four year old boy must have broken his heart, yet he did not show it. I’d like to know what he felt in this moment and at the same time I hope that I will never have to face such a question.

There is also the question what I will tell my children about their granddad. My son is nine years and they have met when my dad was visiting us in Paris in the summer of 2011. He was just over a year old then and therefore has no memories of this meeting, though there exist some photographs. My daughter (two) doesn’t even know she had a granddad from her father’s side.

Surely, with time and some distance things will look differently than they are now just two months after his death. What remains though is a gap, a void in my biography where normally memories from my childhood with my father would sit.

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