Because we were not blood related, I listened. Because I am British, she thought she owed an explanation.
I knew she grew up near Königsberg, then Germany’s most eastern city, now called Kaliningrad, now Russia’s most westerly. I knew she was married for 2 weeks before her husband fell, that she conceived a daughter in that time and fled with daughter and mother-in-law, in a brewery truck to the west in 1944, as the Red Army approached, and that she remained a widow until she married my father-in-law. By then her daughter was a respected physician.
‘You must want to know,’ she said to me, one evening in winter.
‘If we knew, about the murders by the SS.’
‘Of course,’ she affirmed. ‘But we didn’t believe it.’
‘There was a home for handicapped children in our village. We knew them by name and they shared our ice on the bench in summer, by the pond and we played tig with them. One day a truck arrived and took the children and their nurses. The rumour in the village was that they had been murdered. The newspaper reported they had moved to a more modern facility. Which would you have believed? One version so awful, the other, so official. But if you ask me if I knew, then yes. I knew.
‘I knew Field Marshal Goering, too. He used to hunt near the lake where we swam in summer, and always invited us to his lodge. We never went. He was fat and repulsive and hunted ducks on our lake and flirted with the girls, while the young men of the village were being slaughtered on the front, just a few hundred kilometres eastwards. We knew that, too, but never questioned it.’
My mother-in-law fell into a morose reverie.
A few years later, Christmas morning, my father-in-law, her second husband, blew his brains out, with a shotgun. She found him. I believe he could not deal with the random murder of Polish Jews, that as a Reichswehr officer, he had been obliged to organise. He had told me what a burden the memories had become, that it says in all the soldiers’ textbooks, that you must win over the civilian population in an area you conquered, that the army was successful in doing that – after all, Stalin’s henchmen were not popular, but then the SS arrived and ordered the murders. Why he chose Christmas morning we will never know.
My mother-in-law’s only child died from cancer. Right at the end, in a morphine delirium, she accused her mother of causing the cancer by remarrying.
1989 the wall and the barbed wire that divided Europe, fell. She visited her beloved East Prussia, but it didn’t help. The damage was irreparable. She moved to sheltered accommodation and slashed her wrists in the bath.
More recently I visited the Topography of Terror Museum, in Berlin. It was obvious! Everyone knew, but she was the only one of her generation I ever heard admit it. That’s when I appreciated her bravery, suffering, burden and honesty, but why didn’t I tell her when I had the chance?
Unlike her, I never asked the right questions, so I didn’t know.