A family’s history is wrought from stories, but there comes a point as a kid where you glaze over when your parents tell you the tale of yours. Again. And again. And even though the details might change, as they often do when time colours them, you’ve heard the various riffs so many times that it doesn’t matter, as you simply don’t listen any more.
Sooner or later, though, once you’ve got a bit of life behind you, you want to know. Maybe your parents have died, and you can no longer ask the questions you want to ask. Maybe you get lucky, as I did, and find a few useful pieces of the puzzle of your past, revealing it to be more interesting than you might have imagined.
My parents and my older brother moved to England from Cologne in Germany before I was born. While my father was English, my mother was Austrian, and the family had only ever spoken German together. Being plunged into an infants’ school in the North West of England in the late 1950s not long after the end of the Second World War can’t have been without its challenges for my brother, who was five at the time.
The legend goes that within two weeks of starting school there, he went from, “Mutti, Mutti, schaut sich die Kühe auf dem Feld an”, to “Mummy, Mummy, look at the cows over there on the field”. Quite how much of a linguistic wunderkind he actually was, I’m not sure, but to help my brother fit in better at school, my parents decided fairly swiftly to make the family language primarily English.
By the time I came along, when Ronnie was 10, he could still fluently recite any German song or nursery rhyme from his early childhood, but was otherwise a thoroughly English boy with a slight Widnesian accent.
My parents, both German teachers, would still speak the language together, but now mainly as a means of having private grown-up conversations they didn’t want me to understand, for example when discussing birthday or Christmas presents. However, my natural nosiness and desire to be in on this secret language was impetus enough for me to pick up a working knowledge of it as soon as I could.
My mother and father had met in postwar Graz in Austria, but the details of how it happened were vague and ever shifting. It depended which of them you asked and what mood they were in.
In my dad’s standard version, my mum had replied to a small ad he placed in the local paper for a Latin tutor. He needed a good grade to complete his German studies at Graz university.
In my mum’s favoured story, her stocking suspender had snapped while she was waiting for a tram one day, and my dad fortuitously appeared beside her proffering a groschen in his hand. Apparently twisting a small coin into the top of a stocking to tighten its grip was enough to stop the silk from sliding down her leg.
In both versions the rest was the history I was now part of, and in a sense the details didn’t matter to me or either of my brothers (a younger one had eventually come along to join the clan).
Who is truly interested in the story of their parents’ youth, until they’ve lived through their own? Very often, by the time the real questions about your family history occur to you, it’s too late. Which is what happened to me.
My dad spoke German like a native, and an eloquent one at that. He helped me through my German A-level, and I got a grade good enough to go on and study it at university. I later dropped out and ended up on a journalism course instead. Dropping out wasn’t a problem for my dad – my love of German and my ability to string a few words together were enough to make him incredibly proud of me.
His support was something I very much took for granted. He died when I was in my early twenties. And then my life sped by, until I reached that point, having finally lived through my own youth, where I was finally ready to be more interested in that of my parents.
I knew that in my father’s later years, he’d spent 18 months working on a chapter for inclusion in a book, writing about his days as a young man in the Austrian state of Styria just after the war. I also knew he’d joined the Intelligence Corps in 1945, aged 21, and had been married to another woman in Austria. But there was no one left to help me out with the details of the seven years between that and his marriage to my mum.
A few months ago, in the midst of a lockdown clearout of my garage, I came across the original book that contained his chapter – written in beautiful German – plus an English translation he had typed himself and dedicated to his three children. On some level, I must have known of the existence of this, but when I sat down to read it, it was like hearing my dad’s voice for the first time in more than 30 years.
A lot of the questions I had were answered in this chapter. Aged 21, he had become head of the British security headquarters in the town of Weiz , and in this book he recounted the adventures this posting had led to.
Weiz played a significant role in his history. Part of his job was to hunt down and often imprison former Nazis. In the course of these duties, he arrested both the father and brother of the woman he would soon after marry. His first wife. In fact, he had to write to his future father-in-law in prison to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. They were part of the richest family in the town and welcomed my dad into a life far removed from his Warrington childhood.
This account added much to the jigsaw of my family history, but finding it also inspired me to spend some time contemplating how lucky we are these days with the technology we have to share and curate information. My dad died before the internet, but he would have loved it. The research he could have done. The website he would have made. The connections he could have established and re-established…
I decided to honour his memory by publishing the chapter I vaguely recall him banging out on a manual typewriter, and which I found in my garage and finally read. His story is a valuable part of the history of the Second World War, covering an area where there are few first-person accounts.
As a woman not much younger than my dad was when he died, I also feel that in putting his account out there, I can still do something that would have made him proud.
If you’re interested in reading his short memoir of his time in postwar Austria, you can find it here: operationstyria.wordpress.com