During my October-November trip to Cologne, Germany, I rented a lavender Fiat 500 and left the city for the countryside just east of the Rhine. Called “das Bergische Land” (there used to be a fort there), its rolling hills and fields were a much-needed respite from the crush of humanity in Cologne. I drove the country roads, listening to my GPS’s painfully American pronunciation of “Wilmersdorferstrasse” and “Bensberger Marktweg.”
This is where my grandmother and her children, like countless other families, were evacuated during the war years, forced to share cramped quarters with unwilling and often hostile hosts. The family moved from place to place through this bucolic area; my grandmother’s letters detail the usually inadequate and frequently primitive accommodations of the houses she occupied. In one place, she had to haul buckets of water; in another, her furniture, clothing, and other possessions were stolen. The children were often sick, and her own health was fragile.
In her letters, she managed to make these misfortunes sound ironic and amusing, but the never-ending grind eventually wore her down. In October 1944, she wrote “Bei uns hört die Pechsträhne nicht auf“ (“with us, the losing streak never stops.“) The war continued for eight more months, and the countryside outside of Cologne was itself the site of non-stop battles. As my grandmother writes, schools were long since closed, and she could not allow her children to leave the house for any length of time.
None of this was evident during my drive. The Bergisch farms and fields were tidy, with flowers blooming at their edges; the cows and horses were well-fed and calm. People just like me, frazzled from the city, rode bikes or walked along the tree-lined lanes. I realized that I was looking for something, some sign of the past, some link to what I was searching for. Nothing appeared that day, or the next, when I spent another day wandering through the hills.
A week after I returned to the US, I found I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years by Victor Klemperer, in a used bookstore. I bought the book and took it home. My husband leafed through it, and two postage stamps, still connected, fell out of the book. The stamps were from Chiapas, Mexico. Mexico is my next place to visit; my grandparents spent several years there during the 1930s, and my mother and her twin sister were born in Mexico City. Here was my sign, delivered in a random book, in a bookstore just a few miles from my house.
I received another sign a few days later: Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle has been turned into a series on Amazon. The story speculates what the world would be like if the Allies had lost World War II. I read the book but haven’t watched the series – I’m not sure if I will. But I take it as a sign, regardless.
As I wrote in a previous post, Philip K. Dick’s The Exegesis played a major part in launching this project. I’ve used it before as a source for inspiration, opening the book to a random page, as in bibliomancy, and finding a quote. Today I found “[2:41] This is the paradox of ‘where should you most expect to find God?’ A: ‘in the most unlikely place.’”
The Mexico trip is in the works. I’ll keep you posted.
Categories: This Writer's Life