Here is an excerpt from the book that I've put together using the letters that Mum and Dad wrote to each other just after World War 2. The book is still in the proof-reading stage but if you would like a copy, please contact me.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel that my family was slightly different from those of my friends: not any better nor any worse, just different. I often ate different foods, sang different songs, and my Mum always counted her knitting stitches in German!
Mum often told me stories about her early life, about the house that she lived in with its pig sties and indoor swing; about how her mother (Rinelde) and father (Alfred) used to have a terrazzo floor in the hall where they would dance and play music until one day Alfred had a stroke and couldn’t work. He was a clockmaker and with his illness, money became very difficult. Their lovely family house with its huge garden was divided into three flats and rented out to strangers. Then came WW2 and Rinelde (a diabetic) was left to care for her paralysed husband and their four daughters. By the end of 1945, Hanna (the eldest) was married, and living and working with her in-laws whilst her husband was a POW in Russia. My Mum had moved to Jever where she was working on an allied camp and, when she could, she was smuggling coffee out of the camp in the hood of her coat. And the two youngest girls were still in school.
These stories I knew off by heart and I was also aware that Mum and Dad wrote to each other when they were ‘courting’ but it wasn’t until I found the letters lovingly stored in two separate piles in a plain brown, 1940s suitcase in the attic that I began to understand what they had gone through. When I read the first couple of dozen or so, they were out of sequence and it was hard to make sense of them although the sentiments and events in them frequently moved me to tears. When I had finished sorting them into chronological order I was staggered by how many there were and how much time they covered. Reading through it all brought home to me just how difficult it had been for them to get together so I told friends and family about what I had found. They too were aware of the basic bones of their story but it was the wealth of detail that these letters revealed that was so startling and, occasionally, shocking.
In January 1944 Leslie Homer, a young man like so many other young men of his generation, enlisted in the army. His squadron landed in France on 9th June 1944, three days after D Day and they worked their way across northern Europe engaging the enemy whenever necessary and by the time Victory in Europe was declared, he was in Germany. With the cessation of hostilities, France, Britain, America and Russia took control of the enemy territory with the British taking over the North West sector. As a member of the peace-keeping army, Leslie was transferred to various towns and cities before being posted to Jever, the capital of the Friesland district of Lower Saxony. Here he found that he was working with a pretty blonde haired, green-eyed German girl ten months younger than him. Ilse, known as Ischi, (pronounced Ish-ee) had found work on the airfield when the Canadians were on the base and her employment continued when the British took over. When asked if she spoke English, she learnt to say in flawless Canadian, “No, I don’t!” before running away. This however soon changed as she quickly acquired the English language and was promoted to secretary/interpreter.
Her friendship with Leslie turned to something deeper and one day he produced a set of papers for Ischi to sign. “Why do I have to sign these?” she asked and he replied, “Well, we can’t get married unless you do!” Leslie’s parents (a Primitive Methodist minister and his wife) were not actually against the friendship but they didn’t like the idea of their eldest son marrying a girl that they had never met and this concern comes over quite clearly in their letters. Leslie talks about the ‘flak’ he got from colleagues because of this friendship and this seemed to emerge as downright hostility when it became known that he wanted to marry her. For Ischi, the reaction of people tended to be more subtle: talking behind her back, saying that she was a ‘bad’ girl, and being told that she shouldn’t be mixing with the British because they showed one face in Germany and another one at home. Even if Leslie didn’t forget her the minute he arrived home and they did get married, people told her that she would be back as she wouldn’t like it and the marriage wouldn’t last. Stories of abandoned German wives and German girls who just wanted to get out of Germany were rife and when Leslie was demobbed in 1947, Ischi was left in Germany wondering whether she would ever see him again. But they persevered and in November 1947 she finally boarded a plane to Northolt, England where she knew that Leslie was waiting for her.
She went to live in the Manse in Bromsgrove with Leslie’s family and his sister, Rylda, remembers when she and Ischi saw each other for the first time. She looked across the room at this blonde haired woman and there was an instant rapport and they put their arms out and hugged each other.
One of my father’s cousins, Gillian, recalls as a five or six year old having her hair curled into ringlets and putting on her best frock to meet Leslie’s wife to be. “Assembled in my Grandma's dining room,” she told me, “…were my Grandfather, and a number of uncles, all in their best dark Sunday suits. I guess their wives (my aunts) were there too, but they don't figure in this memory. At some point, a clock chimed, and one of the men brought out his watch chain and took his watch from his waistcoat pocket. I was aware, as small children often are, of a tension, an underlying current of unease. Then the door opened, and in came Leslie with the most beautiful, tall, blonde girl, who was introduced to the waiting family. What an ordeal, to be confronted with all these people! Of course, I was totally unaware of the implications of a German becoming part of the family at that time, so soon after the end of the war with Germany. However, everyone exuded politeness, shook hands with Ischi in a formal way and tried to make her feel welcome. When she spoke with her lovely, deep velvety voice, I was immediately won over for life! Only afterwards, my mother explained in simple terms why this marriage was unusual. And my lovely cousin Leslie wanted me to be a bridesmaid, but I was showing symptoms of - guess what? - German measles, so I wasn't allowed to go to the wedding! I remember feeling very resentful!”
On my mother’s side, the reaction was shock. Her youngest sister, Ursel, said, “I remember people were very upset about Ilse marrying an English man. I, of course, thought that was cool, because I could visit her in another country! After a while everyone accepted it, only the wonderful neighbours talked.
Leslie and Ischi married in January 1948, just under the two months that she was allowed to stay in the country, and the marriage lasted until Leslie died of cancer in July 1986, nursed by Ischi in the home that they had bought in 1960.
It was marvellous to be brought up by two such loving people, and I remember the excitement of holidays abroad when Dad drove the two-tone brown and cream Sunbeam Rapier (his pride and joy!) to Harwich where it was lifted onto the ferry destined for the Hook of Holland. After we'd watched it being unloaded by crane, Dad would drive across Holland (probably passing places that he’d visited in the army) before arriving in Delmenhorst, with its distinctive water tower and the double castle moats known as the ‘Graft’.
Before Tante Hanna (Mum's eldest sister) and Onkel Willi built their own house, we would visit them and their daughter Hannelore in their flat by a bakery. The smell of the fresh bread in the morning is something that will live with me always! During Willi’s wartime imprisonment, he nearly died in the Russian salt mines and when he was released he was unable to turn his head and had to move his whole upper body if he wanted to look behind him. But the friendship between him and my father was palpable. They both loved music and whilst Dad was by no means fluent in German and Willi spoke virtually no English, they always managed to understand each other.
The food we ate in Germany was familiar because although Mum did cook traditional English fare, we often had German meals. Sometimes she bought Schwartzbrot (black bread) and on this we would put various types of ‘auflage’ which would consist of German leberwurst (liver sausage), cervelat, bierwurst and zungenwurst (all types of sliced sausage) and occasionally she would find teewurst or mettwurst (spreadable smoked sausage meat). When she was in a hurry, tea might be fricadellen, small minced beef patties cooked in the frying pan but as a treat she would make rouladen which consisted of very thin slices of beef spread with mustard or ketchup onto which bacon, onion and gherkins were laid. The whole lot was rolled up very tightly, secured with cocktail sticks and then cooked in the oven. On Saturdays, we would clamour for kartoffelpuffe (potato pancakes) and Mum would stand for ages in front of the cooker frying the grated potatoes for us to eat hot out of the pan with lashings of tomato ketchup. I also learned to adore a tasty potato dumpling called klöβe which can be filled with onions or croutons and is particularly good with thick flavoursome stews! But I have a sweet tooth and so it wasn’t long before I discovered Bienenstich (bee-sting) cake – a fabulous concoction of buttery, vanilla cream sandwiched between layers of cake (some recipes use a sponge whilst others call for a heavier mixture) topped with a crunchy almond, butter and sugar topping – and the traditional baked cheese cake with its plump sultanas and merest hint of lemon.
Mum would buy clothes for my brother and me when we were on holiday. I have early recollections of a pair of cork-soled sandals of which I was inordinately proud – no-one I knew had anything even vaguely like them! I also wore the traditional gathered dirndl skirt but I felt a bit self-conscious and didn’t always wear the blouse and apron. My hair was done in a traditional roll on the top of my head and this was secured with a hair-slide; I admit to doing the same for my daughter when she went to school! However, my hair never grew long enough to sport the typical plaits that were folded in half to hang in two loops, one under each ear, nor was it long enough to wrap around my head like Helga in 'Allo, Allo!’ My brother had a pair of lederhosen (leather shorts) and in the late 60s I was as proud as could be to have a bright red leather skirt. It wasn’t entirely successful as a garment as often I would turn round and the skirt would stay still!
German culture was something we took for granted. One of the first nursery rhymes that I remember learning was ‘Hänschen klein’ (sung to the tune of ‘Little Bird’) which is a song about a boy called Hans who goes out into the big, wide world with his stick and his hat but runs home again when his Mother starts to cry. Another song that I learned and played with my children was ‘Hoppe, hoppe reiter’ (hop hop Rider) when the child is bounced on the knee in time to the tune until you come to the end when the rider falls off (but the baby is caught, naturally!) The story of ‘Max and Moritz’ frightened me and I particularly disliked the part at the end when the two boys were turned into chicken feed; I wasn’t too struck on the stories in the book about ‘Die Struwwelpeter’ either. They were all very moral and usually ended up with a child coming to a gruesome and often fatal end, all as a consequence of their misbehaviour! But the story that I loved best of all was ‘Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten’ – the Bremen town musicians – the old donkey, the dog, the cat and the rooster who run away from their cruel masters and go to live in the forest where they can make music for the rest of their lives. There’s a bronze statue of them near the Rathaus (Town Hall) in Bremen and everyone who goes there has to have their photo taken with them.
When we were older, we tried having a German Christmas when the presents were delivered by the Christkind (the Christ child) on Christmas Eve and opened the same evening. It just wasn’t right. The next year we went back to deliveries from Father Christmas!
To be brought up with two different cultures is to have a foot in each camp and to never quite be totally one or the other. It’s a shame that I never became bi-lingual, but hearing problems as a child put paid to that idea. Notwithstanding that, I have always felt very lucky to have had such a loving and exciting childhood and if it had not been for the tenacity of my parents at a very difficult time in Europe, my life and that of my brother would have been very different.