Miriam Mannak
Miriam Mannak

Remembering my grandfather

My grandfather was a remarkable man. Although his life was far from easy at times, he in every sense was the personification of humanity, dignity, strength, loyalty, generosity and honesty.

He was always there to help someone out, even strangers. He was free of prejudice. He never judged a book by its cover. He travelled the world to help other people, for instance by establishing a small Braille printing house to serve blind people in Peru. He always forgave. He loved his children and grandchildren equally. He adopted both daughters of his sister when he really could not afford it financially. I guess he simply did not want them to end up in a child welfare institution or in a foster home. He loved them like they were his own.

He was sincerely interested in other cultures and did his best to learn people’s languages. He was colour blind. He was not religious, was genuinely interested in people’s faiths and cultures. We — whether we are white or black or Christian or Muslim
or male or female or South African or not, myself included — could learn a great deal from him.

My grandfather was barely twenty years old when the Germans, who had taken possession of my
country of birth a few years before, raided the ammunition factory that employed him. It was 1943, and the Hembrug factory on the outskirts of Amsterdam was obviously a strategic got-to-have.

Being a technically talented person, my grandfather was arrested and shipped off to Germany. He did not have much of a choice. “We’ll take you mother if you don’t do what we say,” the Moffen* told him, with which they basically meant: “We’ll put her on some train to some work or concentration camp somewhere in Holland or elsewhere”.

My great-grandmother at the time was suffering from pleurisy, a very painful infection of the outer lung membrane. She would not have survived the trip, let alone a stay in a camp.

My grandfather ended up in Oranienburg, a suburb of Berlin, where he was forced to work at an airplane factory. Although he was a forced labourer, he was allowed to receive occasional mail from his family in Holland (which were obviously censored to the syllable).

One day, my mom and his youngest daughter told me, how he received a small jar of honey — sent by his mother. The story goes that an occasional teaspoon of the sweet golden liquid kept him going. He treasured the jar as if it were the crown jewels,

About a year after his arrival in Berlin, his barrack was bombed by the allied forces. It was mayhem, utter mayhem and to make things worse his jar was shattered by a bombshell. In midst of the chaos he managed to escape with a couple of mates,
and their aim was to walk back home through the front lines.

All went well, until a group of German police officers asked my grandfather and his mates for their identity papers. Not being able to produce such document, which was the law, my grandfather was rearrested, thrown in jail, and put to work in a salt mine somewhere in northern Germany.

Life there was much tougher than in Berlin. Communication with the home front was for instance a no-no, as technically he was a prisoner of war. It was in during this time he met a dark-haired Russian girl with long plaits called Maria. She “lived” nearby the women’s work camp of Ravensbruck and worked in the mines.

It was obviously a very innocent romance, if it were a romance at all, as back in the days people were not as open about their feelings as today, but from what I gather my grandfather loved this girl from the bottom of his heart. She did for him what the honey did when he was in Berlin: keeping him going.

In 1945, the Nazi regime realised they were to lose the war. In an attempt to erase the proof of their horrific crimes, they shoved hundreds of women of the Ravensbruck concentration camp in army trucks and drove them in the Elbe River. They all drowned and Maria was among them.

There is no doubt my grandfather loved my grandmother despite the fact their relationship cooled down significantly by the time he died. According to my mom, he never stopped loving his Maria and she was pretty sure this Russian girl was the reason behind his love for Russian music. “When he was sad, especially in May (Holland was liberated in May 1945), he would put on his Russian music very loudly and no one would be able to reach him,” I was told.

Even before he passed away, Maria slipped into his mind. “What has happened to all those Russian girls?” he asked my grandmother.

Back to the salt mines and the 1940s. The chaos that erupted, presented him with the opportunity to escape and with a bunch of mates he walked all the way back from northern Germany to Amsterdam.

During his mission, he apparently found a handgun with a box containing 100 bullets. “If his family would no longer be alive, he’d have found one German for every bullet,” my mother explained a while back.

He never fired the gun, and kept it locked away for many many years. Many years later, my grandmother disposed the gun by tossing it in a lake in a local park. She was afraid her husband, who suffered from occasional depression, would do something to hurt himself.

Despite the fact that he never came to terms with the war and what the Germans did and whatever else that may have happened, he did not keep a grudge against Germans. I once asked him whether he hated the Germans, still. “No, I don’t. Because not every German back than was a Nazi. I hated the Nazis, not the Germans. And I cannot possibly hate or blame the Germans of today’s society for what happened in the past and during the war, or for what their parents did.”

What is it that I am trying to say with this blog? I do not know really, apart from the fact that I miss him. In two weeks time, it will be fourteen years since he passed away.

*Mof/ Moffen:
Dutch slang for German / Germans

  • ae

    I think the previous generations had greater capacity for forgiveness than the high-speed generations of today. Both sides of my family were concentration camp victims but they carried no grudge or hate. It is time we learned this skill in SA.

  • Aadila Sabat

    Great article. My grandfather passed away earlier this year and your article brought back all of the wonderful memories that I have of him especially his generosity, kindness and forgiveness.

  • Lucky Ntuli

    The loss of a loved one is one of the hardest things to deal with. Having lost my parents more than a decade ago, it is still hard today to know that I can not call someone Mama or Baba. The fact that you can articulate it even to this blog’s extent is fantastic. I till today can not and have not been able to talk/write/think about them without feeling the immense loss.

    You are obviously on the right path!

  • http://hardcopyink.com MLH

    It’s probably fair to say that most people who were close to the action of WWI and WW2 (and every other war on earth) have been traumatised by their experiences. It was only a few years ago that I realised that both my parents displayed obvious signs of PTSD their lives long. Yet many were better parents than most of the present generation, knowing when to let go, how much rope was good for us and expecting the highest standards of us. I have immense respect for them; that they carried on regardless of their experiences.
    A good reminder, Miriam.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/miriammannak Miriam Mannak

    @Lucky: It took me a while to write this down. Fourteen years to be exact. It does help dealing with the loss, somehow ..

  • Monique V

    Dear Miriam, Thank you for this memoir. You keep your loved ones alive by remembering them. Who cares how long it takes! You may well find that you keep having new insights about someone so precious to you for the rest of your life. He will be with you all that time, and is I am sure happy to be remembered with such love.
    After my father died I realised how much family history died with him. I started writing what I know, and some years later, I now have more than 500 pages. Try doing the same. You will find it a real journey of discovery about yourself as well as your family.
    Best wishes,

  • Donald Paul

    Beautifully written and a wonderful tribute. Thank you.