He saw an old newsreel once, a short 90-second clip he found on YouTube, that recorded the moment in 1955 or ’56 when the last 5000 German prisoners of war were repatriated to Germany after years in Russian captivity.
His Opa, long thought dead by those who loved him a nation which no longer needed him, was one of the 5000 and as he watches the clip, he scans every face looking for his grandfather. He looks for the ghost he remembers from his childhood, the sunken eyes and hollow cheeks and unsmiling mouth worn by his Opa like a suit of armour.
But on YouTube, every face is his Opa’s, wearing that same broekn look, like a dying leaf in winter, waiting to be crushed.
He remembers his Opa, but only as a faint grey outline and with the passing years, the outline becomes even less distinct. He remembers the sadness that surrounded him always. He’d spent twelve years in captivity, in forced labour camps that ran with spilled blood like cut throats in an abattoir.
His Opa’s eyes remained hidden deep inside his face, rimmed in shadows, the light gone. If his Opa smiled, he doesn’t remember it.
Sometimes in the mornings, they would walk together to the shop to buy fresh brötchen for breakfast, his Opa’s hand in his, a big hand that neither comforted nor felt like love. A matter-of-fact hand. Solid, rough, dependable.
Years later, when he learned of his country’s past, its history and its shame, he wondered at those hands. What had they done in the name of victory? How had they felt in the harsh Stalingrad winter of 1942-43. He knows the history, how the supply chain was cut leaving the German 6th Army to fend for itself in the ice and the snow and the bitter winter that has defeated invading armies for millennia.
He wonders if his Opa wore a dead man’s clothes, walked in a dead man’s shoes, ate a dead man’s flesh, huddled around a small fire that did little to warm and even less to comfort. There would have been no fresh bread.
Instead, there was just a haunting, a sombreness that remained with him, through the years in the camps, and in the aftermath of returning home where he – like the 5000 others – were celebrated as heroes. His Opa didn’t feel like a hero. He simply felt lost in a world that was no longer for him.
He died again in 1974, leaving his Oma a war widow for the second time. She grieved his second death and marked it with the traditional black dress and a thin black veil that hid the sadness in her eyes and on her face. She wore those mourning clothes with dignity and grace.
Now, his Opa’s hand feels rough in his, the skin leathery and cracked and filled with the grime of a thousand bad memories. In his other hand, he carries the bag of fresh rolls, still warm from that morning’s bake and dripping with that heady scent only a bakery can give.
He still thinks of his Opa every time he smells freshly-baked bread.