By: Michelle Gunnin
I gazed out the window. How did I even get here? It seemed a distant memory. Yet, here I was in a faraway land.
“Grandpa, were you ever in a war? I have homework for school.”
“Yep. I was in WWII, but I don’t like to talk about it.”
Grandpa glanced at Grandma, who encouraged him the nod of her head and a smile.
“But for you Nick, I will. When you want to do it?”
“Now!” Nicolas ran to find his questions.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea, Bella.”
“He is your grandson. He should know the story. One day he will grow up to be a man with questions. Best the answers come from you.”
When Nicolas returned, he asked, “Grandpa where did you serve?”
“I joined up and went to Europe. I was 18.”
Wow, Nicolas responded, “Only 6 years older than me.”
I remembered the early interview, which had started this need in me to know more. It led me to be a history major, and go on to become a museum curator. No matter the topic, the hunt for clues thrilled me. Finding evidence made each piece significant, no matter how small. Each did its part to declare the truth.
This time, the story was personal. No museum had sent me here to Germany. From my window the view was picturesque, but I knew, from years of experience, down in the streets the story would be difficult to trace.
Resolving the questions was my hobby. Each one answered, lead to 5 more. Yet, here I was to finally put this story to rest, if not in reality, at least in my mind. Digging forever wasn’t possible, but I felt close to finding what had really happened.
“Grandpa, did you like Paris?”
“I loved Paris, you want to know why?”
“Because it’s where I fell in love with your grandma.”
“Eww. No mushy parts.”
Grandma smiled as Grandpa told of an American soldier first seeing a beautiful French girl at a bookshop in Paris.
“I wandered in looking for a book, but I found the most beautiful girl in the world. Isabella, her name was like a song.”
“She recommended Farewell to Arms by Hemmingway, and I was hooked. The books were an excuse to see her again. Then my next assignment took me away, and I had to leave her behind.”
In Germany, his unit was in the fighting. No time for books, though he still carried the one she had first recommended to him, all the others had to go.
Grandpa didn’t tell the fighting part of his story. He was protecting me from the horrors of war, and other than the one interview with him, he never talked to me about it again. He never explained how they found one another, only that it was a miracle.
Over the years, I had traced Grandma to Ravensbruck, a women’s camp just outside of Berlin. Here. In the camp. I imagined my grandma in this place, and I was overwhelmed with emotion.
“Can I help you, sir?” came a woman’s voice.
“No. Thank you. I am looking for something impossible to find,” I responded through tears.
“What would that be?”
“Peace. I have traced my family here, but it seems the trail ended when my grandma left.”
“Perhaps I can help, I manage the artifacts here.”
“Hi, I’m Nicolas Martin.”
“You have quite a reputation among museum curators. You are welcome in our artifact room, any time. I’m Anna.”
Within the hour, we located a list of incoming prisoners captured as part of the French Resistance. I knew there was more to this story. Grandma was also on the survivor list, with an infant, named Nicholas!
“I know you are shocked monsieur, but it is here in writing. She had a baby.”
“A woman’s camp? A guard or, worse the monstrous doctor, got her pregnant?”
“You’re upset, but you know how to follow the evidence better than anyone.”
So now, here I sit in my window again. Staring out at the same view as yesterday, but with a different perspective. My entire heritage is now linked to this place. The one question I found the answer to has opened a new can of worms, and I’m not sure I can continue. Yet, I must. Back to the camp to…to what? To hopefully find out who my real grandfather is? No, I want my childhood story to remain intact.
Rows of shelves, suitcases, shoes, and personal items. It was artifact overload until my eye fell upon a book. A copy of Farwell to Arms and on the inside, my grandfather’s name.
“That is a codebook. It was passed back and forth, giving information about the German activities, based on words on certain pages which were numbered. Each sender knew the alphanumeric correlations, so when they received the book, they could transcribe the message. The transcripts show undercover work between a soldier and a French woman…your grandparents…for years. Right up until she was captured.”
“Can I borrow this?”
“Technically, it belongs to your family. You are free to take it.”
That night, from my room overlooking Berlin, I carefully studied each page. There was a phrase in the margin, “A bird must return to its nest in each season.” Then, another phrase. “Especially the mother bird, with a fallen chick.” I gradually pieced together a story, from the margin notes. It was a secret journal of personal messages, which differed from the coded war messages.
My Grandmother’s pregnant friend Rachel had been arrested. They hid her pregnancy until she went into preterm labor. She died in childbirth in the barracks, but the baby lived.
The baby Nicolas, my father, was sickly; the fallen bird. Once the camp had been liberated my grandparents met in Paris, at the bookshop. A couple with an infant son.
The truth. Now, as usual, a new set of questions opened up before me.
Michelle has an extensive amount of published work on Two Drops of Ink. Click this link for all of her posts: Michelle Gunnin