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False Heroes: Held Hostage by Heritage
A true story of a survivor
By Christine Brandon Posted in Non-fiction 8 min read
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People used to say that a space in your front teeth indicated that you were going far away some day. How she wished!  Diana had a wide space between her upper front teeth. There were no braces in their time, not even a dentist in town. Most people didn’t’ know a toothbrush nor a toothpaste. She remembered her father pulling people’s teeth with a pair of pliers and no anesthetics while her brother had to hold their head. She would run away and hide, because she couldn’t stand hearing someone scream. She was always embarrassed and self-conscious about that ugly space between her front teeth, but now she thought of it as a positive. She believed in this superstition. She wouldn’t mind going far away, far away, across the rivers and oceans… Would the boots and the nightmares follow her?

The German people loved the American soldiers. They were everyone’s heroes. People would talk about them in awe, about their kindness and generosity. It was the general consensus that the Americans loved children. The German people were not accustomed to much kindness coming from anywhere. Life was raw, people were poor; no one gave them anything. You worked – you ate, that was it, (if there was work). Only a few farmers were a little better off, but most of them were too greedy to share; that included relatives. You took from no one, and there wasn’t much envy, either. Everyone just tried to survive. Charity was not acceptable. You had your pride. You earned what you had. No one could take away your pride…

The American soldiers were so different. The American Soldiers seemed to have no ulterior motives. Their generosity was pure and simple. There was no shame in accepting. It was just there for the taking. Eventually they all accepted it. They just kept coming, and giving, and smiling, and they wanted nothing in return. Also, people were desperate to believe in some good, especially after living among the SS traitors.

There were also some rumors of cruel things the Americans supposedly did. Someone said that they arrested and even shot some of the Nazis – not that the town would care; (they must have deserved it), and no one really wanted to believe it. There also were whispers about a noticeable amount of “big bellies” among German girls a few months later, not to speak of the same proud mothers showing off their babies, African-American babies, Caucasian babies, war babies…

The first African-American people they ever saw were some American soldiers. They were kind and sociable, and everyone loved them. They knew no prejudice.

There were parties in town. The soldiers played American music. Diana saw her parents dancing. She could not believe her eyes. Her sister, yes, she was always skipping and dancing around the house, but never her parents. She remembered looking at her mother’s legs, her feet moving lightly across the floor. She could not believe they were the same legs that carried home haystacks three times her size on her back from miles in the forest– just yesterday…There must be a reason to celebrate, if she danced today…

Diana attributed everything good that happened from that time on to the American soldiers. Nothing so good had ever happened to them before. She remembered how the kids would run behind their jeeps. They wouldn’t shoo them away. They would compete for their attention. Often they would stop, or toss them a Hershey Bar or a package of Wrigley’s Chewing Gum, the likes of they had never seen or tasted. They would collect every cigarette butt they dropped. They would take them home to their fathers, who would roll their own cigarettes with them.

Hunger was a reality in their lives. They knew no different – until now! Diana would never forget the huge kettles of soup that the American soldiers provided and served to them at school, every day for months to come. They all had their little cups hanging from their backpacks that they gave them. Every-day at lunchtime, every child was given a big ladle of soup: Split pea with ham, or tomato-rice or chicken-noodle, or rice pudding with raisins, and the best: thick hot chocolate with rice … She can still taste each one of them.

All these wonderful things happening fueled Diana’s vivid and fertile imagination. It was around that time that she learned to dream… She knew that it wasn’t reality. She dared to dream of another life, to be someone else but her…She dreamed of a land of plenty, of beautiful things, and miracles – that of course only happened in “Once-upon-a-time” fairytales. They had the “grim” Brothers-Grimm Storybooks. Most of their stories were scary.  They identified with them. They were written for their times.

Somehow, there was hope after the war was over. People somehow cleaned up the rubble, gathered the pieces of what was left of their lives…They started mending the fences and stacking up brick by brick… rebuilding their shattered hopes, their shattered homes and lives and battered minds.  Every hand was needed, be it a woman’s or child’s…every remnant of dignity, every prayer of hope, the last and the best of what everyone could give. People couldn’t rest, they were driven to work. Someone asked:  “Was it only the need to put some normalcy back in their lives that drove them with such urgency to work, to clean up the mess of the war?” Or were they really trying to clean every reminder of it out of their minds, the sooner the better?

Normalcy? What meant “normal” to them was that their family was almost whole again after their father came home. Almost that their mother’s prayers were less desperate. What was normal to them was that they had milk again because their cow was back in their stable, and that they could sleep with their feather ­beds again that had been buried under the kitchen floor that they didn’t have to be afraid anymore… Normal was that they could play outside and that they could climb cherry trees again… Normal was that they had their everyday chores to do, and their mother had no worries anymore other than to put food on the table.  Normal was that their neighbor’s rooster woke them in the morning along with the old familiar noises of people working, tending their animals…the sounds of saws and axes and the smell of manure in the neighborhood. Normalcy was, to see the hustle and bustle of the women working in their gardens, planting everything that might grow, hanging laundry, shining their windows again, scrubbing and washing away the dirt and the ghosts of the war… What was normalcy?

When did the war stop? Did it stop? They were still starving. There were no alternatives to their way of life. It was a hard fact. They were still just as poor, but they had a taste of something that let them believe that there was a tomorrow after all.

There was hope. Their people knew how to work. Oh, did they know how to work! They were industrious. They would not give up. They would rebuild. And while the world watched, the German spirit rose up from the rubble and started rebuilding…

There was hope. Diana clung to that lifeline. She learned her first English song from the soldiers: “You are my sunshine”…She sang it day and night. She started taking “lessons in English” from an old lady who knew a few words, like “How do you do? I am fine”. She wanted to be able to talk to the soldiers. She dreamed of them taking her away to this country of theirs. A whole New World opened for her.

Perhaps there were castles and princesses and miracles out there. Perhaps you could escape the trolls and witches and dragons, and boots…Perhaps there were choices and possibilities…There must be something out there. Something good, something different. Diana really believed that. Freedom she did not know.

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