As a child, each time I heard “fasсists” I thought of the Germans, and for me they were evil, brutal and merciless people.
The Germans were our enemies in the last war. In Byelorussia, my country and the whole Soviet Union, people suffered immeasurably due to that brutal war.
“We, Soviet people, must never forget our tribute to the last war — 20 million war victims. In Byelarussia, every forth citizen died in that terrible war. When measured in human lives, the Byelorussians paid the biggest tribute to the victory of our great Soviet country”. This is what we learnt at school as kids. In other countries children would probably have been learning the Lord’s Prayer. Of course, I had internalized all that, too.
Because of the many war films Soviet television showed on a regular basis, I saw the average figure of a German as a terrifying man in a leaden helmet with a brutal face, burning down Russian, Ukrainian and Byelorussian villages, killing people without any hesitation, smashing defenseless women and children.
How my grandmother shook my world
When I was approximately eight or nine years old, the beginning 1980’s, my programmed idea of the Germans was vigorously shaken. It happened when my grandmother let me into her own childhood story which had taken place in the last war. It was in 1944 and she was fourteen years old.
It happend shortly before Christmas. The German army was on the defensive. The family of my grandmother escaped from Leningrad and the turmoil of the war to a Byelorussian village. A German unity was preparing for their withdrawal and the village inhabitants thought that a battle would take place somewhere very close.
Shortly before the German defensive, the family acommodating my grandmother, received an unexpected visitor. At the door threshold stood a German officer with a large parcel in his hands. In front of many curious eyes, the officer began to unpack the most incredible treasures. Perfumed gingerbread and raisin cakes, delicate chocolate biscuits, heavenly cream cups, and a small pine tree made of wood, twisted by the warmth of the candles that were fixed on its sides. It was the Christmas present of his family from Germany, the man explained in a sign language.
Before the officer waved good-by, he took a picture out of his shirt pocket. In it were his wife and his three children. The officer tried to explain something in his language but nobody could understand him. Only from his gestures and from the expression of sorrow on his face, one could see what he was thinking and feeling in that hour before the battle. He could not hide the tears in his eyes and was looking down to the earth when he finally kissed the children on the forehead, blessed them by making a cross in front of them and left.
The struggle between the German and the Soviet units occurred near the village and it lasted for many hours. After the sound of battle died or whatever they thought, some villagers, including children, ventured onto the battlefield. There were many dead people — both Soviet as well as German. My grandmother, who had been among the curious explorers, immediately recognized that one nice German officer. She was shocked, she was crying, as he was dead, lying on the snow with open eyes, blood sprinkled around him. My grandmother ran back home shaking with sobs.
At the end of grandmother’s story I cried inconsolably, too. I realized that I cannot consider all Germans as fearful villains, because they were too just normal human beings like you and me. Compassionate and being able to suffer. In that moment I learned to understand that the Germans were not only the perpetrators but also victims of that terrible war.
My mother was also listening to the story. In the middle of grandmother’s narration she protested vehemently accusing her of giving me a false picture of the Germans, which was bad for me to adopt. My mother said it was irresponsible to put such stories into the ears of a child. If the child would later tell this to someone else, we all could get into big trouble. By this, she did not mean the danger of going to jail as an “enemy of the people”, as it was in the 1930s. But she, being a teacher herself, could easily get problems at work or even get fired for being not trustworthy to teach the young generation.
At that time, I realized maybe for the first time in my life, that two truths could exist simultaneously.
The beginning of my lifelong affair with the German world
When I was eleven years old, my class mates began to learn foreign languages. In our school it was the German language, a very undesirable foreign language in Soviet schools at that time. English, Spanish and French were considered elegant and fashionable. Usually, German was taught in Byelorussian villages and in only few schools of my home city Minsk.
My cousin, who was ten years older than me, learned about my foreign language assignment and he tried to comfort me by saying it was useful to learn the language of one’s enemies. So I was about to study about our ‘enemies’.
My first German teacher, Vera Nikolayevna, had visited Germany only once in her life but her German was fluent and it sounded beautiful. For sure, she visited Eastern Germany, the GDR.
For me, Vera Nikolayevna personified all the qualities that I mentally ascribed to the German nation at that time. She was slender, graceful and clever, correct and fair. On top of it, she had an enviable sense of humor, which unfortunately was often lacking with many of her teacher colleagues. This is what probably made our German teacher very close to us pupils. We looked at Vera Nikolaevna as our school goddess, and we wished to have six hours of German classes per day in place of only two per week.
From that beginning, my divine German teacher had taken me on an exciting journey into the glorious German world. It was she who brought me to the idea to make German language my future profession. This belief was no longer debatable.
“You want to become a language teacher in a village?”
It was in 1985. My parents had only a slight smile on their faces when they heard about my German obsession. After all, female students who graduated from university in German-language studies had only one perspective. They became foreign language teachers in one of the gloomy Belarusian provinces. Still, nothing could block me from my purpose. While I was preparing for my exams to enter the University for Foreign Languages, I ardently picked up every German word and every expression I didn’t know before. I read classic literature, learned poems, studied with enthusiasm day and night. I loved what I was doing.
Female interpreters to be exchanged for bedside tables
I was dreaming to become an interpreter. However, at the university in Minsk I studied to become a teacher. Only male students had permission to study to become interpreters. This regulation had no official explanation. We students, though, had one. “Unlike a man, a woman can easily be exchanged for a bedside table».
The background for this endearing quote is as follows. At the Ministry of Education of the Soviet Republic of Belarus, it was assumed that allowing the female students to study interpreting studies was a waste of the state budget’s money (Soviet higher education was for free). As soon as the trained female interpreters took up their careers, they were most likely to get lost to the state, as they managed to escape abroad by marrying foreigners.
The story about the highly increase of specialists dropping out due to marriage was obviously was not a mere invention of the Soviet ministry officials. Female interpreters actually married abroad quite often. But that measure imposed by the university administration, such as preventing female students to study interpreting proved to be useless. (I was the best proof of it. I was not allowed to become an interpreter, but I nevertheless married a German in the end.)
In this context, a precarious case about a young young lady was going around. They said she was an interpreter for the French language, who on one of her trips abroad fell in love with an African tribal leader and married him. Soon, however, her husband found out that his new Byelorussian wife, even though she was looking pretty, was totally of no use, since she did not have any practical skills apart from the French language and the tribal leader had already several wives. That is why he came up with the idea of exchanging his new but useless wife for something more practical. In a successful barter deal, he managed to get a bedside table in exchange for her.
So I studied to become a teacher for German language, although being raised in a teachers’ family I had never dreamt of becoming a teacher. But this bizarre rule did not affect my obsession with the German world in any way.
(story to be conitnued)
Tbilisi, February 9, 2017