One of them stood looking at my bookshelves. "You like to read," he said.
"Ja," I said. "Do you?"
"Ja," he said. "I see you have a lot of books on World War II."
I was slightly embarrassed at all those books on Hitler, Nazis, the Holocaust, D-Day, etc.. "It's nothing new-- I've been interested in World War II since I was a little girl." I didn't say that I'd become obsessed with the war when I first lived in Germany, like so many people who move there.
"My mother was 17 years old at the end of the war," he said. "She was a Trümmerfrau, spent ten years of her life cleaning up the rubble. She lost her two brothers in the war. One at Stalingrad. Kopfschuss. Shot in the head. One stepped on a German mine in the retreat from Russia. My father was in the Hitler Youth. He said everyone wanted to be in it, it was an honor and a lot of fun. They didn't know any better, they were children. They've spent the rest of their lives being sorry for it.
"I'm interested in World War II, too," he said, "but in Germany I couldn't have a bookshelf like this. Everyone would say I was a Nazi."
The Trümmerfrauen were a tragic generation. They were little girls, trained to be mothers only, as the Hitler Youth took all German children; they spent their adolescence at war. Half the young men died or came home wounded; after the war, Germany was rubble and the women had to rebuild the whole country from the ruins. When Germany started to be prosperous again, their youth was gone. And all along, of course, people outside Germany felt they got what they had richly deserved. They had been the enemy. They were the generation that had been the most convinced Nazis.
A Trümmerfrau, Helene Lohe, taught me German as my babysitter years ago when I first moved to Germany. I'll write about her some day.
Here are two statues to the Trümmerfrauen in Berlin, and a couple of photos of the real ones.