Living with Strangers – Read an extract

Having returned to the family home with her baby daughter after many years living in France, Madeleine reflects on the trip she and her brother Josef made to Germany with their father Saul in 1962. He takes them to see his elderly uncle in Lübeck. There, they visit the church of St Mary – the Marienkirche – which has just been restored following a devastating air-raid twenty years before.

We come to a standstill outside a vast church, built largely of red brick, its twin spires glinting green in the sunlight.
‘I want to show you something,’ Jakob says, ‘we have to go inside.’
I look at Josef, then from Saul to Jakob, confused that we’re to be taken into a church. I’ve attended church services occasionally with Molly but the last time Saul went to the synagogue
was for Oma’s funeral. Although we sat Shiva for her afterwards in the schoolroom – a whole week of no friends to play, no music, no proper food – since then religion has played no great part in our family life.
Jakob leads the way in, walking slowly round the cavernous spaces. Ornate and colourful, gilded arches lift our voices so that it seems we’re not talking to each other but to the sky. Then we
stop. At the back of the church is a small chapel, dark and gloomy, lit only by a spotlight and a single candle. On the ground, lie the remains of two bells, huge and wounded, sunk deeply into the broken stone flags.
Josef and I look in horror. ‘Whatever happened?’
‘It’s part of the story,’ Saul says. ‘I’ll let Jakob explain. I think he wants you to know, that’s why he’s brought us here.’
And there in the church, with Saul interpreting, we listen as Jakob quietly relates the events of the night that not only brought down the bells, but took his sister too.
‘Reine and I came here to Lübeck in 1938. We tried to stay in Berlin it was our home after all but so much was happening, our family was already torn apart. We had other family here, Christian cousins from our mother’s side, and they agreed to help us, but in some ways it was no better than Berlin. Not long after we arrived, in November, we were caught up in the violence and riots of Kristallnacht – the madness was everywhere. I don’t know how we survived, how we avoided deportation. As far as possible, we kept hidden, kept the curfew. The following year, with Germany at war, we heard little news. We had only rumours and stories and fear to tell us what was happening to your Opa and indeed to so many of our friends back at home. I cannot speak of guilt – we did what we thought was right. We made a life here and our cousins took a great risk. But there was another danger too.’ Jakob sighs and rubs his forehead, then continues slowly, in English.
‘One night in 1942, about a week before Easter, Reine insisted on going to visit a friend. She stayed the night because the friend was taken ill and Reine didn’t want to leave her alone. That
night a huge bombing raid began. Buildings fell, others caught fire right across the city. It was chaos. Sometime after midnight, the house she was in collapsed with both of them inside. Our own house, just a few streets away, didn’t have even a broken window.’ Jakob is clutching the brim of his hat, turning it slowly round. His hands shake a little. ‘How is that? How did God allow this?’ He seems lost for a moment, somewhere in the spring of 1942.
I turn back to look again at the bells. Even at twelve, I can see the complex irony of what we’ve just witnessed, the futile devastation wrought on both sides by the war. Meetings in the schoolroom begin to make sense. No wonder Saul has taken up the mantel for peace.
When Jakob leads us out of the church, it has started to rain.

The legacy of recent history is leaving new markers too, complexities that I’m hard pressed to follow. Europe has new boundaries, its countries parcelled up and changed. I’ve heard about the division of Germany, not only from Adam’s dismissive comments, but from snippets picked up at meetings in the schoolroom or round the supper table. I know that Berlin is cut in half by a giant barrier; now I learn that Lübeck’s eastern side descends into wasteland, buildings remain in ruins, restoration has been limited. From here, the Intra-German Border runs north to the Baltic, then south and east to Czechoslovakia.

A few days later, Jakob takes us to the coast for a day out, where the mouth of the River Trave meets the sea at the northernmost point of the frontier. It’s wet and windy that day; the little seaside town struggling with its damp cafés, its dispirited tourists. We stand by the lighthouse looking east to Priwall, to the guard tower and the border control and the flat, empty heathland beyond. Saul wipes the rain from his face, but I think now they were tears because of what happened, because the country he left simply replaced one deplorable regime with another and now he can never go home.
Under the eaves, the wind howled. There was a gentle creak as Chloé turned in her cot; water dripped in the airing cupboard next door. I thought of how I had settled in an adopted land, of how, as a family we had all chosen to become strangers: Oma, Saul, Jakob, Josef and I gave up the familiar for the foreign. Displacement, through necessity or choice, became the norm as we dealt with a new, obscure landscape rolling out before us. Even at home, in the bleak years after Josef left, we circled each other warily, shocked by the loss, floundering in the new place, none of us knowing where to tread.
I returned from Germany that summer full of insight, to the home I still recognised, a jigsaw piece of my heritage slotting neatly into place. I was touched by Saul’s decision to take us with him and his faith in our concern for the past. And I loved every waking minute with Josef. But six months later he had gone.

3 Responses to Living with Strangers – Read an extract

  1. Bridget says:

    just got round to reading this – very tantalising and looking forward to seeing it in print so that I can read the rest

  2. Time to let the world read your work judging from the ‘snipette’………it reads with pace and immediately I want to know more……………..intelligent and intriguing .

  3. Jenny says:

    I’m hooked! Can’t wait to read the whole book.

Comments are closed.