Perhaps there are times when one does not know what one was looking for until one finds one is no longer looking for it: Nor does one find the need to continue to do so.
A little over three years ago, while I was visiting New York Maano Milles suggested that we have a reunion of the Geislingen ‘mudilased’ (most accurately Anglicized to urchins) and I took on the challenge of organizing it. Not for a moment did I stop to question why he suggested it or why I accepted the challenge. I was quite distracted by my musing of how typically we had reenacted our childhood days in Geislingen. In retrospect we were probably both looking for something, may be each was looking for something quite different. It really didn’t matter: It sounded exciting.
Nor did I over the course of the evolving project ever really stop to think why I was doing it: It still didn’t matter but it seemed important to me and it seemed to be becoming increasingly important to others. When the reunion was over I still had no ideas on the matter and during my long train trip through Scandinavia Geislingen did not enter my thoughts at all: How bizarre! I had deliberately inserted into the trip something that I wanted to do; something that allowed me time to reflect on the reunion before again entering a social milieu and I was not doing the intended.
It was only as I stepped off the airplane in Melbourne that an old haunting thought struck me, just as it had done on my three other returns from Europe. ‘Gawd, do I again have to go back to analyzing everything that I want talk about to ensure that others want to hear it’. Spontaneous conversation was to become again dormant unless there was another trip overseas. It had again been a long air haul to Melbourne. Tiredness became my ally and I opted to sleep on it: That was nearly three weeks ago.
Six weeks away from Melbourne had left me much to catch up that I hadn’t been able to delegate. That wasn’t quite what I was looking for but the opportunity to procrastinate on the Geislingen question was welcome.
The psychology-based disciplines have written much about this thing called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have always found it an unhelpful and offensive expression: I have found it hard to accept that the ordered journey of a distressed person is so glibly labeled as disordered. I much prefer the respectful notion of Posttraumatic distress.
In my mind has always been a different concept: A concept where all those subdivisions and markers are but writings of one who is unfamiliar with the journey: A bit like categorizing the landscape on another planet one has never visited: How dare anyone do that to our parents? How dare they imply that our people, no matter how distressed they may have become at times, have done anything but the appropriate with their journeys? How dare they deny them the right to feel sadness at their losses!
As a non-clinician I have a very simplistic way of looking at life. I can’t detach myself from it at my work.
To reconcile any event we need to come face to face with it: We need to understand it objectively. In everyday life, most events occur in sufficiently slow motion to allow this, and there are usually other people in our lives who have dealt with similar events to ask for information. Thus objectivity becomes moderately accessible.
Traumatic events usually tend to occur against a backdrop of other traumatic events, which themselves confound the traumatee and those around it. Perhaps an example would be the sinking of a refugee ship while other ships nearby are being torpedoed or bombed. There are so many concurrent and dangerous events to assimilate at the same time. It is inevitable that the traumatee would be trying to resolve multiple conflicting dilemmas at once, and those around it are caught up with their own conundrums. This creates a paucity/ absence of objective ‘witnesses’ to help clarify the dilemma surrounding any given event.
Most traumatic events also occur in a fleeting moment of time. A bullet often comes from nowhere causing almost instant demise or injury to someone. There is no time for anyone to absorb the details, let alone remember them. And even should someone have a recollection of them, the events may become dissociated because of their ugliness, or to allow that bystander the resilience to find safety.
What a lot our parents had to assimilate and reconcile against a backdrop of survival against major adversity. How unrealistic it would have been to expect them to continue on as if nothing had disrupted their lives. How powerful was that time in Geislingen: A time all those present shared that or a similar journey. How wrong it would be to label them as disordered should they lack the opportunity to reconstruct the many events that were in some way unique to them? Of course they would keep trying to reconstruct the events. Who would want to blame them for wishing to reassure themselves that they had done their best in those circumstances! Who would want to blame someone for wishing to reassure himself or herself that they had let no one down!
When one thinks individually about those ‘symptoms’, more kindly called the feelings that constitute that enigma called PTSD, the notion of that fleeting moment is the lynchpin to their translation into the world of normal behavior: There is no disorder but a very logical and ordered search for the elusive. What really did happen then?
That something had happened to us, the children as well. We were small and did not understand the war as the adults saw it. Albeit the older ones of us were frightened and we knew that our parents were frightened. The war as we knew it evolved from the mythology of our elders. However our little minds were not inert. We may have been like little ants traipsing around under the feet of others who warmly and tolerantly accepted our presence among them, but the ethos appears to have been that small children do not remember. We were left to enjoy our play. In the culture of the times no one thought that we too were trying to make sense of our lives: a hybrid group whose lives had passed through varying exposure to normality, war and deprivation, and for those born in Geislingen no war at all.
But we too had voids to fill. This is what I learnt from the Geislingen reunion. There may be others who found something similar and yet others may have found something quite different. I can only speak for myself.
While in Geislingen last September there did not seem to be an inordinate focus on the war, or the post-war deprivation. The conversations seemed to encompass all of our six to seven decades and Geislingen seemed to comfortably drift in and out of the conversations. More prominent was the spontaneity of the conversations: They occurred among people who had largely grown up as strangers. We all seemed to trust each other to share whatever we felt the need to clarify. Indeed we all seemed able to accept that there would not always be agreement on matters: something that only close bonds permit. It was as if time had stood still. As if we were symbolically back in the old world: As if we were recreating that fleeting moment of time where our world was fractured.
Our journey was to become quite different to those of our elders and indeed the more senior students. They made the decisions to move on and had some choices in the matter. We were just taken away: Our adaptability seemed to have been assumed, our lack of need for insight into what was happening was also assumed. Lost were our friends and the activities we had begun to enjoy: our schooling, kindergartens, scouts, sport and the myriads of other activities our parents had begun to give us.
While our parents had opportunity to exchange addresses of their destinations, say their goodbyes and thus continue at least by mail their friendships at those destinations, our worlds were frequently truly severed. We didn’t know where our friends had gone, and even if we did we were often too small to write to them or travel to visit them. Continuity was lost for many. Our new friends in our new worlds did not understand our journeys at all. We were never to recreate many aspects of those fleeting moments. There was no way to clarify much that we did not know.
In the scramble of settling into our new worlds time for reflection and clarification was scarce. As it became a more available commodity many of those who could clarify and help with reconciliation of events were lost be it by movement to another place or by death. Also as it became more available we ourselves were finding more quandaries.
One of my big surprises during the latter stages of organization of the Geislingen project was the incredible animosity of many towards the Germans. It was something I found almost intolerable having a German father. Almost intolerable because the animosity came from people who had shared my journey, people whom I trusted: There had to be an explanation. The hope of that made it tolerable.
Because of my German roots we were of course effectively exiled from the Estonian community: it somehow continued in Melbourne and that made it even harder to understand. As a child I did not understand that in Australia there were new difficulties with that German interface: The notion of trans-generational transmission of guilt was valid out here. Given that, exploring any difficulties that contained the word German was tantamount to risking retribution.
There was nowhere one could safely belong as oneself.
While we lived beside the Geislingen Estonians I somehow translated the exile into my German roots. If one doesn’t blend among one’s people one doesn’t hear the full gist of what effects that exile and one doesn’t feel safe enough to hang around to clarify such material, let alone ask about it: Being small I of course wasn’t thrown into the fray of youthful resentment that occurred twixt the German and Estonian youth so I didn’t meet it firsthand.
I now feel grateful that I learnt about the animosity. At times I now regret the anger that was shared with members of the group, but now I recognize that they too were feeling bad at the time. That is what reconciliation is about: the ability for the many opinions to blend their good and bad with good intent. While I wish that I had been more insightful during those interactions I am also grateful that I have not become so swept away by the medical world that I forget that I too am still able to feel my world as others do.
Until Geislingen 2008 I saw Geislingen as a childhood paradise where I needed to return. It had everything that a child could want, even in exile. I now see Geislingen as twin towns where two groups of people thrown together by the winds of fate did their best to cope with a situation that neither fully accepted. A little like Ulm and New Ulm: a river separates them; we created a partial periphery to a town that belonged to the Germans. Both functioned autonomously and both had their tiffs.
The need to return has changed to a wish to return. But the definition of Geislingen has changed. There is a physical Geislingen where many of my memories were created: the magic forest, the river with its waterfall and that war zone called kindergarten with its dreaded platoon commanders. Yes, Geislingen still remains a place I would never want to forget. There live some of my German friends, people of my father’s stock.
And then there is the living Geislingen, the one we have recreated over the last two plus years. Some of us met at the physical Geislingen but those of us that didn’t still became part of it via e-mail as we worked on the project. For me there is no need to go to Geislingen to search for the living Geislingen, it is now but the relics of a place where we all began our struggle to rebuild our lives (and of course for me a place where the German part of my identity can live on). It is the place that taught us the courage to endure much that others wouldn’t. It is the place that taught us intersupportiveness. Now it has become a place that cares for children from other wars. We are but part of its history.
The living Geislingen is spread far and wide and connected readily by e-mail. Its people now have names and addresses and I can chose to visit them just as I did all those years ago. That is something that wasn’t available to me and many of us over the decades. Geislingen functions did exist. The adults kept touch with each other as did the adolescents but we were not really part of that.
At times there were tentative attempts to engage with the ‘Gümnaasium” or high school cohort but given our very different journeys that was not readily achievable until recently. In supporting our journey to complete the Geislingen 2008 project, the two groups have blended to complete the history of the Estonian youth of post World War II Geislingen. The story of those pesky little ones is too finding a place in our history archives- the stories of us children as we share our journeys in “When the Noise Had Ended” is our contribution to the history of DP Geislingen.
For many years I have sought out the meaning of the word home. The dictionaries define it many ways. I am convinced that home is the place where one feels free to share one’s deepest pain without a sense of guilt. It is the place where one’s dearest wish is to extend that privilege to those around one. While creating the Geislingen project the ‘mudilased ‘of post war Geislingen did just that: We felt free to exchange the good and bad of the journey. Happiness, sadness, frustration and anger all blended with trust in each other to complete a memorable composite. Home is now spread across the globe- it needs no specific face or place.
The itch that one could not scratch: a reflection on Geislingen 2008