Through this life, part 1

“When I left I had no idea whatsoever, no inkling at all, that anyone else would ever follow me. So when I said goodbye, it was goodbye forever.” That was 1954. Herbert Gerber was 19 years old and had inherited his father’s determination as well as his destination: Canada. It was English speaking, didn’t have a draft. But he wasn’t running to something. Herbert was, in every sense, running away.

“The older I got, the more I could see that I had no future [in Germany]. It was before the East Germans built the wall, so the border was still a little bit porous. I applied for a visitors exit visa for four weeks to visit my relatives in west Germany. I went and I just didn’t come back.”

Maybe he’d like the story to be that simple: just leaving, not going back. “But it wasn’t as easy as that. I was staying with my uncle, and after I was there for a couple of weeks I got a letter from my mother saying I should come back immediately because if I don’t they’re going to hold it against my father and jail him. … After a couple days thinking about it, I decided I would not go back. But I sat down and wrote a letter to the city hall telling them that my intentions are to stay longer than my visa allowed me and that they shouldn’t hold it against me. I said that I wanted to continue my education, etc. etc. etc. And apparently that helped. They never approached my parents at all.”

Gerber Family Schneeberg - Growing Up



In his book, In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson notes that through his research he was left with questions about what Berlin—the setting for his book—was like prior to the Second World War, or even prior to the rise of Hitler. We know a lot about the city during the war and after the war, though very little about the daily life of the citizens within the city in the mid to late 20s, a period of relative calm. Berlin, of course, didn’t survive the war in any recognizable way, and it provides an analogue for the county as a whole: more than thirty percent of the buildings of were left in rubble and a great percentage more were damaged beyond repair by the Allied bombing raids; the population was left confused and disoriented and divided by both geography and ideology. The city, and the country, as it was between the wars simply no longer exists.

Searching online for documents, photos—anything that could fill in some of the blanks—Larson found a film called Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt directed by Walter Ruttmann. It’s silent, and seems fittingly so. It shows a day in the life of Berlin in the spring of 1927, the year the film was made and first shown. After an arty prologue, and a simulation of a sunrise, we see a commuter train rolling past country homes as it approaches Berlin. The rest of the film is a montage of images: children arriving at school, shopkeepers opening their shops, salesmen hawking wares on the street. A new day begins and ends. In all, it comprises the most complete portrait we have of the quotidian life of the city during peacetime between the wars.

Today Ruttmans’ Berlin is inevitably viewed through a different lens: less as a film and more as an historical document. Watching it, we know that it is a portrait of a city and a way of life that is about to be erased. (Even the subtitle, sometimes translated as “a Symphony of a Great City” is freighted with meanings it didn’t have at the time the film was made.) The people, the buildings, the things, the sense of purpose—none of it will survive the war intact. Many people in the film didn’t survive the war at all. The lovers, chatting in the street, perhaps were parted, or fled; or maybe they endured the war in Berlin, surviving only with the scars of memory.  The children will now have grown up in a world that their parents couldn’t possibly imagine. Many of the windows were smashed, the shops looted. But here, on a sunny day in 1927, the citizens are as calm as anyone would be on a spring day in any developed city anywhere in the world. A woman walks past with a tennis racket; the animals loll in the zoo. Students arrive at school; a man has a lunch of sausage and beer; a shopkeeper mops the walk in front of his store.

For the people living in the city, everything in 1927 was strikingly normal. Watching the movie now, it is ominously so. We know that, even then, the world was already changing. The government of Germany was losing power. The Nazi Party was nearing its tenth birthday, and it had been five years since the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s first frenzied grab at political power.  In two years a referendum would disrupt the government, and in six years, Hitler would become chancellor of a national coalition government.  While the people we see in the film couldn’t have known it, the country and its people were already on a crash course with the 20th century.


One of the people living in Berlin in 1927, the year Ruttman made his film, was Maria Rosa Magdelena Eimeke. While she’d only been living there a short time, she no doubt would have appreciated the relative calm that we see reflected in the film. She had lived through the first world war, and while she didn’t know it, within a few years she would be married and into the second. Her life was defined—as it is just for us—by her context, that of uncertainty, an understanding of poverty, and war.

Born in 1904, she was 23 and had arrived in Berlin on her own in order to gain independence as well as a bit of stability, something she had had very little of in her life. She had only ever lived in Germany, though in her short life she had already lived through three very distinct iterations of the country: the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and the first rumblings of the Third Reich. Her parents were both gardeners, though her father left when Maria was just a year old. Quite literally, he was there one day, and the next he wasn’t. “The whole town helped to search the woods and to drain the ponds,” Maria recalled. He left a note wishing them well and asking them to be good to one another, which sounded a lot like the suicide note. Hence the draining of the ponds. He wasn’t found, or at least not immediately, though he later remarried and lived into his 80s.

Maria never knew her father beyond recognizing his face. There is no indication that she ever heard the sound of his voice. She talks about him in her memoir, though nowhere offers us his first name. She believed that he left her mother “without any excuse” though it’s understandable that she was likely never given a clear accounting of the circumstances. Late in life she wrote a kind of letter to him—he was long dead at that point, so it was more an exercise than a letter, a chance for her to imagine what she might have said to him if she had had the chance. The facts drift free of an objective foundation, and the tone of the letter is disbelief and exasperation. “My father!” is placed as a sentence, and a paragraph, unto itself, two words and an exclamation point that sit on the page like a lead weight. The one memory that she tells about (and quite possibly her own memory of him) is of walking down the street one day when he turned out of a side street directly in front of her. “It was as if I had seen a lion on the loose. I rushed back home in a panic and was inconsolable … I wept bitterly because of the encounter.” It was the last time she ever saw him.

If we take her at her word, she sent many letters to him over the course of decades, even sending a gift when his wife died, though only one reply was ever received: a note expressing regret that he had not been a father to her. (Where would she possibly have found his mailing address?)

As an infant Maria was cared for by her maternal grandparents, the Goldmans, while her older brother, Helmut, lived with their mother. In time Rosa found a position as a housekeeper at nursery in Thüringen and Maria was taken to live with her. She was six and approached the reunion “in a very festive spirit. I loved both of my grandparents very much, and now I would be seeing my mother as well.” On arrival that day she happily found that her mother was living in a large, stately home on a street lined with mature chestnut trees. She was amazed by the parquet flooring and by “a solid swing on thick ropes which stood in the wide hallway.”

Her memories of that day remained vivid for the rest of her life, including how quickly the air of festivity dissipated. She was reunited with her brothers—both of whom she couldn’t have known well—and met Uncle Julius Thalacker, an “uncle” only by virtue of his romantic relationship with her mother. They weren’t married, didn’t live together, yet had a child together, Bernhard. “I found it difficult to greet this new uncle who was not my papa,” Maria writes. “I had many silent struggles in my childish heart.” One of them—again, she was just six years old at this point—was the fear of abandonment. After her grandparents departed she felt their absence deeply. Her brothers took her dolls and claimed them for their own. Whether it was the dolls, or the grandparents, or the parquet flooring, or whatever fantasies she had to relinquish, she began to wrestle with the pressing need to acclimate to a new family and a new life. For six years, in all practical terms, she had been an only child in a stable home. Now there were more relationships to parse and to negotiate—she was a sister, a daughter, and soon to be a stepdaughter to a man she, ultimately, would never learn to trust. All that, plus the lack of attention: “Mother was [the] breadwinner now and didn’t have much time for us children.” Her brothers provided much of the day-to-day care, from seeing that she got to school on time and home again. They also provided a sense of support and consistency while their lives—dependably, at least—continued along in a state of flux.

It’s hard to know how involved Thalacker as in all of this, though in Maria’s hands he seems fairly enigmatic. He had traveled, once living in Buffalo, NY, for a period of years, before returning to Germany. He spoke English fluently and attempted to teach the language to his children and grandchildren. He met Rosa at the nursery in Thuringen, where he leased land in support of his landscaping business. When the widow who owned the nursery remarried, the property was sold. At a stroke Thalacker lost the land and the means of his livelihood. Rosa and her children lost a home and a means of support.

Maria’s parents’ separation and divorce, Rosa’s employment, her undefined relationship with Thalaker, having a child out of wedlock—any one of those things would have been highly conspicuous for the time. Divorce was rare, and most women worked in the home. Seemingly undaunted, Rosa approached life as the challenge it was, and met adversity with decisiveness and fierce independence. When the nursery was sold, she decided to find work in a laundry in a nearby city. She found and apartment there and booked passage for her and the children on a train, and may have already found a job. Then Thalaker proposed, and it’s tantalizing to wonder what took him so long. Maria’s justification of his motive isn’t very flattering: “He had gotten so used to mother running his household and the nursery, that he suddenly realized ‘How am I supposed to get along somewhere else without this woman?’” Rosa accepted.

Maria describes it as beautiful a beautiful event, though her feelings toward Thalacker remained unchanged. “Mother often told us that he did love us a lot, but I had reservations about how strict he could be, and I worried about how he would deal with us in the future.” She knew from experience the kind of thing that she could expect. When her brother fell into a bucket of water, Thalaker removed him with one hand and beat him roundly with the other. “My heart wept at the sight. How can a poor boy be beaten after he had had such an accident?”

After the wedding, the family moved to a village with a population of 3000 to establish their own nursery—a move that Roas approached, says Maria, “in her usual courageous manner.” Courageous, yes, though unfortunately it wasn’t the wisest location for a business. Though Thalaker built a sign to place at the road, the property wasn’t anything resembling a major thoroughfare and they struggled to find customers. Maria sold forget-me-nots at market and helped make wreathes for the graves of the soldiers lost in the war. The business of mourning kept them in the black, a testament to the devastation that the war brought to the population of Europe and the world.

Kaiser Wilhem II and the King of England, two cousins at war


“A notice went out that the king was coming.” It was 1910 or so and the king was Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Prussia and leader of the German Empire since his coronation in 1888. He was a visible, handsome, impressively dressed figurehead. When he toured Thüringen, everyone went out to greet his motorcade, including young Maria and her grandmother. “People were standing several rows deep along the streets,” Maria writes. “Grandmother stood at the garden fence on top of a big barrel.” As the car slowly passed by, she threw a bouquet of flowers, hitting the king on the head. In acknowledgement, and no doubt a bit of ire—there is no mention of a smile in either of the two accounts that Maria wrote down—he turned and nodded. “That was a big event in my youth,” she writes. “Grandmother was very proud of it, too.”

Thüringen was part of the German Empire, a collection of 27 territories that were unified in 1871, creating the German Empire under the leadership of Prussia. It ways, truly, a mixed bag: 4 kingdoms, 6 grand duchies, 6 duchies, 7 principalities, 3 free hanseatic cities, and one imperial territory. Most were lead by royal families and all fell under the leadership of the king, and unification took place on January 18, 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors within the Palace of Versailles.

When his son, Wilhelm II, was crowned in 1888, the German Empire was a force in Europe like no other. A hotbed of innovation, it led Europe and the world in industry, science, and technological development. It had the second largest navy in the world, the world’s strongest army, and the fastest-growing industrial base. By the outset of World War I, the empire would be home to more Nobel Prize laureates than Britain, France, Russia and the United States combined. The successes in technology, industry, and science, it was thought, were little more than a taste of what was still to come.

The reason for all that prosperity, perhaps more than anything else, was the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Though the empire was a monarchy, during his reign Emperor Wilhelm I wisely placed the responsibilities of running the state in the hands of his Chancellor. Bismarck was a normalizing influence. He brought an end to the culture war, the product of a hornet’s nest of competing religious, national, royal, and democratic argument. He refocused the government around a policy of revolutionary conservatism, and he created the world’s first system of state sponsored welfare. He was praised as a hero for unifying the empire around a singular vision and for being a moderate leader in Europe—one of few at the time. Historian Eric Hobsbawm writes that Bismarck “remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [and] devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers.” His policies and his leadership created an environment in which the army, the bureaucracy, and the standard of living of the German population continued to grow. With it grew the respect of Europe and the world.

And then came Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was proclaimed emprorer after his father, Frederick III, died of throat cancer just 99 days after taking the throne. For the people of Germany, the Wilhelm II was a point of light, a restatement of the power of a historical, storied and once powerful monarchy—the Prussian House of Hohenzollern—that had been active for more than 900 years. Wilhelm was also undeniably well connected. His grandmother was Queen Victoria, and he was cousin to Tzar Nicholas, who was at that time in power in Russia. He was a Royal in every conceivable way, and in a range of uniforms—feathered helmets, flowing capes and presentation swords—he looked the part.

The one thing he lacked, unfortunately, was the slightest ability to organize a government and lead a country. Wilhelm had been educated, though the focus was on horsemanship—his mother felt a great leader needed to be, above all, a great rider. Due to Erb’s palsy, a chronic illness affecting his left arm, riding was a challenge that would take him years of effort to overcome. His memories of his early education consisted of falling off a horse repeatedly, only to be put back by his tutor and told to try again.

As king he lacked entirely the kind of diplomatic impulse that had been so successful in Germany under Bismarck’s leadership. Wilhelm was cantankerous, emotionally unstable, and he felt no need to consult with his ministers on any of the issues that came before him. Wilhelm idolized his grandfather to a fault, and a priority of his was to foster a military cult of personality around him, casting him as “Wilhelm the Great.” He was a bull that came with its own china shop. Two years into his reign he dismissed Bismarck and launched what he called a “New Course” in foreign policy. Regrettably, it truly was. His support of Austria-Hungary lit a fuse that led to the crisis of July 1914 that, in turn, initiated the First World War.

German air pioneer Felix Laitsch flying his Albatros airplane, Berlin, 1911


It seemed even then–as through so much of Maria’s life–that the major events of the world were never all that far away. The Kaiser drove past her house and, in 1911, an airplane flew in the sky above it, this just seven years after the Wright’s historic flight at Kitty Hawk. The plane that Maria saw was flown by one of the earliest pioneers of German aviation. At that point, that’s all there was.

As her life went on, she continued to bump into history. She lived through World War I, and the hardships and privations that made life difficult during the war only increased afterward. Severe food shortages and the hyperinflation of the German currency were part of the experience of living in a country that had lost the war and which was roundly condemned by neighboring countries. The end of the war brought a debilitating financial depression to Germany as well as a loss of purpose in the minds of its population. The great successes that the country felt under the leadership of von Bismarck, and the pride that came with them, were now a distant memory.

The uncertainties of her early life—her parents’ separation, the moves and the repeated disruption of family life—reflected the uncertainties of life throughout Germany at the time. By the early 1930s it may have seemed that things were beginning to settle out, both for the country and for Maria herself. In 1931 she was 27 years old and working in a flower shop in Berlin when her boss showed her an ad in the paper. “Read this,” the boss told her, “This is for you!” It began, “Truly sincere Christian lady to marry professional flower designer … .” It wasn’t an announcement, but a personal ad from a man seeking a wife. It asked that a photo be sent and, while Maria first chuckled and acted uninterested, she sent one, along with her particulars, to Herbert Gerber of Schneeberg, a rural town in Saxony. No sooner was the letter in the mail that she had second thoughts and scrambled to send another letter after the first asking Herbert to, well, forget about it and to please send back the photo. He did send back the photo, but he otherwise wasn’t willing to let things go so easily. He sent his own photo along with a formal letter of greeting. “What a man!” was Maria’s private response when seeing the photo, though outwardly she continued to be coy. Seven letters brought Herbert words of kind rebuff, though he likely saw them for what they were, namely an attempt to turn the dynamic of the thing, making him the pursuer instead of the pursuant. Satisfied with this epistolary pas de deux, Maria consented to have Herbert visit her in Berlin.

The visit was awkward (how couldn’t it be?) and while the details may be disputed, in every version is the sense that neither knew quite what to do with their hands. They walked and talked, they sat and talked, and the day went well. Herbert later said that he had decided not to make any decisions that day, though it seems that Maria thought the meeting implied a decision, and was surprised that he didn’t feel the same way. Years later, she regretted that she hadn’t been more forthright that day, perhaps to the point of kissing him goodbye at the train station.

In any event, the relationship moved forward in a twinkling. They next met in Schneeberg, and a photo survives from that day. In it Maria and Herbert stand self-consciously apart from each other. He’s in his best, she’s in a shapeless dress. Looking at the photo it’s easy to wonder what was going through their heads, what promise the meeting held, or what each felt the relationship could provide them. They seem happy enough, though in the way that strangers do, hoping to make a good impression without giving away too much of themselves. Whatever they were thinking—in truth, both of them were most likely pondering some fairly utilitarian thoughts about their goals and the means of achieving them, and Maria trying to remember the names of all the family she’d met—they were married within the year and took up residence on the family property in Schneeberg.[1]

Schneeberg was a day’s drive and otherwise a world away from Ruttman’s Great City. For more than 500 years the town has existed on the proceeds of the minerals that were mined there, which included silver, cobalt, and bismuth. The population was proud of their history, their relative wealth, and how those things were represented in the world around them. St. Wolfgang’s Church in Schneeberg—later known as the “Miners’ Cathedral” (Bergmannsdom)—is one of the largest late Gothic churches in Germany. It was built between 1516 and 1540. Inside is an altar painted by by Lucas Cranach the elder, considered one of the most important works of art in Saxony. As well, Robert Schumann, the composer, visited Clara Weick at an apartment in Schneeberg, continuing a secret relationship (her father didn’t wish her to “throw herself away on a penniless composer”) that lead to their marriage in 1840 and all that music Schumann wrote for her.

Still, that wasn’t the Schneeberg that Maria encountered on arrival, nor was it the Schneeberg that Herbert knew. Since the mid-19th century, industry had slowed and shifted to more established technological centres. (The population of Schneeberg today is only slightly greater than it was the day that Maria arrived for the first time.) It was an isolated working class town in a country that had shifted its focus from rural to urban life. At the time, Germany was the height of modernity, and lead the world in seemingly every way. The country was home to more Nobel laureates than France, Britain, the United States, and Russia combined.

None of them, though, were in Schneeberg. Thanks to the Kaiser’s hand in sparking World War I, the town was becoming a sleepy backwater, far from the culture that was nevertheless not more than a day’s drive away. To add further insult, it was also located in a country that, itself, had become isolated from the surrounding European community.

While he didn’t say it in the ad, Herbert must have felt keenly the lack of opportunity and energy within his hometown.He was a young man interested shaking the dirt of Schneeberg off his boots. He wanted in a better life, or at least a different life, and he was willing to go to some length to achieve it. A year earlier he had successfully sought the documents necessary to immigrate to Canada, and he was planning his getaway when fate threw a wrench in the works: the property where his father had been leasing space came up for sale. His father, wittingly or unwittingly, gave him an ultimatum: if you stay I’ll buy the property; if you don’t, I’ll let it go. Herbert stayed.

It was 1930, the beginning of the most tumultuous decade in German history. By the end of it Herbert would be in Siberia fighting within an army he didn’t support wondering if he’d ever see Schneeberg again. Robert, no doubt, was left to regret not letting his son go when he had the chance.

With the one possible exception of her grandfather Goldman, Maria grew up without a wealth of positive male role models. Her biological father was predatory, and Julius proved to be so as well. When Julius made a sexual advance, Maria set out on her own, ultimately working at that flower shop in Berlin.

That response was in keeping with the women who were closest to her. Rosa was a self-starter, comporting herself with confidence and determination, able to efficiently make difficult decisions. Clearly, though times were a lot different than they are now, she wasn’t a shrinking violet, and remained that way throughout her entire life. In her 80s, and staying with family in Canada, she decided to set out to visit the neigbours on the next farm over. Rather than walk the road, she went overland as the crow flies. When she didn’t arrive at the neighbours, and also was gone long enough to incite worry, a search party was sent out. They found her trying to get over a stone wall, though had gotten stuck there.

With perhaps a few lapses in wisdom along the way, Rosa was a leader, not a follower just as her grandmother, Johanne Theone, had been. Born in 1822 and Theone was (what else?) a gardener. After her husband died when she was 43, she raised her children alone, running her own business in order to support them. Though Maria never knew her, the description she gives is revealing, in any case, of the kinds of values that Maria prized. “I don’t have any other information about her,” Maria writes, “neither diary or letters, but I feel something very definite when I look at her. I feel that she and I are connected at a very personal level. In solitary moments, I give her credit for many of the traits that I recognize as flowing through my veins.” Independence, stamina, knowing the value of hard work, a commitment to bringing joy to others—those are the values that would continue to define her life.


Melita Maschmann was a teenager in Germany in the 1930s and supported the government even during the war. One of the reasons was a story that she told about the beginning of the war, where the news reported that 60 000 Germans had been killed by angry Polish people within the boundaries of Poland. The killings were believed to be vicious, and to people like Maschmann it was clear that they amounted to a declaration of war. (If I told you that 60 000 Canadians were murdered somewhere in the world, that would disgust you, too. The attack on the World Trade Centres in 2001 took 6000 lives, and it prompted war. We can understand why, perhaps, though time has a trick of making those kinds of feelings more complicated. Often we want to fight, though it can become unclear, after a while, just what we are fighting for and how it can help.)

The rest of the world understood those same events in a very different light. There were Germans killed in Poland, though the correct number was 6000. They had attacked Poland at the command of their leader, not the other way around, and more Poles were killed in the battle than Germans.

But Maschmann didn’t know that. She only knew what she was able to know, namely whatever the news in the papers told her. She, and indeed many others, had difficulty believing that the government would want to fool them, or lie to them, and we have those kinds of feelings too. If we get a traffic ticket, we pay it; if there is an election called, we vote. We carry on in the belief that our government is, for the most part, operating in our interest, and we follow the. When the light is red, we stop, even if there is no one around for miles. We just trust that there are rules, and we feel it is best of follow them in the belief that the rules are created for the good.

Germans were no different, by and large, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. They felt about their world much the same that we feel about ours. They weren’t overly political, and probably thought more about dinner than they did philosophy or politics. They were also proud, which was complicated by their experience of World War I and its aftermath. There was poverty after the war, and the outside world, so many Germans felt, was overly harsh with them, unwilling to see the good things about Germany, only the bad.

It’s also true that Hitler, as late as 1937, was still considered by US policymakers as a moderate, and believed that he was perhaps the lesser of a number of evils in German parliament at the time. In hindsight, they were clearly, tragically wrong. The Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King met with Hitler that year, and wrote in his diary that Hitler “is really one who truly loves his fellow man.”

The historian John Lukacs writes, “Hilter became chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933. The significance, let alone the importance, of this event went largely unrecognized. Evidence for this exists in the reporting and the commentaries of virtually every leading newspaper of the world. His personal abilities were underestimated, indeed on occasion ridiculed. The German conservative political elite, who helped to arrange his nomination to the chancellorship, thought that they would be able to manage him. The opposite happened. He made them his servitors. More important: soon he became the most popular leader in the history of the Germans, perhaps the most schooled people in the world. The bitterness and humiliation that had affected most Germans after their loss of the First World War ebbed away; what succeeded it was a rising wave of national self-confidence. To an astonishing degree Hitler won the trust of the great majority of the German people.”

Certainly Mashmann, in feeling Hitler was a just leader, was in good company. Against her family’s wishes she became a member of the Hitler Youth. Before and during the Second World War, Maschmann worked in the high echelons of press and propaganda of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ section of the Nazi youth organization, and, later, she supervised the eviction of Polish farmers and the resettlement of ethnic Germans on their farms.

Afterward, when learning of the truth of the war and the crimes that had been committed by German forces, she was horrified. In 1964 she wrote a memoir of that time in her life, titled in the English translation as Account Rendered. “Even the element of fate in a person’s life does not dispose of individual guilt,” she wrote.

“I found in the memoir someone who had been overtaken by history,” says Arthur Samuelson who published an English translation of Account Rendered. “Someone who was struggling to make sense of what no longer made sense, and to understand why it had once done so. And someone whose best self had been attracted to Nazism.”[2]

Indeed, this is a crux that any discussion about Germany prior to and during the war: what did the people know? Why did they act as they did? If we know people who lived through the war in Germany, we’d like to think that they didn’t know much, and that people in smaller towns, such as Schneeberg, were insulated from a direct experience of the horrors of war as well as its dilemmas and contradictions. We’ll never know what the population knew, or how much they chose to overlook. Some no doubt chose to overlook a lot, but we’ll never really be able to answer those kinds of questions in any meaningful way.[3]

But we know that the entire population experienced the war absolutely first hand, and that many of the effects of war were there, just beyond the doorstep. The impact of that experience is undeniable, especially for children. Wallace Stegner writes that “there is a time between the ages of five and twelve which corresponds [to a moment] isolated in the development of birds, when an impression lasting only a few seconds may be imprinted on the young bird for life … [likewise] expose a child to a particular environment at this susceptible time and he will perceive in the shapes of that environment until he dies.”

Werner’s particular environment, starkly unlike that of his parents—just as it would be of his youngest siblings—was Nazi Germany. “On Sundays we walked down to the church and there were always marching bands coming the opposite direction. Young Hitler youth, in uniform and with their flags, and they played their trumpets or fanfares, and that was very interesting for a young boy. I mean I was just a little kid, I thought, ‘Boy, I can’t wait to join this gang.’” (Maria, however, wouldn’t allow it. Werner recalls that after the war, when the communist youth paraded on Sunday, she didn’t allow him to join them either.) “You know, you’re so impressed as a little kid. It may sound silly if I tell that to somebody, but for a child that was reality.”

There are other memories, too. “I can still in my ears, I can hear when the bombers came, they bombed Dresden, you know the biggest air raid on Germany. They came very low. Dresden was only 80 km away from us. So they flew over us, we heard them approaching and then you seen them in the sky and you hoped they wouldn’t drop their bombs down on us. And then a little while later you see all the sky lit up like a fireball.” It was February of 1945; Werner was nine years old.

A few months later Schneeberg itself was attacked. “They put dirt banks on the roads and trees to prevent tanks from coming close. But that didn’t prevent them I guess. There was just on the road toward Zwickau, there was an elevation and they had artillery and they bombed Schneeberg with artillery, and there were quite a few houses demolished. They shot the artillery into the big church that is right on the top of the mountain there. It caught fire there, and we saw the church steeple fall down. In my recollection, in my head, I can see this still. You don’t forget these things.”

At home and around the table each night were prisoners of war that were working on the farm under the order of the military. Even despite the horrors of the war, the workers cried when news reached them that the war ended. They apparently knew the kind of life that awaited them back in Russia. Werner recalls that an SS soldier came to them on a horse and offered to give them the horse in exchange for civilian clothes. “So he got a suit, and we got his horse.”

There are some that would read that and see it as abetting a potential war criminal. “If you tell somebody, it’s hard for somebody to visualize what war is all about. Toward the end of the war we had so many air raids we had to go down [to the basement]. … There were certain houses that were designated as bunkers, so to speak, and our basement wasn’t a basement like you have in a house, it was natural stone wall and the ceiling was an arched brick support. We slept about two weeks down there toward the end of the war. It was damp down there. We had just a few bales of straw that we slept on. Quite a few neighbours came and, ah, well, it wasn’t pleasant down there. But anyway.”


Germans were sometimes heard to say that they preferred “an end with horror, to a horror without end.” In the last years of the war, those were the only options they could realistically conceive. Men and boys were feverishly recruited into the army; by VE day, two thirds of them had been killed, creating a hole in the population where an entire generation of men used to be. And when the truce was signed, Germans faced a continuing and exhausting experience. Poverty was rampant, as was hunger and crime. There wasn’t any work, and there wasn’t a government that could begin to organize the relief efforts or the creation of the infrastructure. David Stafford, in his book Endgame, 1945, provides a summation of what lay ahead, which included “the urgent quashing of looting, rioting and random violence; the robust and often severe restoration of law and order; the reestablishment of basic services such as electricity, gas, water and sewage; the restoration of smashed roads, railways and telephone systems.”

The population of Germany didn’t get much sympathy then, of course, and to a large extent, if we’re allowed to be frank, that hasn’t changed. We don’t think of them as the victims, and there are reasons for that, reasons that remain simply undeniable. But they were victims, and they had a hand in their victimhood. But when did that start, and when did it stop? They trusted a leader who would leave their country in ruins. They trusted a government that was unjust, and if they had any inkling of the extent that things would run to, it’s right to assume that they wouldn’t have supported the government as enthusiastically. They supported actions of the government that should have been unthinkable—such as the laws barring Jews from owning property or holding jobs—though whatever they knew about those things came to them through the filter of the propaganda ministry. And they were afraid; the Gestapo was brutal, and the evidence of that was all around them.

They also couldn’t have known where things were headed. Yes, Hitler’s book was available, but who could assume that it was a plan for the future, and one that would be pursued entirely unchecked by the more moderate members of the government. Certainly there were efforts made to rein Hitler in, though they failed. The opponents in government were killed because of their opposition on the night of the long knives—a horrifying event that, nevertheless, was seen as necessary in order to avoid a government coup. It was bloody, though a coup, most likely thought, would have been bloodier. Whatever was reported in the press was most often greeted with skepticism. Those who believed the reports accepted the suggestion that Hitler had saved Germany from descending into chaos.

Meanwhile the government was making huge changes that—again if we’re allowed to be entirely frank—were understandably welcome. Yes, the leaders yelled and waved their hands a lot, but the roads were built, and jobs were created, and that’s what the majority of the population focused their attention on. The economy was righted, and an impoverished country was finding its way back to prosperity. People could afford a car for the first time in their lives. They could afford a home. The country was also being granted a new place on the world stage, as evidenced by the Berlin Olympics. The world, for the first time in a generation, was coming to Germany. There were angry signs, and troubling new laws, but extermination camps wouldn’t have been considered as a potential reality in the least. Most Germans, I’d suspect, just tried to stay out of things, something that the government was more than happy to encourage. Newspapers ran stories of success, and the population, understandably, wanted to have them be the truth.

Does it matter? I think it does. If we write Hitler off as a madman, and we suppose that the population of Germany saw and supported all the worst things that he would do, then we’re safe. We can say, ‘The Germans were different than us.” And that means that we’re different than them, and that we wouldn’t have done the same things, and that we’d never do the same things today. We’re off the hook.

It’s much harder to approach the history of Germany as something entirely within range of human experience, and to choose to learn from it through the assumption that the people living then weren’t different than us beyond the context the were living within and the options that were—and weren’t—available to them.

Like most Canadians, they chose to stay out of politics, and to read the celebrity gossip more readily than the news from Parliament. They wanted to live a life of their choosing, one that includes homes and families. They wanted to have a pride in their culture, and to feel that they occupied a respected place in the world. When there was violence, they chose to avoid it as much as possible. They wanted to live. That’s what regular people want, and they did too. But then, something went wrong. And then a lot of things went wrong.

Thinking about them as people just like ourselves, we have an opportunity to learn something, and perhaps something quite important. No one wants to elect a monster into a position of leadership. Assuming they weren’t themselves monsters, how did it happen? Why wasn’t it stopped?


East and West

In the years after the war, the various sectors of Berlin and of East and West Germany were formalized. At the end of the war four sectors of Germany were created and granted to the four allied countries: France, US, Britain, and Russia. Because Berlin was entirely in the Russian sector, it too was then divided into four sectors. Relatively quickly—though by no means instantly—the borders were defined between East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and West Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The West was comprised of the French, British and American sectors, including the occupied zones of Berlin, which otherwise was surrounded by East Germany. The East was comprised of the states that were occupied by Soviet forces.

Even in 1961, the border was still porous. Wolfgang Herrmann was one of thousands of citizens of West Germany who lived in East Germany, commuting to work each day across the border. “We called it the Siemens’ express,” says Hermann of the S-Bahn, “because it was packed with thousands of Siemens’ employees.” It was a situation that, for him and the other commuters, was highly agreeable if admittedly a bit bizarre. Two governments, two systems—democracy and socialism—and two currencies within a single city that felt, from the citizens’ perspective, like just like that: a single city.

Herrmann and others hoped to take advantage of it for as long as they could, and otherwise gave it little thought. The wages in the west were vastly greater than those in the east, while the costs of living were dramatically lower in the east. Rather than thinking of leaving, Herrmann was able to keep his home, remain near his family, while having a good job and a wage that went a long way. It was the best of both worlds.

Then at a press conference on June 15, 1961, a western reporter asked the Chairman of the GDR, Walter Ulbricht, about the rumours that East Germany was planning on sealing the border. “Mr. Chairman, do you believe that creating a free city will require the construction of a state border at the Brandenburg Gate and are you determined to see this through will all the consequences it entails?” Ulbricht’s response would become the most infamous lie of the Cold War period: “I understand your question in this way: that there are people in West Germany that want us to mobilize the construction workers of the GDR capital to build a wall. Am I right? I’m not aware of any such plans. … Nobody has any intention of building a wall.”

Through the summer of 1961 citizens of Berlin continued to cross the border in order to shop, to go to work, and to visit family, no one suspecting that anything impending action. Then, just after midnight on the morning of August 13, 1961, GDR border police and combat crew began placing barbed wire along the border, constructed barricades, and drove concrete posts into the ground. As the day broke, the city became aware of this new reality that left them stunned. Citizens on both sides gathered to watch in disbelief. Wolfgang Herrmann was in the west as this was going on, and quickly hurried back to his home in the east. “I didn’t have to think twice about coming over,” he said. “I knew that if I didn’t I’d never see my wife again.” In an instant he became both unemployed and a citizen of the GDR.


Prior to August of 1961, nearly three million people had left East Germany for the west, a majority of them travelling across the relatively small border between East and West Berlin. Herbert Gerber was one of them. “When I left I had no idea whatsoever, no inkling at all, that anyone else would ever follow me,” says Herbert of leaving his family. “So when I said goodbye, it was goodbye forever.”

He knew that there was no life for him in Germany. “The older I got, the more I could see that I had no future there. And I just said to my parents one day one day, that’s what I’m going to do, and they did not stop me. The thing was at that time it was before the East Germans built the wall, so the border was still a little bit porous. I applied for a visitors exit visit for four weeks to visit my relatives in west Germany. I went and I just didn’t come back. But it wasn’t as easy as that. I was staying with my uncle, and after I was there for a couple of weeks I got a letter from my mother saying I should come back immediately because if I don’t they’re going to hold it against my father and jail him.” He was 19 years old. “After a couple days thinking about it, I decided I would not go back. But I sat down and wrote a letter to the city hall telling them that my intentions are to stay longer than my visa allowed me and that they shouldn’t hold it against me. I said that I wanted to continue my education, etc. etc. etc. And apparently that helped. They never approached my parents at all.”

A year later, Opa noticed in the newspaper that the local government was willing to issue passports allowing people to leave East Germany, something that had been very difficult prior. He saw it as a potential window opportunity for his eldest son, Werner. “He said, ‘why don’t you go and see if you can get a passport?’ So I went to the police the next day.” It turned out to be a bit more difficult than Werner might have thought, even if his father had had an inkling that this, like so many other things in East Germany, was likely too good to be true. Rather than a passport, Werner was met with suspicion. Asking for a passport, the official asked briskly, “What for?”

“He didn’t know what we were talking about,” recalls Werner. “The next morning there were three policemen at my house at 7 o’clock and they interrogated me for about three hours. You know, why I want to leave. I told them, I want to see the world. If I like it, I stay. If I don’t like it, I come right back. That’s it.”

Still, they stayed, asking the same questions again and again, for three hours. “I didn’t know what they were doing. But I just straightened my back, shook their hands and I said, ‘Good day, you know everything about me now. Tomorrow I’m going to pick up my passport.’ I left them standing there and walked away.”

True to his word, the next morning he went to city hall, saying he was there to pick up his passport. The official there asked for his name and then took out a small piece of paper and put it into a typewriter. He asked for Werner’s name again, which he gave, and what city he would like to travel to. He typed for a moment then took the paper out of the typewriter, signed it, stamped it, and threw it across the table. “Here,” he said. “Good luck to you!” The paper read, in its entirety, “Werner Gerber has permission to leave to go to West Berlin.”

At home, his father’s response appeared largely ambivalent, saying “Try your luck, see what happens.” It wasn’t a passport, but it had a stamp and a signature, both of which had a certain amount of gravity, give or take. So, Werner packed a small suitcase and the next morning kissed his parents and went off to catch the train. And that was it. “I didn’t know if I’d see anybody again. You know? [When] we came to the border the train stopped and in came the Russian soldiers and the German police with machine guns and bayonets. They went to each passenger and they asked for passports and documents and all I had was that little piece of paper.” He watched as they made their way along the passenger car, checking passports and, seemingly at random, motioning for the majority of the passengers to get off the train and stand behind a makeshift plywood fence next to the tracks.

“When they came to my seat and looked at my little piece of paper, they didn’t ask questions. I could stay put in the train. Ha! I couldn’t believe it. I was waiting in the train for two hours before people came back. And you know how many people came back? Maybe only half. The others they were probably sent to labour camps. And when the train left and I see I’m in West Germany, boy, it was an incredible experience. Like, imagine if you work all day and you are dirty and full of dust and sweaty, and you take a shower and you feel good again? That’s how I felt when I realized ‘I’m in West Germany now.’”

He was alone, young, poor, without a job or any conceivable support structure, a refugee from a country to which he suspected he would never return. And he felt cleansed and exhilarated. He had tried his luck with a little piece of paper, and it had worked.


“My mother lived 11 years under Russian occupation—from ’45 to ’56,” says Ann. “And she said ‘If the Russians haven’t gone by now, they’ll never leave.’” Certainly the Russians were making life especially hard on anyone they suspected of being less than enthusiastic about socialism or who otherwise were unwilling to join the communist party. The Gerbers were all of that, ultimately, also had two sons that had defected. As well, opposite the house was a manor home that had been converted in to barracks for Russian soldiers and officials and was the home of the commandanteur. The Gerbers were literally neighbours of the occupying forces, making it impossible to keep anything of a low profile. The hens, the beehives, the produce—all of it was conspicuous given a lack of food that continued to weigh heavily on the population no matter which side you were on.

For farmers, there was a quota system in place which increasingly required farms to deliver products in excess of what they were able to produce. If they had hens, they would be expected to deliver a set number of eggs each week, even if the hens weren’t laying. Not being able to meet the quotas was seen as a sign of incompetence and the property would be confiscated in the belief that it was being mismanaged.

Because the nursery produced bedding plants and cut flowers, the Gerbers were imposed upon to produce arrangements for births, weddings, and funerals of the Russian overseers and soldiers free of charge. With the threat of losing the home, there was a very clear impetus to meet whatever demands were made. The stress of meeting them fell to Maria. “It was awful,” says Ann. “She was pestered. We had maybe twenty hens and twenty people at the table to feed, but we couldn’t keep the eggs. And my father had a few beehives, maybe six or eight or ten, and all we’d hear was ‘Why didn’t you deliver us your honey?”

Whether it was intended or not, the noise of the barracks was a constant reminder, day and night, that they were living in a totalitarian state, and a Russian one at that. Speakers were hung outside the barracks playing Russian music. “The same tune day and night,” says Ann. “And it went something like [mock singing] ‘liverwurst! Liverwurst!’” She admits that it’s funny now, though at the time it was unnerving.

And then there was the Stasi, which is the more common name for the East German Ministry for State Security. “The Stasi was much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people,” according to Simon Wiesenthal, a writer and holocaust survivor. “The Gestapo had 40,000 officials watching a country of 80 million, while the Stasi employed 102,000 to control only 17 million.” And while the Nazi terror lasted only twelve years, the Stasi era lasted four decades.

The goal of the Stasi was to ensure that the population would remain submissive. There was one secret policeman per 166 East Germans, though there were informers, too, people who used the Stasi to gain power, or food, or a better standard of living. There were lots of them, and unlike police, you could never really be sure who they were. They were secret, though it is estimated that there was one informer for 6.5 citizens. It would not have been unreasonable to assume that at least one Stasi informer was present in any party of ten or twelve dinner guests. They were literally everywhere, and both the Stasi officers and the informants and there was little they wouldn’t do in order to get information. Holes drilled through walls, coercion, secret microphones—all citizens would have lived in the belief that they were being watched all the time, and often they were right.

“In nearly every speech,” says historian Hubertus Knabe, “the Stasi minister gave the order to find out who is who, which meant who thinks what. He didn’t want to wait until somebody tried to act against the regime. He wanted to know in advance what people were thinking and planning. The East Germans knew, of course, that they were surrounded by informers, in a totalitarian regime that created mistrust and a state of widespread fear, the most important tools to oppress people in any dictatorship.”

The fears of arrest or imprisonment were very real. And defecting, of course, was a crime. When Bernie Gerber recalls the day that they left for the West, it is that context—that they may have been spied on, or informed on, and if caught the punishment would be extreme—that provides a background.

 When we were on the train from East Germany to West Germany, the train stopped at the checkpoint and, ah, they knew we were coming. And we were only allowed 100 east marks, which is peanuts, each for a week. We had a week’s permit, my parents and us. And anyway the train stopped and the Russian officers came in, and the east German police came in, and they checked our papers and they were relatively friendly, but they knew we were coming and that we had been through the right channels and we were going for only one week. And they checked our papers and everything was in order.

But the train was stopped probably a good hour or maybe more. Probably more, maybe two hours. That was forever, an eternity, and for my parents especially, you can imagine. Anyway, we didn’t have to leave the train, but they had a walk maybe from here to those pine trees over here. They had all kinds of buildings and they ordered people in there and strip searched them and everything else, including old women. Can you imagine? And they had this young officers, you know, and they’re making fun of old women, and, you know, they had their uniforms on and they had the power, right? There were people coming out of there just crying and their dignity was taken and [it was] just like they had been raped. It was the most awful thing.

They were on route to Hannover, and crossed at Mareinborn, the busiest checkpoint between the east and the west.

[1] Herbert’s parents, too, had married in order to grasp more at opportunity than love. Robert Gerber was born in Silesia, in an area that is now part of Poland. It was another time, in another world. Poverty was a fact of life, as were the quasi-royal families, or nobles, that controlled the land and resources. Robert, even when still very young, worked as an apprentice gardener on various estates.

When he was 20 he became a gardener to a local baron, though it came with a catch. “He said to me, You can only keep this position if you get married right away.’ He literally meant from today to tomorrow. But I wasn’t engaged and this put me in a desperate position. After all, who’s going to say yes that quickly?” The words are those of Maria writing in the voice of Robert, her father-in-law. As she tells it, at least, he was aware of a couple nearby who had 13 children, one of whom was a daughter who was “devout, attractive, industrious, and lovely enough” to suit his needs. (The list of attributes says as much, if not more, about Maria than it may Robert.) The fact that the family was so large—a father tasked with feeding 15 being less likely to protest a daughter’s marriage—he assumed would help him meet his deadline. In Maria’s version, Robert was more impressed with the girl’s mother than with her, and spent a moment “working up the courage to ask this remarkable woman if she’d be willing to give me her daughter in hopes that she would be a true replica of the mother.”

Maria’s characterization of Emma, the daughter, continues the theme. In her version Robert asks Emma to be his wife saying and that he will return the next day for an answer. When he returns, Emma said, “Mother is of the opinion that as long as that’s all that’s being asked, she’s okay with it. So I’m okay with it.”

Whatever was actually said, the marriage occurred and Robert kept his job. On the morning after the wedding Emma awoke in their new home, her blanket covered with violets—it was an impressive (if late) bit of romance on Robert’s part. He nevertheless spent the next two weeks gathering the nerve to kiss her.


[3] There are, however, lots of enticing clues. The very last edition of the official newspaper of the Nazi government was published two days before Hitler committed suicide. The headline that day was “Fortress Bavaria!” The obfuscation was clearly of an order that is truly mind-boggling.


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