Sunday, 5 March 2017

Rumours of war from Germany on a winter's night in Derby

Two of her nephews
12 Hope Street, Derby seems a long way from Berlin. But perhaps not for my grandmother who in the 1930s listened to the news from her native Germany.

With the family out or asleep listening to the broadcasts on the shortwave was her link with that other life, away from the grime, and poverty and making do in a two up two down cottage just off Traffic Street hard by the canal and railway station. It took her back to a more privileged and comfortable world in a large timbered house near Cologne.

Of course that idealised life had been shattered first by the Great War, and then the terrible period of inflation where money became valueless, and people like my great grandfather lost everything. In the late 1920s Germany had recovered but then was hit by the great depression, mass unemployment and the rise of the Nazi Party.

My great uncle Richard
It was this which increasingly occupied her mind when she listened to broadcasts from Germany, and in particular the speeches of Hitler whose ranting hatred and threats were all too real as first he destroyed democracy, turning on anyone who offered up opposition and finally all who were just different.

Sitting alone in the backroom with the heat from the stove, the familiar sounds of Derby streets the promise of what might come was unnerving.

No one else in Hope Street spoke German, and there were few she could confide her own deep feelings of anxiety to.

In the early 1920s she had suffered persecution in a country still adjusting to the losses from the first war with Germany and now the shadow of another conflict was clear in the words that poured from the radio.

 The near hysterical assertions of racial superiority, the call for military arms to readdress the defeats of 1918, and the mass applause and unthinking adulation were only softened by the way the broadcast would fade and come back depending on the atmospherics.

And for a generation that had lived through one war, seen family and friends disappear for the Front, the prospect that it might all happen again was a fearful thing. All the more so as both her children would soon be of military age as would her nephews away in Cologne.

Our family like countless others paid the price. Her son died in an enemy POW camp and her daughter was invalided out of the services. In Germany her brother had suffered at the hands of the Nazi Party and she had been unable to be with her father when he died in 1942.

It would be another five years before she could return to Germany. The drab, war damaged streets of Derby were nothing to what greeted her in Cologne.

Little of the centre of the city was left standing after the allied bombing and it was hard to navigate around the streets when there was so little left. In places faded signs announced to anyone who cared to read that such and such a family had been bombed out and were now living with Cousin Otto. Some also included messages for loved ones returning from the battle fronts with the hope that soon all would be reunited.

In this desolate city she did have my grandfather’s letters, which were sent every few days. They were full of familiar people and everyday life back in Derby. Tales of meals eaten, rationed food swapped for other items, a local scandal and in the middle of one letter, the news that “a fire engine has just raced by down Traffic Street and people are running about
Nana on a Derby street

Pause for excitement.”

It was a strange turn of events. She had left Cologne in the early twenties with two small children and now back in the city of her birth there was the regular comings and goings of Hope Street and Derby.

Pictures, Family members in Germany circa 1939, great uncle Richard, 1930, and Emilie Hall in Derby circa 1930s from the collection of Andrew Simpson

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