Leslie Wilson

I can’t remember liking my German grandfather. ‘Oh,’ said my mother, ‘you adored him when you were a baby.’ That was in the incredible time when things were right, when my grandparents still lived together. But then my grandfather wanted to marry another woman and – my mother told us – had my poor, fragile, religiously-obsessed Omi locked up in a mental hospital. Now she lived like a ghost in our house. She didn’t speak English, hid from visitors and only went out to go to church: she’d walk three miles into Nottingham, to go to the Polish Mass in the cathedral because it reminded her of Silesia. Her eyes were faded and sad. Opa, a respected senior police officer in retirement, lived with his new wife in Wirtschaftswunder prosperity and we could never tell Omi we saw them, because she couldn’t bear to know that she was divorced.

My father didn’t get on with my grandfather, so my mother, my brother and I would go without him to stay in the small Rhineland house at the edge of the forest. The house was full of good smells: cigars, fresh coffee, Badedas soap. But Opa’s eyes were always policing us, waiting for us to offend. Then he’d shout at us and, worse, at our mother: ‘How dare your children cheek me?’ ‘What’s this filthy mess?’ ‘What rubbish have they been wasting their money on?’ We usually went at Easter, and at night you could hear the stags rutting, ramming each other’s antlers. The sound echoed like gunfire and downstairs our mother was on her own with him and his wife and he’d probably make her cry again. I hated him for it. The night after he died, I lay awake for four hours, neither sad nor glad, but amazed that such a menacing presence could pass from our lives.

Bernhard Alfred Rösel was a postman’s son from the mountains of Lower Silesia: his family was poor and proud, descended from a group of Tyroleans who were expelled from Zillertal in 1837 for obstinate Protestantism and given sanctuary by the King of Prussia. In the only photograph I have of his family, my great-grandfather Gustav stands straight and Prussian-cropped in his shabby uniform. (Gustav died when I was four and he was ninety: he had every tooth in his head, white and without cavities – thanks, it was said, to his diet of harsh rye bread and raw garlic.) My great-grandmother Maria holds the bibbed baby Erich; Aunt Lenchen, whom I never met, is beside her. Maria’s ears stick out at right angles to her head, as do all her children’s. On the other side of Gustav are Martin and Bernhard. I know nothing about Martin; maybe he died in the First World War like my grandmother’s brother Leo Kolodziej, whose head was blown off at Verdun.

Bernhard, too, fought in the war: he put on his first uniform when he was only 15 and remained in one for the whole of his working life. No doubt he demonstrated from the start the energy, initiative and ‘zest for responsibility’ for which his superiors were later to praise him. He was made an NCO, and in 1919 joined the police force in the grubby industrial conurbation that comprised Gleiwitz (today’s Gliwice) and Zabrze-Hindenburg in Upper Silesia. Bernhard was a small man, but he always stood so straight he seemed taller. He impressed his bosses, and by 1924 could afford to marry pretty Gertrud Kolodziej, the daughter of a mine manager and property owner – a step up in the world for Bernhard. In their wedding photograph his hair is fiercely clipped, his ears stick out even more than they did in childhood; he has beetling brows, an exaggeratedly thin, straight nose, a square jaw and an interrogatory stare.

It didn’t bother him, despite his family history, that Gertrud was Catholic and that his children were to be brought up Catholics – I don’t think he was ever very religious. In fact, there was only one child, a girl. This was a mistake: she was supposed to have been a boy called Peter, and although she was baptised Gerda Erika Maria, her father never called her anything but Peter.

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