by Kim Kelly

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THE PRICE OF FREEDOM

By some miracle of immigration, all my forebears managed to escape most of the great horrors of the twentieth century. The Irish avoided the Troubles, the Jews avoided the Holocaust, the Germans avoided the firestorms of World War II.

But it’s that last which has kept returning to me in recent writings. Both my Snowy Mountains story and my latest manuscript about a German-Australian surgeon hold the destruction of Dresden in their hearts.

My family didn’t come from Dresden but it’s a city of deep personal significance for me. A decade ago, when I was very lost and lonely, wounded and in quite desperate need of healing, I washed up here on the banks of this jewel of the Elbe not really knowing where I was. I had run away from home for a few weeks to try to get a grip, that was all.

I got more than a grip. I’ll never forget walking across the Altmarkt and seeing the Frauenkirche for the first time. This magnificent church had been reduced to rubble during the bombing in World War II and had only recently been restored to its former gilt-edged rococo glory. The people of Dresden had had such hopes even then – in that deadly February of 1945 – that one day this beautiful building would stand again, they collected as much of the original stone as possible to use in the restoration.

When I stepped inside, I was overwhelmed with such a force of love and possibility I had to sit down. I’m not a religious person, but here, in this church, something of goodness and faith hit me like a tonne of bricks.

I walked back through the city with clearer eyes. I saw the last remnant holes in the ground left by the war now as building sites, I saw the unashamed contrasts of elegant old buildings sitting cheek by jowl with bold new ones as symbols of regeneration and resilience. Suddenly, for me, joy seemed not only achievable but a responsibility. Get up and get on with it, Kimbo.

I did, and a few years later, I dragged my teenaged kids across the world with my new man, Deano, so they could experience it too. The three of them survived the trip and my mad need to have all my love and wonder in one place for a spell. My eldest boy turned eighteen there and Deano shouted him his first legal pilsner on the Altmarkt. Beautiful, beautiful memories.

But this morning, I was confronted anew with destruction that has lain a little closer to home all this time.

My German family is from a small town called Wald-Michelbach, nestled in the gentle fir-clad slopes of the Odenwald, and in my imagination it’s always seemed a little slice of fantasy fairytale, an idyllic place from which two brothers stepped long ago, taking a ship from Bremen across the seas to Australia. I’ve been thinking I should rattle the dream and see what true tale I might find there – one I can turn into a new novel. A glimpse of such a story flitted through my mind, beginning here in the mid-nineteenth century, a young travelling musician…

‘I want to go back to Germany,’ I called out to Deano.

He groaned. We have this conversation a lot. He’d like to go back to Germany too, but we don’t have time, can’t justify the expense right now, and at six feet, five inches tall, he groans at the mere idea of long-haul flight.

Nevertheless, I started plotting a trip. We could come into Frankfurt, tootle around Wiesbaden, Weinheim, Heidelberg, Darmstadt, Pforzheim, Mannheim… And then I realised half these places no longer exist as my ancestors would have known them – the last three had their centres almost completely obliterated by fire-bombing. Frankfurt’s medieval streets – gone.

With some other sudden clarity, I saw the scale of destruction right across the entire country. So much history lost; so many people. To give a sense of the numbers involved, if 32,000 ordinary workaday civilians were killed by the Germans during the Blitz throughout Britain, no-one knows how many were killed in Dresden alone by the Allies – estimates range from 35,000 to 135,000. In Darmstadt, 12,000; in Pforzheim, 17,000; Frankfurt 5,000, and on and on; by 1945 millions throughout Germany were homeless.

Of course, this is the price of freedom. No-one argues that. The British remain quietly, sombrely defensive about the figures; the Germans cling to lessons of mass madness and contrition in a Europe that seems set to tumble towards fascism again.

Whatever happens now, only one thing is clear: none of us can go back. We can only continue to seek out and tell our tales, to try to keep the truths of the past alive – and heed their warnings.

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(Photos: the Frauenkirche, Dresden, before and after)