Just over five years ago, I decided to write a novel about my grandparents. Their names were Fay and Heinz (in the novel they became Hannah and Emil), and like so many caught up in the wars of the last century, their lives in those times were characterised by displacement and agonising separation.
Heinz, a German veteran of the First World War and anti-Nazi socialist, escaped from Germany in 1933, fleeing tragedy and great personal danger. Having crossed the border into Holland and then Belgium, he met Fay, a translator, at the Maison du Peuples in Brussels, where she worked for the trade union movement. They settled in England, her home, and ran a youth hostel until 1940, when Heinz was arrested as an enemy alien. He was soon afterwards sent to Australia on HMT Dunera with 2000 mainly Jewish Germans and Austrians and interned at Hay Camp in the Riverina region of New South Wales.
Fay, a woman for whom the term indefatigable was invented, used British Labour Party and trade union contacts to follow him across U-boat infested waters. She finally had him freed for war work in April 1942, almost two years after his internment, whereupon they married in Melbourne, had two sons and returned to England after the war.
But the Dunera affair was only one episode in lives packed with incident and poignancy. When Heinz died in 1963, Fay told her sons two facts previously kept from them. One was that she was Jewish, and that so consequently were they, and the other was that their father had been married before and had had a German son, who fought for the Hitler Youth Army at the end of the war.
(Am I a writer because this is the sort of thing spilling from the family closet? Or just ‘fortunate’ to be the recipient of others’ painful history?)
In early 2008 I travelled from Sydney back to England, the country of my birth, and tore around the country photocopying papers and visiting the places my grandparents had lived. At one point I found myself standing on the street outside Fay’s old flat in West Hampstead, memory flooding over me like a wave. My uncle in Oxford gave me Fay’s unpublished memoir, revealing a store of vivid moments returning in old age: sleeping on Goodge Street tube platform on raid nights in the First World War, roaming the streets of the West End as a child, the soldiers marching by her father’s shop on Tottenham Court Road – the fabulous redcoats of pre-war replaced by dull khaki uniforms.
My lightning dash around England gathering gems allowed only one night to stay at my uncle’s in Oxford. He had some photographs that he wanted to give me but could not put his hands on them. I went off to Germany for the next mad few days of cramming information, experience, connection with my family’s past, and then returned to Australia, where the light was gold at the end of summer after the grim freeze and reluctant snow of Europe.
Some weeks later an email arrived from my uncle. He had found the photographs, scanned them and sent them to me. Here is one of them.
This is my grandfather Heinz. The boy on his shoulders I had never seen before. But look at their noses and their eyes as they squint in the sunlight. Look at the way Heinz holds his fingers gently, too gently to be holding him on his shoulders. He holds his hand the way we often hold children’s hands: not always to keep them safe but rather to touch their fingers.
Another photograph in the sequence is clearly in Winchester, in front of the Old City Mill youth hostel they ran in the 1930s, which places the photographs for me. Here is another.
Heinz is on the left, Fay is on the right and between them are the same boy and a woman as fair as the child. She was in the previous photograph, hovering in the background. Here they are then, Heinz, his ex-wife, their son and his English lover Fay. I knew that this boy had existed. There is no reason Fay would have made him up, and my cousin and I found a reference to him in the town archives in my grandfather’s hometown in Germany. That is not the same as seeing him in these photographs, sitting on his father’s shoulders, or sitting with his mother and Fay on a picnic table, his skinny body leaning towards Heinz.
There is always something heartbreaking about a photograph taken before separation and loss. In this last picture, Heinz looks off into the distance as though he can see the future and knows it’s the kind for which you steel yourself. It is difficult to say what this picture means to me. What, I kept thinking, was the story of that day?
I will never, ever know, so I have had to make my own.