Silhouetted against the blue night sky, the dark form of a helmeted figure on horseback glowered down disdainfully on our puny smartphone lights. After a tense 40 minutes trying to settle a restaurant bill with no cash, shared language, credit card facility or nearby ATM, then an hour haplessly navigating dingy suburban streets — not to mention the five long days of cycling to get here — finally we had found the spot. Only wait, no, we hadn’t. My heart sank as I realized that none of the surroundings matched the description: we were at the wrong statue, in the wrong city.
I was in Germany with my partner Anton, who had gamely agreed to join me on a quest to retrace the footsteps of my late grandfather Richard Wicker. We had reached our journey’s end, the northern port city of Kiel, on a tour that had begun 300 miles south near Hannover, at Fallingbostel — which 75 years ago was the site of the vast, sprawling prisoner-of-war camp Stalag 357.
Richard ended up here in spring 1945, aged 32, having spent four and a half years behind barbed wire as a POW. Until recently, this had been to me a mere second-hand fact, a bullet point of family history. Richard died in 1980, aged 67 — 18 months before I was born. I knew almost nothing about him, and nothing at all about his war experience, until three years ago when out of the blue my mum presented me with a tattered brown envelope containing 34 furled, musty-scented pages of the typed manuscript: “This is it,” she proudly announced, “Dad’s book.”
Within a few pages, I had discovered that her father, my grandfather, had left behind the most precious gift: not only a beautifully rendered record of a man torn from his life by war, but also a chance for me to enter into the presence, in a very real way, of the grandfather I’d never met. He throws us into the middle of things: it is winter 1940 and he is standing in the snow beneath a statue of German emperor Wilhelm der Grosse in an unnamed German town on the Baltic coast. The length of his beard, a full six and a half inches, reminds him that months have passed since his capture, and his stomach is growling. He reflects on how he must seem a “ludicrous figure” to passers-by, the women and children of the town, who cannot perceive that “beneath this old man exterior” he is still “a young man with a young man’s desires, thoughts, hope, and vitality.”
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