My sister Deanna observes that Oma and I answer the phone with the same drawn-out and sing-song-y, “Hallooo!” We entertain ourselves in similar ways, dancing whether we have a partner or not, singing aloud whether we know the lyrics or not, sans embarrassment. We both read books voraciously, nurture children and animals compulsively, call people for no other reason than to say hello, or, in Oma’s words, “just checking to make sure that you’re still alive.” Both of us harbor deep, difficult-to-articulate hurt. Difficult to articulate because of how entrenched and visceral it feels, but also because the trauma is hard for many people to relate to. You know the uncomfortable pressure of witnessing or listening to another person’s suffering that leaves you feeling inadequate, hollow, defeated. It’s an isolating experience for everyone, teller and listener. All the more reason why it means so much to have someone you can call up who can comfortably listen. For me, that’s Oma.
“Hallooo, Amanda! You won’t believe what Ole found for me.”
Ole is the son of Oma’s sister, part of the line of my family still living in Germany. The last thing he found for Oma was a book about the region in East Prussia where Oma lived in her infancy, before the Soviet Army forced her family to flee to Graz, Austria with only so much of their possessions as they could carry in their arms. Oma had bookmarked pages to show me—maps of the city nearest her farming village, black-and-white pictures of the lush countryside. She had been especially gleeful about the official headcount. 683! I was one of those 683!
“What did Ole find for you?”
“He sent me a list of all the people who were killed in the air raids on Graz during the war. And I’ll be darned, there was my mother’s name!”
Oma’s mother was Marie Zeiler. She was an official at the depot that distributed clothing and linens to persons displaced because of the war. On February 1st, 1945 alarms screamed throughout the depot’s neighborhood anticipating an air raid. Marie fled along with everyone else to the nearest shelter, but the doors weren’t closed in time. She was thirty-three years old. Oma was eight.
“That’s amazing, Oma! How does that make you feel?”
“Well, it blows you away…”
The excited tone of her voice drains away into something soft and distant. This is the hard part, explaining how it makes you feel, what it means. Describing it as a knot in your gut, as a hurt in your heart, is only the beginning of it.
“Is it amazing because they thought to document all those people?”
“Well, no. I knew they had to document all those people somewhere, because they almost had to bring me to the morgue to identify her. Thank goodness Mom’s sister arrived in time. It’s also crazy because I remember the dates. I remember standing at the window in my hallway and hearing a bomb drop a month after that, and it’s written right here.”
I’d heard the story about the morgue. Oma’s father was by this time a prisoner of war and it was unknown whether he was dead or alive. A few days after the bombing that killed Marie, Oma was picked up by the local authorities and was on her way to the mass morgue when her aunt arrived, just in time, to take over the official duty of identifying Marie’s corpse. The story about hearing the bomb that dropped a month later, that was a new one. It wasn’t even a story, really. It was an image. It was an image that gave greater depth and dimension to Oma’s internal and external world as a child, a world that was so different than mine.
“Are you OK?”
“Yes, I’m OK. You put all these things behind you after so long. It’s just, it also jolts you. It brings tears to your eyes, even after all this time.” Her voice falters.
I ask her why.
“Because it’s real,” she says.
There’s nothing more to say. Oma and I will see each other tomorrow at Mom’s house for Chris’s big tamale-making party. She’ll show me the official document, “Die Bombentoten von Graz 1941-1945.” Two hundred and twenty-nine pages in, Marie Zeiler occupies a single line. For me it’s just a last, lonely, dangling thread, but for Oma it conjures the great tapestry that once was her mother. It blows her away. And that blows me away.
First published by the West Seattle Herald 2/8/2016.