This year, many Americans may not be able to have as bountiful a Christmas as they would like. But I know from my family’s journey to prosperity in America that just having your family together and food on the table in this land of liberty is something to be grateful for. As I sit down with my family for Christmas dinner this year, we will give thanks for that as we remember the dark Christmas and uncertain future my grandmother and mother faced at the end of World War II.
In late 1944 my mother was a teenager living in Breslau, the capital of Silesia in eastern Germany. She had already experienced the trauma of five years of unrelenting war .My grandparents were viewed with suspicion by the authorities because they had a Jewish-sounding name and had refused to join the Nazi Party. My mother had friends and colleagues killed in bombing raids, including a direct hit on the opera house in another city where she had been working as a ballerina. She feared the constant bombings and had quit performing only the month before to return to Breslau to be with her mother and sisters.
As Christmas approached, my mother had no idea whether her father was even alive. Although he was fortunately too old to have been drafted into the Germany army, he had been conscripted into a civilian corps that dug people out of bombed buildings in other cities. There was no longer regular mail or telephone service between Breslau and other cities in Germany, and he had been out of contact for quite some time.
Christmas was a depressing time. There was no tree, no gifts, almost no food, and my mother was overwhelmed with concern over her father and her family’s uncertain future. She remembers it as one of the worst times she ever experienced. And in a city whose civilian population was slowly starving to death as the Russian troops advanced, the Nazis wouldn’t let the civilians leave.
Shortly after Christmas, as my mother came home from her forced job in a factory, her mother told her that all civilians had been ordered out of Breslau. It was one of the bitterest and coldest winters on record. The temperature was only five degrees, and the streets were covered in snow and ice. But my grandmother gathered her elderly parents and her children and tried to get to the train station.