Snowflakes fall down onto my laptop, church bells start ringing, and a children’s choir sings carols in my mother tongue—and then, something hits me hard every year.
The world of my childhood suddenly seems whole and perfect for a few seconds—a few minutes, maybe—with the illusion of peace, harmony, and goodwill for all.
But then, reality hits me.
Days in bombed-out Europe
World War II had thrown millions of people out of their homes all over Europe and turned many survivors into refugees without money, jobs, or hope. Countless people lived in refugee camps, bunkers, in the streets, or in overcrowded places.
My father, a young journalist and war correspondent, aged 31, was missing in action.
In 1948, an old relative invited my mother, my little sister, and me to share her small, one-bedroom apartment with two other families in Wuppertal, a city near Düsseldorf and Cologne. When we looked out the window, blackened ruins of a once-large apartment building stared us in the face.
When the singing stops
on Christmas Eve—year after year
Soon, my grandmother stopped singing. She took out her little handkerchief and sobbed. Two songs later, my grandfather stopped singing, too. He rubbed his eyes with his big hands, pretending that he had some dust in his eyes. It took me some years before I realized why they stopped singing: both my grandparents had lost their only son, drafted at 17, killed in Russia.
My father had disappeared in the Soviet Union. None of us knew for many years after the war that Russian partisans had thrown a Molotov cocktail under his car and blown him and his driver up in the summer of 1944. My mother, unaware that she already was a widow, yet filled with fear and apprehension, stopped singing and started to cry.
In spite of all the tears, my little sister and I kept singing, no matter what. We both wanted to save Christmas—Heiligabend after Heiligabend. The same scenario repeated itself every year, way into the 1950s.
Each Christmas song in Philly brings back the sorrow and the joy
in the ruins of Europe
As in all the years before, I fight tears, aware that after all these many decades, I’m still allowed to re-live those Christmas evenings of my childhood whenever snow falls gently onto my computer screen and a children’s choir in Bavaria sings Weihnachtslieder, courtesy of YouTube.
May those who come after us
do a better job than we did
Fröhliche Weihnachten, merry Christmas, and a heart full of hope.
One day, may those who come after us, doing a better job than we did, hand over permanent peace as a present for the generations to come—not just for Christmas, but for life.