Mental Health Capturing Dementia’s Voice: Postwar Memories Under Siege
If I collect Oma’s memories, if I truly remember my grandmother, I too can retain what is slipping away.
Author’s Note: The italicized portions of text are my Oma’s words, recorded and transcribed verbatim.
There are some memories there, in my brain. I can see part of the house if I think about it. And the farm across the street. We went back once, after the war. With whom did I go there? There was something there like a closet that looked like it was supposed to be a house. Someone was living there. It was horrible. It was like a box. I don’t know why she was there or who she was, but I remember how awful it was. That was in Lomnitz. No, it was Görlitz, where my mother grew up, in my grandparents’ house. No, that’s completely wrong. It was in Lomnitz. It was in Lomnitz.
Stashed away in a box covered in jade silk, stitched with red and yellow butterflies, my Oma has a picture of that house in Lomnitz. I don’t know when that trip happened—she can no longer recall the specifics. The house is planted in a field overrun with dense weeds. A small creek runs beside it, connected to the nearby homes by a stone bridge. It was the house where Oma and her siblings spent the first years of their life, chasing june bugs and sledding through snow-covered forests, where they probably would have spent their entire childhood if not for World War II.
This is how I imagine the beginning of her migration: With big guns slung across their backs, Soviet soldiers banged on the door of that little house in Lomnitz, an Allied response prompted by Nazi-era crimes. They told Oma’s mother she had to leave. They followed her around the house. They kicked her and kicked the children, forcing them out the door. It was cold, so frigid that my Oma, only ten years old, wept as she trudged more than forty miles toward the new Polish-German border, marching past sprawling frosted farms.
Silesia, an agricultural and industrial region larger than Switzerland, sits below the shadow of the Giant Mountains. It was considered Germany’s breadbasket, filled with enormous farms and manor homes and large factories, fertilized and fed by the Oder River and its tributaries. The region had long ago belonged to a medieval Polish state, trading hands many times over the years until 1815, when Frederick Augustus of Saxony lost Silesia to the Germanic state of Prussia.
In August 1945, Silesia was given to Poland by decree of the Potsdam Conference, thus giving thousands of Poles, displaced by the Soviet Union’s encroachment on Poland’s eastern border, a place to call home. With its signing, twelve million Germans marched toward the new border with what little belongings they had time to pack, marching through the territory where over the years all German inscriptions—on buildings, signs, and gravestones—would be systematically erased. Oma and her family were part of the migration that would turn Lomnitz to Łomnica. It would never be Lomnitz again.
Oma shakes her head and stares at the black-and-white picture of the house. When she returned to her first home, forty years after leaving, the little house in Łomnica was still standing, surrounded by fir trees and an iron fence, but Oma shakes her head and insists its essence is gone; it now resembles a shack. It is, for lack of a better word, horrible.
Photo provided by the author.
So often I hear the word horrible when Oma speaks of Germany. It makes sense. I am asking her about living through a war, about death and famine and homelessness. Yet, Oma is happy to speak about it. She tells me of men with guns pushing her toward someplace new. She tells me about hiding her older brother in an abandoned house from Polish troops, feeding him and nursing him back to health until he was strong enough to walk on his own. When she tells me these stories, it is as if she is seeing a different version of herself, a bold and fearless girl, ten years old, navigating postwar Germany—a different person than the old woman sitting in front of me, staring out at the garden from atop the covered porch where we chat.
That ten-year-old is just one version of Oma. There is also the young woman who became a caretaker for children along the North Sea. There is the young woman, living in Berlin, who met and married a serious, lanky young man with untameable bright blond hair studying for his PhD in chemistry. There is the young mother of four—a German immigrant living in California in the 1960s because there were no more jobs for her husband in their devastated homeland.
We all remember the devoted wife who moved to South Carolina so that she could live close to family, but felt utterly alone as she spent every day heaving her sick husband off his chair and into the shower—changing his diaper and cooking his food. We know the tiny, frail woman with dementia staying with my family for Christmas, trying to piece together her own life for me, her granddaughter. I watch her as she tries to reconstruct all of these versions of herself. We all watch Oma slowly slip away.
The shops were empty. It was terrible. I vaguely remember on this trip, there was a dead horse that people were butchering, and everyone got a piece of the meat there. We were all lost. We were all refugees. We were not in our homes.
Many months after Oma told me her stories at Christmas, I attended a wedding in upstate New York, overlooking a field of goldenrod and ironweed as I talked to a woman named Jen who works at a home for people suffering from dementia. She had short, spiky hair and a round face. She moved around exuberantly, wildly slinging the glass of white wine in her hand from left to right. I told her about my Oma, and her dementia, and how sometimes, as I try to capture her voice, I feel lost and confused. I asked her why, when Oma recounts stories of Silesia, she will often refer to herself as “that crazy girl.”
“When you look in the mirror,” she told me, “you see yourself. When your grandmother looks in the mirror, she sees an old lady. She might know it is her, logically, but something in her mind can’t quite ground it in reality. It’s the same when she revisits her memory. She knows it is her, logically, but her mind and memory are so distorted, she doesn’t really connect it to herself.”
She takes a sip of her wine before continuing. “It’s like, when you think of yourself as a little kid, you can’t really remember the way you felt. You can remember the moment and the details of the moment, but you can’t really remember what it was like to be that age. It’s even harder for your grandma.”
That night, as I washed my face, the water bleeding mascara down my cheeks, I stared at my reflection and wondered what it would be like to not truly recognize myself—to stare at my face and wonder from where those wrinkles originated. Did Oma see herself as an older woman? Middle-aged? A young lady in her twenties? What did her reflection tell her? Jen had told me that Oma could see herself as all of these people. Her perception of herself could change yearly, daily, even hourly.
The last time I saw Oma, she smiled at first sight and threw her arms around my neck, telling me how happy she was to see me. I was relieved, but my fourteen-year-old cousin Rea had a different experience. As I sat with Oma in our family room, Rea walked in front of us, dressed for the balmy South Carolina weather in denim shorts and a tank top.
“I know that girl is Rea,” Oma whispered to me. “But she just doesn’t look like Rea. I can’t recognize her face.”
I nodded, not knowing what to say. I have read enough to understand that facial recognition is difficult for people with dementia. Faces, especially young faces, change so rapidly. Ten years ago, Rea was four, her pudge face only reaching as high as Oma’s waist. Ten years ago, I was sixteen. I might currently look a little older—my face has thinned out a little with age—but I look largely the same.
Later in the week, Rea called her mom and cried into the phone. “It’s just . . . my own grandmother doesn’t even know who I am anymore.”
It is only a matter of time until I will have that same conversation with my mom. Oma won’t be able to recognize my face anymore, or at least, she won’t recognize my face as mine. It is common for dementia sufferers to mix up the faces of their grandchildren and children, especially grandchildren who look exactly like their parents once did. It is only a matter of time until, to Oma, my big blue eyes and prominent nose will remind her of twenty-six-year-old Susan rather than twenty-six-year-old Liesel, and she calls me by my mother’s name.
And on the whole trip, you saw dead people, and dead equipment. Dead people and some people that had flies all over them and they were stinking. All the dead, rotting people. Dead horses. It was pretty horrible.
I have never seen a dead person—not even in an open casket. Oma has seen hundreds. She has seen soldiers, casually thrown into ditches. She has seen the bodies of children and mothers on the side of the road, as she walked past them, trying to find a place to call home.
After the soldiers reached her home in Lomnitz, Oma walked forty-six miles with her mother and her brothers and sister to Görlitz, a city northeast of Lomnitz, to her maternal grandparents’ house, perched beside Neisse River. Because of the agreement at the Potsdam Conference, the Neisse River became the new German-Polish border and Görlitz was split in two, forcing her family to move once again across the river. The German side retained the name Görlitz, while the city of Zgorzelec , Poland was established on the eastern riverbank.
Oma’s relocation was fortunate. Germans who didn’t leave Silesia in time were rounded up. They were held in former Nazi concentration camps, where they were starved and tormented and raped and murdered. They were punished by the Poles who wanted revenge for the way millions of their people were starved and tormented and raped and murdered by Germans during the Nazi regime.
I am trying to feel what my grandmother felt during the war. I am trying to see what her suffering looked like. I have googled images of the aftermath in Germany and quickly looked away, too disturbed to stare; but Oma has experienced the real thing.
The only time I have come close to seeing what she felt was by accident while rewatching the footage of our Christmas interview, weeks after I recorded it. After spending two hours recording Oma’s stories, I left my camera running, perched on a foldable outdoor teak table, as I ran inside to get a glass of water. Oma remained in her rocking chair, staring into the distance, moving back and forth. Her unbrushed hair was pulled back into a low ponytail and she was still wearing her pajamas—bubble gum pink flannel pants patterned with red-and-white candies and a bright red sweater.
Several seconds after I leave the frame, Oma drops her head toward the ground and mumbles. No matter how many times I replay the video, I cannot understand what she uttered. She buries her head in her hands and shakes her head back and forth as if she can’t believe the thoughts swirling around her mind. Sparrows chirp loudly around her; she sits, silently. She softly grunts. The wheels in her head are still turning.
My Mutti, they put her in a home when Vatti was dead. Somehow, I have the picture in my head, that she was in a bed in the corner of the room, and it was just horrible. And I don’t think I was ever there, but it is sitting in my brain.
Oma lost her husband five years ago. My Opa died slowly for two years after an experimental surgery, degressing to a vegetative state before our eyes. Now Oma lives alone in a small, one-story house in Oregon about a mile from my Uncle Mike. He visits frequently. Mostly they spend time together outside, gathering the eggplant and squash and beans that Mike helped Oma plant in her garden. It’s something they can do together that doesn’t involve talking.
Even so, Oma is often alone. Lately, the family has been talking more and more about putting her in a retirement home, something she has been adamantly against all her life. I think she is scared of ending up like her mom, ending up in a bed in the corner of the room. It is something I can relate to. I think we are probably all scared of becoming too much like our family. I am scared of becoming like the Oma I see now. I am scared of depression and dementia. It is a fear, an image that has stuck with me. I think we all have those images—the ones that we never actually saw, yet, even so, they are there, imprinted on our grey matter.
It’s lonely. Everyone is dying. My brother died. My husband died. My mother died. I remember seeing my mother for the last time, she was in a hospital and had a very small bed in a corner. It was horrible. She was getting smaller and smaller.
I don’t want my last image of Oma to be of her dying in a bed. I want to see her marching through Germany and Poland. I want to see her balancing on beams in bombed-out houses in Berlin—looking for things to steal to keep her family alive. I want to see that crazy little German girl—the image of herself that she creates, the narrator of her stories. Perhaps it is exaggerated, perhaps a form of imagination. I don’t care. If I collect Oma’s memories, if I see Oma the way she wants to be seen, if I truly remember my grandmother, I too can retain what is slipping away.
A year ago, I went home in the summer for a week to visit my parents. Oma was also visiting South Carolina, having been brought out from Oregon by my sister Erika. Once I arrived home, my mom and dad and brother and Oma and Erika and I piled into a couple of cars and headed to the beach. It was August and the air was heavy with heat and humidity—the kind of Southern heat that creates a thin layer of sweat that sticks to your skin all day long. We drove over bridges that traversed sprawling marshes of spartina grass and pluff mud, where the white silhouettes of egrets dotted the landscape, to arrive at a condo several blocks from the beach.
When Oma waded into the ocean, she was amazed at its warmth. She told me over and over again how the North Sea, where she had lived for a year in her twenties, was always freezing cold, even in the summer. In the summer in South Carolina, all water, even ocean water, is as warm as bathwater.
Oma spent hours splashing in the surf. I watched her play, often having to retrieve her and walk her back to where I was sitting when the tide began to pull her down the beach. As we walked, she would talk to me about Germany’s North Sea, how she worked with children, taking them on walks along the coast, exposing them to the sea breeze in the hopes that it would alleviate their breathing problems.
“But,” she told me with a smile, “the water was freezing! Nothing like this!”
When it was time to return to the condo, I pulled Oma out of the surf one last time. As we created footprints on the sand, the loud engine of a propeller plane drew our attention upward. Smiling, Oma stretched her body out wide. Her arms became wings as she zig-zagged across the beach, dancing in front of me, flying atop the shore.
We made it. We made it.
The Russians, they would go through destroying things, beating people up. It was no good.
We made it. We made it.