Quite a few Americans who lived in postwar Germany as children have contacted me since I started this blog. I have some of their stories waiting in the pipeline, but I wanted to introduce the topic with a memoir that has just appeared in German, and will hopefully show up in English soon.
Schwimmen in Villa Hügel (Swimming in Villa Hügel) is the story of Mary Bruce, an American 9-year-old who followed her diplomat father to Essen in 1949. Via her father, she had access to the city’s grandest mansion, the Villa Hügel, home of the city’s grandest family, the Krupps. They made Essen the “City of Steel,” and more ominously, the “Armory of the Reich.”
Allied bombings left Essen in ruins, the landscape Mary found when she arrived. She moved between two worlds: the privileged luxury of the Krupp mansion, symbol of the Allied dominance in postwar Germany. And the squalor of the city with its rubble and shortages. Between her father’s work and her mother’s social engagements, Mary was left largely alone to explore a city populated by people she’d been taught were monsters. When she met the German girl Irmgard, she began to accept that this strange place could also be home.
Mary is now a retired literature professor from Illinois. She was kind enough to answer a few question about her book and what writing about her childhood meant to her.
Q: Who did you write the book for?
A: I can’t remember if I, or someone else, suggested I write this book. Basically, the interest Germans showed in my story inspired me, so I wrote it for them – but really, as with most writers, I wrote it for myself.
Q: How emotional was it to write?
A: The experience was both emotional and intriguing, intriguing because once I began reflecting, memories tumbled out. It was like uncorking a bottle of wine and pouring. Yes, I felt many emotions from happy to sad to surprise. The surprise element was just how much I remembered, and also, as I wrote, some pieces of my life fell into place.
Q: Have you heard from Irmgard?
A: I have not found my dear friend Irmgard. This is very sad for me. People have been looking for her, but she has not shown up. I don’t remember her last name, or even her address, as I was at her house only twice. I only hope she is all right.