Meeting Barbara and her story was a completely unexpected bonus.
I originally just came to see an old friend. She settled in Rothenburg, Germany, a small town that even Germans don’t know much about. After not seeing each other for many years, my friend and I wasted no time chatting, and the topic somehow ended up on her German mother-in-law, Barbara. My friend really wanted me to talk to this old lady. Before I could ask why, she couldn’t help but introduce Barbara’s life: she was born into a wealthy manor family, and later became a refugee. It was like the movie ” Scarlett in “Gone with the Wind”!
I had already smelled the flavor of the story. It happened to be that Friday, and my friend made an appointment to go to my mother-in-law’s house, so I quickly followed. The walk to Barbara’s house was short, just through the garden from the back door of a friend’s house. The kitchen door opened, and a silver-haired old man walked out.
When I first met Barbara, I couldn’t help but marvel: This old lady is so tough! He walks steadily and has a loud voice. He doesn’t look like he is 93 years old. After her husband’s death, Barbara lived alone for more than ten years. Not only did she take care of her own daily life and food, but she also took care of the two-story house and large garden.
Seeing me as an unexpected guest, Barbara graciously invited me in. A friend suggested that we sit at the dining table and chat. Barbara pretended to be angry and shook her head: “How can we sit comfortably?” She moved the brewed tea and small cakes to the coffee table at the end of the living room. The room was a little dark, so Barbara turned on the light, turned to the room, took out two photo albums, and placed them in front of me.
”This is my old home,” Barbara said. She pointed to a black and white photo in the center of the album’s home page. The pixels were very low and a bit blurry, but I could still tell that it was a large castle-like house that could accommodate at least a dozen luxurious suites.
Barbara, who was born in 1931, has lived in this big house with her two sisters since she was a child. Her family is very wealthy, and the town where the manor is located, whether it is farmland, shops or churches, is all Barbara’s family property. They hired thousands of employees to take care of everything in the manor. Barbara’s childhood was pampered.
But such a privileged life came to an abrupt end when Barbara was 14 years old. In 1945, Germany was defeated and the country was occupied by partitions. Barbara’s family estate was located on the border of East and West Germany, and was transferred to East Germany at the last minute. If they were ordinary people, they might not be affected too much. The prominence of the Barbara family and the “corrupt farmer life” they lived made them the target of public criticism. On the eve of the end of the war, the Soviet army that took over captured Barbara’s father and gave orders to other family members to pack up and leave within 4 hours.
Overnight, Barbara was reduced from an aristocratic lady to a refugee. Fortunately, thanks to my mother’s bravery and resourcefulness, the family of five was able to reunite safely. They climbed onto the train in the dark, crossed the border, and hid with relatives in West Germany.
From then on, Barbara not only had to take care of her own life, but also had to learn farm work from scratch. When I asked Barbara if she ever felt particularly miserable, she laughed. She is always smiling, and when she talks about the past, it feels like she is describing someone else’s adventure story, without any resentment or sadness on her face. She even looked like a child, her shoulders curled up when she was happy, and she leaned on the sofa with a smile on her face.
Barbara said that she didn’t feel bitter at all, but felt extremely lucky. After all, her family was intact. She only remembers the ruins of post-war towns, or the happy times she spent laughing in the rice fields with her family. Later, they came to settle in the small town of Rothenburg.
The war delayed Barbara’s studies, but she always had a dream to become a flight attendant, because her mother said that being a flight attendant allowed her to experience different cultures. At that time, Germany had very high requirements for flight attendants, and you had to master two foreign languages to apply. In her early twenties, Barbara decided to go abroad. Her family contacted a family in Sweden who needed a nanny for her, and she set out alone.
Barbara stayed in Sweden for three years and met her future husband, who was also German. Her husband wanted to return to Germany, so Barbara’s dream of being a flight attendant ended. She settled down to become a housewife and raised four children.
In the 1970s, Barbara’s family contacted the East German government. After numerous lawsuits, Sister Barbara finally received some compensation. The former manor is now managed by a government foundation. The pastoral scenery and splendor of the past can only be recorded thanks to the photos taken by Barbara’s mother during her lifetime. If no one asked, Barbara rarely told her story to outsiders. She just typed out an “autobiography” of more than thirty pages on a typewriter and left it to her four children.
The epic story of nearly a hundred years was condensed into one afternoon’s narration, which I found intoxicating and exciting. I asked Barbara if there was one item that she still regrets leaving in her home at that time.
Barbara spent a few minutes thinking, and I guessed that the answer might be related to gold and silver jewelry. Unexpectedly, she answered: “My little stuffed bear!” She pointed behind her seriously and said, “So I give myself I sewed one!”
After hearing this, my friend and I burst into laughter. Barbara explained a little embarrassedly: “I was only a 14-year-old child at the time…”
Before leaving, Barbara took out a small notebook and asked me to leave a message in it. I wrote in Chinese and Swedish respectively: Dear Barbara, I wish you health and happiness forever.