An humble and a contrite heart…

25 04 2014

Cornelius Wilhelm Jäger.

Cornelius was born in 1850, in Hallgarten, a village in the Rheinland, the third of 11 children of Wilhelm Jäger & Anna Storzl.

I don’t know why my great-great grandparents swapped Germany for the fledgling vineyards of the Hunter Valley.  All I know is that my great-grandmother, Mary Jäger, was born in 1899, the 10th of Cornelius’ children.

‘Grandma Mary’ died when I was 19.  Her hands. gnarled with arthritis, were a constant of my childhood.  It’s only today that I wished I’d asked her, instead of my WWII-vintage grandmothers, to tell me about her ‘wartime experiences’ in those yearly school assignments.

Not only had she lived through all of Australia’s foreign wars; my great-grandmother was a ‘Hun’.

It’s not as if I was asked in a Fawlty-fashion to never mention the war.  Our ‘German-ness’ was erased long before my birth in 1971; so when people criticise ANZAC Day as the epitome of jingoism & warmongering, I think of that wizened old lady, and what life must have been like for a 15-year-old German girl in country NSW when war broke out.  What it was like to be part of an insular migrant community (all of her uncles and aunts married other German immigrants) reviled as Belgian baby killers.  What it was like to think of cousins fighting for the Fatherland.  What it was like to be the enemy.

What a strange pull of forces.

~~~~~

Stanley Richard Portus.

‘Uncle Mickey’ was born on May 4, 1925.  According to his sister – one of the grandmothers whose ‘wartime experiences’ I gathered – her lovely little brother was gobbled up by the air force as a teenager, trained to fly in a few weeks & sent off to fight the Japanese in the skies over the Pacific.

It is with no small shred of shame that I say I was terrified of the man who quivered and quavered when we visited the small house in Mayfield he shared my great-grandmother.  She would make tea on the wood-burning stove, and Mickey’s hands trembled as he held the cup in his hands.

Mickey was the saddest person I have ever known.  His eyes, watery, held no light.  He spoke, in the sense that he would answer when his mother, sister or niece talked directly to him.  Apart from that, Mickey sat at the kitchen table and stared at things that no one else could see.

‘God help anyone who knocks on that door after dark,’ my Mum would say.  ‘He’s got a rifle with a fixed bayonet in his bedroom, and he’d use it, too.  It’s not his fault he’s like that.  He’s got shell-shock.’

This was the 1980s. We still said shell-shock to describe post-traumatic stress disorder.  To the best of my knowledge, it was never treated.  Mickey’s life ended before he turned 20, but he heard the screams of Japanese soldiers burning alive at the end of his flamethrower for another 60 years.

It may be sweet & fitting to die for your country, but to bury your self, or your history in it… that’s hell.

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