Saturday 24 August 2019

Nazi Christmas by Hugo Hamilton

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

It began with the man in the fish shop saying "Achtung!" and all the customers turning around to look at us. Even the people outside under the row of naked turkeys and hanging pheasants stared in through the window. We were exposed. Germans. War criminals using Ireland as a sanctuary.

There was a chance they might have overlooked the whole thing if it wasn't for the man in the fish shop trying out some more of his German. All the stuff he had picked up from films like Von Ryan's Express and The Great Escape.

"Guten Morgen," he said leaning over the counter, then leaning back with an explosive laugh that acted as a trademark for his shop. Our mother was shy of these friendly, red-faced Irishmen. She smiled at all the people in the shop and they smiled back silently. That was the thing about Ireland. They were all so friendly.

"We haff ways of making you talk," he said to us whenever we refused to perform for the benefit of his customers and say a few words of German. Like our mother, we were too shy and unable to respond to these contortions of language.

"Halt! We must not forgotten der change." There was something about us that made people laugh, or whisper, or stop along the street quite openly to ask the most bizarre questions; something that stuck to us like an electronic tag.

It was as though the man in the fish shop had let out this profane secret about us. The word was out. Our assumed identity as Irish children was blown. Everywhere we went, the German past floated on the breeze after us. "Heil Hitler!" we heard them shout, on the way to Mass, on the way to school, on the way back from the shops. Our mother told us to ignore them. We were not Nazis.

When we were on our own they jumped out behind us or in front of us howling their war cries. It was all "Donner und Blitzen", and "Achtung! Get the Krauts". We lacked the Irish instinct for blending in with the crowd, that natural expertise of human camouflage.

It didn't help that Eichmann went on trial for war crimes when I was around five years old. So I was called Eichmann, or sometimes Goring. My older brother usually went under Hitler or Himmler, and the greeting "Sieg Heil!" was generally accompanied by a neat karate chop on the back of the neck.

It didn't help either that on those shopping trips into town before Christmas, our mother talked to us in German on the bus. Just when we began to enjoy the comfort of anonymity, she would say "Lass das sein" ('Stop that') in a harsh German tone and the passengers would turn around to stare again. But once we saw the lights in the city and the vast toy departments it was easy to forget.

On the way home she told stories and sang Christmas songs like O Tannenbaum with the shopping bags stacked on the seats beside us and the winter sky lighting up pink beyond the roofs of the houses. It was a sign that the angels were baking. And at home there was always the smell of baking.

When we got home there were sweets laid out in the hallway, on the stairs, sometimes across our pillows at night, and when we asked how they got there she said: "the angels." She made marzipan potatoes, small marzipan marbles coated with cinnamon. On the morning of December 6 we came down to find a plate for each of us filled with sweets and a glazed 'Manneken' - a little man with raisin eyes that lasted for ever. The St Nicholas plates stood on the Trube in the hall, a large, oak trunk made in 1788 to store vestments. It was part of her heirloom from Kempen. Everything inside our house was German.

Everything outside was Irish, or imported from Britain.

The other houses all had coloured fairy-lights on Christmas trees in the windows. We envied those coloured lights. At the same time we knew we were the only house with real candles, almost like a sign to the outside, a provocation. Most of our clothes and our toys came in parcels from German relatives.

The snow seemed to be a German invention, too. Thick flakes fell in Ireland that Christmas and made our mother think of home. There was never any snow again at Christmas; perhaps afterwards in January but never on Christmas Day itself.

Somehow Ireland had committed itself more towards the milder Mediterranean climate. With the undercurrent of the Gulf Stream, people here had grown a variety of palm trees that leaned towards the tropical; palm trees that formed the centrepiece of front gardens and patios.

Guest houses along the coast expanded the subtropical illusion by hanging nameplates like Santa Maria or Stella Maris from their palms.

Snow was another import which remained mostly in the imagination, on Christmas cards, on top of Christmas cakes, in the form of cotton wool on the roof of the crib. But that year the snow was real; full white snow that took away the seaside appearance and transformed the streets into a fairy-tale of winter.

It was our Christmas. Our father put on his favourite Christmas record of the Cologne Children's Choir and the house was filled with the bells of Cologne Cathedral ringing out across the sea to Dublin. There was the taste of German food, pretzels and Lebkuchen and exotic gifts from Germany.

We might as well have been in Kempen where our mother came from, kneeling in front of the crib as we prayed and sang in German with the white candles reflected in my father's glasses and the smell of pine merging with the smell of Gluhwein in the front room.

Later, we went out to build a snowman in the front garden and it was only when we entered a snowball fight with other children in the street that we realised we were back in Ireland; where children had scooped snow from the low walls or where the cars had skidded and exposed the raw street underneath.

We went from one garden to the next looking for new untouched sheets of snow, where the street was still under a dream. And when all the other children disappeared inside for Christmas dinner, we decided to go to the football field to see how deep the snow was there.

It seemed like a good idea until we were ambushed in the lane by a gang of boys we had never seen before. Amelia and I ran away into the field through the opening in the barbed-wire fence, but they had caught Karl and pushed him against the wall. One of them held a stick across his neck. "You Nazi bastard," they said.

Amelia and I shouted to let him go. She threatened to tell on them but it was a frail plea. We were trapped.

"Get them," one of them said and three or four of the boys ran into the field after us. There was no point in screaming for help either because nobody would hear.

"You Nazi bastard," they said again to Karl. Then they twisted his arm up behind his back and made him walk towards the field where Amelia and I had already been caught behind a line of eucalyptus trees. One of them was forcing snow up Amelia's jumper and she was whining with the effort to fight him off.

Karl said nothing. He had already put into action his plan of inner defiance and was determined to give them nothing but silence, as though they didn't exist, as though they would soon get tired and go away.

Amelia stopped resisting and they stopped putting snow under her jacket because she wasn't contributing to the fun. We were told to line up with our backs against the wall of the football field.

The leader of the gang had no fear of the cold. While the other boys blew into their cupped red hands for warmth, he calmly picked up more snow and caked it into a flat icy disc in his palms. We kept repeating in our heads the maxims our mother had taught us: "The winner yields. Ignore them." I tried to look as though standing against the wall was exactly what I wanted to be doing at that very moment.

"What will we do with these Nazi f**kers?" the leader asked, holding his stony white disc up to our faces. "Put them on trial," somebody said.

They formed a circle around us and discussed how they would proceed with this. There was no point in thinking of escape. One of the boys was pushing a discoloured piece of brown snow towards Karl with the tip of his shoe, whispering to him: "I'm going to make you eat that." Amelia started crying again but Karl told her to be quiet.

"OK, Nazi," the leader said. "What have you got to say for yourselves?"

"Don't indulge them," Karl said to us. "Don't indulge them," they all mocked and for some of them it was the sign to start speaking in gibberish of German. "Gotten, blitzen... Himmel." Another boy started dancing around, trampling a circle in the snow with "Sieg Heils" until Amelia could no longer contain a short, nervous smile. For the leader it was a sign to hurl his snowball. It hit me in the eye with a flash of white; a hard lump of icy stone that immediately made me hold my face. I was close to tears but I didn't want to let Karl down and give them the satisfaction.

"The Nazi Brothers," he then announced. "Guilty or not guilty?"

"Guilty," they all shouted and they laughed and collected more snow. The trees were being pushed by the wind. Above the white landscape of the football field the sky was darkening and it looked as though it would snow again. Low on the grey sky there were flashes of white or silver seagulls.

"We have to go home now," Amelia said with a sudden burst of self-righteousness as she moved forward to go. But she was held back. "You're going nowhere, you SS whore."

All of it meant little to us. It was as though the terms were being invented there and then, as though they came from somebody's perverse imagination. One of them said something about concentration camps, and gas chambers. Whenever I asked my mother about the Nazis I saw a look in her eyes somewhere between confusion and regret.

"Execute them," they all shouted. They were looking for signs that one of us might break. The only hope for us was that they might get bored with it all. That they too might be numb with the cold.

The sentence became obvious as they quietly began an industry of snowball-making. Somebody mentioned the "firing squad". Some of them laughed and Amelia once more began to cry.

They crouched down and collected mounds of snowballs, enough to start another war. Somebody reminded everyone to pack them hard. One of them included the discoloured piece of snow in his armoury and when they all had heaps of white cannonballs ready beside their feet, we waited for the order and watched the leader of the gang mutely raise his hand.

It seemed like an endless wait in which it was possible to think of all kinds of random, irrelevant things like Christmas cake, and marzipan potatoes and the peculiar skull-shaped design of the plum pudding as well as other even more irrelevant things like the three little dials of the gas meter under the stairs, until the hand eventually came down and the piercing shout brought with it a hail of blinding white fire. Karl put his hands up to his eyes. "It's only snow."

Reprinted from Dublin Where the Palm Trees Grow (Faber & Faber) with the author's permission

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