I don’t have many vivid memories of my grandfather. I only met him a few times, but something that happened on the last of these occasions stands out.
I wasn’t very old at the time, maybe six or seven at most when he and my grandma came to stay. I didn’t like either of them very much. They were both very tall, and I remember I thought they looked like the drawing of Jack Spratt and his wife in my picture book. He was stick thing, and she was round as a pudding, but I would never consider approaching her for a cuddle.
There was something of a communication barrier as well. My dad had tried to teach me some German, but I had been far more interested in playing football than learning his mother tongue, which made talking to two elderly Bavarians with very poor English rather difficult.
All in all, I tried to keep as far away from them as I could, to the extent I’d hide myself away in my room and do homework all night, and wolf down my dinner in minutes.
I wasn’t always successful though. I had to leave my room sometimes, and invariably I caught sight of one of them on my travels, however brief, and it never ended well.
One day, I was walking out of my bedroom to get some juice from the kitchen downstairs. Though I was hurrying, my route led me straight past the bathroom, and just as I reached it, my grandfather emerged, wearing only a towel. He squinted at me short-sightedly, then glared.
“Was?” he spat, but I barely even registered. At first I was stunned by the sight of an elderly man wearing so little, but then I noticed that tattoo.
I had seen them before of course, but only on strangers, and my mum had always told me that only criminals got tattoos. I thought this would explain a lot about my grandfather, so naturally I focused my attention on it.
It was quite small. If he hadn’t been so fair-skinned, I’d never have noticed it, but there it was, inscribed on the wrinkled skin of his upper arm; the dark black letters A and B. I didn’t know what this combination meant at the time, and I most certainly didn’t know what it represented.
“What is…” I began, but paused and decided to try out my rather patchy German skills in hope of an honest answer. “Was ist das?” I asked, pointing at his arm.
He glared at me so ferociously I almost thought I’d keel over and die, and he started to shout in German. Bewildered I stumbled backwards, but he strode towards me, and thought I tried to escape, he grabbed my arm with one hand, and the other keeping a grip on his towel, he marched me through to the guest bedroom where he and my grandmother were staying.
My parents were fairly liberal for the time, so this was a new experience for me. I had a large enough collection of The Beano though to know what was about to happen, and I was terrified. Before we even got to the doorway I was howling.
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such gut wrenching fear as I did in the moments between my being bent over grandfather’s knee and hearing running footsteps and my father’s voice start shouting even louder than my assailants.
I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but it made the old man pause long enough for me to climb off his knee and run to my dad, still sobbing my eyes out.
The two men shouted for hours, and some point along the way both their wives joined in, and though my mum spoke as much German as I did, I think she made her point clear. At the end of it, my father dragged his parent’s luggage out of their bedroom, down the stairs, and threw it out into the driveway before slamming the door on their crimson, furious faces, drowning out the unfamiliar shouting almost completely.
Years later, I finally learned that the letters were his blood type, and that it would have been his SS commander that tattooed them to him. This was at school, because I’d always been too scared to asking my dad, but that evening we had a long talk about his family. After that I felt like I knew the grandfather whom I’d always seen as being second only to the devil a bit better, and though I couldn’t forgive his reaction, and certainly not his past, I thought I could begin to understood why he had been so angry.
I share this part with my dad though, because as far as I could make out, he never once spoke to his parents after that day.