a smuggler in the family

2002.07.18 (updated : 2019.04.04)

As world war two dragged on, Germany's economy collapsed and things started getting scarce. My Opa (Grandpa) and the family lived in what became Allied-occupied space; West Germany. My father was all of six when the war ended, already the survivor of one of humanity's worst conflicts and the death of a sibling. Many members of the extended family and many of my Opa's contacts were in what was then Soviet-occupied land; East Germany. But my Opa, Reinhold Theodor Werneburg, saw the border between these spaces as an opportunity–perhaps a fairly common realization at the time. He began taking things back and forth for trade.

He told stories about these times that were difficult for me to imagine as a Canadian child living in peace time. Like crossing the divide between Soviet and American-controlled territory, and the things he was carrying for trade (canned food, cigarettes, wine, etc). He told of hiding in bushes, and even of being caught.

On one occasion, he came by bicycle to a bridge. He had with him some goods and his second-oldest son my uncle Horst. The bridge, like nearly all the bridges, was a twisted wreck from the bombings and fighting. So he took off his belt and put the loop over his shoulder to carry his young son as he spanned the uncertain girders of the mangled bridge. Then he went back for the bicycle, and finally for the goods. It was crazily risky but that's what had to be done.

The time he was caught, he was carrying three bottles of wine into the West, and was spotted by two Soviet soldiers from somewhere in the Russian's giant empire; the old boy had some funny ideas about "race" and called them "Mongols". He said they hauled him out of the bushes, and were going to take the bottles, but he held up a hand, gestured that perhaps since he had three bottles, he could one to either of the guards, and retain the third for himself. They weren't in the mood for bargaining and after all it was they who had the rifles. They took all three of the bottles, but spared themselves the difficulty of arresting him. He used to tell this story again and again, and told it with such a roguish smile that I believed every word.

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