Uncle Heini’s Underwear


I was in Germany in early October 2015 visiting my 92 year old aunt Eva-Sophie in Erding, a small provincial town, about half an hour drive from Munich’s new international airport where she and her husband lived since they were married. Eva-Sophie’s husband Heini had unfortunately died a few months previous to my arrival. Not far from their house were abandoned hangers belonging to an air force base, which recently had been refurbished, with the addition of large heated army tents. The base now functions as one of the many German transit camps able to accommodate up to 5000 refugees.

Before the refugees arrived, Aunt Eva-Sophie’s neighborhood was abuzz with rumors and worries about these strangers being let loose right next to them. The most circulated story was about a brave Bavarian maiden, who bit off an Arab’s tongue when forcibly kissed. Other stories were tales of girls who had been groped by male refugees at Munich’s Oktoberfest.

When the refugees finally arrived in Erding, we learned from the local paper that their needs were tremendous; their health was precarious due to their gruesome journey. In particular, clean clothes were needed urgently, since most arrived in tattered dirty outfits given to them in some previous camp weeks ago.

I asked Eva-Sophie whether some of Heini’s clothing might be given away to help these poor people? As so many widows, she was not ready yet to part with his clothing. However, the next day when another news article appeared mentioning the basic need for clean underwear, Eva-Sophie became enthusiastic to help. I climbed a ladder to the upper regions of Heini’s cupboard where I found well over a hundred undershirts and underpants all size 40 to 44, most of them never worn. It was his steady supply delivered over many years by his loving mother. With a good laugh, we bundled them all up and off I went to the air force base.

As it turns out; the collection and sorting center was at another warehouse in town. Before leaving, I told the young soldier at the gate that I was from Canada and may I please have a quick look at the refugees so I could tell other Canadians what was going on in Germany. He kindly let me in. I did not see the entire base just a small corner, but it was enough. There were rows upon rows of army cots occupied by totally exhausted women and children. There were few older people, mostly young women and children. They did not play, nor cry, nor fight with each other. They sat quietly by themselves or close to their mothers. I recognized their all observant eyes as they followed me crossing the tent. Like them, many years ago, I too had learned to watch and wait for the next danger.

A few days later I was down-town to purchase a new German SIM card for my cell phone. A handful of refugees were there to do exactly the same, many were able to speak English and I was told that their cell phones are their most precious belonging keeping them in touch with far away family and friends. There were children in the store as well looking already a lot better than the ones I had seen a few days ago.

Since I was one of 6 million refugee flooding West Germany at the end of WWII, I know their trauma, their loss of dignity, their indignity of being treated like cattle, their astonishment and incomprehension when told to go home to a place which has been obliterated by war. The refugees of 2015 have much in common with those who fled East European in 1945-46; they too left behind an obliterated past.

Thanks to many Canadians, there will be refugees who will be given a chance for a future far away from a war that has destroyed their homes and much of their family units. Like all refugees, they will dream of going home again, but like most will find that they have grown strong new roots in Canada.


Uncle Heini's Underwear

Michaela retired in 1998 from the Federal Government in Ottawa where she wrote professional papers as a textile conservator. She lately discovered that writing can be fun.
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