Our Gentle Giants
by Northern Life
I have vivid memories of the first time that I encountered the Giant. It would be about 1944-1945 when I would have been around three and a half years old and walking across the farmyard clutching my father’s hand tightly to avoid being pecked by the six geese that guarded the gateway with ferocious application to duty.
Dad was about six feet tall but the giant towered over him; a huge, heavily-built man with piercing blue eyes set in a large round red face topped by an unruly shock of almost white hair. I’d never seen anyone like him before and hid behind
my father’s legs, shaking with fear and hoping that he hadn’t noticed me. The two men exchanged words, strange words that I couldn’t understand, accompanied by hand gestures, before the giant swooped down and scooped me up in his massive arms and swung me over his head, laughing joyfully and using more strange guttural words to my father.
I seem to recall Dad shouting “For God’s sake don’t drop her Hans,” when I was gently set back on terra firma and with a tickle under my chin the giant went back to forking hay from the cart into the barn. Even at that young age I was aware that we were at war, but not fully comprehending what the word ‘war’ meant. I recollect the panic when the siren went off when I would sit on my mother’s knee under the stairs. I remember young men who were no longer around and the distress felt by our small village when news of their deaths circulated around the community.
I can also remember the noise of the German planes passing over our farming community on their way to a bombing raid and seeing bright red skies in the distance. My father and his brother took turns to keep nightly watch over the farm and the haystacks and barns in case an incendiary bomb set them alight and lit up the village. On my father’s duty nights my mother would plonk a metal colander on his head – the handles sticking out over both ears – to protect him from falling bombs! Apparently he used to hide it under the hedge and only put it on again when he returned home in the morning.
We had been sent some Prisoners of War to work on the farm around 1943/45 and later, as there was a sizeable camp only a few miles away. I think Dad and his brother were rather scared of a couple of them who, understandably, were surly and unwilling to work or rather intimidating. Another one was taken ill and never seen again but after a gap of a few weeks the Giant arrived. Hans proved himself to be a hard and willing worker, cheerful in himself and capable with the two shire horses.
Gradually, over a period of months, Dad and Hans developed not only a good working relationship but a friendship even though language was still a problem. We learned that Hans had left a wife and small son my age back in rural Germany and had not wanted to join the war. He had been brought up on a small farm so was used to working the land and loved being outside in the countryside.
My grandma and family fed him well and took care of his needs and later on, possibly near the end of the war, he was billeted in a back room in the farmhouse, but he would never sit down and eat with the family, always conscious of his PoW status.
I grew to love Hans, his large comforting frame, his willing laugh and smiling eyes and wildly tousled hair. He was gentle and kind with me and held my hand as we walked to the fields with the cows or to bring the horses back for work. I would sit on his knee and show him my story books and pretend to read to him even if the book was upside down. I even started to enjoy being tossed high into the air and felt confident in his abilities to return me to ground level in one piece. I would take him fruit from the orchard and mushrooms from the fields. He would gently return the baby mice to their habitat and hedgehogs to a safe sheltering hedge.
It must have been after the war ended that the PoWs were allowed to return home. The family wanted Hans to stay and help with the farm and suggested that he could return to Germany and bring his small family back to our village as other PoWs were doing. My father felt that he would have liked to do this but apparently his wife and his family were adamantly opposed to the idea and so he returned to his homeland for good.
Hans and dad did communicate by letter for almost two years, only made possible by the German brides brought home by our young soldiers translating letters from Hans and English wives of German solders doing the same with Dad’s letters to Hans. Eventually contact was lost but our family never forgot him and his presence was greatly missed.
The day before his departure he came to see me with a parcel in his hands. After the usual twirling and throwing me up above his head. He pressed his present into my hands with tears running down his ruddy plump cheeks, gave me a big hug and walked away.
Dad carefully opened the box for me, obviously knowing what it contained, and lifted out a beautifully crafted small ship in a bottle. Apparently Hans had spent the last few weeks carefully making this precious keepsake for me. It became my greatest treasure and stood on my small dressing chest for many years, eventually moving to my new home after my marriage, and two more subsequent homes as we moved around the country. I would hold it up to the window where the light would shine through the fine rigging attached to the ship and I would think of Hans and how knowing him had taught me, even at that early age, that there are good people and bad people in all races and countries all over the world and I learned to judge people as individuals which I still do.
How lucky we were during those terrible years that Hans had found refuge within our family and the friendship and trust between him and my father had transcended the horrors of war.