My Aunt Was A Floater

My aunt’s body floated dead in the water when she was only five or six years old. She couldn’t hold on to the hand of her older sister, who later on would become my mother, who was only about twelve years old herself at that time.

It happened in February 1945. People had been forced to leave their homes at a popular seaside resort on Germany’s Eastern Baltic coast in the middle of the night. Back then it was called Ostseebad Cranz, the royal bathing resort, today it’s called Zelenogradsk and belongs to Russia.

Russian soldiers had started to invade the city in the evening, and the Germans were ordered to evacuate their homes and flee as fast as they could. Some had horse carriages, but most fled by food. Many decided to swim, walking on the shore was too risky. My mother, a child herself, left with her remaining siblings and followed neighbors and strangers. Her parents had been killed the same day when the Russian invasion began.

A couple of days later, my aunt Brigitte’s body floated dead in the sea, just like the children in the above picture. My name is Bridget, I was named after a woman I never met.

My mother named me after her little sister, who she must have loved dearly. Perhaps that’s why she hated me so much right from the start because I wasn’t like her little sister at all. Maybe she despised the world -and everybody in it- for the rest of her life and hated herself the most, because she felt guilty for something that had been out of her control, and excessive drinking, her addiction, and her self-destruction were the punishments she gave herself.

But this post was not meant to be about my mother and our failed relationship, but about the dead bodies on our shores -floating in the rivers and seas. I assume it will be a post about both.

Rosaliene Bacchus, a blogger who I adore and whose blog posts I read with passion, published “The Ode to the Soccer Ball Sailing Over A Barbed Wire Fence” and introduced us all to Martín Espada, a very talented poet, who put the powerlessness so many of us feel into words. His poem left me gasping for air. It confronted me with a part of our everyday life I try not to think about, it made me think about my mother, who doesn’t come up in my memory very often.

How could the poet’s words not open our hearts? How could I not listen and feel the pain he describes with every line he wrote:

And the dead have names, a feast day parade of names, names that dress all in red, names that twirl skirts, names that blow whistles, names that shake rattles, names that sing in praise of the saints: Say Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez. Say Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos. See how they rise off the tongue, the calling of bird to bird somewhere in the trees above our heads, trilling in the dark heart of the leaves.

Dead little bodies floating in the sea, later often lined up face down in the sand. They drown when trying to reach the shores of their parent’s dreams. Our birth privilege -and what we take for granted- is their biggest dream. Innocent children follow their parents who wish for a better life. A life free from hunger, torture, capture, and murder. The families flee from war, pain, and tortures most of us will never have to experience. Maybe that’s why we react so arrogant and so coldly because we cannot comprehend.

Just recently our nation was outraged -and rightfully so- by the senseless beating and murder of an unarmed black man who cried out for his mother. He was killed by police officers who showed no mercy. We are marching the street in protest, we show solidarity. We demand answers and mandate change.

May I ask why we are not marching for the dead bodies that are floating on our coastlines? How come we are not outraged? Can we not envision the crying parents, the fear of the children?

There is a numbness in all of us that we need to shake off.

Rosaline’s post woke the ghosts of my past. Today I am at an age that allows me to take myself out of the equation. Sometimes -not as often as I would like- I am now able to see the bigger picture.

I have no feelings for my mother and have come to terms with my past a very long time ago. I know I cannot imagine what it must do to an adult to see a much-loved sibling floating dead in the water, and I won’t even begin to speculate what it did to my mother back then.

My mother’s story is one of many in Europe after World War II. She had six siblings. Two of her older brothers were fighting on the front at a young age, and the oldest son Kurt had become a fighter pilot. The three girls had stayed at home with their parents, until that night, when they were forced to leave their home. In the turmoil, the sisters got separated. My mother and Bridget stayed together, and the older sister was never heard of again.

After the war, my mother -like many- contacted the Red Cross and hoped to get news of her brothers. She got letters and learned that two had been killed during the war and her oldest brother’s plane had been shot down -his remains were never found -or even looked at.

My mother became a cruel and violent drunk. I am very lucky! I got away from her. Years later my grandmother told me her ‘story’. She thought I needed to know. My mother died in 2010, alone with her demons. She never saw her daughter again. I left her at age six and lived with my grandmother.

I understand and I have forgiven, but will never forget the cruelty of my past.

I want to believe that the memories of my early childhood made me a more compassionate person. I hope the kindness and gentleness inside of me started blooming when the world around me wasn’t kind or gentle. I hope I am the total opposite of the woman who gave birth to me.

The past makes us or breaks us.

I assume it made me, and I know it broke my mother.

The pictures we see on the internet might only take a second of our time, but they will leave a mark on someone’s life forever.

I am Bridget. My aunt was a floater.

Thank you Rosaliene.

33 thoughts on “My Aunt Was A Floater

  1. I too had to catch my breath… you bring to light many crimes that still exist and are shrugged off as everyday by far too many. These children could have been ours, and we “ignore” their lifeless body as if it were only an obstacle to remove from the path to the water. Thank you for keeping my eyes open Bridget. They may be gone but never forgotten.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting post you shared here Bridget. It’s very sad and horrible tragedy for your mother to experienced as a kid. She must be a very strong and courageous woman though. It always heartbreaking to read news of drowned victims.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow. What a tragic family story and how horrible to know it’s happening still. The amount of death and destruction in our world is beyond comprehension. Thank you for this post and for sharing your painful story.


    • I think we ‘see’ and ‘read’ the news, but we get so much of it, that we don’t even have the time to think about the families who will be scared for life. For every lost life, there are loved ones suffering and moaning. I myself have become kind of numb when I read about the mass shootings in the US. “Another one,” I think and I try to avoid reading too much. I think I needed to write the post to remind the readers of my blog, that our actions have consequences. We human beings suck at being humane.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with all this. I hate that each time there’s another mass shooting I say “ugh” and read the details. I don’t cry like I did before, until I make myself really read it and really feel it. I don’t want to become numb, but it’s also so hard to feel it all.


  4. The photos definitely leave a mark on our souls. I think it’s easy to compartmentalize the horror of what we see with our eyes, and even more so with stories we only hear about. Perhaps that’s how we, in turn, hold ourselves intact when we feel powerless. I admit that writing a check to organizations devoted to refugee services “feels good” but is again, distanced from the outrage. And to answer your question about why we aren’t more openly outraged, I have no answer. I have a long list, growing longer daily, wondering how we tolerate a whole host of injustices.

    Your personal story about your mother and aunt is shocking. We in the United States have suffered so little of what you describe, even with all the violence and tension that is present, and I think it’s made us weak and quite self-centered. Now I’m off to find the blog you referenced!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Americans have forgotten the horrors of war or never experienced it. The last war on American soil was the civil war, all other wars were fought far away. Perhaps that’s why so many are willing to jeopardize democracy. They have never seen or felt the consequences.
      I remember a day in school when our teacher asked us to raise our hand if our family had lost a loved one during WWII. It was in the 70s but almost every child raised a hand.
      Families in Italy, Austria, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Greece…and so many more, fought during WWII and they all paid a price for the freedom so many of us now take for granted (or don’t appreciate anymore.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think those of us who have only known life in the United States are a little shallow. That’s a gross generalization and I don’t want to throw everyone into that soup, but those of us who have had very comfortable and relatively “safe” lives, perhaps struggle with even understanding. Like you said, we’ve never felt the consequences. But we ought to be able to identify our inadequacies and take the steps to learn. I’ve learned through the years that many people I know don’t even watch the evening world news coverage, saying, “It’s upsetting!” I could go on and on… 🙀


        • I could go on and on too. Many of us feel that way. The news is depressing and here in the US it is particularly bad. We have local news, news shows that don’t cover the news, and news channels that hover over every tragic event until they broke our back with their ‘breaking news’.
          Once upon a time, I was a news junkie. I sobered up! 🙂


  5. When you included is a recent post “I was named after one”, I wondered what the story might be. Now you have courageously and sensitively told us. Thank you Bridget. “I understand and I have forgiven, but will never forget the cruelty of my past.” is exactly how I feel about the glib statement that we should forgive and forget. Our past so informs our present that we should remember it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A sober moment in which to reflect – that is what this post does: a time to think about the demons of our past; the situations we find ourselves in in the present; and indeed to consider how we plan to tackle the future. This is a generous share on your part.

    Liked by 2 people

    • As you know, I grew up with my grandma, so my mother was not in the picture. I know about her story because she mentioned it in a letter, and my grandma verified it.
      My family’s history is not a rare one. Many families had tragic losses during World War I and World War II. Many had to flee. As you know, part of Germany ended up behind a wall and belonged to Russia then. Part of Austria was overrun.
      A part of Austria was given to Italy. To this day the people refuse to talk Italian and have managed to maintain their independence not belonging to either Austria or Italy.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. A little bit more of your story shared Bridget. Thank you for trusting us with it. All over the world we try to ignore the fact that millions upon millions of our fellow humans are suffering, fleeing, and often dying. We are all refugees, we are all migrants, and we are all responsible for each other.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Peter, I myself am shocked about the numbness I feel when it comes to mass shootings and/or pictures of suffering refugees.

      Just like you and so many, I have started to live in a bubble and protect myself from too much negativity and while it helps to keep me sane, it also shield me from reality a bit too much.
      I don’t have a solution at all, but we urgently have to solve this problem.
      Refugees and migrants are not criminals, yet we treat them like it -perhaps even worse.

      Liked by 2 people

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