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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 07-Aug-14 15:19:13

Faith, forgiveness and building bridges

Rhidian Brook is an author and regular contributor to Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4. Here, he tells us about his grandfather's act of forgiveness after WWII that went against the popular mood at the time, the faith it required, and the bridges it built.

Rhidian Brook

Faith, forgiveness and building bridges

Posted on: Thu 07-Aug-14 15:19:13


Lead photo

Rhidian Brook

In 1945, when forgiving Germans was anathema, my grandfather Walter Brook was governor of a district outside Hamburg and responsible for its reconstruction as well as the feeding, re-housing and de-nazification of thousands of displaced people. It was a formidable task. Of the zones, the British was the most devastated. It was said "the American’s got the view, the French the wine, and the Brits the ruins." More bombs were dropped on Hamburg in a weekend than on London in the entire war.

A shortage of housing led the British to requisition what buildings remained standing to accommodate their own families. Germans were put in billets. But when my grandfather went to requisition a house for himself, he did something radical and unique: rather than have the family ejected he let them stay, declaring the house big enough to share. Just one year on from the war, a British and German family lived under the same roof and continued to do so for the next five years.

My grandfather's decision was counter to the mood of the times. Europe was still raw with a desire for revenge and Germans were seen as guilty and deserving of punishment. The appalling discovery of the concentration camps only compounded this. My grandfather was perceived as soft-pedalling, not only by his fellow servicemen but, initially, by grandmother who, like most people, had adopted Atlee's directive to maintain "a cold and dignified aloofness towards Germans at all times."

Forgiveness always costs something. It might mean accepting a personal loss, or dropping our right to be paid back. It can also open us up to the anger of those who demand their pound of flesh. But reconciliation is a much riskier business than retribution.

I never met my grandfather, but I have learned from my father and uncle and others that he was a humane and egalitarian sort. His decision to share the house was in keeping with his nature. In the first world war he had fought with Lawrence of Arabia. The two became friends and kept up a correspondence. I suspect something of Lawrence's "preference for the natives over the occupying forces" influenced him.

The war and the devastation he encountered when he arrived in Hamburg shocked him. Forgiveness always costs something. It might mean accepting a personal loss, or dropping our right to be paid back. It can also open us up to the anger of those who demand their pound of flesh. But reconciliation is a much riskier business than retribution. Revenge brings instant results and momentary gratification; forgiveness requires faith in an outcome we can't always see. And as so much of history and present strife prove, we are trapped in an endless cycle of destruction without it.

Two years ago, I went back to Germany with my father to see the house and meet the German brother and sister he'd shared it with. He was unusually nervous, worried that they wouldn't remember things with the same benevolence. Within minutes of the reunion his fears lifted. Their fondness towards him was obvious. Later that evening they told us how grateful they had been to stay in the house. They even had a nickname for my grandfather. They called him "Dei Brucke." In German, the surname Brook means bridge.

Post your stories of forgiveness below for the chance to win one of five signed copy of Rhidian's book, The Aftermath, which is inspired by his grandfather's decision and available from Amazon.

By Rhidian Brook

Twitter: @RhidianBrook

PatriciaPT Fri 08-Aug-14 19:44:00

I remember my mother once saying when I was young, perhaps only a teenager, that she had heard on the radio someone saying that 'maturity is when you can forgive your parents'. I have never forgotten it, especially since she then added that she thought if that were true she would never be mature. I was too young and scared to ask her what she needed to forgive my grandparents for, which is a pity because I am now left to guess and will never know whether my guesses are accurate. I do know that she was very angry with her parents, probably until the end of her life. I suspect the same is true of my father although that is more difficult to judge.
I also thought to myself at the time that maybe I would never be mature either. and by that criterion I am still on the journey to maturity. It seems to me that often forgiveness is a slow process and comes from gradually gaining insight into why people behaved the way they did, recognising that, in the case of parents, almost all of them do the best they can with what they've got (which of course includes their own early experiences).
I am grateful that my own children seem to have made much faster progress in that journey than I have. I'm painfully conscious of many mistakes which I made with them but in the end they seem mostly to have left behind any anger and resentment they may have felt as a result. And that's the most important experience I have of being forgiven.

Mishap Fri 08-Aug-14 21:43:09

Interesting post Patricia - I am sure it mirrors the feelings of many.

MiceElf Fri 08-Aug-14 22:40:17

This really resonates with me. My mother lost three brothers, two in the first war and one in the second and her aunt, uncle and three cousins were shot dead by Nazi soldiers in France when cousin Emil was discovered to be running a radio transmitter for the Maquis. My two elder sisters were killed in a bombing raid.

After the war in 1948 we had German POWs stationed in our town. Our Parish Priest, who was Dutch, had fled from his seminary in 1938 and had been appointed chaplain to the POWs as the only German speaking priest in the diocese. He asked parishioners to host a POW for Christmas and my mother, understandably, found the idea very difficult. However, she and my father were persuaded to accept a POW and did so. I remember the lad, I was only three and he must have been about 20. He was a lovely gentle person and so grateful and happy to spend Christmas with us.

I still have a carbon copy of a letter my father wrote for him to take through the border when he eventually returned home to Hamburg asking the officials to allow him to keep a number of items which various parishioners had given him. Nothing grand, some textiles, knits and a few edible treats. He was the son of a butcher and was hoping to find his shop and family members still there on his return.

I often wonder what happened.

Annaries Fri 08-Aug-14 23:49:13

My dad was at Dunkirk, and later in Burma. He rarely talked about the war.
In the 50s we had a German family living with us, and from the 70s onwards he communicated with a Japanese family whom he got to know having taken them on a tour round Scotland. They exchanged Christmas cards and family photos. Yet even yesterday I told my mother-in-law that my son had gone to Berlin, and she immediately said she still hadn't forgiven them for what they did in the war. Strange, isn't it?

Iam64 Sat 09-Aug-14 18:47:02

My grandfathers were in WW1, parents/parents in law/aunts and uncles in the 2nd War. Without exception, they talked of forgiveness, learning from the horrors and living lives that recognised difference.

TerriBull Sat 09-Aug-14 19:20:03

My father was in Libya during the war, he never talked about his experiences other than to say being in North Africa had given him an enduring hatred of sand, this manifested itself when we were sitting on a Sussex beach which we did annually when visiting my grandparents who lived by the sea. He didn't seem to harbour any grievances against the German people, my mother spoke a fair bit of German and my parents went on holiday to Germany on several occasions. On the contrary I remember my father moaning about Remembrance Day saying something along the lines of "we should all move on". On the other hand his sister, my aunt who had travelled the world, refused to go to Germany because she said they had started two world wars.

After my mother died I found a photograph album my father had compiled during the '40s, some showing action during the war years when he was in Libya. I'm glad I have it and hope one of my children will pass it on.

I also have photographs of maternal grandfather when he was in the navy at the time of the 1914-18 war and although my paternal grandfather wasn't English he also fought in the British Army in World War I, sadly no photographs.

Eleanorre Sat 09-Aug-14 21:20:59

I have just finished reading "Aftermath" the book which he wrote based on this experience in Germany it is a great read .I could not put it down and it took me to a time in history I know nothing about.