'Mystery of my wife's German childhood'

People knew Astrid Massey as a kind neighbour who cycled everywhere, or as a patient language teacher. But her childhood in war-torn Germany remained a mystery.

Steven Russell

People knew Astrid Massey as a kind neighbour who cycled everywhere, or as a patient language teacher. But her childhood in war-torn Germany remained a mystery. Until now. Steven Russell reports

ASTRID Massey would do anything for her beloved family - except talk about life during the war. Even when nagged by her children she'd keep mum about those dark childhood days in Germany.

Husband Harry, the handsome British soldier who had won her heart just after the war ended, fared little better. Exceedingly shy, she hated recalling her early life. He gleaned more details from her family, especially Aunt Lottie, than he managed to squeeze from his wife.

Oldest son Dennis, in particular, had pleaded with his mother to write down her life story and she did start to do this, albeit fairly secretly. Harry had come across notes hidden all over their Ipswich home: some in drawers, other extracts in cupboards, and on various writing pads.

Sadly, it wasn't properly finished when Astrid died of cancer in the summer of 2005.

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In the weeks and months afterwards, Harry thought he ought to find all the parts of the story and, with a bit of help from her family and friends to fill in some of the blanks, put together the jigsaw of his wife's life in Germany up to 1948.

It would finally tell their children what she had been through. And although Astrid was reserved, she did know a lot of people. She was always helping friends and neighbours, he says, and taught German to hundreds and hundreds of people at what was Civic College in Ipswich - later Suffolk College - from about 1965 until the mid-1980s. They would also be interested in her story, Harry reasoned.

So he worked away and spent about £700 to produce a neat and attractive 80-page book recalling those dreadfully hard and callous times.

There are plenty of examples of human compassion, as ordinary German folk secretly pass food and clothing to Polish labourers, for instance, and do the same for a Jewish mother and child living in Astrid's grandmother's street after the shopkeepers refuse to serve Jews.

There is also the inhumanity. Deserters, for instance, were hanged by the Nazis from lamp-posts as a warning to all.

When her school was evacuated from devastated Hamburg to rural Bavaria, Astrid for years believed the building in which she stayed was a former convalescent home. A long, long time later, however, she discovered its true identity from a one-time school-friend.

“It was a mental home for elderly women, many of them suffering from Alzheimer's disease,” wrote Astrid. “It has also been recorded that they were all taken away to a place near Linz and gassed just before we arrived.”

The cruel totalitarianism of the Nazi regime towards the German people was also felt very close to home.

In 1941 Astrid's mother was arrested after being betrayed by a neighbour for listening to illegal foreign radio broadcasts. She spent six weeks in Fuhlsbüttel prison.

“Every day she and other prisoners were taken to the Gestapo headquarters in the Stadthaus in the centre of Ham-burg. She was beaten, her head banged against the wall. She was tortured but she kept denying that she had listened to what they called foreign propaganda.

“Conviction meant removal to a concentration camp, not just for the person convicted but often for the entire family.

“Then the Gestapo arrested my grandmother to make my mother confess. They beat her in front of my mother. They left her without a doctor when she suffered a heart attack. They then threw cold water over her as she lay on the ground and would not let my mother go near her.

“After three days the Gestapo told my Aunt Lottie to collect my grandmother from their headquarters. A Gestapo man - the only decent one we ever met - helped my aunt put her mother on to a tram and even helped her all the way home as she could not walk unaided after her terrible ordeal.

“He told Lottie that she should try to persuade her mother to join the Nazi women's movement for her own safety, as she might not survive another arrest. My grandmother refused, of course.”

Astrid's mother, meanwhile, was saved by a letter from her best friend's husband, who was a member of the Nazi party. He wrote that she was a true German, loyal to the state.

Astrid was born illegitimately in the late winter of 1928, a month after mother Wanda's 19th birthday. “According to Nana” - that's what little girl called her mother, since she couldn't pronounce Wanda - “my father was a hand-some chap who worked in a butcher's shop. I never saw him or had any wish to meet him.”

The family was very poor but Astrid enjoyed an idyllic early childhood, thanks to the local children playing happily together. Wanda moved to Hamburg when her daughter was four. Astrid stayed with her grandmother, and then went to the big city when she was nine.

They lived in a run-down area and Wanda worked in a fish-processing factory. Astrid's grandmother and other members of the family came to Hamburg.

They were thus there for the devastating carpet-bombing of the city in July, 1943, when three nights of attacks flattened Hamburg and killed about 45,000 people.

Astrid, then 15, was staying at her grandma's flat in the St Pauli district when they were awakened by sirens and got up to dress and flee to the nearest air-raid shelter.

“Only this time we never got there. I was pulling on a shirt over my head when there was a tremendous explosion and I was flung against a chest of drawers. There was the shattering of glass as every window in the flat disintegrated. The lights went out.”She and other people cowered by the foot of the stairs of the building while an inferno raged.

“Outside was hell. Nobody cried or screamed, but everybody was white and shaking with terror. The bombing continued for hours while we cowered silently, expecting the house to crash around us every second.” Eventually, after many hours, it finished.

“I can still re-live that feeling of abandoned joy and light-heartedness that flooded through me, and I could see the same feeling reflected in the faces around me. Just to be alive was the most wonderful gift. It did not matter that the flat was a shambles with every window broken, and every curtain torn to shreds. But all around us there were houses on fire and the red glow in the sky showed that this time many parts of the town had been badly hit.”

In fact, most previous raids had been nothing like as severe, and had been concentrated on the big harbour area. This time, most of the city had been devastated, and a firestorm swept through Hamburg. Two further massive attacks would follow.

The following weeks were chaotic, with no power, and water had to be drawn from hastily-rigged pumps.

“The streets were eerie; just heaps of rubble with empty, burned-out facades gaunt against the clear blue sky . . . There was an all-prevailing stench of burning and decay hanging over the town that got worse as the weeks wore on.”

After her school's evacuation to Bavaria, and her return following the end of the war, Astrid continued with her education, lessons being held in the unheated ruins of partly-destroyed buildings.

And then, just before the Christmas of 1946, life changed for ever.

Harry Massey hailed from Wales. As a 14-year-old apprentice he'd been doing 47-hour weeks in a Chester engineering factory before joining the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in the summer of 1945. When he went to Germany he switched to the military police, as that sounded more interesting and active.

Harry didn't smoke, and used to swap the cigarettes he was given for chocolate, which he'd give to children when he was out on patrol.

Astrid's Auntie Lottie was waitressing in a servicemen's club when he met her.

“She said she had a baby daughter, so I gave her my chocolate,” recalls Harry, now 84. “One day I said” - teasing - “'I don't think you've got a daughter; you're after my chocolate so you can flog it!' Ooh, she got so annoyed at me!

“So one night Lottie took my mate and me to the house. It was Friday the 13th of December, 1946, and she said 'There's my baby!' But I only had eyes for Astrid . . .”

The teenager sent a shiver down his spine, and it was love at first sight. “Honestly, I've read about it in books and always thought 'Yeah . . . .'” But this was the real thing.

They courted, meeting mostly at Astrid's family house, and she took her Abitur exams at the end of her secondary education.

The couple married in Germany on May 22, 1948, and Astrid left for Wales that June. For the first few years the newly-weds lived with Harry's mother at Saltney, just outside Chester, and Harry worked as a toolmaker at de Havilland.

Astrid wrote that locals were initially a bit suspicious of her, but any unfriendliness did not last long and she quickly became an Anglophile. She also got a job in no time at all, working in the office of a shop.

Did Harry ever get any grief for bringing back a German bride with memories of the war still so raw? He grins and silently raises a fist. “I had one or two arguments,” he says, wryly. Generally things were fine, though, as he and his family had been well-known in the village, and popular.

Harry had a knack of being able to explain things to the younger factory apprentices and one of them asked “Have you ever thought about becoming a teacher, because you make it sound so easy?”

Astrid, always a firm believer in the value of education, was all for it and encouraged him to study. Harry did two nights' a week overtime and three nights a week in the classroom, cycling the eight or 10 miles to college.

He studied for four years and spent a further year at teacher-training college in Bolton before getting a job in Ipswich in 1960 at the newly-opening Civic College, teaching manufacturing engineering. Money was still extremely tight in those days and they got a council house in Maidenhall Approach. In 1970 the family moved across town to the Ellenbrook Green area.

Harry became a senior lecturer and worked at the college until he was 65.

He says their four grown-up children are “rather excited” to finally see their mother's words, and obviously affected.

She might have been very quiet, but Astrid's personality, values and drive made deep impressions on people. “She never saw bad in anybody. I've never ever known her to say 'Isn't she horrid?' Or 'Isn't he horrid?,'” says Harry.

Perhaps she'd seen enough hatred in her childhood to last a lifetime . . .

“That was the point. She'd pick ants up and move them; she'd never kill them. Spiders - 'Eek!' - but she'd move them, too.”

Mind you, he chuckles, she was always running late. He remembers many a time having to cycle miles - to places like Claydon, even - to deliver her essays the night before they were due in!

“I'll tell you a little story.” The daughter of a friend of his worked at Ipswich Hospital as a secretary. “Astrid got a phone call one day and said 'I'm off to the hospital; they need some help.' She got on her bike and went.

“They needed a translator, because a German seaman had been badly injured. They said 'How much do we owe you for this?' And she said 'Nothing.' That was her. Nothing was too much trouble.”

Astrid's Book: Growing up in Germany 1928-45 costs £6.95 and is available from Harry Massey, 46 Holcombe Crescent, Ipswich, IP2 9PW.

Family facts

Astrid's and Harry's children all went to Northgate Grammar School in Ipswich

She passed on her language skills

Dennis, born in 1949, now lives in Somerset. He was in social work but is now more or less retired

Alan, born in 1953, was the commanding officer of the Ark Royal during the 2003 Iraq war. He is currently a Rear-Admiral in the Royal Navy and due for promotion to Vice-Admiral later this summer

Gary, born in 1959, is a professor in Zurich and a language specialist, concentrating on translation

Sheridan, born 1960, teaches German at Stowmarket High School

You won't know this . . .

Just before the family came to Ipswich, Astrid worked on a bakery production line, where her diligence and standards annoyed some colleagues. She'd stay behind and clean icing and debris off the equipment. Vexed, they'd sometimes speed up the production line to make life difficult for her!

Astrid and Harry knew their strengths and stuck to them. “We agreed she wouldn't teach me German and I wouldn't teach her how to drive!” he laughs. “We thought keeping a happy marriage was better!”

As a child in Germany she was among a group, dressed in white flared dresses with green boleros, invited to take part in a sports spectacular in Bamberg in front of the Fuhrer and other dignitaries

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