Death took a tighter grip on some families more than others. Every loss was an unspeakable tragedy. Multiple losses an unimaginable reality. What did the future look like for those who had lost everyone they loved and cared for? How do you get through each day?
Grief was your constant companion, memories a place of haunting. Maybe your own death would be the only solace. Maybe your life would be lived in the shadow of sadness. Or maybe you would live life fully and joyously to honour their absence. Or maybe it would be all of them.
Today’s letter is a poignant family triangle. Two soldiers who are brothers serving in Stalingrad, and their sister back home. The letter writer is the elder brother and has been trying to look after his younger brother who was serving in a different regiment.
The soldiers have just heard the catastrophic news that their mother and father have died. Bombs fell from the sky and buried them in the wreckage of the family home. The elder brother tried to find words to console his little brother. But there were none of course. And he too was at the end of his rope. His only comfort was that in dying their parents had been spared learning that they would never see their sons again.
But what of their sister? She was at home mourning the loss of her parents, and now she has to read that she will never see her brothers again,
“It is terribly hard that you will have to carry the burden of four dead people through your future life.”
Looking forward must have been an intensely painful exercise for all involved. How do you suddenly re-imagine your life in the midst of all this pain and trauma and suffering? All of your plans and dreams and hopes have suddenly been snatched from you. And the bleak future also makes you re-narrate your past too. Memories now are tinged with regrets. Things that should have been said can never be. Things that should never have been said cannot be made good.
And dreams die too. This is the inescapable poignancy of the sudden and unexpected death. The life they dreamed of, the life they hoped for no longer exists,
“I wanted to be a theologian, Father wanted to have a house, and Hermann wanted to build fountains. Nothing worked out that way…Our parents are buried under the ruins of their house, and we, though it may sound harsh, are buried with a few hundred or so men in a ravine in the southern part of the pocket.”
Hermann wanted to build fountains. Such sadness in those 5 words. The loss of a young man’s dream seems somehow heightened by the extraordinary contrast between the grim destructiveness of war, and the simple purity and beauty of a fountain.
The losses of war are numerous, almost incalculable. We tally up the deaths. We tally up the cost. We estimate the casualties. But such a crude accounting takes little account of the incredible richness and complexity of every life that is taken. It is so much more than the physical death of the body. For every death embodies the loss of a life. A person. A sense of humour. A web of relationships. A myriad of dreams and hopes and regrets and gifts and talents and fears.
War steals lives.
And it steals dreams and futures.