No matter how long you live in a place as an immigrant, you never really have the same feeling of belonging or shared heritage that the locally born citizens possess. Having left Ireland and emigrated in 2003 to Germany, I find myself now with a German husband, three half-German sons and a wide circle of German friends.
I am well-integrated and feel at home here. My understanding of the culture has grown immensely in the 16 years I have lived here and I have no doubt my appreciation of Germany culture, tradition and history will broaden even more as the years pass, not least because of my children.
While they have a strong sense of being part-Irish, their sense of being German is stronger. Their lives are lead here primarily, they were born here and they have extended family here. To me, on the other hand, Ireland is my real home and my heart is still partly there. My sense of attachment to the country of my birth is as strong as my children’s is to theirs.
My husband and I are very interested in history and the children have developed their own interest in history over the years - in knights, Vikings and Romans mostly. When the centenary commemorations for the first World War started, my sons were too young to understand or ask questions.
Now, in their late primary and early secondary school years, their interest in these things has grown. My mother was anxious as they grew that they should not feel any shame or burden for being German. I thought she was over thinking the matter. Why should they feel a connection to wars that are long over? Their grandparents and parents were all born post 1950.
Holidays over the past few years to the Benelux countries, Alsace and northern France have increased their interest in the world wars, and mine too. To help them understand the scale of war, the reasons for it, the events that cause war to break out, we have taken them to various European first and second World War sites. Hertmannsweiler Kopf museum and cemetery in the Vosges in Alsace, the excellent, interactive museum of the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne in Belgium, In Flanders Fields museum in Ypres, the beach at Dunkirk as well as the Operation Dynamo museum there and the Fort des Dunes at Leffinckoucke.
Naturally my husband and I had concerns about how the children would react. The memorials and museums are incredibly moving. Behind every name engraved on a memorial, under every white cross, is a young life lost.
At Dunkirk, we stood on the beach under a grey and dangerous looking sky. Pathetic fallacy at its best. At Leffinckoucke we gazed over the dunes and out to sea as many soldiers had in many battles over the past 150 years.
At In Flanders Fields museum the boys were able to search a database of fallen soldiers by name. They initially tried their own surname but found no matches. Knowing that at least two of my great-granduncles died in World War 1, I gave the boys names to try and we found a match. Finding a Mayo man instead of a German soldier as their connection to the first World War had them intrigued. History, geography, politics, language and their Irish-German heritage was questioned, discussed and mulled over in the course of those trips.
On the drive back to our holiday home from our day in Ypres, we stopped at the Carrefore des Roses. Worn out from the day, the boys remained in the car while I got out to visit the Francis Ledwidge memorial. His birthplace, Slane in Co Meath, was where we were often taken on trips with school or on a Sunday afternoons in the 1980s. I wanted to see the place he died, since we were so close to it there. As I stood, I suddenly started to cry. The world wars are not a German thing, not just something for my children to learn about. There is something of all of us to take away from them.