A few years ago I found myself half-way up a mountain in the former East Germany, sat in a small open-walled cabin structure as the rain lashed down onto the trees and brutally deforested slopes around me. In that cabin were some other hikers and climbers, one of which was a man who — it transpired — grew up in the former East, in the pre-unified years. We exchanged about this much information, in English, but what I wanted to do, and didn’t do for some reason, was ask him more about his childhood and play experiences back then. Since then, every chance I can get to ask someone who I meet from other (and to me unusual) times and places about their play as a child, I do.
I recently met a woman who was a child in pre-World War II Germany in the 1930s, under the shadow of Hitler’s influence. I’ve had discussions with her a few times since our first meeting some twenty years ago, but this was the first time I’d had the inclination to ask her about what things were like back then for her. I didn’t have my dictaphone with me at the time, so what follows is a reported account of what she told me rather than actual word for word. A lot of the play memories I listened to were familiar (leading me to think on the universal aspect of play), but their unfamiliar context, for me at least, gave me a little further food for thought.
I was invited to take a look at a few photos from the 1930s, stored on computer, and the narration of each brought them to life. Stories are always appreciated, as told by the teller, but I found that the faces of children looking out at me from some 75 or 80 years or so ago added something different again. There’s something that we sometimes forget: these people who are maybe twice our own age were once half the height we are now and just forming their own ideas and feelings on the world.
On the screen I saw a black and white photo of a school classroom. The children were diligently sat at desks with slate boards in front of them. I’m guessing the photo dated back to about the mid or late 1930s. I was immediately struck by the telling of the tale that, every day in class, the children were required to salute. It was, of course, the Nazi salute. ‘We gave the salute; though we had no idea what we were really doing. We did as we were told.’ I was shown a picture of a young girl in uniform. I guessed it wasn’t a school uniform. These children looked no different to any other child I’ve seen, in essence. Why should they? My host was matter-of-fact in the narration of her story memories. It led me to draw my own conclusions.
She went on to speak with great fondness of the boys she always played with. Always the boys, she said; although ‘these two are now dead; these two are alive still.’ There was a photo of her, clear and seemingly happy, sat in the middle of the boys somewhen about maybe 1938 or 1940. I’m guessing here. She and the boys built houses, as she called them: they posed with wooden boxes spread around them. I thought of the pallet creations that the children I know of today build in the play-dedicated spaces of west London. Then, here they all were in the winter next to a massive snowman.
I was shown a series of family photos of the time and the stories to them, and later the stories unfolded without the need for photographic evidence. I imagined the scene as I was given snippets: I imagined the field landscapes I saw in the snow photos, and in them there were hunter’s dogs (I was told) — one big and one small, the latter for going down fox holes. The bigger dog was the one my host and her play friends would dress up in a hat and clothes and shoes. She would climb trees, as was once — I suspect — something almost universal. On her very first day at school, all that time ago, a clear story about rabbits emerged: a friend at school invited her home to see some rabbits, and so she agreed, and so her mother was angry at her.
There was a story embedded into the whole about kites. The children used to make these from two cross-members and a paper skin. They added tails and flew them in the maize fields. There was a certain happiness shining out at the telling of the part where the children would attach writing paper to the kites’ tails (‘We would write things on that paper: I like Gert, or something like this’). The kites would take the paper messages up and up and scatter them away.
It was during the war years, I was told, that this child was given her own family job: the family had to grow their own food and they needed someone to scare the sparrows away. Returning to the photos, I was shown a picture of a school line-up after the war. These were the nuns who presided over her school. This one, I was told, with a definite clarity, was the worst! There was, apparently, an Englishman who was sent to the school (here, this was him) who checked that ‘no bad ideas were taught to the children after everything.’ The matter-of-factness of the tone was an indicator of the years gone by.
We came back to that first photograph again: the one with the children and the saluting in the classroom. It took us a while to work out the English word for the slate boards. As we did I looked at the faces of those children, thinking about their innocence and what was expected of and imposed upon them. Now, as I write, I wonder how many are still alive, how many are well into their old age.
When I hear stories of play and childhood from decades gone by, I’m always fascinated because there are similarities to now, and because there are peculiarities particular to that time and space. When I see photographs from times gone by, with children engaged in just what they do staring or smiling out, I sometimes stop and stare in deeper still: all of us are children, somehow, in some realm of time and space. We’re all real still.