I admired my uncle Niels.
"After the war, our parents sent Niels and me to beg for food at farms in the outskirts of our village. We walked more than 25 kilometers from dawn until after dusk," my father told me. "One day, all we got were five or six potatoes. Niels asked at the train station restaurant could they boil them for us. He told me that if I don't take any, he will eat them all. We had eaten only nettle and dandelion leaves the whole day. I gobbled one potato down. We came home empty-handed. I felt terrible. Still do."
I was confused about my uncle Niels.
"My parents could not handle him," my father told me. "He wrote coded postcards with only numbers on them. They sent him to an insane asylum where he stayed for a few months. Can you imagine what they did there to him? It was the late 40s."
I felt sorry for my uncle Niels.
"He ran away from home lots of times, was gone for weeks, even months. I saw him sometimes at night when my parents sent me into the forest to get wood for the stove," my father told me. "He was standing there in his flimsy jacket. He was freezing. He asked me could I bring him food?"
"I tried, but we barely had any food to give away."
"Bullshit," my aunt Swantje said when I told her that story later. "There was chocolate and cans of liverwurst in the pantry. They were hiding it from us. Niels once broke the door open when those unfit parents had left us alone for three days and all those self-absorbed monsters put on the kitchen table was a loaf of dark bread, lard, and sugar. They never shared any of the good stuff with us."
She gave me a postcard my uncle Niels had sent the family from Indochine for Christmas.
"heureux noel," it says on the front and when you open it, the nativity scene pops up: baby Jesus inside of a barn reaching for Maria and Joseph, all of them with haloes. In front of them: three kings plus noblemen in long robes kneeling to offer food and jewelry. The backdrop is a blue sky with golden and silver stars inside a frame that still leaves glitter on my hands.
"Wishing you a healthy, happy Christmas, from Niels," my uncle wrote on the card in impeccable longhand with a fountain pen.
"He sent this when he was 17," my aunt Swantje told me as tears rose in her eyes. "He had enlisted with the Foreign legion." She pulled a parchment-thin sheet of paper out of her desk's drawer. "He also wrote this letter from the front."
In it, my uncle Niels asks his parents to forgive him for everything he had done, the sorrow he had caused them, the disappointments, the lies, the embarrassment. He was begging them to take him back into their home once he would be able to return from the horrific scenes he witnessed every day. He signed: "Your wayward son".
I cried for my uncle Niels.
His parents were informed by the French government of my uncle Niels' honorable death on the battlefield at the age of 19. They thanked my grandmother for the big sacrifice she made and said she could pick up monetary compensation for her loss.
"That heartless woman went to the French embassy in Berlin the next day," my aunt told me. "She picked up that money and bought herself a pair of shoes."
I wish I met my uncle Niels and heard him tell his story.