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Time Witnesses: Bagpipes And Skirts

Werner Toporski remembers the day when he first saw British soldiers marching to the skirl of bagpipes.

For more stories of wartime events please visit timewitnesses.org/

My first contact with the British was somewhat funny. Of course, it happened after 1945, after the war had finished a few days after my 11th birthday. Coming from the outskirts of Berlin, we had been lucky to escape the Russians - hours only, before they finished surrounding Berlin - and this flight happened to be managed by joining a bus of the - horrible to say - Waffen-SS who by some chance had got the order to bring women and children out of the zone of danger.

So we got to Schleswig-Holstein, the most northern part of Germany, where we stayed for maybe a week in an inn, waiting to see what the future would bring, while our drivers were busy looking for civilian clothes and removing the SS from the bus number, replacing it with black and white colour by a Berlinian one. White flags hung out of the windows in expectation of the British. This showing of white flags only days before would have been extremely dangerous, because the SS shot or hanged everybody showing to be ready for surrender.

And then I saw them. What struck me first was the sound of their bagpipes. Being accustomed to German marching music I never had seen anything else but bands with trumpets, trombones and big drums. And now bagpipes... But what really stunned me were the clothes: they wore - as I would have called it then - skirts! Soldiers in skirts: incredible! Well, although not knowing the word "kilt" I had already heard, that the Scottish wore things like that, but in an army...? It was a somewhat unmilitary picture, and so my first impression of the British was a very symbolic one: They were the ones, who brought us peace, really!

And then the first "real" soldiers. They had rifles with twin barrels, whereas the German Gewehre had only one: Obviously better equipped, and, off course, that was, why they had won the war!

Other impressions: Travelling further with our bus (no idea, where the driver had got a licence to move) we hid in our bus two boys of 17 or 18 years, who had deserted from the German marine in order to avoid becoming prisoners-of-war, but wearing now civilian shirts and having cut their trousers to shorts in order to look younger. And just then, at night, we came to a control point. Those two pretended to sleep. The British officer, walking through the bus, touched the hair of one of them, and after a long, long second of waiting and with an inaudible sigh of relief we heard: "nice boy".

We then stayed at a farmhouse 30 kilometres from Hanover, and once it was time for one of the cows to give birth to a calf. Normally no problem, but what to do, when we were forced to call for a veterinarian? Calves usually come during the night, but it was forbidden to leave the house in the dark, and there were strict controls. The grown-ups discussed what they would have to explain to the patrol, how to translate the simple sentence "Wir bekommen ein Kalb", and they came to the conclusion, that they would have to say: "We become a calf..."

Years later, when I was by then 16 or 17, there were two institutions, which really helped us (at least me) to understand democracy and to learn, what an open and free culture consists of: the British "Brücke" ("Bridge") and the "Amerikahaus" of the US. They really were bridges between different ways of thinking, which helped us on the way towards a free and democratic country.


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