My dad was born on the Baltic Sea in the Prussian town of Elbing, the Polish Elbląg, and grew up in the nearby port town of Königsberg, now Kaliningrad in Russia. His father was a sailor and captain from whom my father learned to love the sea. At 10 years old, little Detlef was sent to a military academy, called Napola, where the Nazis were raising leaders for the “Third Reich”. His school was far away from home in Plön in Northern Germany, situated in an old castle on top of a hill at a lake. Detlef passed the grueling entry exam testing for intelligence, fearlessness, stamina and sportiness. I remember my father excelled at any sport: skiing, tennis, swimming, volleyball and sailing, he was slender and fit until old age.
At 16, he was pulled into World War II and entered the Navy, when, in the last desperate attempt to win, Hitler sent old men and boys fighting for the already doomed “Third Reich”. When the war was finally lost in 1945, Germany surrendered on the day my father turned 19. After the war, the schooling at the Napola enabled Detlef to get a fast diploma in business management and getting him easy employment. Being Napolaner proved to be rather adventageous in post-war Germany, he and his more than eight-thousand classmates from 43 Napolas occupied leading positions in business, government to academia. The Nazis had raised a ruling class after all!
I don’t know when he got his captain’s license, but he often told me about sailing passages in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea. He was a member of Germany’s oldest sailing club ‘Rhe’, founded in his hometown Königsberg, the club moved to Hamburg after the war. He enrolled me in the club as well and I learned to sail on Optimists and small sailboats. He lived separated from my mom from when I was two and when he came to visit, he took me sailing. He loved to sail and instilled that love in me as well, but he never took me on one of his yearly sailing trips. He said that a girl on a boat amongst only men wouldn’t be good. I was deeply disappointed. I had developed into a tomboy and didn’t mind challenges, especially not if it meant to go ocean sailing with my dad.
My father had taught me to be tough. We spent vacations skiing in the Alpes or at the seaside, weathering weather and storms; our family was the last one on the ski slopes and in the beach chair. When everyone else was already sipping hot tea somewhere warm, we were still out there with icicles in our hair and in my father’s beard. Being with him meant to push limits. As a child he tickled me until I cried, he ran with me holding my hand until my knees were scraped bloody, to wake us up in the mornings, he ran into the room pulling open the window letting in the freezing cold. Just the way he had been treated at his military school, he treated me.
His motto ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ lit up his eyes. It was a Nazi and soldier saying, the Napola had changed him for life. He never talked about his childhood, the school, the war and his time of capture. He never complained nor did he mention any suffering. He had only nice things to say about the British, who fished him out of the English Channel as one of handful survivors after they had sunk his ship six month into his stint in the Navy. He was traded out against German POWs in the same channel. He was 17 and sent back into the war. What he did until Germany’s surrender one year later, I don’t know. He refused to say. Military academies prepare kids and teenagers to fight wars, and they do it well. Wars bring indescribable hardship and survivors hardly ever survive emotionally intact. The kids of the survivors live with a shell of a person.
My father had built a wall for his feelings early, never really opened up or felt safe enough. I don’t think, he ever knew what safe meant. He was raised by his grandmother, who by all accounts was cold. His mother was away in Berlin, freshly divorced, pursuing an acting career. Detlef loved his aunt, who once put her skirt around his shoulder to shield him from the rain when he was small. He recounted this incident to me with a rare, warm smile. It seems to me, that this aunt was the only warm connection in his life, until he met a child psychologist in his late fifties, who could see him for who he was. They married after twenty-seven years together.
Sailing and cruising life brings me often to my limits. In those moments I become stoic, tough and push away feelings. I never expected it to be easy. My father had warned me, that it would be too much for me, a girl, so, out of defiance, I will myself into being strong and overcoming any situation.
We bought a strong and fast boat, one to cross oceans with and similar to the ones my dad had sailed on. I never told him that we bought a boat and wanted to sail around the world, I didn’t want to hear him say ‘But you don’t know how to sail, Katja!’. He died a year before we left on our cruise and his late wife told me at the funeral, that I was living his dream.
I wish, I would have been able to share more with him and that he could have partaken in what is now my dream.