There are situations in life that leave you completely speechless. A sentence, an expression of doubt, the quick search for a hidden camera – a blank look in the face and then the question popping up: Was this fate, or simply a coincidence? That was me in October 2012 when my colleague Matthias von Hellfeld passed me in the hallway at Deutschlandradio and said: “We have something in common…”
I admit it – Matthias may forgive me – in that moment all I thought was: The two of us have something in common? Whatever may that be? You have to know: Matthias and I are colleagues at DRadio Wissen, and while Matthias von Hellfeld is an established editor at the age of 60 and a distinguished expert in European history and politics. I, on the other hand, am more of an online editor – strong opinions about everything but no real clue about anything at all. We have been working in the same office for three years, taking care of the content of DRadio Wissen, him on air and me online. In these three years, he hadn’t mentioned the following once:
“We have something in common,” he said, while I was rushing down the hallway as usual. No idea what I was wearing that day, but I was probably running late for something and was standing there in a big coat with windswept hair and a wild expression on my face – I hate being late. But the way he ended his sentence made me stay put for 30 minutes, in deep conversation with Matthias: “I wrote my Ph.D. thesis about your grandfather.”
That blew me away completely. To be honest: I rarely even talk about my grandfather. I wouldn’t even know with whom. Hardly anyone shares my experiences. But, him knowing my last name, I would have expected Matthias to approach me sooner. On the other hand, it is not very obvious that I’m a direct descendant of Theo Hespers. I’m simply too young. I could be his grand-grand-daughter or someone who married into the family. That I am actually his granddaughter is hard to believe. But I don’t realize that until much later, because it is not unusual to me, of course.
Of course, I didn’t waste time and started to grill Matthias immediately. Never before have I met someone who knows my grandfather and isn’t part of my father’s social circle. Everybody knows the Scholl siblings from history lessons in school. But Theo Hespers? Sure, my grandfather was in the resistance, but that doesn’t necessarily make you famous. My Grandfather is, of course, very well known in my hometown Mönchengladbach. My father made sure of this. But in Cologne?
It was a perfect surprise. But it wasn’t over. Matthias is the editor of the Radio-Show “Redaktionskonferenz”, and he was actually going to make that evening’s show about the life of my grandfather. He didn’t know that I would be in the office that day. But there I was. Whether you want to call it fate or a lucky coincidence, it was curious for sure. Eventually, Matthias told me he’d be happy to have me tell a few stories in his show, about my grandfather, and how my family is dealing with his legacy.
Naively, I agreed immediately. I have to admit: I don’t know all the details of my grandfather’s life by heart. I don’t know for certain, where he was when and what he did there. Frantically, I racked my brain for all those stories, my father had been telling me for years. I couldn’t even manage to sort them chronologically. So I did, what anyone would do in this situation: I read the Wikipedia entry of my grandfather. After all, it has all the important facts.
While I was preparing many clever things to say about my grandfather, Matthias dropped by a couple of times: “Please let me know if this is all too personal for you, okay? We can stop any time.” Of course, I would. What about this would be too private, after all? My dad wrote all of it down. His books weren’t in any bestseller rankings, but a family history cannot get much more public than this. I am used to talking about my family openly and publicly. It really isn’t too personal for me – at least that’s what I thought.
During the first half of the show, I already realized that my grandfather’s story impressed me more than I had expected. That was mostly Matthias’ doing. For the first time I heard someone else than my dad talk about the person, that Theo Hespers was, the importance of the writings he published from his exile: The resistance paper “Kameradschaft”. It influenced the resistance in Germany greatly. I heard all of that for the first time in this show, weird as it may sound. I just hadn’t been aware of how big an influence my grandfather actually had. All of a sudden, the full extent of it struck me, and I lost my breath for a second. I had to try hard not to break down and cry.
For the first time ever I realized: We are here because people like my grandfather existed. People who fought so we can live, work and speak freely, and they did not only risk their lives – they paid with their lives. I was asked whether I am proud of my grandfather. I don’t have an answer. Pride, to me, is a feeling of supremacy. How can I be proud of something I haven’t done? No, I don’t feel pride. But, in some way, I feel humbled, and deeply grateful. And, for the first time in forever, I was all churned up inside.