In the corner of the pantry, a rusted metal chest sat ominously, sealed tight with time, dust and mystery. It had been there for many years, untouched, since before the Reddit user, seltsame, had moved in. The chest had belonged to seltsame’s great-aunt, an odd and unusual character with a storied past, who had since passed on. What kind of treasures could she have kept inside this hulking chest?
As the heir of this eccentric great-aunt and new owner of the home, seltsame was fascinated by this decaying locked chest. She knew immediately she had to crack it open but she was both anxious and nervous to see what could possibly be inside. While she had no idea what to expect, what she discovered was much more disconcerting than she could have ever imagined.
While she was moving in, seltsame had located a bunch of keys that didn’t match any of the locks in the house. She’d hung on to them, just in case. As she rummaged through them, one very old key piqued her interest, and she hurried to the chest to give it a try.
She slid the key in slowly and twisted. It worked! She lifted the weighty lid and was surprised to see that underneath the exterior lid, there lay another one, also made of heavy metal. This one bore an intriguing lion head handle.
Seltsame’s great-aunt Gerda had lived a long and vibrant life. Born in 1921 in East Prussia, she’d lived there until, sometime in early 1940, she was compelled to flee to Germany in front of the advancing Russian troops. She lived the rest of her life in this home in Hamburg, Germany.
Seltsame grabbed the lion head handle, opened the second lid, and found an intriguing trove of ancient valuables dating back generations. Because Gerda had relocated to Germany during WWII, she lived there through one of the most turbulent and painful periods in European history. According to seltsame, her great-aunt “got a bit weird in the last years,” which is probably a result of her experiences during this time.
But what could she have kept all this time? What was so important that she locked it in this vault of a safe? First, seltsame opened a small blue box with flowers on it. She opened it carefully and was delighted to find an assortment of pictures, letters and postcards.
Among the contents of the blue box, she found a collection of very old photographs – most in black and white, as expected, but some in color – of military men, portraits of families, pictures of friends and weddings.
She even found a magnificent photograph of these distinguished looking people. With the help of her grandmother, seltsame was able to identify Gerda’s mother as a child with her parents in the 1900s in this photo. A photo of her great-great-grandparents. Interesting!
Some of the pictures were far more recent. One portrayed three girls decked out in costumes for a New Years Eve party in the fabulous 1950s. The girl in the middle is Gerda’s sister who is, of course, seltsame’s grandmother.
Although many of the contents in the box were clearly old mementos from seltsame’s ancestors like the picture above, some were sobering tokens of darker times in history.
Various types of mail was found, handwritten in cursive, dating from World War I. The reddit users strode in to help in deciphering, where they concluded that some of the men in the Jacobsen family were soldiers. The printed words on this card, according to a Reddit user, are loosely translated as “The hearts that found each other in faithfulness stay as strong as iron links.” Sad realities of war had begun to crop up in the piles of ephemera.
Less ominous – but more puzzling – were the letters and postcards sent between John and Julie Jacobsen, written in the 1940s. They were two people she’d never heard of. She learned later that her grandmother used to cut John’s hair and somehow she came into possession of his correspondence.
Next was a pile of letters and postcards stamped with Feldpost, the German military’s postal service. These were mailed from the battlefield, from as long ago as 1914. Clearly, her family had been embroiled in World War I, both at home and on the front lines.
A postcard picturing Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany’s emperor from 1888 to 1918 came to light. The caption says, “Ich kenne keine Parteien mehr, ich kenne nur noch Deutsch,” which translates as, “I know no parties, I only know German.”
Eerily, other postcards had the stamps emblazoned with the Nazi insignia, proudly depicting an eagle resting above the swastika, also known as the Parteiadler. Dark times, indeed.
Stark reminders of the effect of war in Europe were there, too. Seltsame unearthed another postcard, this one depicting a house that had been destroyed which was dated 1944. The description read, “Vom Feinde zorschossenes Haus,” which translates to, “A house destroyed by the enemy.”
Seltsame pulled out these photos and her heart sank to think they must feature members of her own family or their close friends. Unsettlingly, these photos depict two young men in uniform; their uniforms brand them unmistakably as part of the Hitler Youth.
Antique books were also unearthed including, most distressingly, a copy of Mein Kampf, published in 1943.
Even though Hitler’s autobiography was written in the 1940s and was very popular during that time in Germany, holding a copy owned by your own family during the war in your hands and seeing that dark, evil stare on its title page really makes the blood run cold. The fact that Gerda kept it under lock and key was most certainly a sign that she understood the vile implications of the times she lived in.
Gerda’s generation was too young to have been the architects of the crazed nationalism and unthinkable brutality that persisted in Germany in World War II, but the contents of the box undeniably confirmed her family’s leanings and the terrible tragedy of that very dark time in our past.