If she were given a magic wand with the power to change one of the world’s evils, Heidi Sieg Smith, 72, says she would use it to end all wars. Heidi knows first-hand the horrors of war. She was born in Germany in 1942, during the height of World War II. When she was a toddler, her father was killed in the war. After the war’s end, Heidi’s young, widowed mother struggled to raise Heidi and her sister in the deprivations of post-war Berlin.
“Wars bring so much hardship,” Heidi said to me in a recent interview here in Taos, “especially to children. It takes decades to gain a sense of normalcy after you’ve lived through a war. When I see photos in the news of little kids running around in war zones, I know that what comes after for them won’t be solved by a Care package.”
Heidi’s own story, though, is one of determination, tenacity and true grit. She recounts her experiences growing up in Berlin in her memoir After the Bombs: My Berlin (ABQ Press, 2011). In clear, succinct, matter-of-fact prose, she gives readers a perspective largely unknown to most Americans: What it was like for ordinary German civilians during and after that terrible war.
“By the time World War II started in September 1939,” she writes in After the Bombs, “Pappa had a successful vegetable and potato business. Being a food supplier kept him out of active duty until March 1941. … He was in Berlin during the last days of the war when the city was captured by the Russians. Pappa was sleeping in one of the cellars at our house when the Russians apparently stumbled upon him. He was shot and killed” (p. 173).
Heidi calls After the Bombs a story of survival and perseverance, “just set in a different setting than what most people are familiar with. It was very challenging for my mother – simply getting enough food for herself and her two daughters was a constant challenge – but she persevered and never complained. From her I learned that you just go on, you just go on, no matter what.”
Heidi has gone on. After working as an au pair in Switzerland, she emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 21 in 1963 where she met fellow-avid-skier Trent Smith. They fell in love, married, raised three children on a farm in Vermont; and Heidi started her own successful business making tote bags. Heidi and Trent moved to New Mexico in 2007, where Heidi worked as a realtor, studied painting, and pursued her writing in earnest. She had been working toward her memoir – making notes, writing down memories, questioning her mother – for thirty years, she said.
“When I came to Taos I took a memoir-writing workshop that eventually grew into a writing group that met every week. Without the encouragement and support of that group, I wouldn’t have done the book,” she said.
On the afternoon that Heidi and I spoke, she had recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where she had been an invited guest speaker at the German-American Heritage Museum’s monthly Früschoppen event.
“It was a very interesting audience,” she said, “not all German-born, some where German-American, but they were all totally involved. They had a lot of questions and shared their own stories. One of the best parts for me was when two young people came up to me afterwards and told me I’d inspired them to corner their elderly grandparents and ask them questions so that they could write their recollections down for future generations. That made me feel I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do – to tell an ordinary family story – one of thousands of others.”
When I asked Heidi what sustains her, she thought for a moment and said, “Apart from my love for my husband and our family – which is the bedrock of my life – I’d have to say Nature. Nature is my church, my meditation. It gives me strength. After I’ve gone for a walk or a hike in the morning and enjoyed all the natural beauty that we have all around us here in Taos, I’m able to go about my day – whether it’s painting or writing – because I feel balanced. I know I can go on.”
(For more information, or to obtain a copy of Heidi’s book, go to: www.AfterTheBombs.com.)