A woman who worked for the German postal service in the West German town of Giessen was recently arrested and charged with having 29,000 pieces of undelivered mail at her home. The letters date from as long as 15 years ago, although most were mailed within the last five years. Postal investigators and law enforcement officers believe that the woman stole the envelopes, hoping to find money in them, although it is not yet clear how many of the letters were actually opened. A spokesman for the postal service said that the letters will all be delivered to the original addressees with a note of apology from the post office.
Stories of an employee stealing from his or her employer are a dime a dozen. In most cases, the thief is ultimately caught and punished. Some times the stolen goods or money are recovered. Some times the loss is covered by insurance. In most employee theft cases, no one other than the thief and his or her family suffer any real permanent damage as a result of the theft
But somehow it’s different when the thief is a postal worker and the stolen goods are cards, letters and other mail dropped into a mail box by trusting citizens in the sure and certain hope that their mail will find its way safely to the intended addressee.
But picture the following scene: A woman in Berlin, we’ll call her Berta, writes a nice letter to her sister in Giessen, who we’ll call Gerta. In the letter she encloses 20 Deutschemarks or Euros or McDonald’s Fun Bucks and a little note for Gerta to give to her daughter, who is turning 16. (We’ll call the daughter Hildegard.) But Berta’s nice letter and Hildegard’s note and birthday present are never received by Gerta because the evil postal worker in Giessen (we’ll call her Brunhilda) has intercepted Berta’s letter and added it to her grotesque pile of stolen letters.
Hildegard, of course, is crushed not to have received a gift or any acknowledgement of her 16th birthday from her favorite aunt Berta. Gerta is angry with her sister for forgetting Hildegard’s birthday and for not writing in so long. Berta, who has no idea that her letter and the gift for Hildegard never arrived in Giessen, is disappointed not to have received any thank you note or call from Hildegard. All three of the unknowing victims are far too polite to ask the other why they have not responded, and so instead of discovering the truth about the stolen letter, little seeds of anger and resentment are planted in all three women. Their subsequent communications with each other are cordial but cool at first, with neither party wanting to be the first to bring up the birthday incident with the other.
Eventually their communications become less frequent, and less cordial, often bordering on cold. Years pass and Berta and Gerta become further estranged and Hildegard ceases to communicate with her aunt at all. They all sense the estrangement and know they are drifting apart, but each of them silently blames the other for having started it, and is too proud to bring up the source of the bad feelings. More years pass. A decade goes by. Hildegard completes college. Gets a job. Marries. Starts a family. Berta is not invited to the wedding, has never seen Hildegard’s baby.
Then one day, Gerta goes to her mailbox and in it is the letter from Berta with the note for Hildegard and another nice note from the post office saying sorry, our evil worker intercepted this letter 15 years ago, but here it is now, better late than never, right? (Brunhilda, of course, has long since removed the Euros to buy strudel and Glock handguns and German fetish porn). Immediately realizing what has happened, Gerta quickly calls Berta to tell her that her long-lost letter has been received and to apologize for thinking that she would have forgotten her favorite niece’s 16th birthday all those many years ago. But, alas, Berta has moved and left no forwarding address, or perhaps she has died, taking to her grave a melancholy and lingering grudge against her sister, a grudge tinged with a heart-breaking sadness about her puzzling estrangement from her once-favorite niece.
Hey, it could happen. But I said this was only the second saddest news story of the year so far. Next week, the saddest.
Islander Tom Tyner is an attorney
for the Trust for Public Land. He is author
of “Skeletons From Our Closet,”
a collection of writings on the island’s latte scene.