About Der Arzt von Stalingrad

Konsalik's grave in Köln, Germany
CC Raimond Spekking 
The novel begins with the sense of smell, “Alles riecht heute wieder nach Kohlsuppe.” (trans. Everything here smells again like cabbage soup.) My father detested anything to do with cabbage. Cabbage soup, cabbage rolls, cabbage salad … cabbage was not welcome at our house. Too many years of Soviet captivity ruined any of the vegetable’s goodness for him. Sensory details like this bring immediacy and authenticity throughout the novel. 

So who was the author? Heinz Konsalik was born in 1921 (making him 3 years younger than my father). A prolific writer (155 novels), he was the most popular author in Germany during the 1950s. As a war correspondent during the war, he was able to witness, firsthand, the atrocities of war. His novels emphasize the human side of war and are non-political. 

Konsalik, however, could not control the racial superiority that ekes of this novel. The moral judgment against non-white characters in the book reflects Konsalik’s immersion in the Hitler Youth and his time in the Gestapo. He displays unchecked Nazi attitudes towards women who are idealized as sexual animals, saintly innocents, or brave mothers. I’m not sure what he would do with the real-life German women who gave up waiting for their missing men and who lost their moral compass during the chaos of the Third Reich’s collapse (women like my father’s first wife). 

In fact, Konsalik’s view of both women and of Asians is prejudiced to the extreme. Reader beware! Russians, on the other hand, are seen as equals. Victims, like Germans, of cruel leaders and political systems. 
Memorial to Stalingrad battle in modern Volgograd
Aleksander Kaasik, CC

Our world has changed a lot since 1956. While it’s easy to dismiss Konsalik’s work as racist and anti-feminist (which it is), he’s still a darn good writer. With engaging characters and emotional nuance, he created a page-turner. More than sixty years later, I read this book with a critical eye and an appreciation of how literature reflects change in our societies. 

Oh, and because I’ve been spending more time than usual visiting hospitals, lately—while reading this book—I really grew to appreciate the challenges for medical professionals in Soviet-era, prisoner of war hospitals. No wonder my dad never wanted to go see a doctor here in Canada! I’d like to read more of Konsalik’s novels. He’s given me insight into the German psyche and some of my own father’s war experiences.

70 Years Ago Today

Beaverbrae: 1953 immigrant ship to Canada
Spending time with new immigrants to Canada through weekly English conversations has intensified appreciation of my own family’s immigrant journey.  I remember the anniversary of my parents’ arrival in Canada, 70 years ago today. Meanwhile, Ukrainian newcomers celebrate their first year in this country. And while there are similarities, there are, of course, differences. 

German refugees came with the weight of war guilt on their homeless souls. In spite of worldwide support, contemporary Ukrainians who have left their country, continue to have immense challenges. Families have been torn apart, homes have been destroyed, careers destroyed, lives lost, pets gone. While there might have once been hope of return, now there’s the realization that the nightmare is staying. 

Back in 1953, my mom and her surviving siblings had also lost their way, their homes, their families. Years of chaos had left its mark not only on the past but on their aspirations for the future. The children of immigrants carry an enormous burden—the burden of possibility, of their parents unrealized dreams. It’s a huge responsibility. 

Invoice for cost of voyage


A Book about Patience

I’m about halfway through the 1956 novel, Der Arzt von Stalingrad,  part of my father’s book collection. It’s surprisingly easy to read. And yes, it's filled with blatant racism and sexual stereotypes... like much of the 1950s' media. Still, the book holds my attention, because, as I posted earlier, one of my uncles (from my dad’s side of the family) was mortally wounded in Stalingrad. 

What I didn’t realize was that the novel is centred, not on the battle of Stalingrad, but on the German prisoner of war experience. My mom, as shared in Crow Stone, was a civilian  prisoner of war for 2 ½ years. My dad was also a POW, as member of the Wehrmacht, for four and a half years. He surrendered somewhere on the eastern front to American forces on May 11th or 12th, 1945 and was handed over to the Soviets soon after. I know very little about his time in Soviet captivity. I heard that he worked in coal mines near Moscow.  I do know that during that time, he became terrified of dentists, that he hated anything related to cabbage forever after, that his chess skills helped him survive, and that he supposedly killed a man in a brawl. 

My father was not a proud man. Perhaps it was the war, the prisoner of war years, the many personal pains and losses, that shaped the father I knew growing up here in Canada. Hard-working, humble, always willing to lend a hand. I try to imagine him reading this novel. Did he identify as just another ‘plenni’ in that after-war gulag of the Soviet world?

Let me translate the quote from the opening page.

Patience is the art of hope.  – Vauvenargues (French writer, 1715-1747) 

This book is not a call for action.No complaint and no warning. It is not written to sow hate amongst people or discord in their hearts. It's not supposed to open old wounds nor create any new ones. It's nothing more than a song about humanity—a novel about lonely, faithful, hopeful, patient human beings.

And you know what? That pretty much defines my own humanity. Maybe I'm not lonely, but I'm definitely hopeful, patient and strive to keep the faith in the goodness of humanity.                         

Supporting CBC

Darn. Another unfulfilled dream. Shelagh Rogers from CBC’s The Next Chapter has retired and now I’ll never get to be interviewed on her radio show. Never mind. At least I got to listen and that’s been a huge gift. Through her guests and their book reviews I’ve been exposed to an incredible library of Canadian literature. 

I chatted recently over Zoom with a former close friend of mine. We’ve led very different lives since university and I was stunned when she suggested that the CBC was a propaganda tool of the government. Our disparaging views on the public radio service in Canada motivated me to immediately send a donation to the Friends of the CBC. 

Over the years, CBC has offered me and my family the kind of radio programming that has stimulated conversation while expanding our understanding of national and world affairs. Whether cooking, washing dishes, or puzzling, CBC radio programming has offered insight into worlds beyond my kitchen. What I’ve learned through the radio over the decades, might qualify as the equivalent of another university degree—without the stress of exams or essays. 

Through radio programmes like The Next Chapter, or Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company (another book-centered program that will be dearly missed), Quirks and Quarks with Bob McDonald (a science-centered show), Ideas with Nahlah Ayed, Q with Tom Power, and many, many more shows that offer astute and diverse insights into worlds beyond my own, I’ve grown more appreciative of our diverse humanity and of the gift that is Canada.

Yes, CBC is government funded, but it is not government controlled. There’s a difference. A not-for-profit public broadcaster does not spew propaganda nor does it have to bow to the for-profit commercialism of private broadcasters. CBC is a gift that Canadians living in a democratic country must never take for granted. Yes, I support the CBC. I encourage you to listen and support them, too. 

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