Another War Story

I’m grateful not to have completely lost my German language skills because I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sibel Daniel’s, 2020 release, Bündnis der Herzen, from Tinte & Feder, a German imprint belonging to Amazon (parallels Amazon's English language imprint, Lake Union Publishing).  Not sure why, but I find reading in another language makes me pay more attention to writing style. Perhaps simply because I’m more focused on the language itself. 


Daniel’s crisp, fluid writing brings life to a world war that refuses to be forgotten. With compelling sensory details, she tells an old story with a fresh voice which invites the reader to use all their senses … to inhale the same air, hear the same sounds, taste the same food as the characters. Here’s an example from page 410, “Der Duft der Gans scheint aus der Vergangenheit herüber in die Gegenwart zu wehen.“  Who hasn’t experienced the power of smell to evoke memories?

Multi-point-of-view transitions are deft and seamless. The three main female characters come from different stages of life … the child, the teenager, and the mother. The male characters also span a wide range of ages and backgrounds … all with conflicting interests, all strongly affected by a war beyond their control. Greed, lust, fear, altruism, patriotism and, of course, romance, are all explored through the interactions of the diverse characters.

The novel’s set mostly in a small farming village in the Black Forest area of Germany near the end of the war. The forced labourers, recruited from nearby occupied France, live and work in close proximity to the German women and children. The story focuses on a romance between a young German woman, Klara (or Claire, for the French) and Gilbert, a French spy, posing as a forced labourer. 

While a tad on the long side, I found the novel completely captivating and needed to grab a tissue to wipe away tears near the poignant end. As in earlier books I read this summer, focused on Ukrainian war history, here too the author bridges the present to the past with a multi-generational epilogue. It’s been close to 80 years now, but storm damage from the Second World War continues to resound in our lives. 


end of an era

Cousin Sieglinde and me in Kelowna a few years ago

Sad to say that the last of my mom’s family, born in Ukraine, has passed away. Sieglinde was one of nine family members who crossed the Atlantic, from Bremerhafen to Quebec City on the Beaverbrae in July, 1953.  As a toddler, she’d escaped Stalin’s attack on ethnic Germans and grew up in East Prussia before and during the war. In my novels, I fictionalized her as Susanna and will refer to her as S. in this post. 

S. didn’t talk much about the past. With stoic resolve, she focused on her new life here in Canada and supported her family with fierce dedication. Her beautiful garden in the mild Okanagan was a treasure and I appreciated the insights she occasionally shared with me about my mom. She understood family dynamics, evolved over decades of struggle, but kept silent unless I asked exactly the right questions. Like with my mom, I had to be careful … I didn’t want to trigger past traumas. 

S. was a young teenager when the war ended. Like my mother, a refugee fleeing the Soviets, she never made it to the safety of ships waiting on the Baltic coast. While S. didn’t end up a prisoner of war like my mother, her fate was just as arduous and lasted longer. As a farm labourer under the revenge-seeking Soviets, she was forced to work in one of the newly formed collectives in the now Kaliningrad Oblast. From the summer of 1945 until the fall of 1947, she toiled in the north eastern part of the oblast, close to the Lithuanian border, near a village known as Pillkallen (renamed Schlossberg by the Nazis) and now called Dobrovolsk by the Russians. If you're curious, here's a link to some before and after photos of the village. 

Almost all the remaining ethnic Germans were finally expelled in late 1948 and she ended up re-connecting with my mom and the surviving family in Schleswig-Holstein. 

I wish I knew more about those early years of the Soviet regime in the former East Prussia.  I’m eager to dive into Nicole Eaton’s new book, German Blood, Slavic Soil, which just arrived in my mailbox.  

Rest in peace, dear cousin. You kept your stories to yourself, but you shared beauty, generosity and kindness towards me and I’m grateful for the family connection. Family stories—our history—live on when we share them. Whether it's through books, photos, songs, recipes, or favourite perennials ... it’s not just about remembering our past. It’s about healing for our future.


stones

I’m drawn to old stuff. Old trees, old cheese, old dogs, old books, old stories. And I love old ruins. Most ruins around here, however, are made of wood and don't last too long.


But back in the 1930s, the Catholic church—under the leadership of Monsignor Morton—created a summer camp for kids called Camp Morton, where they used stones as construction materials. Using rocks, scattered along Lake Winnipeg, they created gardens, cabins, meeting halls, a water tower and more. 

The Lake Winnipeg camp was gifted to the province and made into a public resort back in the seventies and the stone structures are now neglected ruins. The old is crumbling and tumbling back into Lake Winnipeg. Huge chunks of lakeshore have dropped into the water and the stones—so artfully arranged into gardens and meeting places—have collapsed as nature once again reclaims its stones. 

If only the stones could talk.  I've been trying to listen and have imagined some interesting stories ... so maybe they do!




Imagine

I’ve spent this beautiful summer immersed in Ukraine’s 20th century troubles. I bookended Maya’s Memories, an excellent locally-written memoir, with Erin Litteken’s two recent best-selling novels, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv and The Lost Daughters of Ukraine. Made for some dark headspace. 

The fire-bombing of Dresden, as portrayed in the second half of The Lost Daughters of Ukraine, seemed particularly harsh. With friends affected by the wildfires around Kelowna, I’ve been quite aware of the side effects of smoke. My friends had to evacuate their homes and find shelter elsewhere … worried that their homes might burn. Imagine also being hungry, homeless and unable to trust those around you.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1994-041-07,_Dresden
Perhaps I just have too good an imagination. Perhaps too much of a bleeding heart. Which reminds me of Marilyn French’s novel, The Bleeding Heart, which in turn reminds me of  French’s Her Mother’s Daughter, both of which I read years ago but which had a powerful impact on me. Time to reread, perhaps? Strong women characters. Men bleed on battlefields. Women bleed in other ways.

Litteken’s The Lost Daughters of Ukraine portrayed relentless suffering. From Soviet to Nazi occupation to indiscriminate bombing by the Allies and years of homelessness. It was difficult to read and I’m sure it was difficult to research and write. But it was even harder to live through. 

My weekly English sessions with current Ukrainian refugees, escaping a new war, reinforces the printed stories I’ve been reading. Every day, news headlines tell of further atrocities ... of lives turned upside down, of families separated, of uncertain futures. It keeps happening. 

Litteken’s two novels, inspired by family history, must have been a relief to get out. I know that’s how I’ve felt with my family stories. In the Author’s Note, Litteken writes, “This story—much of it dealing with painful, brutal history and with my own family’s traumas—was difficult to write. But even in the midst of the darkness, I found glimpses of light.” (p. 400)  She goes on to mention that by ignoring national identities and seeing humans first, we can learn from the past. John Lennon said it succinctly in his song, Imagine

“Imagine there's no countries

It isn't hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion, too”

My friends tell me I should stop reading this stuff. That I should lighten up. Ha. I should. And I try. But I can’t ignore what’s happening in our world and I can’t ignore the past that has contributed to the present. Because it’s all connected. 



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