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 1948, 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.


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!


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.

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. 

Volyn is not Volhynia

Having read a couple of books recently set in Volhynia, I’m reminded again of its complicated past, influenced by different political, religious and ethnic groups.  I need to refresh my frame of reference and look at a map.  My great-grandparents, ethnic Germans who were originally Lutheran, moved into Volhynia in the 1860s from the Gdańsk area (then called Danzig) and later converted to Baptist. 

Zhytomyr Oblast in modern Ukraine

        My grandfather was born near Zhytomyr (about 150 kilometers west of Kyiv) in the 1870s.  At that time, the city was considered part of the Russian Empire. When my mother was born in 1919, Zhytomyr became the capital of the short-lived (1917-1920) Ukrainian People’s Republic. By the time my mom turned one, Zhytomyr was part of the USSR. Their family farm, centered around the hand-built windmill, labelled them state enemies, or kulaks, by 1930. 

On the maps, the 2 oblasts are separated by the Rivne Oblast. There are 24 oblasts (provinces in total).

Volyn Olbast in modern Ukraine
My extended family —most of whom were targeted through exile, arrest, and execution, had lived in a scattered community of German villages which were dominated by a zealous evangelical Baptist faith. (One that my mother continued to embrace here in Canada in the 1950s).  The Germans in Volhynia built a faith-based seminary to train their own pastors in Heimtal (remnants still standing), to compliment the existing one in Odesa.  They also built a central red brick church in Neudorf (1907) one of the biggest churches in the area. Times were booming for the Baptists and the farmers … until Stalin’s First Five Year Plan to collectivize farms.

Today, the area known as the Volyn Oblast is further west and my mother’s territory is part of the current Zhytomyr Oblast. Other main centres in the area included Pulyny (called Pulin by the Germans) and Koresten to the north (300 km from Chernobyl). 

It’s all confusing and I keep messing up.  With the current war, all that messed up history stirs up memories of past injustices. So hard to keep one’s self-identity when names of your home are in flux and your people have disappeared. 

No wonder my mother never knew if she was German, Russian, Ukrainian. No wonder she embraced her faith and later, being Canadian.  

Naming Characters

About Olga becoming Katya.  Back when I was writing The Kulak’s Daughter I chose the name Olga for my protagonist. While uncommon here in North America, it’s popular in eastern Europe. The name, in fact, has Scandinavian roots and is meant to be a positive blessing for a child. But every immigrant knows that names don’t always travel well. What’s considered a pretty name in one language, might connote only ‘otherness’ in another.

My mom had a Tante (Aunt) Olga and there were several older Olgas in my immigrant church congregation. It was a name I associated with ‘otherness’ but also with old and with the 'old' country. Olgas were the 'babushkas' during my childhood ... along with the Elfriedas and Hildegards. Just plain old-fashioned immigrants.  I also like Olga because it translated to Helga in German and that seemed convenient to my purposes as I developed my stories. (There is no H sound in Russian. Hence, Hitler becomes Gitler.)

My editor, however, decided that the name Olga was too foreign-sounding and off-putting for potential Canadian readers and wanted me to change it. I did so reluctantly and still regret it. It seemed to only underline the foreignness of my own name, Gabriele Ulrike, a name that marked me as an outsider when I was going to school. My parents called me Gabby (Gabi) and teachers butchered my name, giving it French flair, like Gabriella, or masculinity, like Gabriel. I still have to correct official documents. And my middle name, Ulrike? Well, that’s also been an embarrassment. 

How I pined for a simple name that would blend in with the masses … like Debbie or Karen … a name that would not be mispronounced or misspelled. I was named after twins that my mom helped birth in post-war Germany, and all I can say is, I’m grateful that Gabriele was born before Ulrike! 

The Ukrainian newcomers I’ve been meeting here in Canada, all have such lyrical names like Tatiana, Elena, Oksana, Anastasia. Musical names that sing like songbirds.  Makes Gabe sound like a lonely one-note crow. 

Othering Each Other

Maya’ Memories is a well-written memoir filled with vivid detail. Written by Maya’s son, Gene Kirichenko, from here in Winnipeg, it’s told in his mother’s voice. 

Maya was born in Slo’yansk in 1926, a city in the Donetsk Oblast of eastern Ukraine. The city of Slo’yansk has been brutalized over much of the last hundred years—from the Holodomor to the Nazi and Soviet conflict, to the 2014 Russian invasion.  When her son published the memoir, Maya was already 89 years old. 

Gene Kirichenko’s efforts to document his mother’s incredible life have been beautifully presented in this 300-page, coil-bound edition.  I’m grateful to my friend, Pat Trottier, who gifted me this book. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to two recent novels by Erin LittekenThe Lost Daughters of Ukraine and The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, that I’ve been reading this summer. 

Maya’s Memories is also a wonderful supplement to the weekly chats I have with recent Ukrainian newcomers because the assault on Ukrainians continues to this day. Whether it was Soviet destruction under Stalin, or Nazi destruction under Hitler, or modern Russian destruction under Putin, the Ukrainian people have been attacked again and again. And, sadly, they have had only limited access to their own memories. They’ve been locked up behind Russian and Soviet propaganda, behind silent fears, behind misplaced stoicism,  and sometimes behind the numbing of homemade vodka.

Earlier in the week, I had a visit with Anne, an 89 year old German woman, born into a Mennonite community in the southern area of Ukraine near Odesa. Her family retreated with the German Army in 1943 and she ended up in Canada in 1949 … the same year that Maya would have arrived here in Winnipeg. Two young women, enemies over there and starting over here in Canada … invisible to each other.

Their governments had turned on their own, forcing young men to become killers for love of country, dividing families and taking away their geographical homes. In Canada they adapted, even if it meant losing their language and what was left of their culture.  Survivors trickled over, to places like Winnipeg, where they became mere humans again … no longer identified by uniforms, badges or documents that labeled them as other. 

Can we hold onto this equality? Or are we again going to submit to fear and find strength in ‘othering’ each other?

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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, Bündn...