Today it’s my turn on the BlogTour Inge’s War by Svenja O’Donnell.
A Story of Family, Secrets and Survival under Hitler
Svenja, on a journey of her own, investigates the complex relationships Germans have with their past, even two generations later, posing the question: who do we allow to tell their story? Inge’s War listens to the voices that are often missing from our historical narrative – those of women caught up on the wrong side of history. It is a book about memory and heritage that interrogates the legacy passed down by those who survive, and the bonds between generations of women who have loved, endured and overcome. At the heart of this beautifully written memoir is a story of love and family, of a girl from a vanished land who lived through a time when Europe, and its humanity, collapsed.
Svenja O’Donnell is an award-winning political correspondent and commentator whose work regularly features on TV and radio. Before covering Brexit for Bloomberg, she worked as a correspondent in Russia. Half-Irish and half-German, she was born and brought up in Paris, and lives in London. Inge’s War is her first book.
About the book
Svenja’s beautiful, aloof German grandmother Inge never spoke about the past. All her family knew was that she had grown up in a city that no longer exists on any map: Königsberg in East Prussia, a footnote in history, a place that almost no one has heard of today. But when Svenja impulsively visits this windswept Baltic city, something unlocks in Inge and, finally, she begins to tell her story. A fascinating story of passionate first love, betrayal, terror, flight, starvation and violence.
It begins in the secret jazz bars of Hitler’s Berlin, as Inge falls in love for the first time, amidst a background of growing terror and uncertainty, and takes the reader through her family’s terrifying escape out of Germany, into Denmark as the Red Army approaches. Over hours of conversation Svenja teases out the threads of her grandmother’s life, retracing her steps all over Europe, and realising that there is suffering here on a scale that she had never dreamt of. Finally, she uncovers desperately tragic secret that her grandmother has been keeping for sixty years.
A German grandmother being cold and disapproving isn’t unusual. In fact the same can be said for the majority of people who have lived through the trauma of war. They become disconnected to their own emotions because it’s easier to cope that way, both in the moment and afterwards with the memories. The German people, especially of a certain age and era, tend to be considered abrupt, direct and arrogant. A lot of that is the harsh sound of the language and the burden of and presumption of guilt that comes with the national identity.
Svenja embarks on a journey of conversations with a woman she only knows as a distant grandmother and in doing so begins to understand the woman her grandmother once was and the woman she became due to her experiences.
It’s also not unusual for survivors of war environments and eras to not speak about their experiences to their loved ones and friends. Locking it all away in a box and throwing away the key tends to be a standard approach to horrendous trauma. There are plenty of younger generations that accidentally stumble upon secrets, especially given the amount of information we have access to now.
O’Donnell doesn’t focus on the guilty or the victims of the Holocaust and World War 2, but rather on the people who had to choose between silence or becoming part of the open opposition. One meant life and the other being shunned and possibly worse. Given what’s happening at the moment – silence is consent, which of course is the burden many carried. When you weigh the level of atrocities during this time it’s easy to minimise the hardships and trauma of the German people – those who looked the other way and saved themselves. They also have the right to make sure their families stay alive and safe – it’s a difficult topic.
One of my German friends, post-war mid 60s generation, was completely unaware that her family and the majority of those in the East, ex-Prussia and Poland became refugees and were sent West ect. Her parents had never spoken about being forcibly removed, sent packing or having to escape.
It’s incredibly difficult to find a past you weren’t expecting when you start researching your family. I think the author approached it in a factual, non-emotive and respectful manner. It does have more of journalistic tone rather than an emotionally charged one, but I think it does the subject matter justice.