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After more than sixty years, the nightmarish sufferings of so many victims of Germany’s Nazi regime have been documented extensively. Rarely, however, does one hear about the experiences of German children during World War II. Coming of age amidst the chaos, brutality, and destruction of war in their homeland, they had no understanding of what was happening around them and often suffered severe trauma and physical abuse. They too became victims of the madness perpetrated by the totalitarian state. This haunting ...
After more than sixty years, the nightmarish sufferings of so many victims of Germany’s Nazi regime have been documented extensively. Rarely, however, does one hear about the experiences of German children during World War II. Coming of age amidst the chaos, brutality, and destruction of war in their homeland, they had no understanding of what was happening around them and often suffered severe trauma and physical abuse. They too became victims of the madness perpetrated by the totalitarian state. This haunting memoir tells the riveting story of one such German child. Born in Berlin in 1941, Sabina de Werth Neu knew little during her earliest years except the hardships and fear of a war refugee. She and her two sisters and mother were often on the run and sometimes homeless in the bombed-out cities of wartime Germany. At times they lived in near-starvation conditions. And as the Allies stormed through the crumbling German defenses, the mother and children were raped and beaten by marauding Russian soldiers. After the war, like so many Germans, they wrapped themselves in a cloak of deafening silence about their recent national and personal history, determined to forget the past. The result was that Sabina spent much of her time wrestling with shame and bouts of crippling depression. Finally, after decades of silence, she could no longer suppress the memories and began reconstructing her young life by writing down what had previously seemed unspeakable. Illustrated by vintage black-and-white family photographs, the book is filled with poignant scenes: her abused but courageous mother desperately trying to protect her children through the worst, the sickening horror of viewing Holocaust footage on newsreels shortly after the war, the welcome sight of American troops bringing hot meals to local schools, and the glimmer of hope finally offered by the Marshall Plan, which the author feels was crucial to her own survival and that of Germany as a whole. This book not only recalls the experiences of a now-distant war, but also brings to mind the disrupting realities of present-day refugee children. There is perhaps no more damning indictment of war than to read about its effects on children, its helpless victims.
"Compelling and thoroughly readable."
–Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove
"A poignant and powerful memoir, filled with horror, joy, and sorrow. It ought to be read by every American, for it is, in the author's words, ‘my thank you to the American people for their kindness, generosity, and the sacrifices they made during those hard postwar years in Europe.’"
–Gordon S. Wood, Alva O. Way University Professor Emeritus, Brown University
My mother often told me what a pleasant, cheerful baby I had been. Even my birth was easy, compared to that of my two older sisters, Gabriele and Kristina. I came into this world on September 26, 1941, in Berlin, Nazi Germany.
What a time and place to start life. Bombs were falling on Berlin, sporadically lighting up the night sky, yet they were frequent enough that I had to spend the third night of my young life in an air-raid bunker, next to Haus Dahlem, a private maternity clinic in a residential part of the city. The underground shelter was cold and damp, and I contracted a middle-ear infection. Of course I do not remember this. My mother revealed to me that around the end of September "Der Fuhrer" made a surprise visit to the clinic in order to congratulate all the mothers on their new babies (no doubt Aryan babies). According to my mother, he leaned down over my crib and smiled.
Mother spoke of this when I was a teenager. I was in shock. By then I knew enough about the Third Reich to feel as if I had been touched by Evil early on and that the subsequent suffering must have been a direct result of it, just like the spell cast on Sleeping Beauty by the evil godmother. I felt branded somehow and carried the guilt and shame of it right through adolescence and early adulthood.
In Europe in the 1950s many rumors were circulating that Hitler had escaped from Berlin in 1945 and that the charred body outside his bunker was not really his. So, in 1960 during a youth hostel trip, when I saw a man who looked like Hitler in, of all places, Galway, Ireland, I became obsessed with bringing him to justice. I followed him all day, through rain and high winds, from pub to pub, and finally sought the help of a local policeman. He just laughed at me, pointing out "Hitler" as a Galway man named William who wore the short moustache and odd hairstyle to annoy the English, who had taken such a beating during the German bombing of London. Everyone in town thought it was a great joke.
I cannot substantiate my early encounter with Hitler. I have not found any proof that he was in Berlin during that time, but then he often appeared unexpectedly from Austria or East Prussia. The events of the next five years, however, still seem as if someone had cast a devilish curse over us and millions of other people too.
We lived in Berlin. My father had been called up and entered the Luftwaffe (air force). The city continued to be bombed, and my sisters would be picked up in late afternoon, together with many other children, to spend the night in a bomb shelter. We lived in a modest apartment on the Grazer Damm until 1942, when things had become so dangerous that the authorities decided to start a vast evacuation program for mothers with young children. We had already been assigned a young girl called Hertha to help my mother. She was what was then called a Pflichtjahr Mädchen (literally, a duty-year girl), straight out of school, as fresh and innocent as "milk and honey," as Mother described her.
My parents and two sisters had moved to Berlin at the beginning of the war, because Father had found work as a buyer for men's clothes for the big department-store chain Karstatt. He had no college education, having been thrown out of his mother's home before he was twenty. My paternal grandmother was very strict and pious; so whatever my father had done, it must have been bad enough in her eyes to disinherit and sever all ties with her youngest son. Mother explained in later years that he was spoiled and wanted the good life but suffered from a weak character, a lack of moral backbone. According to her, he was more interested in entertaining attractive women than in learning and striving to make something of himself.
Serving in the German Luftwaffe was not such a bad position for him. He saw no real action, as he was doing mostly administrative and clerical work due to his very neat handwriting. Apparently he came on leave to Berlin in 1942, but, of course, I have no recollection of this. Mother was glad to get out of our dreary apartment and out of the city, which became increasingly dangerous.
Hitler wanted to preserve the broodmares and offsprings for his Thousand-Year Aryan Reich and still believed that he could hold the front to the east. Tens of thousands were thus moved to the very eastern limits of the country and were subsequently abandoned and forgotten when the Soviet army broke through. Mother had no idea how long this dreadful war would hold us in its grasp or that it would drag us through a large part of Eastern Europe.
Excerpted from A LONG SILENCE by SABINA DE WERTH NEU Copyright © 2011 by Sabina de Werth Neu. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 3, 2012