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In a Nutshell: WWII evacuation of the East Prussians
I read this over two days, totally glued to it. It's fiction based on a real life story as told to the author, based on two families in rural East Prussia and what becomes of them as the Germans begin to lose the war. The families are not connected; we read their stories alternately.
The main characters are Ilse Hahlbrock, who is about six at the beginning of the story, and Arno Schipper, a year or so older. When their parents hear that the Russians are advancing from the East, their parents make the decision to flee. There follows a journey so treacherous it is no surprise that not everyone makes it, as they become starving refugees dependent on the charity of strangers, their wits and luck for survival over a long, perilously cold winter. Even after the war is over their trials are not, as the families are split up, never knowing if those they love are alive or dead, or if they will ever see them again.
Now and again the narrative moves from Ilse and Arno to their mothers, Wanda and Ethel, or to their fathers, who are both in constant danger of being conscripted, once the German army becomes desperate for more bodies. Also, Janusz, a Polish prisoner who was assigned to work on the Hahlbrocks' farm, and whose story is particularly emotive. Knowing that he is in danger from the Nazis, they take him with them. Even years after the end of the war, both families endure hardship and danger that we cannot imagine.
Wikipedia tells me that 'The German population of the province was largely evacuated during the war or expelled shortly afterwards in the expulsion of Germans after World War II. An estimated 300,000 died either in war time bombing raids, in the battles to defend the province, or through mistreatment by the Red Army or from hunger, cold and disease', but this book shows what these few words actually meant for these ordinary people who just wanted to live out their lives on their farms, but were driven out of their homes with only what they could carry.
Pictures are all of the evacuation from East Prussia in 1945
In the beginning of the book, I was most interested to see how the children were groomed at school to believe that Hitler was something close to a god, that Jews and Poles were subhumans and deserved ill treatment, or worse. But not just the children - many of the adults, too, were brainwashed by the propaganda. For instance, some people on whose charity the Hahlbrocks were forced to depend would not allow Janusz in their house. Also, all they heard on the news was endless reports of impending German victory, though some of the people tuned into, for instance, the British radio stations, where they discovered that the Führer was not as invincible as they had been led to believe. At the beginning of the story, we see how the people truly believed that in the glorious future that awaited all Germans.
(Incidentally, I read that in 1920 the people of East Prussia voted on whether to become part of the Second Polish Republic or remain under the command of Weimar Germany; 97.89% voted to remain).
This is an incredible story, written so compellingly. The only miniscule complaint I have is that I wish it hadn't been translated using American words like 'cookies', 'candy', 'movies', etc, as the people are European. But that hardly matters - can't recommend this book too highly, and I definitely want to read more about it.