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Posts Tagged ‘WWII’

Source: Borrowed from library
Rating: ★★★★☆

Hitler’s Forgotten Children is the heartbreaking story of Ingrid von Oelhafen’s decades-long journey to uncover her true identity. Ingrid grew up in Germany with German parents, but she was only a young girl when she learned that she might be Erika Matko, who was born in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia in 1942, stolen from her parents, brought to Germany, and placed with “politically vetted foster parents.”

In a first person narrative, von Oelhafen explains in great detail her earliest memories, her cold treatment by her foster parents, how she first learned about Erika Matko and the Lebensborn program, her research into Lebensborn, and all the steps she took over the years to find out the truth.

Von Oelhafen’s story is hard to read at times, from the way her foster parents treated her to the part of her life that was taken away and irrevocably changed by the Nazis. I vacillated between sadness and anger, and there were several times I had to put the book down for a day or two. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the evil of the Nazi regime and how one can live nearly their whole life without knowing who they truly are.

Hitler’s Forgotten Children provides much food for thought, particularly about identity, what makes you who you are, and how to build a life for yourself when you don’t know where you came from or who you belong to. Von Oelhafen was forced to consider what she knew, what she didn’t know, and what she will never know, and the book explains how this affected her opportunities and her decisions over the course of her life. Fortunately, there are moments of hope and light in her story as well, but it definitely is one that will pull at your heart.

Unfortunately, Hitler’s Forgotten Children is a relevant read these days with the migrant children in detention who are separated from their families and may never be reunited with them. It will definitely make you think long and hard about the impact on those children, especially knowing that some of them could very well find themselves in von Oelhafen’s shoes in the coming years, questioning their origin and identity. If you are fascinated with stories about World War II and want to think deeper about its impact, Hitler’s Forgotten Children should be on your list.

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Source: Borrowed from library
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Niklas Frank was seven years old when his father, Hans Frank, governor general of Nazi-occupied Poland, was hanged after the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1946. In the Shadow of the Reich reads like a conversation with his dead father, in which Niklas Frank pours out his hatred and rage. He details his father’s career as a lawyer for the Nazi party and his rise to the governor general position, his theft from the Jewish ghetto, his groveling at Hitler’s feet, his hatred for Himmler, and, mostly, his cowardice.

In the Shadow of the Reich is the most bizarre book I’ve ever read about the Nazis. Niklas Frank imagines he is speaking to his father in hell. He interrupts excerpts from his father’s diary, letters, and testimony with his own thoughts. He imagines how his father acted in certain situations or what his father should have done, calls his father names, and basically goes on and on (and on and on) about how much he hates his father and his crimes.

This was a hard book to read, both for the content and its rambling. There was a lack of focus in its structure, like the only purpose of the book was to denounce his father. Niklas Frank had a lot of things to get off his chest, a lot of things to say to his father that he wasn’t able to say as a child seeing his father for the last time, and it feels like this book served as a kind of therapy to his tortured soul.

On the one hand, it was nice to see that he distanced himself from his father’s beliefs, but on the other hand, it felt way too personal. It’s hard to describe the book to people who haven’t read it before, but as someone who has read dozens and dozens of books about Nazi Germany, I must say this is the most unique and yet most disappointing in terms of the writing. Niklas Frank has an interesting story to tell, but I got more out of watching various YouTube interviews with him and other books about the children of Nazis in which he was featured (such as My Father’s Keeper) than from his own book. However, I think it would be worth giving a try if you are fascinated with firsthand accounts from World War II. In the Shadow of the Reich is definitely something different.

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Source: Borrowed from library
Rating: ★★★★☆

My Father’s Keeper is based mainly on the extensive 1959 interviews of children of high-ranking Nazis by Norbert Lebert (who died in 1993). These interviews detail what happened to the children of Nazi war criminals right when the war ended and in the 15 years after. Norbert Lebert’s son, Stephan, then follows up (or attempts to) with the “Nazi children” in 1999-2000 to learn about their lives in the subsequent decades.

The book focuses on Wolf Rüdiger Hess, son of Rudolf Hess; Martin Bormann, Jr., son of Martin Bormann; Niklas and Norman Frank, sons of Hans Frank; Gudrun Himmler, daughter of Heinrich Himmler; Edda Göring, daughter of Hermann Göring; Robert and Klaus von Schirach, sons of Baldur von Schirach; and Karl-Otto Saur Jr., son of Karl-Otto Saur.

Some of these “Nazi children” forged a different path and distanced themselves from their fathers’ crimes; some embraced the ideology of their fathers and defended them even decades later. Most loved their fathers still. Some found their fathers’ names to be a detriment; others still reaped the benefits of their Nazi connections. But none can be held guilty for their fathers’ war crimes.

The narrative is a bit disjointed, shifting from the 1959 manuscripts by Norbert Lebert to the later interviews by Stephan Lebert. Stephan Lebert also attempts to discuss the psychological aspects of being a child of a high-ranking Nazi, and how that shaped their early years and contributed to the paths they took later in life. There are quotes from researchers on the subject, some comparisons to the psychological trauma of the children of Holocaust survivors, and even how the German mentality in the 1950s was to sweep the horrors of the war under the rug, rebuild, and move on. But mostly My Father’s Keeper is merely a collection of biographical stories about the “Nazi children.”

There is much to ponder within these stories — like how much guilt, if any, should they bear; whether they should have been allowed to just pick up their lives, albeit without the money and comforts they enjoyed as children during the Third Reich, when so many lives were lost at their fathers’ hands; how to separate their suffering as the children of the perpetrators from the suffering of the victims and their children; whether one should feel sorry for their harsh treatment based on their parentage (they were children, after all); and how they could possibly feel love for their fathers after learning the full extent of their crimes. How could some turn a blind eye to that as they grew into adults? There is no clear answer to any of these questions, but they certainly provide much food for thought.

I had a hard time reading these stories, especially the ones where the children continued to adore their fathers long after the war. But I was fascinated with the psychology behind their stories and felt like I learned a lot from these “case studies.” If you are like me and read as much as you can about World War II, this book is not to be missed.

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Source: Borrowed from library
Rating: ★★★★☆

But what can I, with my dark skin and friends all over the world, have to do with such a grandfather? Was it he who destroyed my family? Did he cast his shadow first on my mother and then on me? Can it be that a dead man still wields power over the living? Is the depression that has plagued me for so long connected to my origins? I lived and studied in Israel for five years — was that chance or fate? Will I have to behave differently toward my Israeli friends, now that I know? My grandfather murdered your relatives.

(from My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, page 10)

Jennifer Teege was 38 years old when she learned a terrible secret that had plagued her family since long before she was born. Born in Munich, Germany, in 1970, Teege was placed in an orphanage at four weeks old, with sporadic contact with her troubled mother and her grandmother. Contact with her biological family ceased when she was adopted at the age of seven, and she missed her grandmother terribly. Her adopted family welcomed her with open arms despite her differences; with a German mother and a Nigerian father, she always stood out, especially in Germany at that time.

Never feeling like she truly belonged and feeling abandoned by her mother, Teege battled with depression. In the strangest of coincidences she was drawn to a book in the psychology section of the library in Hamburg, and when she pulled it off the shelf, she saw a photo of a woman on the cover who looked like her mother and shared the same name: Monika Goeth, daughter of Amon Goeth, commandant of the Płaszów concentration camp during World War II and who was hanged for his crimes in 1946. He was portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the movie Schindler’s List. The knowledge that she was the granddaughter of a Nazi war criminal and a sadistic murderer nicknamed “The Butcher of Płaszów” affected Teege deeply. She didn’t know how to process this information and how to face her friends in Israel, where she lived for five years and attended college, as many lost family members in the Holocaust.

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past tells Teege’s story of coming to terms with her family’s past and the secret that was kept from her. The book follows Teege as she visits the scenes of the atrocities committed by her grandfather in Poland, tries to balance her love for her grandmother with what she learns about her complacency during the war and her undying love for Amon Goeth, and tries to build a relationship with her estranged mother and understand why she was never told the truth and why she was given up for adoption. Teege’s story is told in her own words and interspersed with historical details and commentary from the people closest to her.

The book raises many issues, from the burden of family secrets to the guilt carried by the descendants of the Nazis, from the need to understand what is impossible to grasp about human nature and how to cope with the knowledge of the horrors and suffering inflicted by their relatives in the recent past even while knowing they are not directly responsible for those actions. Teege is honest with her feelings, the pain and shame she endured, her failure to make certain things right, and how to accept and move on in a positive light. There is much to ponder and discuss within these pages, and despite the heavy themes, the overall message of the book is one of hope, love, and compassion.

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Source: Purchased
Rating: ★★★★☆

But I do know there is no justification. No possible rationalization for what the Nazis did, for what civilian Germans permitted and encouraged to happen.

And yet: you. Here you are. You have the temerity to sit in my home, at my table, with your lights and your cameras and your questions and your historical credentials. You dare to seek some explanation. You dare to record the stories of the butchers and those who abetted them. You dare to seek some exoneration of a people who committed wholesale slaughter of an entire race!

(from Those Who Save Us)

Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us focuses on a broken relationship between a mother and daughter who lived in Weimar during World War II. The book centers on Anna Schlemmer, who has spent 50 years in silence about her wartime experiences. Her daughter, Trudy, who was just a baby during the war, remembers only bits and pieces of her life then.

The novel opens upon the death of Anna’s husband, Jack, the American soldier who married Anna shortly after the war and brought her and Trudy to Minnesota. Trudy, a professor of German history, does her duty in caring for her mother, but the distance between them is palpable. Her unanswered questions and desire to understand her mother’s wartime choices prompt her to take on a project in which she interviews Germans about their experiences during the war, including how they survived and what they knew about the Nazi atrocities.

Trudy has long been haunted by a photograph she found in her mother’s drawer as a child: what looks to be a family photo of Anna, Trudy, and an SS officer. The truth behind the photo is revealed over the course of the novel, which shifts back and forth between Anna’s wartime story and 1997 as Trudy interviews subjects for her project and navigates her mother’s coldness and silence.

What struck me most about this novel was how the war resulted in a sense of guilt and isolation for both Anna and Trudy. Anna stands by her actions during the war, both good and bad, as a means of survival and protecting her daughter, though the shame and the lingering trauma closed her off to both her husband and daughter. Trudy carries guilt based on her interpretation of the photo, and her mother’s refusal to revisit the past has left her without a support system. It was interesting how both of them carried the weight of guilt, though Trudy was too young to remember the war.

Those Who Save Us is a rare instance for me in which both the past and present aspects of the novel were fascinating. Although it is hard to connect with Anna and Trudy, as they keep themselves at arm’s length even from each other, Blum enables readers to understand their motivations and empathize with them as the story unfolds. Blum also doesn’t shy away from detailing the violence of war, and there were several times that I had to put the book down and calm my emotions. I had hoped for more resolution in the mother/daughter relationship at the end, but Blum stays true to their characters while giving them and readers a sense that healing is on the horizon. Those Who Save Us is a well-crafted, thoughtful novel that takes on some pretty ambitious subject matter but handles it with care and without assigning blame.

Serena and I featured Those Who Save Us as the June/July readalong on War Through the Generations. Our discussions can be found here (beware of spoilers): Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4. Stay tuned for an interview with author Jenna Blum, which also will be featured on War Through the Generations sometime soon.

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Source: Review copy from HarperCollins
Rating: ★★★★★

For here, in this battered and stubbornly beautiful city, where death and destruction fell from the skies night after night, she had finally found a home. Here was the one place in the world where she truly belonged. And that alone, she decided, was reason enough for thanksgiving.

(from Goodnight from London)

I really enjoyed Jennifer Robson’s trilogy set around the Great War (check out my reviews of Somewhere in FranceAfter the War Is Over, and Moonlight Over Paris), so when I saw that her next book was set during World War II, I knew I had to read it — and I was not disappointed! Goodnight from London is the story of American journalist Ruby Sutton, who arrives in London in 1940 to cover human interest stories for Picture Weekly. She left behind a lonely life in New York to pursue her career, and she soon comes into her own with the help of her new friends, editor Kaz, photographer Mary, and the secretive Captain Bennett.

Ruby believes she will bring an outsider’s perspective to her stories, which are being sent back to her New York weekly as “Dispatches from London,” but it’s not long before London feels like a real home to her. She endures the Blitz along with everyone else, finding comfort in Londoners’ ability to “keep on keeping on” even after they’ve lost everything but their lives. Robson follows Ruby over the course of the war as she finds love and friendship and matures as a writer and a person, forcing herself forward even as the war and her past catch up to her and threaten her newfound happiness.

I loved Goodnight from London, especially its plucky heroine, Ruby (who was inspired by Robson’s grandmother), and her determination to make something of herself no matter what. Robson has created a strong supporting cast of characters as well, especially in the sweet but mysterious Bennett and his charming godmother, Vanessa. Robson beautifully sets the scene of London during the Blitz, making readers feel like they are truly accompanying Ruby as she seeks out the good in the midst of so much destruction and is brave enough to move closer to the action in order to understand the importance of sacrifice, not only by the soldiers, doctors, and nurses but the everyday person as well.

Robson is a true storyteller, whose passion for her subject matter shines through in every page of the novel. If I hadn’t been so busy and distracted lately, I likely would’ve devoured this book in one sitting. Goodnight from London is an emotional tale for sure, and while I enjoyed the romantic aspects of the story, I’m glad Robson kept Ruby, her courage and determination, and her wartime experiences at the forefront. Definitely a contender for my Best of 2017 list!

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for Goodnight from London. Click here to follow the tour.

Disclosure: I received Goodnight from London from HarperCollins for review.

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Serena and I are hosting a readalong in June for the 2017 WWII Reading Challenge on War Through the Generations. Even if you are not participating in the challenge (and even if you’ve already read the book), we encourage you to join us for our group discussions of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. The discussions will be posted on War Through the Generations each Monday, from June 12-July 3.

For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer. Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life. Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.

Here is the read-a-long schedule, with discussions here on each Monday.

  • June 12: Discussion of Prologue – Chapter 15
  • June 19: Discussion of Chapters 16-29
  • June 26: Discussion of Chapters 30-45
  • July 3: Discussion of Chapters 46 – End

We look forward to reading what sounds to be a fantastic book, and hope you will join us!

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