This book charts the plight of a set of people not normally considered in the slew of books and films about World War II – German civilians displaced during the fighting. Renate’s moving and unusual story tells of her mother’s efforts to keep herself and her children safe from the advancing threat of the Russian army’s advance through Germany.
In January 1945, with the weather at its coldest, loudspeakers announce that their hometown, Glogau is to be evacuated the following day. Elizabeth is faced with the prospect of leaving their comfortable home in the depths of winter with a five-year-old daughter and her eleven-year-old brother. This book is about their subsequent adventures as displaced and homeless, they are forced to rely upon the kindness of strangers.
Renate’s very straightforward writing style gives us the full impact of this amazing true story and despite her decision to write the story in her mother’s viewpoint, it is a highly personal one as Renate was the little girl. Apart from the sheer interest of reading a war story with such gripping human interest, I also found it unexpectedly moving. Elizabeth’s unassuming courage shines through. On top of trying to keep her family together, she was also constantly worried about the fate of her husband serving with the German military.
However, Elizabeth’s resourceful bravery isn’t the only admirable aspect of this narrative. By 1945, the German population knew the war was coming to an end. Food rationing and shortages of every description were part of daily life – as it was throughout Europe. But in addition, the terrible fear of the Russians and what they would do to the civilians – particularly the women – was an ever-present cloud on the horizon. Danger was all around. People died in the firefight between the Americans and Russians and Renate vividly describes the bombing of Dresden, as the glow in the sky could be seen miles away.
I was half expecting tales of hoarding and the constant fear of violence that a lone woman travelling with two young children must have felt. And yet, in the face of all these destabilising terrors, the vast majority of people encountered by the vulnerable, homeless family were generous, freely offering food and shelter to them – and later, extended their hospitality to Renate’s grandparents when they also had to leave Glogau.
I was struck by the gritted determination to keep everything going wherever possible. Elizabeth was able take the children to safety because the trains kept running. They might have been overcrowded and uncomfortable, but they still cris-crossed the country, even after Germany’s surrender. When the family are in Quedlinburg after the Russians take control, the shops and bakery still open as normal.
Having been brought up on a diet of war films and stories depicting Nazi Germany as the nadir of civilisation, this book revealed another side of the country where a war-weary, beaten populace struggled to maintain ordinary, decent lives. It is an inspiring and thought-provoking read that will stay with me for a long time – and one I thoroughly recommend.