published in 2004 by the Verlag Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart
Introductory remarks on the updated edition (shortened)
Translation by Robert Brambeer
Until a short time ago, the war children in Germany had rarely contemplated that they shared a special fate. Hardly anyone would have said “I am a war child” and even fewer would have admitted it in a matter-of-fact manner.
When this book was first published in 2004, there was very little research on the late repercussions of the war in the German population. The term “trauma” was most often used in reference to victims of National Socialism. Public interest in the subject of “German war children” simply did not exist. The topic finally gained attention when the first major war children congress took place in Frankfurt am Main in April 2005. The public media’s concentration on National Socialism in the past was suddenly supplemented by a thematic complex of German history –the terrifying experience of the bombing attacks and displacement from the children’s point of view.
There was no lack of contemporary witnesses. For decades, war children had suppressed or distanced themselves from their early traumatisation, but now the time had come to put these experiences into words – memories they had long been unable to communicate. It soon became evident that these encounters with war violence and the loss of one’s home had long-term repercussions, even if they hadn’t consciously perceived how they were influenced by them.
But now, older, many of them have been noticing it and are starting to ask questions. They often deal with these emotions by writing down their childhood memories. Countless numbers of older people are busy writing their memoires as we speak. Many of their generation have the feeling that they have to do it, because they find it’s becoming more difficult with age to suppress their memories. It is no exaggeration, therefore, to say we are witnessing a “memory explosion”.
The new aspect of the “war children” issue is not the horror of war. Research has long established that children particularly suffer under collective violence. What is new, however, is that we are seeing a large group of people who experienced horrendous things in their childhood, most of whom continued on for decades without realising they had experienced something terrible. They didn’t have an emotional connection to these experiences and thus failed to recognise their most significant characteristics.
When The Forgotten Generation came out in 2004, there was no public awareness of the “war children” issue and no noteworthy research on it either. But things have changed since then. Several studies have produced similar results: eight to ten percent of those who experienced war and displacement as children now suffer from psychological ailments, in particular, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In contrast to similar data collected in Switzerland, a country which was not ravaged by World War II, only 0.7 percent of retirees and senior citizens suffer from PTSD.
The war children’s experiences are very different, and likewise, so has been the impact of these early encounters with loss and violence in later years. For example, another 25 percent of older Germans are influenced by the late repercussions to a lesser, but clearly recognisable extent. According to the physician and trauma specialist Michael Ermann from the University of Munich, these individuals are “constrained in their psychosocial quality of life.” In other words, many older citizens are deeply insecure, and consequently, do not wish to be swayed by new experiences or new ideas. This, of course, encumbers contact with the younger generation, and their relationships tend to be less emotional. Changes in living conditions cause them enormous stress. They also tend to think in “black and white” and have a very strong need for material security.
Research findings have shown that people, who have not recovered from their traumas, have abnormal cortisol levels which makes them more prone to stress. Air raids, strafers, the loss of family members, displacement and hunger – all of this causes physical and mental aftereffects.
One could say that a third of all of those who spent their youth or childhood in war – e.g. children born between 1928 and 1945 – are still struggling with the long-term effects today. The younger the children were when the catastrophe hit, the more serious are the long-term effects. Interestingly, the largest impairments are visible among those who were born in the 1940s and can hardly remember events of the war, if at all. Many complain of psychosomatic disorders, particularly recurring depression, inexplicable pains or panic attacks. Because their fears were not accompanied by horrific images of war, nor expressed in their dreams, it never dawned on them until recently that they might be affected by their war experiences. Likewise, doctors never considered this when diagnosing their symptoms. Nowadays, word has spread throughout the medical establishment that a significant number of older patients suffer from war traumas. The available methods for providing them relief are still insufficient, but at least there is growing awareness of the root of their complaints – particularly in the field of geriatric care.
I have been investigating the issue of war children since the mid-1990s. In all my years as a journalist, I have never been so captivated by an issue. This interest in what would become the topic of my life was a war which raged in Germany’s geographic neighbourhood. In the beginning, no one called it a war; it was a conflict – the Bosnian conflict. The news on TV dedicated a lot of time depicting the suffering of children which prompted me to ask myself: “How are the German war children doing nowadays? How did they cope with their early experiences with violence, bombs, escape, hunger and the death of family members? To what degree were their later lives affected by these experiences?” The amazing thing was that hardly anyone besides me seemed interested in the subject. Neither the war children themselves, nor doctors, psychotherapists, pastors or editors. I had the feeling that everyone in Germany had quietly agreed that the war children had survived unscathed.
Searching the archive at the WDR broadcasting company, I found absolutely no facts, no figures, no notable studies. And so I asked the war children themselves. I took advantage of every opportunity which presented itself – coincidental encounters, in the train, for example. Most people I spoke with only wanted to talk about the Nazi past or the Holocaust – how much they were burdened by it and how they as pastors, teachers and parents would keep the memory alive and pass it down to the younger generation. But when I returned to my subject, some of them became annoyed and accused me of stylising the Germans as victims. After that first year of chance conversations, I came to the conclusion that discussing war memories was possible, but I had practically learned nothing about the repercussions of the war. Most often I heard sentences like Others had it worse or But it didn’t do us any harm or That was normal for us. Words of closure. End of discussion. I wasn’t very happy that year. My encounters often confused me and I found myself faced with an inner dilemma. On one hand, I told myself that Germans surely wouldn’t donate so much money to children in war zones if they knew nothing about their own traumatisation. On the other hand, they all seemed to be in agreement, these war children, and I didn’t get the feeling they were pretending. The confusion began with the fact that it took me while to realise that children born between 1930 and 1945 belonged to different generations. Indeed, it makes a big difference if you experience war as an infant, a small child, as a prepubescent or post-pubescent youngster. And yet there were so many similarities in what they said about the war and the years of hardship that followed. For example, sentences like It was never boring and The things we experienced were normal for us. In other words, we perceived the effects of war as normal, especially because all of the families around us felt the same, and we tried, as best we could, not to let war intrude on our daily lives.
It is well-known fact that small children accept extreme living conditions as they are. Novelists are often inspired by the fact that such traits develop their own dynamics. A child, who is raised in a brothel, will find it completely normal there until she comes in contact with the norms of the outside world. Later in life, as an introspective adult, she will become aware of how this childhood has influenced her.
However, this was not the case with those I interviewed. They only wanted to talk about their childhood memories, often starting with a sentence like We also had wonderful experiences in that time. Even in hindsight, the majority of war children had no adequate sense of the horrors they experienced. One man casually mentioned that his favourite aunt’s house, a place where he had such wonderful memories, was completely destroyed in a bomb raid. He gave me the impression that it wasn’t anything remarkable, it was something you just dealt with. When I pressed him further about it, it turned out that it was “completely normal” for him today to hold on to rather inappropriate feelings – to the point of the absence of feeling.
A tough subject, and not only for those I interviewed. When I suggested the story to newspaper and television editors, who themselves belonged the war-child generation, I was met with almost unanimous rejection. To be more exact, I generally got no reaction at all. My treatments were apparently shoved to the side and forgotten. Never had I experienced a suggested story evoking so much silence.
On the surface, it looked like they simply didn’t consider the question worth asking: “How did your wartime childhood affect you later in life?” But eventually I realised that the basic subject upsets us Germans far more than I had imagined. The answers lie buried beneath the weight of guilt and shame, as repercussions of Nazi crimes and of the Holocaust.
Excerpt from chapter “A Secret Undiscovered World”
In 1968, none of the conflicting parties – the students’ adversaries and allies in politics and media, and above all the 68ers themselves – were interested in recognising the rebelling students as children who had escaped a collective catastrophe. Nor did they want to draw any conclusions about them.
A certain group of war children did gain public attention in the 1970s for a short time when the press showed interest in the experiences of the so-called “flak helper generation”. Ten years later, Nazi childhood – not wartime childhood – became a much-discussed subject in psycho-therapeutic literature, which coincided with the discovery of a generation who grew up without fathers because of the war. Quite a few writers contributed autobiographical works, told from a child’s perspective, particularly of revealing scenes of daily life in Nazi Germany. For the most part, they only casually mentioned the horrors of war in their books. The readers who were fortunate enough to grow up in peaceful times learned that these children, now adults, saw no reason to complain about their fate in hindsight.
The author and psychoanalyst Horst-Eberhard Richter, who first pointed me in the right direction toward understanding the war children generation, described theirs as a “secret undiscovered world, a little investigated and little discussed aspect of our people’s history.”
He pointed out that the researchers, who had begun examining the Hitler years in the 1970s, were acutely aware of their own relationship to the perpetrators, and therefore, only felt entitled to conduct research on victims of the Nazis: survivors of the Holocaust and other persecuted groups – or those whose fathers had played a key role in the Nazi regime. In any case, they failed to recognise that traumatised German children were just as much victims of the Nazis.
What we have here is a forgotten generation. Nobody was interested in its fate. No one wished to investigate it.
Excerpt from the chapter “The Great Sedation”
Five years after the end of the war: The philosopher Hannah Arendt, who had survived the Holocaust because she was able to emigrate early enough, embarked on a journey through the devastated cities of Germany. She wrote a report, which has been frequently cited since. She described the cities’ inhabitants as creatures without feelings, like shadows or robots.
But nowhere is this nightmare of destruction and horror less felt and less talked about than in Germany itself. A lack of response is evident everywhere, and it is difficult to say whether this signifies a half-conscious refusal to yield to grief or a genuine inability to feel. Amid the ruins, Germans mail each other picture postcards still showing the cathedrals and market places, the public buildings and bridges that no longer exist. And the indifference with which they walk through the rubble has its exact counterpart in the absence of mourning for the dead, or in the apathy with which they react, or rather fail to react, to the fate of the refugees in their midst. This general lack of emotion, at any rate this apparent heartlessness, sometimes covered over with cheap sentimentality, is only the most conspicuous outward symptom of a deep-rooted, stubborn, and at times vicious refusal to face and come to terms with what really happened.
Hannah Arendt expressed her outrage, her shock at the Germans’ indifference. She could see their denial of the destruction of their country, their denial of the horrific crimes committed by the Nazis. It must have been extremely painful to her to discover that the Germans seemed self-consumed by their own fate as victims. In a conversation with former academic colleagues, Hannah Arendt mentioned the subject of the crimes of Nazi Germany which had brought so much death, violence and misery to Europe. She was given to understand, however, that there was an “equal degree of suffering” everywhere – the result being that no one volunteered any admission of guilt. The bitter and accusatory tone of her impressions in her report is understandable.
Now after so many years, with Nazi history so extensively explored, with conscientious media which make no secret of Germany’s past guilt, the situation today is completely different. Today it is possible, and I would claim even necessary, to interpret Arendt’s observations from a somewhat different angle.
I realise that it’s still a delicate matter for Germans. People might accuse me of serving the cause of the right political spectrum which cultivates the image of German sacrifice. There is hardly any topic which evokes such contradictory opinions, experiences, accusations, appeals and misunderstandings. There is also the risk of opening up old wounds among the victims of the Nazis.
But the fact of the matter is that the words Arendt chose to describe the character of the post-war German are the same as those you can find in contemporary textbooks on post-traumatic stress disorder. She described a sedated, traumatised country. Everything she encountered was true. Except perhaps one thing – that the inhabitants at that time had the choice to behave differently than they did. In 1950, this was not the case. Arendt herself described the situation precisely. From today’s point of view, however, many people were obsessed – comparable to those, whom addiction experts would designate as highly workaholic, or junkies on speed.
The old virtue of seeking excellence in the finished product, no matter what the working conditions, has yielded to a mere blind need to keep busy, a greedy craving for something to do every moment of the day. Watching the Germans busily stumble through the ruins of a thousand years of their own history, shrugging their shoulders at the destroyed landmarks or resentful when reminded of the deeds of horror that haunt the whole surrounding world, one comes to realize that busyness has become their chief defense against reality. And one wants to cry out: But this is not real – real are the ruins, real are the past horrors, real are the dead whom you have forgotten. But they are living ghosts, whom speech and argument, the glance of human eyes and the mourning of human hearts, no longer touch.
“It was as if we were all numbed,” I heard a man tell me. By this he meant the children’s frame of mind in coping with air raids, escape and strafing, but also the predominant atmosphere of those initial post-war years. A great sedation lay over the country which very few could entirely escape. What effect could this have had on children, surrounded by adults who were “not all there”?
Excerpt from the chapter “The Happy Child”
Many of the war children generation have heard their parents say “You were always such a happy child!” How are we to understand this? Judging from the books of childhood memories on the market, of which there is now a considerable number, it’s evident that there was no real reason to be permanently happy.
The textile dealer Kurt Schelling*, born in 1943, finally knows why his symptoms were never taken seriously for decades. “I always had heart problems, always,” explains the tall man with a crew-cut. “And then I went running to the doctors and said: I’m about to have a heart attack, and they told me: There’s nothing wrong with you. And then they gave me one of those wonderful diagnoses – vegetative dystonia.”
The doctors back then believed he simply had to accept his condition. A nervous heart – many people had it. The cause? Shrug. Things like this happened. There was nothing wrong with him physically, they assured him, and therefore there was no reason to be worried. It would be best to simply ignore it.
Schelling followed the advice and indeed managed life best when he didn’t pay too much attention to his heart which suddenly raced like crazy every so often. He generally felt healthy and optimistic and saw no reason to slow down his pace. The strange thing was, despite his heart problem, he was bursting with energy. He was fast and efficient, a guy who could finish something in a day that others needed two to complete. Tireless activity paid off in his generation. Nobody considered what effects it might have on their health. Kurt was successful in his career and was a committed, good-natured father, always working at full steam. He married early, had three children and bought a small home in the country, everything normal and financially stable – clear sailing until retirement.
But then in his mid-forties, his so well-tempered outlook on life drastically changed. He couldn’t explain where his optimism and humour had suddenly gone. He had no idea, though there were tell-tale signs. “I kept having these crazy dreams that the sky was dark, and I only saw airplanes,” Kurt recalled, “I don’t know whether I had ever seen them in real life, but whatever, I was having these dreams. It was so crazy...”
He also began experiencing a shift in perception. Kurt wasn’t himself anymore. He used to never cry, but now he was constantly fighting back the tears. After visiting with his parents, it was especially hard for him to say goodbye. Sitting in his car by himself, he would sob like a little child every time. And yet laughter had been laid in his cradle so to speak. He had the good fortune of being cared for by happy, loving parents, from whom he always heard say: “Oh little Kurt, you were our sunshine!” It was because of their charming little son, so his parents claimed, that the family was able to get enough food after the war. Seeing little Kurt’s bright, beaming face, strangers were moved to give him some extra food.
Sunshine and a clown
As he grew up, that little ball of sunshine became a clown. “I was someone,” Schelling recalls “who always joked around, the guy everybody liked because he was always in a good mood.”
Always, really? Not quite, Kurt admits. There were also question marks. He sometimes had the feeling: That’s not who you really are, at least not completely, this normal Joe Blow, who does everything everyone expects of him, who seems to be on this planet just to make other people happy. But there was someone else always beside you who you didn’t know yet.”
Strange ideas started piling up. “At some point I realised I had to discover this other Kurt behind the perpetual clown,” he says. “Sometimes I was sick and tired of my own jokes. I couldn’t stand myself.”
First came the tears, then came the panic. These were severe, insidious panic attacks which exacerbated his heart problems to the extreme. One of his acquaintances dropped the decisive hint which led him to his wartime childhood. He said, “Take a look at your birthdate.”
Born in 1943 in Düsseldorf. He entered the world in war and went straight down into the bomb shelter... Naturally Kurt had no memory of these events, and in view of his background, none of his doctors thought of putting two and two together.
Now that he was on the trail, Kurt Schelling began his own investigations. Looking back he believed he didn’t have any choice. “I was falling to pieces. At some point, a body can’t take it anymore. The distress inside me, it wanted to be expressed, wept, screamed. All that fear that was inside me, it had to get out!”
To his great surprise, it was his mother who reassured him – now an old woman – the one who had always praised his sunny disposition in his early life. She didn’t deny it, she didn’t shy away from the pain of remembering. Yes, she said, we were in Düsseldorf during the entire war. Yes, I was deathly afraid in the cellar. Yes, you experienced all the bomb raids. First in my belly, then as a baby – and I wasn’t able to breastfeed you because of the constant fear.
Her Kurt had been her sunshine, she said, because there was so much darkness everywhere around her.
“And then I understood,” Kurt continues. “No wonder my heart would give me no peace. I myself was wounded – in my heart. No one can say how many times I died. And it isn’t something which wouldn’t leave a trace – certainly not on one’s heart.”
From that point onward, he wanted to know everything. Suddenly it was important to know every detail. He read every book on the subject he could get his hands on until he finally stumbled on Dieter Forte’s novel “The Boy with the Bloody Shoes” which describes the horrors of the bombings from a child’s perspective. He had to expose himself to the poison of his early childhood once more, there’s was nothing for it. One of his Kurt’s friends, who was the same age as he, urged him to stop this manic obsession. What was the good of it? The past was the past. They were probably concerned about his sanity sometimes.
“During this phase, I often cursed my parents,” he remembers. “Why in the world did they have to have a baby in those insane times!” His mother, however, reacted understandingly, and for that Kurt will always be thankful because he knows that other older parents would have responded to such interrogation with silence. On his 50th birthday, she gave him an official list of where and when all the bombs fell on his home town from 1943 to 1945. Schelling worked through this list of horror and turned it into a striking collage, titled “Bombenstimmung” (Bombastic Times), which now hangs his hallway. No, the war is no longer a taboo with him. Talking about it helps him, it does him good. For “this feeling the world is about to end, that’s deeply engrained in me...”
He went to psychotherapy. His heart problems and his fears still bother him occasionally, but in a much milder form. All in all, he feels healthy, he can laugh, he can cry, he can enjoy. And he lives – in contrast to before – a much more conscious life.
Lately he has been having stomach problems. His doctor prescribed him an acid blocker. But Kurt knows his body is sending him a message: Something’s here you haven’t digested yet, you have to take a look at it. Then he had the same dream three nights in a row. “I throw a hand grenade and run away. And while I’m running, I notice that I’m in the apartment of my childhood, and the hand grenade is buzzing behind me at head-level, but doesn’t catch me up. And I run through the apartment and hide behind my parent’s closet, and I wait for the explosion, and it explodes in my stomach – that’s the moment I always wake up. I feel how the blood is rushing in my stomach, and my legs feel like they’re numb and it’s that very old feeling in me – wanting to run away and not being able to.”
The dream contains an obvious warning to him – and an order to reduce stress! Kurt Schelling drew the consequences and signed an early-retirement agreement.
Excerpt from the chapter “Two Women Take Stock”
Ruth Münchow’s biggest wish is to stay halfway healthy now that she’ll soon be turning seventy. She coughs a lot during our interview. If she didn’t, I might not have even noticed how bad she feels. For women like Ruth, discipline is a second skin. Others in her condition would be lying in bed, while she gives an interview during which, once again, she retells the story of her entire life.
She’s sick again, she says, while she fetches two cups from her mini kitchen, although she had just come back from convalescence. Always this fear in the back of her mind that it’s going to be like last year. She calls it a total collapse, extreme cardiac insufficiency, compounded by inflammation of the kidneys, intestines and lungs. Her life had hung in the balance, she says. The war had caught up with her again. Her chronically poor health. It all started with her flight. Why she was able to achieve so much nonetheless, she doesn’t say: how she managed to scrape up money for herself and her two children, how she supported her parents financially for a while, and then her two husbands as well. She didn’t end up marrying a third time.
She might sound like a “poor, old woman” who constantly sacrificed for others. But that doesn’t tally with Ruth Münchow’s demeanour at all. Single woman – yes – but not one who deserves pity. A self-confident woman who never became very successful by social standards. But she doesn’t need a stamp of approval from others. More money would be nice, but status means nothing to her. She is fully aware of what she has achieved and is proud of it. When all is said and done, she is “at peace with herself”, she considers her life a success, though now in old age, she is ill and poor – a terrible thought for most people.
Ruth had already picked out some photos to show me, summer holidays at the lake, a boulevard in Danzig lined with beautiful villas. “I didn’t have to imagine living in another world when I was a child,” she says, “because I was absolutely happy.” Those summers! Four months straight of 30-degree weather, then a short, beautiful autumn, followed by winters with temperatures down to 30 below zero. Mountains of snow in front of the house. “You couldn’t even open the door, you had to climb out the window.” She doesn’t cough while she lingers over these wonderful memories.
Her father was a business man, a merchant who had worked his way up and was proud to have sophisticated Jewish friends. Naturally, the Nazis pressed him to break off contact with them…otherwise… But her father thought, what’s the worst that could happen to me, and for the time being, nothing followed except more threats. But one day, he was told he had to leave Danzig. The war had started. Germany had already occupied Poland. Ruth’s father was not drafted because he had a walking impediment, but he was – as his daughter puts it – transferred to Poland for disciplinary reasons. The family moved to a small town east of Warsaw.
And then in January 1945, they had to flee. Ruth, eleven years old, a child refugee. Two months on the road with the horse-drawn wagon. Ruth with her mother and sister alone. Her father was somewhere, and they were also separated from their nanny. The cold, the snow, the fear, the wide expanses… They couldn’t return to Danzig. All they could do was keep heading west. Eventually her father showed up, and the nanny, too. By March they were in safety, for the time being.
More than 50 years later, the horrors of the past reappeared. Ruth Münchow received treatment at a psychosomatic clinic. There she participated in a so-called “psycho drama group” in which the afflicting experiences of each patient are dramatically staged. One can easily imagine that this would elicit much stronger emotions than a discussion group, and that is precisely the therapeutic goal.
Ruth remembers, “I was working through the time when our nanny got typhoid fever. We all had typhoid fever, but with her, we had the feeling she wouldn’t make it through the night. They sent me out with the horse-drawn cart to take her to a bigger town nearby. I was all alone with her, I heard her wailing in the back, she heard the church bells and I suddenly realised, she was hearing the sound of the death knell….When I told this story to the group, all the men ran out of the room because they couldn’t bear to hear anymore. But for me, it was a relatively harmless story.”
Dread of mosquito bites
Typhoid fever is transmitted by lice. Ruth shudders, just thinking about it. “We used to constantly check if we had a bite, because back then, that could mean death.” She still dreads insect bites today, whenever she’s caught in a swarm of mosquitos, it’s there again, and not only then. “I think this fundamental trauma is the reason I so quickly succumb to panic.”
The difficulties she experienced in life are due to the circumstances, but also her personality. “I apparently had to overstrain myself. There was this inner desire in me,” she admits reluctantly, partly because she sees the same trait in her daughter. “For instance, I was politically involved, I took care of Turkish families, did volunteer social work, escorted women to the women’s shelter…” And everything else you could do as a perfect helper. This couldn’t go well for long.
Very early on, she says, people took her to be a strong person. Her first boyfriend had lost a brother to a bazooka, his father was deported to Siberia, which made him solely responsible for taking care of his mother and sister – a completely overwhelmed boy, Ruth realises today. “All he could do was put his head in my lap and cry. We were two lost children, we couldn’t help each other.”
Ruth went to therapy for the first time when she was thirty. “The analyst didn’t want to hear anything about the war,” she recalls, “and so I didn’t give it any further thought.” The repercussions of the collective catastrophes were of no importance in psychoanalysis. If anything, the focus was on the small, contained world of the parental home. And so it was with Ruth Münchow, who explored her tense relationship to her father, her difficulties with her mother, the authoritarian upbringing, poisonous pedagogy. The fact that children were punished and beaten into obedience, that the aim was to “break their will” and that such methods could never produce self-confident adults was not only the fault of the Nazis, as the example of Ruth’s parents demonstrates. Poisonous pedagogy existed even earlier than that. It was perfected and exhaustively propagated in the Third Reich. Child-rearing was no longer restricted to the family, but was a matter of import for a nation training its people to march in lockstep. Sigrid Chamberlain wrote a research paper on Nazi training, titled “Adolf Hitler, the German Mother and Her First Child”. Her remarks about the consequences on children of that time are particularly interesting: “Some have hardly any feeling in their body, for example, when they should be sensing pain. Sometimes they can be ill, even severely ill, without realising they have physical complaints. And they truly have them, but ignore them on a permanent basis.”
Chamberlain’s point of view offers an explanation as to why Ruth only became aware of her severe health problems at age 40. She initially noticed that her emotional state was constantly deteriorating, although everything in her life seemed to be going well. In the past, she had only worked, in fact, worked herself to the bone because money was scarce; there was no prospect of attaining self-fulfilment until she finally decided to go the extra mile. She wanted to become a teacher. For this single mother, a new phase began with the triple burden of launching a career, studying and raising two children by herself. In the end, everything turned out well. She passed her exams, she lived in a beautiful flat for the first time in her life, and could even afford to go on holiday. Ruth Münchow, early forties, divorced, interesting profession, and finally no money troubles – a full-time teacher who could count the years until she became public servant.
And that’s when she started having problems sleeping, nightmares and other alarming complaints. “I would sometimes sit in front of the radiator all night long, shivering and wishing I could crawl inside it,” she says. “And I had to cry all the time, I just couldn’t stop.”
No, she didn’t feel she was depressed... A fit of coughing interrupts her, then she picks up where she left off. She was just incredibly sad. “And because I thought no one could help me anyway,” she continues, “I started writing down my dreams, I also put together some music which helped me with my mourning. That gave me general relief, but life didn’t get any easier.”
Then the critical event happened – she learned that her appointment as a public servant had been rejected. The medical examiner had found that she was suffering from significant cardiac insufficiency and severe, irreparable kidney damage. This effectively disqualified her for public service. One of her kidneys was so badly scarred and stunted that it could have only been caused by an untreated infection many years ago. “It’s true, I had backaches when we were fleeing,” Ruth admits, “and then shortly afterwards scarlet fever, who didn’t get it as a kid? It was no big deal. Time to recuperate? How? And why? That’s how we were raised – tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel – so your back hurts, so what?” She starts coughing again, more violently than before. Ruth drinks a glass of water and then says resolutely, “If I had had fever, then I would have been left behind, I wouldn’t have been able to go on.” Since then, since the flight, her body had a way of never developing a fever. It’s true even today. “I recently got a kidney infection again, but no fever.”
A minimal pension
The war, she says, damaged her physically and emotionally, and this sparked a chain of negative effects like falling dominos: that she was denied the advantage of a career as a public servant, that she became more irritable, that she couldn’t stand the noise at school, that she was forced to teach badly paid courses at community college, that she now receives a minimal pension, that she hasn’t been able to afford a holiday for six years. And that she always concealed a crucial part of her identity from her children. She never dared talk to them about the war, and for their part, they never asked.
Then Ruth mentions another deficit – her problematic relationship with men. “I’ve never had been relaxed around them, even today,” she says. “There’s always been this inexplicable, invisible barrier.”
Ruth Münchow isn’t the only one affected by this problem. Almost all women, with whom I spoke about the repercussions of their wartime childhood, were single. They rarely mentioned having stable, long-term relationships. “This is primarily due to the fact that they skipped puberty,” explained neurologist and psychotherapist Helga Spranger from Strande in Schleswig-Holstein, whom I interviewed for a WDR broadcast in 2002.
Helga Spranger, almost the same age as Ruth Münchow, based her claim on her own experiences. “I spent quite a few years in the [refugee] camp and I went through puberty in the camp. Of course, we didn’t have the kind of clothes you might wish for in puberty – making yourself up nice, wearing perfume, going to the hairdresser’s – that was out of the question. That’s why boyfriends and that kind of thing were completely uninteresting – and I wasn’t alone, there were other girls – were we just too ugly and badly dressed and came from the camp.”
What does it mean – to skip puberty? What exactly did they miss out on? “It’s like a bird,” Spranger explained, “which never learns to fly. It can’t take to the sky, it can – I’m thinking of a lapwing which can roll so beautifully through the air, tumbling and rolling, and they catch themselves, and that’s what we couldn’t do.” The fallback structures – according to the psychotherapist – were absolute loyalty, diligence, ambition, but especially loyalty.
This all sounds more like meeting obligations than experience joy in sharing a life together. This could be a rewarding subject for discussion with regard to “wartime childhood”, but Ruth Münchow’s friends, who are around the same age, have been reluctant to talk about it. The Hamburger regrets that very much, as she herself has made definite progress in working through the events of her childhood. “My breakthrough was when I was able to say in a newspaper article that I felt disabled by my war experiences. That was my coming out!”
Did her children read the newspaper article, how did they react? Not as she had wished, Ruth says with a smile that signals understanding. Her son didn’t say a word, but has been open to the subject since then and has even brought her other newspaper articles.
The children, though – Ruth’s grandchildren – were not allowed to read the article. When she heard that, she thought: “My goodness, they’re now eleven and sixteen years old and their parents believe that reading it would upset them too much. Back then I was eleven and I experienced everything…” But she wouldn’t dare share her thoughts with her daughter.
Excerpt from the chapter “Broken Families”
While I was working on this book, I always kept thinking back to the Schneiders∗. In the neighbourhood where I used to live, there were two older people who lived two floors below me and whose children visited them almost daily.
The eldest children, in particular, didn’t merely look in, but stayed for coffee and talked about their days. They kept talking even while they were saying goodbye in the stairwell. What an unusually close family, I thought. When I mentioned this to Mrs. Schneider once, she replied, beaming, “Thank God we are an intact family!”
She was a small, stout woman with grey curly hair and quick movements. Though our encounters were brief, they were quite informative so that I eventually learned a great deal about the Schneider clan. Their conversations primarily dealt with matters of everyday life. Willingness to help was the largest common denominator. Nobody was left in the cold – if someone’s car broke down, if someone was laid off or their spouse left him.
The father was an administrative officer now in early retirement – heart problems, heart-attack patient. I learned later that the family tried to keep bad news away from him if possible. The children didn’t regard their mother, a housewife, as especially hardy either. Whenever they broached a difficult topic in her presence, tears would well up in her eyes. I even witnessed this myself on occasion, for example, when I told her that the flower shop on the corner was going to close.
Apparently she couldn’t be confronted with anything negative. Not even “problematic films” on television. She could find relaxation in quiet music, crossword puzzles and novel collections by Reader’s Digest. She was a sweet, warm-hearted person. No one wanted to hurt her. And so things were kept from her.
I suppose the Schneiders’ tragedy was that the mother kept everyone in check. She was the one who decided which topics were allowed and which ones weren’t. It was definitely not allowed to openly discuss – although all the children knew about it – the fact that the daughter was scraping by because she was always lending her lover considerable amounts of money to keep him afloat. For her parents, “their Doris” was someone who simply couldn’t manage money, and they willingly balanced her bank account.
And no one ever dared to say aloud what the father might have surmised and what the three siblings knew for sure, namely that the younger son was taking drugs on a regular basis. One night when I met him at the corner pub, Klaus told me why: “I can only bear the atmosphere at the family table when I’m high.” Which is why he was the only child who occasionally didn’t participate in the ritual. Looking at him, you wouldn’t know he had a drug addiction. An inconspicuous, conventionally dressed man in his mid-thirties, insurance agent, married, no kids.
The other siblings had no children either and were all divorced. They all seemed to have bad luck when it came to relationships. Each of their former spouses had been affectionately welcomed into the family. They were practically showered with attention and willingness to help. But when the marriages failed, the daughters- and sons-in-laws were cut out of the family at once. They received the blame that the relationships didn’t hold. And anyone who didn’t toe the Schneider’s line one-hundred percent quickly fell into disfavour.
As Klaus, the younger son, revealed during our chats at the pub, the Schneiders always saw the causes of failure outside of the family. And this provided plenty of topics for conversation at the dinner table when everyone would get riled up about how rudely someone had behaved, how unfair the son’s boss was, how their daughter’s department head put her down, how the world was bad and why a Leftist-Green government would be a catastrophe for Germany. Suddenly, all of these friendly, upstanding people revealed their hostile, resentful characters. A family fortress, arrows flying from every battlement.
One day I helped the older son tow his car to a garage. They told us they would repair the car immediately; we could wait there. Peter came across as rather shy. When I asked him what he did for a living, he sidestepped the question and mumbled something about import-export. I had learned from Klaus that their parents had never quite understood why not one of their children had become an academic. After all, the mother and father graduated with an Abitur, but their three children only achieved the intermediate levels.
“Tears immediately well up in mother’s eyes when she talks about the difficulties we used to have in school,” Klaus had told me. He was with her when an acquaintance asked her what the reason might be for her children’s failure at school. She replied, “They were probably late bloomers…” All three of them? How could that be possible?
Mrs. Schneider came from the Sudetenland. She was forced to flee with her family when she was five years old. Her husband, three years older than she, had been a child refugee from Silesia and had survived the destruction of Dresden. As one can easily imagine, the parent’s wartime childhood was also a taboo subject in the family. The two sons and daughter would never have imagined that they might be burdened by their parent’s past. When I dropped a comment to Klaus to this effect, he immediately changed the subject. Obviously all of the Schneiders played “Blind Man’s Buff” – with serious consequences.
None of the three adult children ended up leading a self-sufficient life of their own. The younger son took drugs, the daughter deceived her parents, the older son lost his job twice in one year, the mother was always on the verge of tears and the father would die soon. And everyone firmly clung to the belief: “Thank God we are an intact family!”
From the final chapter
Since 2004, people have been coming to my readings because they are war children themselves. Time and again, it is clear that what is new about the “war children” is not the terror of the war. It has long been known that children, especially, suffer particularly badly during collective violence.
What is new, is the fact that here we have a group of people who had terrible experiences in their childhoods, and yet, for decades, never had the feeling that they had experienced anything particularly unpleasant. They are unable to engage emotionally with these experiences and, as a result, lack access to the most important influences of their childhoods.
Two years ago I received a letter from a reader in Greece. She wrote that a tourist had left her my book, and that she had read it over and over again. And now, for the first time, she had words for what she had experienced in her childhood. She wanted to write to me about it.
Here is what she wrote.
We were three happy children, in Obersilesia – born in 1934, 1938 and myself, the youngest, in 1939 – before we fled during that cold January, in 1945. Father had just been “drafted”. We never saw him again. I never knew him.
For a while everything is fine, we function. Of course we obey our mother, so very young and in need of help, a widow with no pension. In school, always the best grades, always clean and neat, until some time around puberty everything collapses or extreme symptoms begin to appear. My brother a stutterer; my sister bit her fingernails to the bone; me a bed-wetter, full of nightmares, insomnia and depression.
But we kept functioning, we had to. That was how it had to be, to avoid worrying our mother. Then the question of our chosen careers went off the rails – and for me the first of five periods in a psychiatric hospital began. Severe depression, over a period of 23 years. My long studies (always the best in class) went unfinished, and without a profession, I spent my younger years together with my brother, diagnosed with vegetative dystonia*, and living on Librium and Adumbran.
I got by with odd jobs – always wishing the time would come, the right age in my life, where things would be better for me.
And, since I turned 49, thanks to a tiny pension and a small inheritance, as a result of the so called “Equalization of Burdens Act”, I have been able to make a home here in Greece. I live in paradise – albeit suffering from depression – but nonetheless, I still consider it a huge miracle every day. I am alone, because the rest of the family fell apart (that too as a result of the war). Both of my siblings are divorced – I didn’t even try marriage. Now there are a few years left with a big garden, chickens and a donkey, a pottery room among the flowers, with the sea and a magnificent landscape.
Barbara W., today 75 years old, fatherless, childless.
There was another woman, whose words I will never forget. At one of the readings she asked a question from the front row. To my surprise she even got up. I can still see her before me: small, slim, drooping arms, pony tail. I can remember my first thought when I looked at her, “strange, she looks like a six year old”. And indeed, she confirmed my thoughts in a way.
“I was six years old when we fled,” she began. “We were a small group: my mother, grandmother and two aunts. One day,” she continued, “we were so exhausted that a farmer offered us the chance to stay on his farm for a couple of days to rest.”
The following day there was a sudden commotion. The reason: several Russians were approaching the farm. And then the women had the idea, that she, the little one, the only child, should go and wait by the gate for the soldiers. The refugee women had got it into their heads that the Russians loved children so much that nothing would happen to her. But the soldiers had shouted, “Where child is, is also woman!” And they assaulted her mother, the grandmother and the aunts. The living witness to this event finished with the words, “To this day I can still hear their screams.”
There are two shared memories which almost always came up during the first two years (but later, hardly ever):
Firstly, the trauma of the low flying planes. Every time the same words, “I could see the pilots! How can men shoot at children?”. Questions like this stay with a person for life. The fear they experienced sits deep, very deep...
The second memory shared by those born in the 1930’s is of National Socialist violence. As children, they had seen how slave labourers were humiliated, how Jewish neighbours had been forced to climb into lorries, how troops of prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates passed by – and how mercilessly they were treated, how starved they looked. Most parents simply said, “Don’t look.”
These children, who were so young at the time, and whose sense of right and wrong had not yet been twisted by the ideology of the master race, they, in particular, have preserved the scenes of mistreatment and brutality deep in their memories.
But there is something else that I only notice now: it is not only the parents who kept silent for a long time, or claimed they „had “known nothing about it”. The older children, who in contrast to the children born in the last years of the war could certainly remember the NS period, also remained silent. These children, who had been told not to look and still less speak about the crimes, who had never found the words for what they had seen - decades later, their lips were still sealed.
The fact that they could only speak of these thing now, in old age, moved me deeply. It appears to me to be an indication that the shame and guilt was far greater for them than for their younger peers. It also explains why so many of them never got over their distrust of the German mentality. I began to understand their fear – it could happen again, a return to the barbarity that had been with them all their lives.
I remember how much it irritated me in the first years of my research, when interviewees spoke about their war time memories in a tone that was completely free of emotion, as if they were reading the telephone directory. They sounded numb. It is not possible to listen to someone who speaks that way for long.
Only now, in old age, do many people begin to understand how strongly they are effected by their early losses and the dangers they experienced.
Generally speaking, the process of reconstructing your own childhood is an unburdening experience, liberating even. In my circle of friends, I often notice how people’s tone of voice and choice of words change during the process of “liberation”. Both become more animated.
In 2009, my book, “War Grandchildren - the Heirs of the Forgotten Generation” was published. Some war children seem to have read it, or at least heard about it from their children. A dozen older people openly expressed their outrage to me. The reason: life had been difficult enough, now they were supposed to be responsible for their adult children’s problems too, even though their children had not experienced anything bad! They refused to address the subject. The idea that they could be the cause of their children’s problems, and yet at the same time not be guilty of any wrongdoing - this combination seemed impossible for them to accept. On the other hand, at every reading of “The War Children”, a mother in the audience stands up and asks, “What must we have passed on to our children?”. In particular, they are concerned that they have been able to give their children a sense of trust in life.
Because of this, one woman asked to speak to me in private. To begin with she remained silent, then she began to shake, and the words, “ I wasn’t able to love my children!” escaped from her lips. She had only realised this after she became aware that she was a war child. As a traumatised person, she had experienced no deep feelings, it was as if she had been numb. Now though, in therapy, she could feel herself awakening emotionally. The relationship to her children had improved greatly since then. “Even my children say so,” she added, and a small, hopeful smile appeared on her face.