Watching Over Me: A German Girl’s World War II Story of Survival and a Quest for Peace

Photo Courtesy of Eli Francis on

I try to resist my addiction.

With the bookshelves in our home full to overflowing, in some cases stacked triple-deep, I try to focus on using the public library for new reading material.

Still, exceptions must be made! When an acquaintance of a friend of a friend published a book, AND it happened to be a World War 2 memoir, what choice did I have?

Watching over meWatching Over Me , by Rachel Hartman, records the recollections of Elfi Gartzke, supplemented by her mother and other relatives.

Elfi was born in eastern Germany in 1940. Her family did not subscribe to the ideologies of the Nazi party. Devout Christians, they managed to lead fairly quiet lives on their acreage as war consumed the world around them.

This changed in 1944 as her father, (along with all men between the ages of 16 to 60 who could bear arms,) was drafted into the Volkssturm, or “people’s army.” He was sent away to an unknown location just before Christmas.

His family still knew nothing of his whereabouts- or even if he were still alive- when they fled their home in January of 1945 to escape the advancing Russian army.

They managed to find transport via train. The journey was interspersed with frantic scrambles to shelters to avoid falling bombs, where Elfi’s mother, ‘Mutti,’ would sing hymns in the dark to comfort her three children.

Reaching the relative safety of Harksheide, a city farther west, Elfi’s family struggled to build new lives in the rubble. As refugees, they faced negative attitudes, inadequate housing, and meager food allotments.

In spite of the challenges, this memoir is anything but bleak.  Trouble was interspersed with joys, such as the return of Elfi’s father. Elfi still experienced some of the simple pleasures of childhood: making friends, finding a place to play (even if it was only a particularly large bomb crater,) and receiving her first doll. Through all, her Mutti strove to keep their hopes alive and their faith strong.

Largely told from a child’s memories, Watching Over Me was quite different from the other books I’ve read about the same era. Elfi’s concerns were primarily relegated to day-to-day life. Her perspective was a poignant reminder of the suffering that lingers on both sides of a conflict, even after the hostilities of war have ended.

The author also interspersed some significant ‘big picture’ events into Elfi’s narrative. She dealt frankly, if briefly, with the horrible crimes committed under Hitler’s regime. She also related dates in Elfi’s life with events in the world, such as the Berlin Airlift, the conflicts in Korea, and the beginnings of the space program.

The last third of the book described the family’s emigration to the United States, sponsored by a kind stranger from Nebraska and their subsequent lives- learning a new language and a different culture. While I hadn’t expected this much post-war information, I found the stories interesting. My family left their European roots a few generations before Elfi’s, but I imagine some of the experiences were similar.

Overall, I found Watching Over Me an enjoyable and uplifting anecdotal history of faith and family, and a worthy addition to my bulging bookshelf.







Finding and Losing Time


“Put me in your hair,” says my baby, (who isn’t anymore, really.)

“What? Put you in my hair?”

“Put me in your hair, because I’m a flower!”

She proceeds to attempt to climb onto my head as I laugh and try to preserve my spine.

She’s spent the summer weaving dandelions into my hair and tucking them behind my ears.  From time to time she tries to keep up with the ‘big kids,’ but generally she’s content to wander along her own path, inhabiting a hidden world of imagination.

And she still wants me to come along.

The others run off together to play games of their own invention, only interrupted sporadically by sibling squabbles. I love to see them grow and bond, and to hear the elaborate stories they create together. I enjoy regaining time to follow my own pursuits.


The time I’ve gained is bittersweet. They’re moving beyond me.

This one, the last, stands at the foot of the rocking chair as I begin the article I planned for today, and smiles sweetly. “Mommy, will you play with me?” (She uses perfect grammar, but always in that irresistible baby lisp.)

I hesitate, then sigh. There’s so little time…

“Ok, honey.”

Her eyes light up as if we hadn’t played together in weeks. (It’s been about fifteen minutes.) “Oh, thank you!”

The dandelions are all going to seed, and the summer is waning, and next year my baby might not want to put flowers in her hair and mine.

The article can wait.







Deepest Fears #4: What If My Setting is ALL WRONG?

There are plenty of things to poke fun at in Minnesota.

Minnesota 2
This could be the view from my childhood home…except I don’t recall being able to see any barns. And it should be flatter…Corn. Just picture corn.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my home state. But just as it’s easy to give a beloved family member a hard time for his quirks, it’s easy to laugh at the little absurdities of a familiar place.

Of course, it’s not comfortable for someone ELSE to poke fun at your family…or your home.

This is why I cringe a bit when the big movie companies attempt to set films in the Midwest.

Maybe you remember the movie that came out a few years back, “New in Town”? It was set in New Ulm, MN.

I spent a considerable amount of time in New Ulm, and no, I never met a cow in the road. Still, the little river town has plenty of quirks.

The movie missed them all.


Sure, they had a lot of jokes about snow, and yes, Minnesota gets a bit chilly. (Ok, fine. It’s cold enough that your snot freezes when you go outside most Januaries. It just makes us stronger!)

The problem is, the ‘it’s cold in the north!’ gag could be applied to thousands of locations.

New Ulm is fairly distinctive, as little Minnesota towns go. It has German immigrant roots, and it’s pretty proud of its heritage- hence the big glockenspiel downtown, and the statue of Herman the German up on ‘the hill.’

Herman the German
‘Herman the German’ led German tribes against the Romans in the early A.D.s, and now he sits atop a prime sledding hill in New Ulm, MN

It also completely closes down by 8pm, so college kids, desperate for excitement, used to cruise around the aisles of the 24 hour Hy-Vee grocery store. (Rumor has it a Wal-Mart went in, so maybe there are more options now.)

I could go on, but my point is that the film’s writers chose a place that has some interesting quirks, but having never been there, they only took easy shots. “Hey! Let’s talk about snow! Oooh, and at least one character’s gotta have that goofy Midwest accent!”

I don’t imagine that these decisions affected the success of the film. Plenty of friends with New Ulm connections saw it and enjoyed it, and I didn’t come out of it outraged, just a bit disappointed.

And, thinking about it now, more than a bit frightened.

You see, while I’ve visited the majority of the ‘lower 48’ of the United States, I haven’t had much chance to leave the country.

Growing up in Minnesota, we made the occasional trip up over the border to Canada. These weren’t extensive visits, they were more along the lines of, “Hey! I went shopping in Canada! Culture!!!”

We went to Aruba for our honeymoon (AMAZING) and were excited to get local money and go to local shops  and sites rather than the touristy places. The poor kid at the store where we bought provisions was completely flummoxed when we didn’t hand him American dollars. He figured out how to make proper change…eventually.

Aside from a very seasick trip to Victoria, British Columbia, that’s it.

And here I am, trying to produce a realistic story, set in an era I don’t live in, and on a continent I’ve never visited.



I’ve tried, oh how I’ve tried, to do it well.

I’ve poured over maps and histories so that my characters are where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be.

I’ve lost count of the number of first-hand sources I’ve read to get the ‘flavor’ of the times and places. I’ve focused hours on cadences of speech and proper word usage.  (I had no idea that ‘tea’ could mean so many different things!)

I’ve found travel books at the library to get pictures of the landscapes and of construction materials common to different areas.

I’ve checked locations of railway lines.

I’ve checked native plants and when they’d be blooming.

I’ve checked weather conditions…

…and while I keep telling myself that I’ve done the work and it should be fine, I still have this sinking feeling that if anyone who LIVES in any of the areas I write about reads this book, they’ll KNOW. They’ll know that I’m writing as an outsider.

Here’s where the fear rears its ugly head: will my attempts be taken as they are meant- as an homage, though perhaps an imperfect one?

I hope so.

Maybe next time I just need to come up with an exciting plot set in a corn field.

Writers- how do you cope with writing in unfamiliar settings? (Or do you just avoid it?!)


The Battle of Britain

The school year approaches, lesson plans are coming together, and I’m finally getting around to another history article. (Pause for applause and cheering…still pausing…c’mon, you know you’re excited! 🙂 )

As promised in After Dunkirk: The Fall of France, today we’ll pick up with THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN. *


What image comes to mind when you hear the word ‘battle?’ Guns, tanks, and infantry slugging it out over a scorched and blasted landscapes?

The Battle of Britain actually prevented such scenes from reaching the southern shores of England.

Hitler’s armies had seen great success in 1940. France had fallen. Italy had joined the Axis. The continent of Europe was effectively subdued. The world waited to see if Great Britain, the last standing Ally, would capitulate to Hitler, or fight on.

According to Winston Churchill, there was never any question, even in private meetings, of giving in.

Though their resolve was strong, their position was dangerous. His volume, The Second World War: Their Finest Hour, chronicles the dire situation his country faced.

“For the first time in a hundred and twenty five years a powerful enemy was now established across the narrow waters of the English Channel. Our re-formed Regular Army, and the larger but less well-organized Territorials, had to be organized and deployed to create an elaborate system of defenses, and to stand ready, if the invader came, to destroy him- for there could be no escape.” (Churchill 174)

The British surmised, rightly, that Hitler’s next move would be to conquer their island nation. In the brief respite as the Germans regrouped post-France, they worked to create defenses for beaches, anti-tank obstacles, and units of mobile defenders ready to fight in front of the enemy or harry him from behind. Guards protected factories and other tempting sabotage targets. Every effort was made to build up British air power, their best chance at victory.

The last was an especially good move. The German invasion plan, Operation Sea Lion, was contingent on weakening the RAF (Royal Air Force) enough to gain mastery of the skies over the English Channel.

July 10th, 1940, marked the first heavy onslaught.

German planes
In case you don’t know and want to impress people when watching WW2 films: The black and white crosses on the wings mark these as German (Luftwaffe) planes. The circle pattern on the planes in the first picture of the post mark them as British.

The initial German plan was to attack British convoys in the Channel and the southern ports from Dover to Plymouth, weakening the areas they intended to invade. The RAF would have to come out to meet them, and would (they hoped) be destroyed.

This first phase failed. Though the British suffered losses, they made the Luftwaffe pay dearly for them.

On August 15th, the Luftwaffe launched about 100 bombers and 40 M.E. 110’s  to the north, against Tyneside,  with a simultaneous raid of over 800 planes to the south. The Germans hoped that the concentration of RAF planes would be pinned down in the south, and the northern attackers could do as they wished.

The Luftwaffe didn’t account for the provisions already made by British Air Marshal Dowding, and the seven Hurricane or Spitfire squadrons he had withdrawn from the southern fighting to guard against such an eventuality.

Final score: RAF 76, Luftwaffe 34.

Air Marshal Dowding
Air Marshal “Totally called that one!” Dowdin

In spite of the Allied successes, the Luftwaffe continued to attack relentlessly. Successful bombing raids of RAF airfields and facilities threatened to cripple the effectiveness of the defense.

Fortunately, Hitler’s own people (unintentionally) kept that threat from being carried out.

Some of the heads of the German military were intent on the destruction of British planes so that they could make their invasion happen. Nazi leader and Luftwaffe Commander Herman Goering had another focus. He believed that indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, such as London, would crush British resistance.

Herman Goering
Herman “Let’s bomb cities!” Goering

In September he got his way. The attacks on London didn’t work out quite as he had hoped.

“If the enemy had persisted in heavy attacks against the adjacent sectors (to the airfields)…the whole intricate organization of Fighter Command might have been broken down…It was therefore with a sense of relief that Fighter Command felt the German attack turn on London on September 7, and concluded that the enemy had changed his plan…By departing from the classical principles of war, as well as from the hitherto accepted dictates of humanity, he made a foolish mistake.” (Churchill 331)

September 15th marked the Luftwaffe’s greatest concentrated daylight attack on London.

Perhaps the results of this attack can best be summed up by what took place two days later. On September 17th, Hitler decided to postpone Operation Sea Lion indefinitely.

Churchill’s famous praise of the RAF pilots wraps up this bit of history nicely.

“At the summit the stamina and valour of our fighter pilots remained unconquerable and supreme. Thus Britain was saved. Well might I say in the House of Commons, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” (Churchill 340)

While an invasion of the British Isles was off the table, the population centers remained a target. NEXT History Session: THE BLITZ

Observer corps

If you’re interested in hearing about this period from people who lived it, the BBC collected people’s recollections of World War 2 in an excellent archive. The following link is for the “Battle of Britain” section.

*As I mentioned last time, this is just an BREIF overview of the period, written considering those who may have suddenly realized (as I did) that my highschool history classes left a number of gaping holes in my knowledge. (I had great teachers, but there are only so many class periods in a year!) There is so VERY much more to all of this than I have touched on- thanks for your patience with my little sum-ups.




We thought we’d lost him

As I stood before the room

Of shining morning faces

Who didn’t understand

Why Teacher’s went pale.


Driving to the clinic

I pulled over

When the sobs came too hard.

Dear God, please. Not this.



Barely breathing

Until a flicker of light-

A tiny heart’s flutter-

Shone in the dark.


Our miracle.


Never Say This To a Woman. Ever.


sweater girl Remy Loz
Photo by Remy Loz, courtesy of StockSnap


Most of the anecdotes that come to mind when I consider the importance of knowing one’s audience have to do with pregnancy.

I could tell tales of the highly detailed ‘birth stories’ related to me by more experienced friends when I was still an innocent little unmarried lass. Kindly meant, but talk about terrifying…

I might also tell some of the stories random people would relate once I was obviously expecting: tales of delivery room drama, tragic losses, and parenting woes. Not exactly  topics you want to be thinking about as the “D day” looms.

Of course, after three rounds in the delivery room, these stories have lost any power to shock me. (Now I have my own to tell, ha HA! But I won’t…) Only one still stings. My best anecdote for this post comes from 10 months after my first child was born.

My cherished car, nearly rusted out from Minnesota’s winter road treatments and nearing the 300,000 mile mark, had begun making alarming noises. Single, I would have ignored them. With a baby in tow, it was time to find a replacement.

I’d never actually shopped for a car, and was mildly excited about the prospect. The salesman didn’t really inspire confidence, but he didn’t completely lose me until he asked THE QUESTION.

“So, when are you due?”


crying baby
Hold it together. Just…hold it together…sniffle…


In spite of the fact that I was sleep deprived and had, until that moment, been pleased with how quickly I was loosing the ‘baby weight’, I flatter myself I kept calm as I informed him that I was NOT pregnant.

He did not apologize.

He did however try to sell me several cars that were not only the wrong make and model, but cost several thousand dollars over the budget I’d given him. (Yes, yes. Now I know that I shouldn’t have told him how much I actually wanted to pay. At the time I thought that if I were just straightforward with him he would respect that…or something. Sigh.)

Gents, if you don’t already know this, I’m going to let you in on a tip.

Never assume a woman is pregnant.

Just, DON’T DO IT.

Unless the following apply, you are treading on dangerous ground.

  1. She’s so big she’s about to pop,
  2. She is in Baby’s R Us registering, AND
  3. You HEAR her say, “Yes, I’m due in x weeks!”

If all three requirements are met…I still wouldn’t risk it. Just wait for her to tell you herself.

Quiz Time: Would it be all right to ask me? (See the numbered list above.)

ANYHOW. Deep breaths, on to the point.

That salesman utterly failed to know his audience. Because of this, he failed to make a sale.

As a writer, I don’t really like to think of myself as a salesperson, but as I put the finishing touches on my query, and prepare my first round of novel submissions, I’m feeling more and more like one.

How oh how am I to ‘sell’ my writing to literary agents, and convince them that they want to sell my work too?

I’m trying to ‘read’ people who I don’t know, and trying to choose ‘dream agents’ from lists of people I’ve never met. Not quite as terrifying as the birth stories, but still, a bit intimidating, isn’t it?

I’ve hunted the internet to  accumulate names of agents who seem like they might be a good fit. In an attempt to better understand this ‘audience,’ I’ve been applying advice from people who know much more about this than I do.

  1. Visit their website. Most of the agents I’ve looked at include the types of books they are seeking as part of their bio. This is valuable information. Just as a woman whose figure hasn’t magically “SPROINGED!” back into pre-pregnancy shape isn’t likely to welcome due date inquiries, a suspense novel is probably not going to entice an agent who specializes in non fiction.
  2. Check multiple sources. Most of the agents I’m looking into have public Twitter accounts, where they list their interests. I’ve also looked on (Manuscript Wish List) to see who is looking for what, though it’s important to check that the wishes listed are current. Other sites like query tracker provide information about wait times on agent responses etc.
  3. Don’t use all of your names in one go. I was advised to divide up my list of agents rather than submitting to all of them at once. I’ve divided my list into three columns. Each column includes some ‘great’ picks, some that might fit, and a couple of long shots. That way, if I only get echoing silence in round one (or better yet, feedback on how to improve) I still have some solid querying options.

After all, whether querying, writing, or just meeting a female on the street with a suspicious looking bump, taking time to consider one’s audience in the first place can save a world of trouble in the long run.






UNDER THE WIRE- the Stories of a POW Escapologist

I love a good survivor story.

I find tales of people who ‘beat the odds,’ ‘stayed the course, (or whatever cliché you prefer,) fascinating, as well as encouraging.

There is solidarity in suffering, and perhaps perversely, comfort in seeing that someone was able to survive much worse than whatever I might be struggling with.

I’ve had the privilege of reading a number of pretty amazing survivor stories through other bloggers. It seemed fitting to use today’s post to share one that I recently discovered.

Under the wire book cover

Bill Ash was a Texan, who disliked bullies. Thus, hearing the stories of Hitler’s conquests overseas, Bill decided that he would join the war, even if his country would not.

He traveled to Canada, gave up his U.S. citizenship, and ended up flying Spitfires with the RAF.

Bill loved to fly. “Once in the sky, a Spitfire pilot is alone- a hunter, an acrobat, and a warrior king. The only trouble in my case was that the king was about to be beheaded.” (pg. 9)

Bill’s plane was shot down in France. He was caught, arrested, tortured, and eventually imprisoned as a POW.

For many, imprisonment would spell the end of the war. Bill, however, was an officer. It was illegal for him to be pressed into forced labor. Instead, he was sent to a camp run by the Luftwaffe, where he continued to fight from the inside.

Bill and many of his fellow prisoners considered it their duty to cause as much trouble and to keep as many of their captors busy as possible. To do so, they became “escapologists.”

The tales Mr. Ash tells in this book are extraordinary. I grew up watching reruns of Hogan’s Heroes, and laughing at the absurdities. Some of the stories Mr. Ash shares could have fit well into an episode.

From the well-organized ‘Escape Committee,’ to digging tunnels under latrines, to secreting hand-made radios inside of table legs, the ingenuity of the POWs reads more like fiction than fact.

So, I’m just going over here to wreak havoc on your plans. Ok, Schultz?

Some have claimed that Steve McQueen’s character in The Great Escape was based off of Bill Ash. He did not agree with the comparison, not the least because of his lack of motorcycle skills. He did, however, know many of the men involved in the real-life Great Escape, though he was not available to participate in it himself.

The Great Escape

(Side note, if you haven’t seen the film, it’s worth your time. And if you need some levity afterwards, the spin-off below has some nice homages 🙂 )

Chicken Run

Full of laughter and sorrow, gross abuses and courageous kindness, Under the Wire is a fascinating story of survival.

After Dunkirk: The Fall of France

history books

Watching movies with my children is an exercise in patience.

“Who’s he?”

“What’s she doing?”

“How come he’s a llama now?”

Yes, I enjoy seeing them discover new worlds and sharing stories I love. It’s just difficult to enjoy the movies themselves, now that I am narrating as well as watching.

I have to remind myself that they’re little. They don’t have the background knowledge to ‘get’ the stories without a bit of help.

I felt like I’d fallen back into that role last year- the novice without a real clue of the big picture. You see, I thought I had a decent grasp of history, until I started studying it.

“Wait, who’s Reynaud? The Battle of Britain was…what exactly? Um…I thought the war only lasted four years…”

I recently posted a review for the movie Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Before diving into personal study of the Second World War, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know the significance of the name.

dunkirk poster 2

Apparently it was kind of a big deal…

Once the movie came out, I found that I wasn’t alone. A number of people I talked too weren’t familiar with the evacuation of Dunkirk, or many of the surrounding events.

The teacher in me got waaaaaaay to excited about that. The first reaction was to grab some REFERENCE MATERIAL!!!

“Oooh! Well, I can tell you all about this, and then this, and then this…”

BUT, as I’d like my friends to still answer my calls, I thought I’d periodically vent these urges into my blog instead.

Aren’t you excited?! 🙂

I am NOT going to attempt an exhaustive history. If you want that, pick up Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War. The abridged version is just over 1,000 pages, so it’s a hefty read, but worth it if you want a look at the period from the eyes of one of the major players.

It also won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so evidently I’m not the only one who enjoyed it.

Churchill book

Here’s my brief rundown on Life After Dunkirk: The Fall of France. *

Operation DYNAMO, the massive evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches and port of Dunkirk wrapped up on June 4th.

I’ll try to avoid ‘movie spoilers’ here, but for those of you who have seen it and wondered about the outcome of some plans mentioned by a naval officer towards the end, the evacuated included 112,000 Belgian and French troops. Ships even returned once more at the end of the operation looking for their French allies and retrieved 26,175.

While the rescue of the army was tremendously important, the evacuation cost a great deal in equipment.

7,000 tons of ammunition, 90,000 rifles, 2,300 guns, and 120,000 vehicles were left behind.

The British Army had saved most of it’s manpower, but how would they all be armed?

The evacuated men were given 7 days leave, and the leadership wrestled with planning the next steps as the fighting in France continued- and continued to go badly.

As Mr. Churchill’s memoir states, “we were subjected by our duty to France on the one hand and the need to create and effective army at home and to fortify the island on the other…First priority continued to be given to sending whatever trained and equipped troops we had, in order to reconstitute the British Expeditionary Force in France.” (Churchill 143-144)**

These efforts to reinforce the sagging lines couldn’t last for long. June 5th marked the beginning of the final phase of the Battle of France.

The remaining British divisions, joined with the French Army, tried to hold the line north of Paris along the Somme. The German attacks continued to punish them, but more was to come.

On June 10th, in spite of British and American attempts to keep the peace, Italy entered the war on the side of Germany. They launched their own attacks on France through the Alps.

On June 14th, Paris fell.

German invasion

Hitler in Paris

The Allies’ situation looked dire, but they had not given up hope.

Churchill had declared several times that his government would not seek peace with Germany, no matter the fate of France. He and M. Paul Reynaud, the French Premier, discussed options for the French to continue their fight from a government in exile in North Africa.

Not all of the Allies were so optimistic. The French General Weygand and other were convinced that all was lost. One commented, “In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.” (Churchill 213)

The negative pressure was too strong. Reynaud was replaced by Marshall Petain, who quickly sought an armistice with Germany.

This pro-German government would be set up in Vichy, France- hence that quote from Casablanca when Rick asks Louis if he’s pro-Vichy or Free French.

(You don’t remember that one? You should probably watch Casablanca again. It’s always a good choice!)


On June 17-18th the French troops were informed that all was over. The armistice was signed, and all fighting officially ceased by the 25th. (All fighting, that is, by the army. I hope you’ve heard some of the stories of the courageous French Resistance!)

The British troops, along with over 20,000 Poles, “repeated now on a considerable scale, though with larger vessels, the Dunkirk evacuation.” (Churchill, 193) In all, 156,000 men and 310 guns crossed the Channel.

It’s an interesting bit of ‘history hindsight’ that at this point the USSR and Germany were on friendly terms. On the same day Paris fell, Moscow sent an ultimatum to Lithuania, and the Soviet Union proceeded to use the events in the West to annex the Baltic States. According to Churchill, Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, congratulated the Germans on their “splendid success” on June 18th, after the fall of France. This was almost exactly a year before Hitler’s brutal attack on the Russian Front.

Her nearest ally out of the fight, Britain prepared her shores for Hitler’s inevitable assault.

Some writing blogs will likely come in between, but…

Coming Soon: The Battle of Britain!


*If you like visuals, here’s an excellent animated map which shows these events.

**Any quotes cited above are from Their Finest Hour, the second volume of Winston Churchill’s six volume set of memoirs of the Second World War. Page numbers are from the separate volume, not from the abridged one.