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

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Photo Courtesy of Eli Francis on Unsplash.com

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

    1. Yes- being so small at the time the main narrator just had to live with the consequences. (It also did make it a little easier to read when her father came back and they found out that his wartime record consisted of surrendering at the earliest possible moment- refusing without refusing, in a way.)

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  1. This sounds a fascinating account – I also read a similar story from an acquaintance whose family also fled the Russian advance across Germany during the war. This one sounds as if it takes the story on a lot further. Thank you for sharing it.

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  2. I’m just still a bit curious that the memoir goes so far AFTER WWII–perhaps because that’s when main narrator Elfi was older? But you’re right that we need this balance of perspective. Kids don’t have a choice on big country matters, and think about it: Elfi’s born at the time when the Nazi propaganda machine had been in full swing for a number of years. Her siblings would have been getting nothing but the doctored texts in school, yet their family managed to avoid…well, I’ll say it–brainwashing. Faith is one powerful shield. xxxxxx

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    1. To your last, it absolutely is! She was the eldest, so perhaps the whole family was the ‘right’ age set to miss out on that particular tool of their government? (I’d have to look at dates- or else Bo probably just knows, right? 🙂 ) She DID mention one uncle (Always got to have ONE in the family, hmm?) who had bought in completely- how he survived and showed up at family gatherings just flabbergasted that they had lost. Didn’t sound like he got much sympathy…
      I’ll confess, I did skim just a tad after they reached Nebraska- it was still interesting just as a story of building a new life etc, but wasn’t really what I picked up the book to read about. 🙂 xxxxx

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      1. Hmm. You’re probably right; considering the propaganda was in its fully positive stride in the 30s, and she was only, what, 4 in 1940? So yeah, she’d have been exposed to the more desperate propaganda that her parents likely saw through.
        Still wondering about that whole “Nebraska” bit of the saga…what a strange way to end it!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think the memoir style book is hard to end- at least I’ve noticed this in some I’ve read lately. Where do you cut it off? After the main events? With the end of the character’s life? At a cliffhanger? (Ok, so I haven’t seen any of those…)
        MY memoir would have to involve the week old (poopy) diaper we just found in the recycling bin. The drama of WHERE the smell was coming from, the mystery of HOW the diaper got in there, the relief of the big reveal… riveting, don’t you think?

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