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

eli-francis-100644
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.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

John_Banner_Bob_Crane_Hogan's_Heroes_1965
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.

Up Front by Bill Mauldin: Finding Humor in the Darkness of War

Bill Mauldin

Thus far I’ve lived a quiet life, and I’m thankful for it.

Of course there have been sorrows and troubles, and ongoing struggles that may not end this side of heaven, but once I started studying history again, I quickly remembered to be grateful for these. At least my family has a home. At least my loved ones can get medical care. At least I’m not wondering where my next meal is coming from. At least…

However, living a quiet life and writing about unquiet times proved a challenge. If I were going to try to portray a difficult time- for instance life in the slit trenches and foxholes of the 1940s- how was I to do it well?

I focused on finding books and sources written by people who lived through the conflict. I devoured first-hand accounts, and books which used first hand accounts as sources.

My husband encouraged me to pick up some fiction again in the midst of this when the heavy topics made me gloomy. He also gifted me one of my favorite books from this era, Up Front by Bill Mauldin.

Published in 1945, Up Front isn’t exactly a history book. Bill Mauldin was a cartoonist for the Army newspaper The Stars and Stripes. This book is a compilation of his comics, narrated by the author. It almost reads like an interview, written in first person and giving his perspective on the time.

As far as his comics, Mr. Mauldin says:

“I haven’t tried to picture this war in a big, broad-minded way. I’m not old enough to understand what it’s all about, and I’m not experienced enough to judge its failures and successes. My reactions are those of a young guy who has been exposed to some of it, and I try to put those reactions in my drawings. Since I’m a cartoonist, maybe I can be funny after the war, but nobody who has seen this war can be cute about it while it’s going on. The only way I can try to be a little funny is to make something out of the humorous situations which come up even when you don’t think life could be any more miserable. It’s pretty heavy humor, and it doesn’t seem funny at all sometimes when you stop and think about it.”  (pgs. 7-8)

Scan_20170628 (6)

He doesn’t paint war as clean and shiny with everyone behaving properly, (i.e. these aren’t comics for the kids! The text of the book isn’t either for that matter) but he doesn’t paint a bitter picture either. Mr. Mauldin focuses on the people, the camaraderie, the respect, (or lack of) they show each other, fear and courage and small acts of kindness.

‘Joe’ and ‘Willy,’ two scruffy infantry ‘dogfaces,’ are the stars of Mauldin’s comics. The book follows their progress, (though not exactly chronologically,) from the muddy mountain slopes of Italy, to the embattled Anzio beachhead, up to Rome, then over to France.

His comics and views of the war weren’t always popular. General George S. Patton’s hated Mauldin’s cartoons. The ‘spit and polish’ general objected to Mauldin’s portrayal of tired, sloppy soldiers, and to jokes at the officers’ expense. Mauldin himself admitted that he liked to poke some fun at the ‘brass.’ However, he qualified this tendency.

“Not all colonels and generals and lieutenants are good. While the army is pretty efficient about making and breaking good and bad people, no organization of eight million is going to be perfect.” (pg.16)

“I never worry about hurting the feelings of the good officers when I draw officer cartoons. I build a shoe, and if somebody wants to put it on and loudly announce that it fits, that’s his own affair.” (pg. 180)

Scan_20170628 (2)

While he may have stirred up a little fuss with some of these comics, in the end, Mr. Mauldin’s hope for his characters was for them to find their own quiet life. A hope for peace.

“I’ve been asked if I have a postwar plan for Joe and Willie. I do. Because Joe and Willie are very tired of the war they have been fighting for almost two years, I hope to take them home when it is over. While their buddies are readjusting themselves and trying to learn to be civilians again, Joe and Willie are going to do the same. While their buddies are trying to drown out the war in the far corner of a bar, Joe and Willie are going to drink with them. If their buddies find their girls have married somebody else, and if they have a hard time getting jobs back, and if they run into difficulties in their new, strange life of a free citizen, then Joe and Willie are going to do the same. And if they finally get settled and drop slowly into the happy obscurity of a humdrum job and a little wife and a houseful of kids, Joe and Willie will be happy to settle down too.

They might even shave and become respectable.”  (pgs. 17-18)

It takes a gifted writer, and in this case cartoonist, to find real smiles in the middle of terrible situations. For those who appreciate this gift, those who are interested in this period of history, or those who just want to appreciate their quiet lives a bit more, Up Front is an excellent choice.