The title, Ich war dabei, is German for ‘I was there.’ The subtitle is a haunting summary of what the book is all about – Geschichten gegen das Vergessen – literally stories against forgetting, or like a battle for remembrance.
So, what is this book about? This is a collection of stories written from the perspective of people who were children (preteens and teens) during the Nazi regime, in different parts of Germany, Poland and Czech. It’s a book that documents the indoctrination and the casual horror of the Third Reich.
Some of the stories refuse to leave my mind…
In the very first story titled, ‘Er war noch warm’ or ‘It was still warm,’ we witness the confusion of a child as his family visits a neighbour’s house to eat the lunch laid out on their table. They are one of many neighbours flocking in to pick and choose from the things left behind by the Jewish family when they’re taken away.
In the story, ‘Die Wertvollen und die Minderwertigen,’ a woman recalls a high school lesson on the physical differences between ‘the superior and inferior races.’ She’s been singled out by her teacher, who points out that the child has ‘typical oriental features,’ therefore labelling her inferior. She talks about that day as having given her that first blossoming feeling of rebellion.
I can’t forget the story about the silent house where no one lived… and the village which buried its past ‘for the sake of the tourists.’ The story about the young boy and his first ‘kill’ and about the old Polish couple who traced their way back to the house they had abandoned years ago for one last glimpse of something that no longer existed.
It was difficult to contain my shock at the purposeful sincerity and candid narrative style. I know that my lack of German fluency must have failed me a few times. I would like to reread the book to discover the nuances I have missed. I wonder if there is an English translation – I would love to share this with students.
It is interesting to explore a bit about the writer here, and about why I chose to read this book. Gudrun Pausewang was a German author of young adult and children’s literature. According to a Spiegel obituary, Pausewang was born in 1928 in Mladkov, which is now in the Czech, and fled to West Germany with her family after the war. She was a teacher, and taught in schools in South America before coming back to Germany. Her writings revolve around war, climate change, privilege, and a myriad other battles in life.
It was one such children’s book that inspired me to look up this author. I have inherited (read: stolen) a set of German storybooks from my aunt, who was a German teacher. Among these is an dark and richly illustrated board-book called ‘Die Kinder in der Erde,’ or ‘The Children in the Earth.’ It is a beautiful little fairytale about a conversation between the earth and man, through the innocence of children. Sharing the cover illustration and the first couple of pages here –
I will certainly be looking up more by this writer. And I would love to know if there are English translations of any of her books, so that I can immerse myself better in the message of her books.