Cover image for A German tale : a girl surviving Hitler's legacy
A German tale : a girl surviving Hitler's legacy
Karres, Erika V. Shearin.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Fort Lee, N.J. : Barricade Books, [2001]

Physical Description:
303 pages ; 23 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DD256.5 .S313 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Karres, who was born in Magdeburg, Germany, two weeks after Germany's September 1939 invasion of Poland, begins her graphic memoir with an account of her and her mother, brother, and two sisters fleeing hundreds of miles across Germany looking for a place safe from Allied bombing. Later, her mother died and her father--back from the war--tried to find enough food to keep them alive. They set out on another laborious journey, sleeping in barns or in farmers' fields. When they finally reached the safety of their grandmother's house in Bavaria, French soldiers took over the rooms and the small amount of food that was available. Still later, Karres' father remarried a woman with children of her own. Karres, a Christian, describes how--in the postwar years--the family was desperately poor, begging for food. But now there is "no sign there's ever been a war here. . . . It's as if Dachau was just a brief nightmare." --George Cohen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Karres offers a brutal account of life in Germany during and after WWII, in a candid, unsparing voice. Her father, Hans, is drafted by the Nazis as the allied forces gain ground. Suspicious of the bunkers the Nazis have prepared for women and children, her mother, Barbara, flees northeast Germany, walking to Bavaria with two suitcases, three small children and a sickly, crippled baby (the author) in her arms. Fearing the baby will not survive, she gets her christened on the run. Life becomes even worse in Bavaria. Living in a crumbling, unheated house belonging to Hans's family, they face starvation, filth, cold and disease, but learn that those who stayed behind died in one of the most devastating air raids on Germany. At the war's end, Hans comes to Bavaria from the front; shortly thereafter the author's mother dies from blood clots in her legs. Her father marries a local woman, Julie, who keeps the family together but seems incapable of love. They live for years on the brink of starvation. This relentlessly bleak, horrifying story details a common phenomenon in postwar Germany: viewed as pariahs by the larger world, Eri's father and many other Germans, and Eri herself as she becomes a teenager, hate what their country did to the Jews, and hate themselves and each other for not resisting. Eri comes to feel she must leave Germany or die. In her late teens she meets an American soldier and in 1961 marries him, leaving her devastated country for the U.S. Though readers will flinch often at this graphic account, the affecting prose will keep them transfixed. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Death Crawl I was born in Magdeburg, a city near Berlin, two weeks after Germany marched on Poland. My earliest memories are of violence. Bombs. Loud noises, sounds of explosions. Shrieks, screams. I had no toys. No childhood. Never played, never laughed. Death and destruction were everyday events. Amazing I lived through that time, and wouldn't have if my mother hadn't been so courageous. If she'd stayed put in the Northeast, one of two things would have happened:     If I'd been lucky, I would have grown up in Communist East Germany.     And if I hadn't been lucky?     I'll get to that.     But first, how did Barbara carry me and two big suitcases, and walk with her three other small kids all across the hundreds of miles from the Northeast of Germany to the Southwest?     To Bavaria?     Nobody helped her and her legs ached constantly. Ever since the last baby died, her legs were swollen. They hurt, especially her calves. Her veins were inflamed. I don't remember much of the long trek, except for the many times when low-flying planes strafed us. We had to run for our lives. Run, run, run. Fling ourselves into a ditch to keep from getting hit. Head down, freeze, pray.     Pop-pop-pop. The ammunition always hit the ground all around us, making the brown earth spit. Vomit up dirt clumps that rained on us. We got scratches, nervous tics.     My mother always throws herself on top of us. Her scratches are big. They fester. My legs, oh my legs, she says. She wears rubber stockings that don't help. The doctor has told her: Rest, take it easy, no lifting, prop up your feet, take a nap, eat good food. Otherwise there's the danger of a blood clot....     She does the opposite: runs, rushes, hurries as quickly as she can away from Magdeburg. Four small kids cling to her as she drags the bulging suitcases. But she's determined to get us to a safe place. First west, then south. And every step she hurts. I remember her beautiful face twisted in pain. Sweat beads roll down her forehead as she bends and massages her calves, yet never lets go of me. She can't. I cling to her, a big blob of marmalade.     By the time Barbara reaches Bavaria, her legs are as big as tree trunks. Yet she keeps going, settles us into an old house in Diessen am Ammersee, not far from the Alps. The house has a red, steeply pitched roof with large sections missing, torn stucco walls, and desperately clings to a hill. It belongs to Hans's mother, now a widow, a stern lady always swathed in black silk dotted with antique pins. Silver that looks like pewter. She never approved of Barbara, and the house acts the same way. It hates us: There's no power, the kitchen is bare. Chunks of walls have smashed the furniture. It's winter, a typical Bavarian winter--ice cold. Military-gray skies dump snow every day. Only with coaxing does water trickle from the freezing pipes. How they clang. The hungry kids scream, their faces blue.     Barbara dresses them in all their clothes. Layers of shirts, pants, jackets. Wool hats, scarves, mittens. Still they shiver inside the cold house as they huddle on her bed with blankets piled on top. In the dark, the baby is a block of ice.     Barbara spends all her days trying to get the kids warm. She forces herself out into the snow. With the last of her strength chops down a tree, which takes hours. The axe is dull. She crawls back in the house, hauling snow-covered branches behind her. Her crawling starts out slow and gets slower, like the time passing in the icy ruin of a house. Hours later Barbara drags a frozen branch inside, thaws it out in the bed, makes a fire around which they huddle. She can't ever go to sleep. The fire has to be stoked constantly. Icicles growing on the ceiling have to be knocked off. The floor is too cold for the kids to walk on, so she carries them to the bucket. Why do Pisse and Scheisse still stink when they're frozen?     The kids cry, all except the baby whose face gets bluer, thinner, stonier. They only doze off when Barbara reads to them from a forbidden leaflet. Or tells them about their long march. How far they walked step for step, how they dragged along with those lead suitcases. How brave they were. Don't you remember? I didn't know which way to turn, where west was. Or south. But there was always a light in the sky....     Oh Mama. The kids know what that was--just more war stuff, artillery, explosions, planes shooting other planes. Boom-boom-boom. Fortunately their house hasn't been hit directly like the others in the small town. The injured stone walls are thick. The roof gapes. Snow falls into the attic but not down to the ground floor. But the best thing: The yard's overgrown with giant bushes. Firs, beeches, linden trees and oaks also shield it from view. So the enemy planes don't know there's a house.     From a window in the attic you see a glow far in the distance--Munich burning. Yet out here in the country you only see the bombs flying overhead in the sky. Then the air shifts, contracts, gets heavy. The bombs smack down somewhere but always miss the house.     So far.     Burrowed deep in their ice house, Barbara blows on the kids' frozen hands and faces for warmth. She rubs their feet. All the kids have frostbite. The blue skin on their toes splits like sausage boiled too long and curls back, revealing what looks like peeled plums. But heating water and dipping in the frozen toes help. It still hurts but eventually the little toes start to heal. By then Barbara can hardly move herself. Her huge legs are raw, but she inches herself up once a day, scrounges up wormy oatmeal. Some barley to make watery soup, thin gray broth.     It's so good.     On days when the snow stops, Barbara hobbles to the Diessen town square to see if she can "buy" some food on the black market. All the china, jewelry and artworks she's lugged those hundreds of miles come in handy. Once when she gets to the square, she hears women screaming. What's the matter?     Last night.... Didn't you hear?     No, what? What?     Another terrible bombing in the Northeast. A huge air raid. Hundreds of thousands wiped out--     Barbara feels faint and clutches her heart. No, don't tell me. Not my Hans, please. Please. Please! She fears the Fliegerhorst (Air Force Station) Koethen where her husband is stationed has been hit. Where was it? Where?     It wasn't Koethen.     Thank God. From relief Barbara crumples on the street.     It was Magdeburg. The whole city's been flattened. Wiped out.     Oh, no, no, no. All those poor moms and kids in the bunkers! And her house, her neighbors, her husband's company, the big beautiful churches, the majestic bridges over the Elbe River--gone.     All gone.     Gone with the war. * * * Fact: By fall 1944, Germany has lost the war. Hitler's Third Reich is just an ugly monster in the last throes of death. Yet on January 16, 1945, a huge contingent of Royal Air Force planes leaves England and heads toward Eastern Germany. By then every German city with more than 100,000 people has been given a code name. Magdeburg is "Young Salmon." The RAF's dinner for that evening will be smoked young salmon.     At the same time, several squadrons of American bombers head out from France for the same destination. First they destroy the city's warning system. It's late: People are already in bed. Only when the first signal bombs, called "Christmas Trees," start lighting up every street bright as a noon sun, do the shocked people scramble for shelter. Very few make it. For the next 38 minutes, the city is attacked nonstop. According to some historians, it's the most deadly 38 minutes in all of World War II.     Firebombs rain from the sky in carpet-fashion. Section after section of the city ignites. A huge fireball can be seen 50 miles away. That fireball creates such enormous winds that thousands of people are sucked out of their homes and burn to death. Whoosh. Those who manage to run to the bunkers are overcome by poison fumes.     The same happens to the thousands of mothers and children already in the bunkers. The poison gas seeps in, but when the panicked mothers claw holes in the walls and push their children out on the streets, the children come back screaming. The pavement has melted. So they burn or suffocate, including all those kids collected from the surrounding areas and brought into town for special safekeeping.     When the bombing stops, the population of 360,000 is reduced to less than 90,000. Three out of every four people are dead. The rest are alive but dead inside.     Later the charred remains of tens of thousands are scraped into buckets and dumped into a huge pit that is dug near the train station. Over and over the same unusual configurations of burned bones are discovered: charred female skeletons fused together with a small one. Or several small ones. A dying mother trying desperately to protect her kids from harm.     Only Dresden and Cologne suffer more destruction than Magdeburg. My mother, like a salmon knowing when it's time to swim upstream, sensed death hovering over that city. That's why she escaped. And I grow up knowing she saved me from burning to death.     But for what? To starve and freeze to death in Bavaria?     And to carry the burden of shame once I know what happened in Dachau?     Is guilt to be my legacy? * * *     Barbara is ecstatic over having saved her kids. Then more good news: All soldiers are now being released from the front or are running away. So with her last ounce of strength, she crawls around the house. Dusts, sweeps, polishes the ice house. Trades her wedding band for a cup of flour, which she saves, and on swollen knees scrubs the dirty front steps.     Spring comes, ice melts, the earth softens: time to plant white roses. Miraculously, the kids still have all their toes and fingers. And even the cripple starts pulling herself up, takes a step. Life's getting better every day, jajaja . Just got to keep going till my handsome Hans gets home. He'll take over when he gets here. Sure he will.     Barbara works day and night, tears rags into strips to hook colorful rugs. Crochets doilies, knits sweaters, digs in the yard. Never mind her joints ache, her ankles are balloons. Her calves hurt like knives sticking in them when she walks. Must keep going until Hans--!     One day she looks over the fence. A thin old man is tottering up the hill. But he's not on crutches and not blind. His wounds are all on the inside. She can't see them and even if she could, doesn't care. Hans, oh Hans.     Kinder, come here. It's your Vati . Quickly she whips the little bit of precious flour into dough. Must bake a cake....     I see a young man with an old face, premature gray hair, light eyes that have seen so much that the color has leached out. A face that looks chiseled out of rare pale wood. He is silent for stretches, then words burst from him in gales. He laughs overbright: You know what my friends, the Russian prisoners, told me? I always looked after them, tossed my allotment of cigarettes into the chicken-wire cage where they were kept. Brought them apples when nobody was looking. Well, they said, when Russia wins the war, they'll pay me back for all my kindness and just plain shoot me. All the other Germans they'll get their hands on, they will gouge out their eyes, tear them limb from--     Hans, please. Don't scare the children.     But Mutti is happy. Now everything's fine. She can finally put her feet up. They can go forward again. They all made it, even the sickly little one. Surely love will erase all the horrible memories, hardships, nightmares. The roses will bloom; they'll go swimming at the lake....     That night she wakes up with a strong urge to cough. Not wanting to wake Hans and the kids, she tiptoes to the bathroom. Coughs and coughs. Stands by the window and looks at the black sky. Finally no more bombs, thank heavens. But far in the distance she sees a light again. A shooting star? Must remember to tell the children. Oh, yes, the light's moving, pointing.     Pointing to America.     Oh, how I wish! Even though the war's over, Barbara feels angry, betrayed. Her country let her down. It went bad like a rotten potato. It stinks. So many innocent people suffered, so many lives lost. Why? Why? She can't ever be proud of being German again.     Another coughing fit, this time worse. She's trying to bring up what obstructs her breathing but no use. Some of the blood clots that have lain hidden like land mines in the inflamed veins of her legs have finally worked themselves to her lungs, her heart, her brain, causing death and destruction there.     I was six. Excerpted from A German Tale by Erika V. Shearin Karres. Copyright © 2001 by Erika V. Shearin Karres. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.