A Story of Family, Secrets and Survival under Hitler
Svenja O’Donnell’s beautiful, aloof grandmother Inge never spoke about the past. All her family knew was that she had grown up in a city that no longer exists on any map: Königsberg in East Prussia, a footnote in history, a place that almost no one has heard of today. But when Svenja impulsively visits this windswept Baltic city, something unlocks in Inge and, finally, she begins to tell her story.
It begins in the secret jazz bars of Hitler’s Berlin. It is a story of passionate first love, betrayal, terror, flight, starvation and violence. As Svenja teases out the threads of her grandmother’s life, retracing her steps all over Europe, she realises that there is suffering here on a scale that she had never dreamt of. And finally, she uncovers a desperately tragic secret that her grandmother has been keeping for sixty years.
Inge’s War listens to the voices that are often missing from our historical narrative – those of women caught up on the wrong side of history. It is a book about memory and heritage that interrogates the legacy passed down by those who survive. It also poses the questions: who do we allow to tell their story? What do we mean by family? And what will we do in order to survive?
Having studied history for many years, I thought there was little that I didn’t know about World War Two and the period around it, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. There are still many gaps in my knowledge of that period and Inge’s War by Svenja O’Donnell made me aware for the first time of the story of a people displaced at the end of the war from East Prussia. It gives a voice to a group of people silenced by a nations collective guilt over Hitler’s atrocities, especially thousands of women and children who found themselves paying the ultimate price for their nations brutality during this period.
In most respects Inge’s War by Svenja O’Donnell is a personal story about the writers grandmother and her often brutal experiences as she fled the Russian advance into East Prussia as the war ended. Yet it is also a deeply moving examination of a nations collective grief and guilt over what happened to so many people during Hitler’s time in power, Many acted to help those affected, but the majority while not taking an active role, passively allowed it to continue or where too frightened of reprisals to act. This has had a formative affect on the generations that followed as they seek to make sense of the events that they played no part in and yet they carry it almost as a part of their DNA. The extraordinary thing about this book is how the writer expresses this and allows us to understand these events. As well as how the nation gradually learnt to give a voice to what happened, while healing and finding a strong moral role in a newly emerging Europe.
How the writer uses her Grandmother’s slowly emerging story to examine this, is best described as astonishing, her searing honesty making this book, a must read for anyone interested this period of history. She reclaims the story of her family, her connection to a city in East Prussia that no longer exists and the journey Inge took, facing brutality and starvation to find a life lived on her own terms.
It starts with an idyllic childhood in the east Prussian city of Königsberg, Inge’s discovery of secret jazz bars in Berlin, through finding love and losing it, then a frantic and dangerous journey to save her family, as the Russians sort retribution on German citizens.
How she teases out the events is deeply affecting and has had a profound affect on me as a reader, I never knew about how Inge and thousands others like her faced such violent reprisals, persecution and neglect as they fled. I understand that though others around Inge lost their sense of humanity during the war, did it warrant other nations losing theirs after the war ended? Many thousands of innocent women and children lost their lives in camps where they were denied medical treatment, deliberately left without adequate food. Women like Inge were victims many times over. There is no denying that the German nation was responsible for so much evil during the war, but many of it’s citizen’s had no part in that.
Inge’s story is incredible and her grand daughters as well. To bring such a moving tale to readers is a great gift from her to us. To share such a remarkable and personal discovery should not only be commended, it should be showered with awards. Inge’s story is one faced by many women of the time and it helps to redress the lack of voice they have endured, while examining how secrets unburied can open ruptures through families that can affect them for generations to come.
I can’t recommend enough, I really can’t, it is quite remarkable and deeply affecting.
Why not order it from your local Indie bookshop, many of which worked hard to keep us in books during recent events and really need our continued support.
About the author
Svenja O’Donnell is an award-winning political correspondent and commentator whose work regularly features on TV and radio. Before covering Brexit for Bloomberg, she worked as a correspondent in Russia. Half-Irish and half-German, she was born and brought up in Paris, and lives in London. Inge’s War is her first book.
You can follow the author @SvenjaODonnell on twitter.