Saturday, May 9, 2020

Review: Inge's War: A German Woman's Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler by Svenja O'Donnell

Inge's War: A German Woman's Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler
by Svenja O'Donnell
Release Date: April 28th 2020
2020 Viking
Kindle ARC: 318 Pages
ISBN: 978-1984880215
Genre: Non-Fiction / Historical / WWII
Source: Review copy from publisher

In this transporting and illuminating book, the award-winning journalist vividly reconstructs the story of Inge's life from the rise of the Nazis through the brutal postwar years, from falling in love with a man who was sent to the Eastern Front just after she became pregnant with his child, to spearheading her family's flight as the Red Army closed in, her young daughter in tow. Ultimately, O'Donnell uncovers the act of violence that separated Inge from the man she loved; a terrible secret hidden for more than six decades.

A captivating World War II saga, Inge's War is also a powerful reckoning with the meaning of German identity and inherited trauma. In retracing her grandmother's footsteps, O'Donnell not only discovers the remarkable story of a woman caught in the gears of history, but also comes face to face with her family's legacy of neutrality and inaction--and offers a rare glimpse into a reality too long buried by silence and shame.

My Thoughts
Inge's War: A German Woman's Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler was a fascinating, illuminating book about one woman's survival during Nazi Germany and how she and her family fled East Prussia as the Soviets invaded her home city.  Interwoven with the author's research on Nazi Germany as well as research on her family and interviews with various family members, the books gives a vivid portrayal of one family's plight during this difficult time.  The author also addresses German identity and shame interwoven with the trauma that many people suffered under this regime.  At times heartbreaking, this book tells the story of one family who came to terms with long-buried secrets, giving us a glimpse of what life was like on the 'other side' so to speak, when one's values clashed with the politics of one's government but felt helpless to do something about it.   

The story revolves around the author as she searches for answers to her family's past, in particular, her grandmother, Inge, who fled East Prussia and landed in Germany.  She always felt growing up that so much of her grandmother's past had been hidden and as a journalist she was determined to discover more about her past.  We get a fascinating look at how the author went about her research and then takes us back to before and during the war as she discovers secrets and truths both from her grandmother as well as archives.  Interspersed between Inge's story line is information about the war and how it affected Inge and the people, with some very interesting facts thrown in.  As a history teacher, I really enjoyed how the author included historical information about the war into the story and enjoyed learning about East Prussia and the plight of its citizens as it tends to be a bit neglected in literature.  

The human element though, was heartbreaking, which is why I could not rate this book.  The author uses family photographs, passport photos, recipes, documents, and so on to add visual context to her story. I spent some time analyzing them as it really added to the story and made the author's family more real to me. I remember looking at similar pictures of my own family during this time period, and it brought home how really strong and courageous these women had to be to survive in such conditions; it really highlighted the plight of these people during the war.  In her story, the author really began focusing on those people who were caught up in the war but who didn't have the power, or maybe the courage, to fight back against the horrors they saw every day.  She spoke about apathy, questioning whether that was worse that siding with Nazism, a very difficult question to ask.  And one of the fundamental questions she asked throughout the book, "Did you know about the Holocaust? the Death Camps?"  I found her research about these questions to be quite honest and interesting.  And as a woman, I have to say the part that affected me the most was definitely about the rapes.  She laid the facts bare and they are downright awful, even affecting her own family history in a profound way.  Sometimes when you go looking for the truth, you may not always like what you hear and find.  At the back of the book, the author listed the sources she used to write her book, and I am definitely going to be doing some further reading, no matter how horrible the subject matter.  

Inge's War: A German Woman's Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler is a fantastic book, thought-provoking on so many levels, and heart-breaking to the core.  The background information on the rapes, the horrors of those children dying in Denmark, the young men lost in senseless battles, are just some of the few things discussed in such a raw and unflinching manner, but also with empathy and skill.  This is one my favourite books about WWII I have yet read this year, and I highly recommend this to anyone who likes reading personal stories about the war. 


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