“Inge’s War” by Svenja O’Donnell; Viking (293 pages, $27)
Books about World War II — and there are so, so many — tend to focus on the big names (Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt), the most egregious acts (the death camps, the Siege of Leningrad, the Blitz) or the lives of people terrorized and slaughtered.
Less common are books about the ordinary citizen whose life was laid waste by the war — and even less common, at least in this country, are books about the ordinary German citizen.
“Inge’s War,” by journalist Svenja O’Donnell, is about the author’s German grandmother, who was a teenager when the war began. But through O’Donnell’s meticulous reporting and sensitive, compelling storytelling it becomes the gripping story of anyone navigating life in a war zone.
Inge Wiegandt grew up in Königsberg in East Prussia, a German-owned sliver of land tucked between Russia and Poland. The fact that her city was bombed to rubble during the war and is now part of Russia (new name: Kaliningrad) gives you an inkling of some of what Inge and her family endured.
In September 1940, 15-year-old Inge was eager to get out of the backwater of East Prussia and on to the glittering big city of Berlin. She wheedled and begged until her parents agreed to send her there to school.
In Berlin, she met the young man who stole her heart. The brother of a schoolmate, Wolfgang was 19, “a highly intelligent boy whose shyness hid a sensitive character,” O’Donnell writes. He’d been to school in England and Denmark and had no use for war or Nazis — he was a music lover, a jazz aficionado who hoped to become an engineer.
If not for the war, their romance might have gone the way of any first love. But within a year, Wolfgang was called up, and on his last night in Berlin, Inge “for the first time, allowed Wolfgang into her room.”
From that one night of love came doom. Inge fell pregnant. Wolfgang asked permission of his Nazi stepfather to marry her and was refused. Instead, he was sent to the Russian front just in time for the Siege of Leningrad. Inge returned to Königsberg in shame to have her baby (who grew up to become the author’s mother).
The structure of “Inge’s War” works brilliantly, moving back and forth between Inge’s life in the 1940s and O’Donnell’s contemporary action — talking with her taciturn grandmother, who revealed only bits of information at a time; digging for documents; traveling to the places where Inge had lived during the war years; searching for answers to many questions, including questions about her family’s complicity with the Nazis.
Growing up in France, O’Donnell wrote, “I felt that Germans in the war divided into either the good, who resisted, or the bad, the perpetrators. I’d never thought of the people … who for want of heroism or even simple courage, chose to look the other way, to act as the need to survive dictated.”
Where, she wondered, did her family fit in that continuum? Wolfgang, after all, was her grandfather, though O’Donnell never knew him. Did he join the Nazi party? What happened to him at the Russian front, and after his return? Why did he and Inge never marry?
And Inge — to O’Donnell, Inge had always been a reticent, brusque figure, “an aloof, almost selfish woman.” As she slowly opens up to her granddaughter, it becomes clear that Inge was hiding an enormous, painful secret.
In “Inge’s War,” O’Donnell has told a riveting and important story, one that focuses so tightly on Inge and her family in its level of detail — physical, temporal and emotional — that it becomes universal. The reader can see these places, feel what these people felt, understand their trauma and pain. Living in wartime becomes palpably real.
Inge and her parents survived bombings, near starvation, displacement, life as resented refugees in Denmark. They lost jobs, livelihood, home, possessions.
By the time Inge reveals her dark secret to her granddaughter, the reader has slowly, breathlessly figured it out. It is just one more shattering detail in a life forever damaged by war.
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