O’Donnell, Svenja. “INGE’S WAR: A German Woman’s Story of Family Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler”, Viking, 2020.
Caught in History
Svenja O’Donnell’s “Inge’s War” is about her grandmother’s experiences as a girl growing up in Königsberg during World War II. The prose is gorgeous and the research that went into this is stunning.
Inge’s family was German and non-Jewish family. It had neither backed Hitler’s regime nor stood publicly against it, yet the members had to face the consequences of the Nazi’s actions against Europe.
Some thirteen years ago, while working as a foreign correspondent in Russia, Svenja O’Donnell gave herself a special assignment to Kaliningrad to explore her own family history. In the 1930s and early 1940s, the small Baltic city (then called Königsberg and a part of Germany) had been her grandmother Inge’s childhood home. O’Donnell knew that Inge and her family had fled Königsberg to escape the Russian advance at the end of the war and they never returned. What she did not know and she could not have anticipated her distant, reserved grandmother’s reaction came when she called her and told her who she was.
Naturally this shook Inge and she cried telling her newly discovered granddaughter that she had so much to tell her and it is from this that O’Donnell reconstructs a family story that reveals something most of us have known little if anything about—- there were bystanders I Germany Germany’s who neither supported the Nazi regime nor risked all to resist it.
O’Donnell based her book on more than ten years of conversations, archival research, travel that she used to tell the story of Inge’s life from the rise of the Nazis through the postwar period. We read of Inge’s falling in love in Berlin’s underground jazz clubs, and have a child out of wedlock after the father was sent to the Eastern Front. Inge organized and led her family’s escape as the Red Army closed in. We learn the terrible secret Inge had been keeping for more than half a century: the act of violence that finally separated her from the man she loved. This is both an intimate story and the story of a granddaughter breaking through the silence that was common to German-descended families around World War II. Inge confronted both her family’s suffering and its legacy of neutrality and inaction.
“Inge’s War” is the story an ordinary woman who becomes caught in history; and the lies that are told in order to survival we tell to survive. It is the story of family trauma, the dangers of nationalism and anti-Semitism, and of refugees. It also is the story of a woman during war and, by and large, what we have known about the period of World War II has come to use through the narratives of men about men. The traumas and sacrifices of women were of lesser importance than those of men and women often paid for a life of normality with their silence. O’Donnell never mentioned the war years, and she never thought to ask. It was by a chance conversation that led Inge to talk and for O’Donnell to listen to the story of a German woman surviving on the wrong side of war. She dealt with violence, displacement, and a trauma that changed her life. “Her silence was at first a refuge, then a habit, then a torment.” The decisions that she was forced to make were often tragic. By writing this book, O’Donnell wants to give her grandmother voice back to her.