Friday, September 11, 2009

‘Abandoned and Forgotten,' one woman's tale

Summit Daily News Friday, September 4, 2009

Evelyne Tannehill's book depicts the other side of World War II — what German children went through
By Kimberly Nicoletti

Evelyne Tannehill never discussed her abusive past, growing up in Germany during World War II and losing her family. She tried, once, as a young wife who revealed a couple horrors of her past to her mother-in-law. The response: disbelief.

And so, she clammed up, until several years ago, when she returned to Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. As she sat on a bus with German tourists sharing experiences about growing up during Hitler's reign, she realized her story was unique: She had been caught under the abusive power of the Russians and Poles after the war ended and lost her parents in the process.

While her tale is unique in that it depicts the German side of the Holocaust, it's particularly powerful in its compassion. Though she suffered terrible atrocities as an orphan after the war, she writes from an evolved place — one void of hatred and resentment toward her oppressors. She admits experiences like hers leave scars, but she sees that the situation “tested everyone's capacity for good and evil … cruelty of war spares no one, and atrocities were committed on all sides (regarding the Russians and the Germans, not the Jews).”

Her father was born a U.S. citizen but moved to Germany when he married her mother. He opposed Hitler and was singled out as a conspirator and placed in a concentration camp. Later, he was released, only to be forced into a labor camp in Siberia when the Russians invaded Germany after the war. Within a year, Tannehill had lost her father to the labor camp and her mother to typhoid fever, because the region no longer had good sanitation, doctors or hospitals.

“The Russians appear and unleash uncontrolled violence on us, their first German victims,” Tannehill wrote. “They rape the women and torture the men.”

Tannehill became a “street urchin,” without schooling, for three years. She eventually ended up back at her family's farm, but her parents were gone, and an abusive Polish family had taken over not only her home, but also everything in it, down to the dishes and medicine in the cabinets.

The 431-page book portrays her life, starting at about age 5 and ending a few days before her 16th birthday, as she is on her way to North America.

Still, Tannehill describes the true story as not one solely about her, but one about “a family and how we navigated these troubled waters — the war, the loss of the war, the invasion of the Russians.” But she adds, “You learn what happens when a child loses the protective web of her parents.” The four sections of her book describe life under Hitler, the Russian invasion, the Polish takeover and how Germany rebuilt itself.

Tannehill has talked to almost 100 book clubs and churches since the release of her book.

“The reaction I usually get is, ‘We didn't know all these things happened. We just thought in 1945 the war was over and it was business as usual,'” she said. “But even after 1945, it was years before the Germans could rebuild their lives. There were no jobs and there were food shortages into the 1950s.”

She's even had two Jewish women contact her, one to say the book caused her to reevaluate her entire attitude toward German people, and another to say she never thought of any Germans suffering — she thought of them as getting what they deserved — until she read Tannehill's account.

It took Tannehill six years to write her story and another four years to let it “sit.” For the first three years, no one knew she was writing a book — not even her family. But through the process, she persevered.

“It is my belief that history is best told by those who lived it,” she said. “I had a very important story to tell, especially for the American reader because it's a slice of history that very little is known … it's a story of war. This story could happen anywhere, any time. Even today, it is happening.”

1 comment:

Bonnie Krueger said...

My mom was also a survivor of the post ww2 Russian lead expulsion in Yugoslavia. I would like to write a book, but have not yet. Right now I just blog snippets of her history. I am inspired by Elsa Walters account "Barefoot in the Rubble" and Katherine Flotz "Pebble in My Shoe".