all for nothing

My mother, at the age of 14, became one of the 2 million refugees during the evacuation of East Prussia in 1945. Her mother took her six children from Kolberg [Kolobrzeg] to Celle, outside Hanover in Western Germany. I am not sure exactly when my mother, Elli, fled as she did not talk much about it. I do know that some of the trip was by boat, which was part of Operation Hannibal, one of the largest naval operations in history. In 1947 the family was reunited with my grandfather who had been a prisoner of war in France.

My mother rarely talked about her experiences during the war, only saying that war is terrible. Elli married in 1955 and moved with my father and older brother to Canada where I was born. My father died in a car accident when I was five and my mother found out at the same time that she was pregnant with her fourth child. Her family strongly suggested that she return to Germany. Elli did not go back, and later remarried and had another child.

I can only imagine how my mother’s early experiences affected her life decisions and perspectives on the world. I remember thinking at an early age how much easier my life was than had been my mother’s.

I recently came across a book review on Josie Holford’s blog — Rattlebag & Rhubarb. The book — All for Nothing — was written by Walter Kempowski, who was a refugee from East Prussia at the age of 15.

“Imagine, for a moment, a German novel about the final months of the Second World War, an epic tale of national collapse and shameful private defeat, the ruined landscape ribboned with refugees. Now imagine such a book written by a German who lived through those bitter months as a teen-ager, but written with a light touch, almost quizzically, the entire story suffused with an air of speculative detachment. I wouldn’t have thought it could be done. Then I encountered Walter Kempowski’s extraordinary novel ‘All for Nothing’ (New York Review Books), first published in German in 2006, and now available in Anthea Bell’s vital translation.” —New Yorker 2018-04-09

I found the book and ordered it immediately, reading it over this past Thanksgiving weekend.

view out from northwest cove nova scotia

My view while reading ‘All for Nothing’ during Thanksgiving weekend 2021

This is not a book review, as you can get a good one from The Guardian or by Gert Loveday. For me, it was was an opportunity to reflect on how similar these events may have been for my mother. People in the book for the most part cannot comprehend a Soviet invasion or the defeat of the German Army. These are impossible concepts for them. Everyone in the book sees events from their unique, egocentric bubble. But then people start dying randomly and everyone becomes focused on survival. There are some acts of generosity, especially at the end of the book, but for the most part it’s everyone for themselves. Witnessing these events as a young girl must have been traumatic for my mother and I do not blame her for repressing these memories by not discussing what happened in 1945.

Walter Kempowski has done a great favour for the children of the survivors of the evacuation of East Prussia. He has shown it through the eyes of those who lived it and he has passed these impressions to the next generations. This is all the more important because so few have written about the experiences of the average German civilian. It has brought me a little closer to my mother, who passed away in 2019.

As Edwin Starr’s 1969 song asks — War (what is it good for?) — the answer is — all for nothing.

From the introduction of All For Nothing, by Jenny Erpenbeck

Back in the early 1990’s, Kempowski’s readers were confronted with the words “all for nothing” prominently displayed in a different context, in his novel Mark und Bein (Marrow and Bone). A young man from Hamburg on a business trip to modern-day Poland locates the spot where his father fell in battle. “All for nothing! ALL FOR NOTHING! And by this he meant not just his mother’s death, not just the death of his father […] but all the torments suffered by living beings, the flesh hung on the stake, the calf he saw bound and gagged, the shed in Marienburg prepared for torture, the line of exhausted refugees dragging themselves along beneath a condemning sky. It’s all for nothing! he thought again and again. And: Who is to blame?”

5 Responses to “all for nothing”

  1. Josie Holford

    That’s a powerful piece Harold. Thank you for sharing this family story.

    In that New Yorker review, James Wood references W.G. Sebald who commented that no one had written the great German epic of WW2 and that Kempowski finally had. Or one of them at least. Perhaps there will be others.

    (“Her family strongly suggested that she return to Canada.”Did you mean Germany in this line?)

    Reply
  2. Jon Husband

    Thanks for this powerful moment of reflection for me.

    My maternal grandparents migrated from Bulgaria in 1917, which was a very active theatre of war in WWI. They never talked about where they had come from.

    Reply
    • Harold Jarche

      I saw a t-shirt via social media the other day — “Being a refugee is not a choice.”

      Reply
  3. mistermuse

    Thank you for this very interesting post. I commented at greater length on Josie Holford’s blog, so I won’t repeat myself here.

    Reply

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