I have already reviewed two books about the Flucht und Vertreibung (fleeing and expulsion) of the German population of East Prussia in the last days of World War II and afterward. After the Reich is a historical overview of the period with a special focus on the brutal behavior of the Soviet Red Army towards the German population. Then Walter Kempowski's last novel, Alles umsonst, is a fictional portrayal of an aristocratic German family forced to flee a farm in East Prussia ahead of the advancing Red Army. Now my friend and former colleague Gunter Nitsch has written a memoir of his experiences as a child as he and his family were forced from their beloved farm at Langendorf in East Prussia in January 1945.
Weeds Like Us covers the Nitsch family's flight as the war was ending, when Gunter was just seven years old, to 1950, when the boy was reunited with his father in Cologne. In between, the family was forced to work as slave laborers for two years on a Soviet collective farm (Kolkhoz), then transported to an East German refugee camp, and finally made a bold escape across the Soviet Sector border into the British occupied zone, where they were put in yet another camp for German refugees. The title of the book is from a fond expression of Gunter's mother: "Weeds like us don't die", and, indeed, the book is a tribute to her indomitable will to survive under the most incredibly harsh conditions. While thousands of other German refugee families perished from hunger and cold in those years immediately following the war, Margarete Nitsch found ways to "organize" (steal) potatoes and scrounge for firewood to keep her family alive. Life on the collective farm was especially difficult, and the Russian overseers of the Kolkhoz had very little sympathy for the Germans under their control. But, while young Gunter had nothing but contempt for the Stalinist regime in charge of the farm, he refuses to demonize the Russian "victors", most of whom were just as poor and starving as their German counterparts. Russian doctors saved the life of Gunter's younger brother, and Russian border guards look the other way when the Nitsch family finally escapes into the western zone.
One historical footnote: a chapter of Weeds Like Us takes place in Koenigsberg (today, Kaliningrad - part of Russia) which was the scene of a terrible massacre of Jewish prisoners on the beach by the Nazi SS. In 1945 Gunter's grandfather, along with other German civilian men, was commandeered by the Soviets to exhume the sand-covered bodies and rebury them in cemeteries where they were simply identified as "Soviet heroes", stripped of their Jewish identities. The gruesome labor broke the old man's spirit, and he fell into despair over the terrible crimes his own countrymen had committed in the name of the Vaterland. The massacre and fate of these Jews had been wiped clean from the historical record but not from the memory of Gunter Nitsch. As part of his research for Weeds Like Us he went to Kaliningrad and asked for help from the regional authorities, who, at first, refused to acknowledge that such an atrocity had ever occurred there. Gradually, the records were uncovered and the story was pieced together. Today, there is a plaque dedicated to victims of the massacre on the beach.
In view of all the dying and suffering, you might think Weeds Like Us would be a very somber book indeed. What saves it from being so is that the story is told from the perspective of a young boy. Children can find wonderment and adventure in even the most dire circumstances, and this sense of wonderment comes across in the narrative. There are moments of humor, from the comical-tyrannical teachers to the schoolboy pranks practiced by boys everywhere. At one point Gunter sneaks into a showing of an American movie and the dream of coming to America begins to take hold. When his mother receives care packages from strangers in America, Gunter can hardly wait to see what a country of such abundance and generosity is like.
More than seven million German civilians were forced to flee from East Prussia and Silesia in the aftermath of the war, yet we know so little about these people and their fate. So we are grateful to Gunter Nitsch for telling the story of his family, and we are doubly fortunate that he can tell the story in such a gripping style. He has now completed a German version - Unkraut vergeht nicht - and is in the process of finding a German publisher.