Recently I reviewed Weeds Like Us, Gunter Nitsch's story of his family's experience in the immediate aftermath of World War II as they fled their home in East Prussia. It is a gripping story of gritty perseverance and survival written from Gunter's perspective as a young boy. Gunter now lives in Chicago and was kind enough to respond to my questions about his book.
Dialog International: Why did you write Weeds Like Us?
Gunter Nitsch: If you read about a
war in the history books, there comes a point where the war is “over” and one
side or the other has won or lost. But,
especially for the civilian population on the losing side, the trauma of war
continues long after the peace treaty is signed. Whenever I saw pictures of
refugees on the nightly news, it struck me how little the average viewer
understands of what it means for a child to be uprooted from his home and to suddenly
lack adequate food, shelter, medical care, and schooling. Although I was living
comfortably with my family in Scarsdale, New York.
GN: People have expressed
surprise at how vivid my memories from that time still are, although anyone
who’s been through a similar experience as a child would understand why. Still
there were gaps which needed to be filled in. Strange as it may seem, no one in
my family ever talked about the years under the Russians and I wanted to get
their input. As far back as twenty years before I began to write the book, I
began collecting materials by interviewing my mother in Cologne
Then, in 1998, to fill
in any remaining gaps, I took a trip back to the former “Ostpreussen” (East
Prussia), now part of Poland and of Russia, and to Germany, to revisit all the
places where I had been between 1939 to 1950 -- Königsberg, Langendorf,
Schippenbeil, Heiligenbeil, Pillau, Bieskobnicken, Palmnicken, Goldbach,
Berlin, Plötzin, the Magdeburg railroad station, Uelzen, Oldendorf and
Bodenteich. Before leaving
I even managed to locate and interview my old friends Sigrid and Horst from Langendorf; Ruth Egger (the “frog lady”) from Goldbach, and Gudrun Neumark from Plötzin. I found the sister of my friend (and gang leader) Werner Teschner still living in the remnants of the Ammo.Camp. While I was in Bodenteich I stopped by the tidy brick house of my former teacher (and torturer), Mr. Schlemmer whom I found crumpled up in a wooden wheelchair eating cling peaches with his hands.
DI: How did you learn about the massacre at Palmnicken?
GN: As I wrote in Weeds Like Us the task of disinterring the victims of that massacre destroyed the health and spirit of my Opa. Everyone at the time talked about the bodies being those of Jewish women. But years later, when I told this story in Germany, people acted as though I must have a wild imagination (…..dass ich “spinne”).
Years later I discovered a book at a German book fair in New York City that had a few pages on the “Palmnicken Massacre”. I also found a book written by Martin Bergau who actually witnessed the massacre as a teenager. In preparation for my trip in 1998, I sent inquiries to the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel, from whom I received English translations of the memos written by officers of the Red Army in Palmnicken in the summer of 1945 describing what had taken place. When I was in Kaliningrad I met with Mr. Bachtin, who was the head of the state archives, in a fruitless effort to locate the Jewish cemetery in Germau which had simply disappeared without a trace.
DI: How difficult was it to write from the perspective of young child?
DI: Much of the book is dialogue. How did you recreate that?
GN: Some of the dialogue in the book is an exact quote. For example, I’ll never forget the words my father used when he was first reunited with my mother. In other cases, while it might not be word for word, the dialogue captures the gist and the tone of what was said. Of course, writing in English, I couldn’t use the colorful East Prussian insults which my Oma threw at me and I loosely translated “Wasserkopf” as Fat Head, but, for the most part, the conversations were deeply etched in my memory and are as accurate as possible.
DI: There is a moving part of the book where your downstairs neighbors (including children) literally freeze to death. Why do you think your family survived the whole ordeal when so many didn’t?
GN: The Schmidt family came from a life of ease in the city and weren’t used to physical labor and hardships. They were intellectuals who moped around and spent their time collecting flowers and reading poetry. Years later my mother told me about a number of similar cases where people from the cities who had been transplanted to the Kolkhoz in Goldbach couldn’t cope with the physical work, especially the tree cutting during the winter. And, of course, if anyone got sick, they didn’t get any bread and starved or froze to death. Unlike spunky people like my mother and my cousin Ilse, many of these city dwellers also lacked the nerve to “organize” food on the job during the day or to steal potatoes from the fields and the potato clamps during the night.
All in all, country folks were more successful in surviving than city folks. Take my grandmother, for example. She was a farmer’s wife with an eighth grade education, a healthy survival instinct, and a fervent trust in God. There wasn’t a single day in Goldbach when I did not hear her singing or humming hymns. My grandmother was a no nonsense sort of person who considered picking flower and reading poetry a waste of time under those circumstances. She demanded that we chop wood and collect stinging nettle, sorrel, chamomile, acorns, berries, mushrooms, and grain. Even more important, she had the practical skills to “make do” with whatever resources were at hand.
DI: How did the idea of coming to America take root? Was it the Care packages?
GN: Care packages gave me certainly a taste of America in the truest sense of the word. But so did the movies which I saw in the Ammo Camp in Bodenteich and later as a young man in the Cologne area. During that time I also heard stories about Germans who had immigrated to the United States and the good life they had there. In 1958/59 I met American soldiers during maneuvers while serving in the Bundeswehr. In those days I was a “jazz fan” and the ultimate experience was a performance by Count Basie and the jazz singer, Joe William, in the American military canteen in Baumholder near Kaisserslautern which some of my army buddies and I attended together with 2,000 G.I.s.
But if I’m honest, the real impetus for my coming to America was a young woman in Cologne whom I had dated for more than two years. She was determined to marry me. Her mother and my parents enthusiastically supported the idea but I just wasn’t ready to settle down. So I boarded a steamship for New York with $400 in my pocket and two suitcases with the intention of staying in America for a year or two. And here I am still, forty-five years later.
DI: The Experiences of Germans living in East Prussia were largely unknown – even in West Germany. Is that finally changing? Should Germans see themselves as victims (Opfer)?
GN: There have been many books in German about the expulsion of the civilian population from East Prussia, Pomerania, and Silesia. The best-known were by writers such as Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, Hans Graf von Lehndorff, Siegfried Lenz and Arno Surminski. In the last few years there have also been several made-for-TV movies on German television about what happened in East Prussia. Günter Grass’ 2002 book Im Krebsgang about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff finally brought to the attention of the entire world the fact that there were also Germans who suffered both during and after the war.
DI: What is the status of the German version? Did you also write it?
Yes, I did the German translation which has a working title of Unkraut vergeht nicht. A professor in Germany did the editing. With the help of a well-known German author I have a contract with a top-notch literary agent in Munich and, hopefully, she will find a publisher for me over there.