In late November 2015 (yes, I know, I’m a bit late writing about it) I gave a talk to the Waterloo Centre for German Studies about my research into my mother’s WWII refugee story. It was a busy Fall term for me with lots of meetings and a new course to teach, so as the time approached I began to fret about not being ready. Although I could have written a formal paper, a conference-type paper, I chose instead to write some notes and to speak to a PowerPoint presentation. I was worried that my talk would be too informal, that my colleagues in German Studies in particular would find my presentation “scholarship lite.” There was no works cited (even though, of course, there is lots of research behind what I was talking about). But there were maps, and photographs, and books, and talking points.
On the day I was pleasantly surprised to see that my audience included members of the local Kitchener Waterloo German Canadian community (i.e. the public), as well as faculty members and graduate students. So I was glad that I had chosen the presentation method I had. It was engaging. It was scholarly but also personal. I was actually taken aback when at moments I began to get emotional—when I was showing photos of my mother as a young child, for instance. And the response was truly gratifying. There were a lot of questions and comments afterwards. There were really good questions about what is remembered, by whom, and how. There were people in the audience who shared my mother’s story—or at least had similar stories to tell. I met some people who can put me in touch with other archives of personal materials about the mass movement of Germans in various parts of Eastern Europe in 1945 and after. Perhaps most important was that I met two people who, like me, are the children of refugees and expellees. Academic colleagues were enthusiastic—including about my ability to talk to the audience rather than read a presentation as literary scholars tend to do. I am not usually so confident. So sure of my material. So passionate about my subject. This work and others’ responses to it have been unprecedented in my academic career. People have reached out to me—including through this blog. Thank you.
Here are a few tidbits from the talk titled, “Digging Up the Doll: Inherited Memories of German Refugees” While we watch with sadness and concern millions of refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East attempting to reach Western Europe and Scandinavia I cannot help but think of another mass movement of people we might have termed “migrants”: the flight and expulsion of German nationals from various parts of Eastern Europe during the final months of WWII and its immediate aftermath. The visual images are strikingly familiar. Like these present-day refugees for those German people there was no option of staying; they had to leave. Like these refugees, German refugees traveled by boat, train, other vehicles and often on foot. Like these refugees they had nothing with them but a few items of clothing and whatever small precious things they could carry. Like these refugees many of them were children. One of those children in Spring 1945 was my mother, then twelve years old.
In March 1945 my family’s Pomeranian home life was shattered. Faced with the advance of the Red army, my family (great grandmother, grandmother and mother) fled their home. As they were preparing to leave, my grandmother told my mother that she could hide one precious thing under the garden shed for “when they came back.” My mother buried her doll. It was a large doll, much like one I had received as a gift from a great aunt who won it at the annual Shutzenfest fair. It might have been the doll in this photograph.
They never went back. In April 2015 I travelled to Poland. You have read about this before, you blog readers. I did not find my mother’s house; I did not find the shed where she had buried her doll.
The doll in my title is both literal and metaphorical. The literal doll cannot be excavated, but my work as a life writing scholar puts me in a position to excavate my mother’s story and those similar to hers. The more I have researched these stories the more they become part of my own subjectivity. Building on—but also departing from—Marianne Hirsch’s formulation of “postmemory” (which I believe is specific to intergenerational memories of Holocaust trauma) I consider whether or not there is a biological, perhaps even genetic, basis for my own embodied (not merely intellectual or emotional) response to my mother’s refugee experience. Is that doll somehow also mine?
To be honest I don’t really know how to theorize this concept of passed on memory. Indigenous intellectuals have formulated the idea of “blood memory” which is a concept that elders have adhered to in their keeping of knowledge. Now science is investigating it through research into “epigenetic memory.” But I have not gone very far down that road. All I know is that the older I get, the more European I become. The more I identify with this little German/English girl.