Digging Up the Doll

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.


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Zagreb 2.0

It is the middle of a teaching term. My work as Associate Dean is plentiful. Scholarship season is upon us. Graduate student recruitment is upon us. And at the Faculty we are working on new programming, strategic enrolment planning, and student experiential learning opportunities. Blah diddy blah. It is mid-October and busy!

Nevertheless, I took six days out of the term to attend a conference in Europe. Where, you ask? In Zagreb. Why, you ask? Because it was a Canadian studies conference sponsored by the Central European Association for Canadian Studies, and I like to support the study of Canada by scholars working overseas. But mainly I went because the conference was organized by my dear friend and colleague V. When Arlequino and I were in Zagreb while on sabbatical this past spring, I told V that I could not travel all this way for a conference in mid-October. Nevertheless, I did.

And I am SO. VERY. GLAD. I. DID.

V organized this conference almost single-handedly and she did a brilliant job. I am not the only one who applauded her efforts. The topic was “Beyond the 49th Parallel: Canada and the North.” It attracted scholars from various disciplines (History, Literature, Sociology, Languages, Geology, etc.) and from at least 10 different countries, maybe more. There were Canadians there—quite a few of us—and the papers were generally (and much more than usually) rich and provocative.

Here is how you can tell when a conference is good.

People commit to it. There were about a hundred delegates and three keynote speakers. People came out to sessions and speeches and readings. People stayed at the university and participated. Okay, it was raining, so perhaps the wet weather kept people inside, but usually at a conference in a big, interesting city academics will skip out of sessions to do other things. I have been guilty of that myself—many times. But at this conference the sessions were full, even the early morning and late afternoon/early evening ones. Everyone attended the opening ceremonies. Everyone ALSO attended the closing ceremonies and the conference dinner. People were just there, having a good time. Catching up with old friends, making new ones, continuing conversations that had started in sessions.

The keynote speakers did not disappear either. They attended sessions. They chaired sessions. They talked to young scholars. I was proud of my Canadian colleagues on that score. The only other conference where that routinely happens is at the IABA conferences: life writing scholars are really, really nice people who care about mentoring the next generation. I felt that here too.

Presenters stuck to the 20-minute time limit. Wow! That’s a biggie. People hate it when presenters drone on and take up too much time. Here I heard excellent papers, efficiently delivered, often even talked rather than read. And there was PLENTY of time for discussion.

The food was excellent. I remember many years ago when I was part of a team organizing a conference and we noted that people talk about two things after the fact—did people go over time and how good or bad was the food. We academics care about our stomachs, but it also takes energy to spend a whole day listening, concentrating, talking, thinking. Paying attention. We need fuel. Coffee is crucial too, and it was good.

Oh, and I got to have dinner with the Canadian Ambassador to Croatia too.

Attending conferences in beautiful locations is one of the perks of our jobs as professors. But to be able to travel back to one of my favourite places in the world and to talk seriously with colleagues both Canadian and European was a special treat. More projects will follow from this conference. Research networks spreading across the oceans. Plans for collaboration are afoot.

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A Woman in Berlin

For the past couple of months I have been trying to write about the two days in April that I spent in Poland, visiting the village that was once my mother’s German home. Capturing the events of that trip is one thing; capturing the emotions stirred and the thoughts engendered is quite another. I have written about fifteen pages, which may or may not become part of something bigger. Meanwhile I do what all literary scholars do when they are stalled in their writing—I keep reading.

The book I have just finished reading, a book that I both could not put down and often could not bear to continue with, is A Woman in Berlin. Written as a diary by “Anonymous,” it chronicles a woman’s experiences in the eight weeks between the final battles in and around the capital city to the retreat of the Russian forces. It covers the period April 20, 1945 to June 16, 1945.


I no longer remember how I heard about this book. I have read many memoirs by Germans about their wartime experiences (especially those ethnic Germans who lived in parts of eastern Europe—Latvia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Prussia, Romania, and, of course, Pomerania) but this is the first diary I have read. It has had a profound effect on me probably because of the sense of immediacy it conveys. The details of daily existence, as well as the thoughts and acts of an ordinary human being in a time of chaos and danger, are acutely rendered. I got my copy through Amazon’s used bookseller network. It was originally in the Milton Ontario Public library. It has the plastic wrapped cover and all and is stamped “DISCARDED” on the inside. Clearly it was waiting for me to bring it home.

The author wished to remain anonymous, and there are few biographical details about her given in the book. She is in her early 30s. She has blond hair. She is slim. She is engaged to a man called Gerd who is (she assumes) at the western front. She has some experience in journalism or publishing. In any event, she can certainly write.

The diary has been endorsed as “authentic” (whatever that means) by Antony Beevor (author of The Fall of Berlin 1945) and others, though apparently when it was first published in the 1950s it was not well received. Readers did not want to hear details about how ordinary German citizens suffered during the war. They did not want to think of Germans as victims. And German readers did not want to be reminded of the atrocities they endured. More specifically, many did not want to read about rape. Because that is a large part of the diary. Rape. And the enormous effort it took to stay alive, despite everything. Bombing raids. No food. No water. No electricity. No transportation. Burned and smashed buildings. Ruined homes. And rampaging Russian soldiers.

I knew about the rapes. It’s all there in the history books. Estimates are that about 100,000 German women and girls were raped by Russian soldiers who treated the defeated as spoils of war. It did not matter how old or attractive the women and girls were; they were all vulnerable. Anonymous was quickly and repeatedly “taken” (the word she uses) by several different men. But what this diary reveals is how diverse particular women’s and girls’ experiences were. One mother managed to hide her daughter in a crawl space for weeks. She was not found. Russian soldiers tended not to enter apartments that were above the first or second floors, so women and girls living on the upper floors had a greater chance of being spared. One woman (perhaps a lesbian) dresses like a man and passes. Another woman, an actor, uses stage makeup to make herself look very old and the soldiers choose the two young refugee girls who live with her instead.

Some women are so traumatized that they commit suicide. Others try to make better deals for themselves by connecting themselves to a particular Russian in exchange for food and other items that can be used or traded, as well as for protection. Anonymous “partners” with three different men who, for a while, keep other soldiers away from her. “Her Russian,” whoever he happens to be at the time (Anatol, Nikolai, the major), becomes part of the economy of her makeshift “family,” a widow (whom she calls “the widow”) and Herr Pauli, the widow’s invalid lodger. She lives in their flat because her own attic apartment (actually it is not even her own but where she ended up during the bombing raids); the Russians bring them meager but essential means of survival for which they are all grateful. Bread. Canned meat. Potatoes. Matches. Vodka.

Remarkably, Anonymous also thinks about why the Russian soldiers act as they do. Not all are animals. Not all are monsters. They had to get drunk in order to rape, because such acts of violence against women went against their basic human moral code. Alcohol removed inhibitions. She is “convinced that if the Russians hadn’t found so much alcohol all over, half as many rapes would have taken place.” She notes that ordinary soldiers were not given home leave, unlike German troops, so many of these Russian soldiers had not seen their wives or girlfriends for four years. The more educated of them, officers like her “major,” wanted companionship and conversation as much as they wanted sex. They often pleaded with women to let them “sleep at your house.” Code for forced sex, to be sure, but also a request for a pretend domesticity.

The raping stops the forced labour begins—women are rounded up and made to do manual labour: clearing rubble, emptying factories of their machines, washing. Anonymous is able to walk around the city. She visits friends. She asks every woman she talks to the same question: “how many times?”

Gerd comes home. At first she is full of joy, but when Gerd learns about the rapes he turns cold and distant. “For him I’d been spoiled once and for all,” she writes. He calls all the women “bitches.” He finds them “horrible to be around.” He leaves again. The diary ends with her wondering if they will ever find their way back together again. For Gerd and other husbands, fiancés, or boyfriends the women left behind are ruined. But you cannot read this diary and reach that conclusion. On the contrary, you cannot help but marvel at their strength, their dignity, their ability to cope. These women elicit our greatest respect. But only now, after 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall, can we hear such stories. A Woman in Berlin was first published in 1953 and the response was contempt or silence. Anonymous did not want the book to be republished until after her death. Finally it was republished, in its complete form, in 2000, and this is the copy that now lives with—and in—me.


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A reckoning

Today is the last day of my sabbatical and I’m feeling contemplative. This has been the best sabbatical I have ever experienced. Although I might not have done as much work (read: writing) as I had wanted to, I have done some significant personal and intellectual work. These are the accomplishments, successes and resolutions:

  1. I have determined that although early retirement seems tempting, I am not ready to stop working at the university just yet. There are things I still want to accomplish in both my teaching and my administrative roles. A new course on indigenous literatures. Better funding packages for doctoral students. More traction on non-academic career building for all graduate students in Arts. Writing too, but that is always going on in the background.
  1. Strengthening my network of international colleagues has been a true delight. I am now in meaningful and regular contact with colleagues in Croatia and Poland in particular. Facebook helps! But so do other gizmos and software such as smart phones and WhatsApp. We communicate, build relationships, make lasting friendships as well as work collaboratively on projects. I will be going back to Zagreb in October for a conference organized by V. Awesome. I will stay in the apartment we rented and which felt like home. Excellent.
  1. Including a recent holiday trip to Cuba (where I also have connections with the University of Holguin), I have travelled in eight countries in six months. What a rare pleasure.
  1. Living in Europe for four of the six months has deepened my sense of myself as a European person. It is odd that this is happening after spending most of my life in Canada—45 years! And ironic considering my academic specialization is Canadian literature. But it’s true. My soul responds to Europe. I was born either to pick potatoes in Eastern European fields or to sit in cafes talking. Probably both. I walk the streets of villages, towns and cities and I feel at home. I recognize it; it recognizes me. This morning I woke up and realized that I had been dreaming in German—with the same level of proficiency I actually do have, not as a fluent German speaker. But stil, isn’t that odd? IMG_1675
  1. Books can weigh you down. I sent a box of books I intended to read (those autobiography theory and indigenous literary theory books that had been collecting on my “to read” shelf) from Canada to Vienna. They arrived safely. I sent a box of books from Vienna to Zagreb. They never arrived. Lost in the customs house no doubt. Abandoned and now unread by me. I miss them, but it is also strangely freeing not to be followed by books. Although I am not ready to retire, I am ready to start divesting myself of books.IMG_0892
  1. I have had the privilege of spending whole days reading. Most of you reading this blog will understand how truly splendid and rare that is. Right now I am reading yet another book about WWII and Eastern Europe: Walking Since Daybreak by University of Toronto historian and Lativian-Canadian Modris Eksteins. He embeds his own family story (going back to his great-grandmother) within the larger story of the war and in particular what happened to Latvia. His purpose is larger than that. He argues that “The year 1945 stands at the centre of our century and our meaning.” Get that? “our meaning.” That resonates with me. And I am learning so much from Eksteins’s book because he is a historian and he looks back centuries to the pagan tribes that settled in Eastern Europe. Oh, and did you know that Catherine II, Catherine the Great of Russia, was born in Stettin Pomerania! I didn’t. I have also just read the latest Kate Atkinson novel, A God in Ruins, which is partly about her [fictional] protagonist Teddy’s experience as an RAF bomber pilot during the war, involved in the relentless bombing of Germany. On the ground, cities burn and civilians die. Hamburg. Nuremburg. Bremen. Berlin. The two sides of my family—English and German—are defined in relation to that war, with which I am completely obsessed. IMG_1635
  1. My visit to my mother’s home village (now in Poland and about which I have already written) has prompted more writing. I am writing what I think might become a book one day. Child refugees during 1945 and what they pass on to their own children. I am involved in the Oral History project being conducted by the Waterloo Centre for German Studies and have discovered that many German-Canadians in the Waterloo region are, like my mother, originally from the East. Many of them emigrated and settled here in the years after 1945. Many of them share similar stories of flight and living in deportation camps or under Russian occupation before they could finally leave Germany. I would like to talk to their children.
  1. And finally, my marriage has been strengthened by spending an extended period of time with Arlequino. We were never more than a few hours apart for most of the four months we were in Europe. And we loved it.

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Field Research

Unlike other academics, this particular English professor does not usually travel for her research. Oh yes, I have travelled to attend conferences or to give talks (let me name the countries: Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico & Hawaii and other parts of the USA, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, all over Canada—and more). But my basic research has not required me to travel. Many of my colleagues work in British literature and travel to England to conduct research. Others are searching in archives here in Canada and abroad. But I do not need to go away to do research. My work is on the literature of my own country, and generally focused on the present or the recent past.

Until now.

You will recall, gentle reader, that I have been researching my mother’s childhood and her experience as a refugee during WWII. She was one of the millions of people who either fled Pomerania and other German territories in the East in advance of the Russian occupation or were forcibly removed from their homes when the territories transitioned to Poland. I have known this story all my life, but only in my middle age and towards the end of my professional academic career (well, I’m not done yet, but I’m getting used to the thought of retirement) have I taken up this story as a research subject. And for the most part I have done what I have always done: I read. I read books, journal articles, and periodicals. I scoured the Internet. I watched movies and documentaries. I pored over maps. I read and read and read some more. But I did not move from my office, my computer, my reading chair, my desk.

Until now.

While on sabbatical in Europe I went to Kępice, the Polish name of the village where my mother was born and where she spent the first eleven years of her life. To her it was Hammermühle, and it was home. I did not know I would be able to visit the place, but then an extraordinary circumstance made it feasible. My friend and colleague (let’s call her Sylvia) happened also to be on sabbatical and in Poland at the same time that I was in Zagreb. We determined that there were three days when our schedules overlapped and that a trip that we had talked about long ago could happen. So we booked it. I flew to Gdansk, met Sylvia at the airport the next morning, and then we travelled by train first to Słupsk (formerly Stolp) and then by a very rickety local train on to Kępice.

At Gdansk Station

At Gdansk Station

On the train

On the train

This train

This train

I cannot say strongly or often enough how grateful I am to my companion on this journey. Her fluent Polish and unwavering graciousness opened many doors for me/us. I don’t speak a word of Polish (well, I know a couple of words now) so without her I would have been wandering around not really knowing what I was looking at and gaining no significant information about the history of families, including my own, in that place when it was part of Germany.

So what did we find? Enough for another essay, which I will write this summer. But the most amazing and heartening discovery was the fact that the local Poles had gone quite a way towards not just acknowledging the history of Germans in Kępice but honouring that history. This monument speaks volumes.

IMG_1542 IMG_1543 IMG_1544

It was in the “old German cemetery” behind the church, which our landlady had told us about as we ate her excellent food. There was only one restaurant in Kępice; luckily it was a good one. She listened to why we were there (Kępice is hardly a tourist destination) and felt moved to try and help us. The doors began to open with her. But she did not mention this monument. It was erected in 1999 to acknowledge the shared history of Poles and Germans in the village. It is placed at the back of the cemetery in the very centre. The graves themselves are overgrown, and only a few headstones still had discernable inscriptions on them. The most common headstones seemed to have the names and dates, etc. written on ceramic or porcelain plates attached to the stones. These were missing from all of the headstones we could see. But look closely. At the base of the monument are fragments of those plates, now set in another stone. Were they broken deliberately? Were the names and the general presence of Germans deliberately effaced? Perhaps. But the people today have collected whatever fragments remained and have ensured their survival. Traces of the past. Traces of people “aus Hammermühle.”

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How to fall in love with a city

Zagreb has my heart. How did this happen? I was here for three months three years ago, and now, having returned, I do not want to leave. After the glamour and order of Vienna, Zagreb initially felt dingy. There are cracked and broken sidewalks, potholed streets, many closed up shops, graffiti (not the Bansky kind of street art) scrawled on buildings, buildings that seriously need bits of them to be repaired and restored. I hadn’t remembered this aspect of Zagreb. The grey, even shabby side. I had remembered this:

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But after a week I was in love. In love with the streets, the café life, the slow pace of the pedestrian sidewalk waltz, the innate civility of the courtesies and greetings strangers show one another.

How to fall in love with a city:

  1. Rent an apartment. Pretend you live there, and eventually you will begin to refer to the apartment as home and begin to long for one of your own.
  2. Shop at the markets and the local stores. Okay, we do shop at supermarkets, but we shop in our neighbourhood. We smile at the ladies at the cash desk, and we say thank you a lot.
  3. Learn the words for the simple politenesses, the please and thank you but also how to say good morning. Learn how to order your coffee as you like it in Croatian.
  4. Walk it. Our host and new friend Andrea has written a “Walking Manifesto” that beautifully expresses why walking matters. Please read her blog.
  5. Walk in green spaces. Zagreb is remarkably green. There are grand boulevards that include park spaces, such as Zrinivac; there are the Botanical Gardens and other large parks ; there are green spaces above the city; there is a mountain behind the city that you can hike up (we did part of it on the day we went to Medvedgrad from Sestine). Look at the gorgeous flowerbeds that are everywhere, and admire the trees and bushes that dot the streetscape. Right now fruit trees are in blossom. Heavenly.
  6. Eat. Seriously. And also eat seriously. Eat the local food. In season and prepared as it comes, with all the sauces and toppings and side dishes that usually attend particular dishes: fish with potatoes and swiss chard; slow cooked veal in a rich sweet/sour sauce with dumplings; chevapi (spiced ground meat fingers) with raw onions and a sauce that is a cross between fresh cheese and sour cream). Eat street food, especially burek (phyllo pastry stuffed with meat, ricotta-type cheese, potatoes and onions, spinach, or fruits). Drink Croatian wines, Croatian beers, and Croatian brandies. You can’t get them in Canada.
  7. Look up and look to the side. There are many open doors and open gates in this city. There are courtyards and passageways. Follow them. Stick your nose in the spaces that beckon. You will find treasures. Including a local craft beer garden where you can sip your excellent pint on a sunny day.
  8. Drink coffee at cafes and frequently. One of the things that drives me nuts in Vienna is the price of a coffee. Four euros! Ridiculous! In Croatia coffee is just as good and one third of the price. But coffee drinking is not just about the coffee; it’s a way of life here.

Yesterday I also had the great honour of teaching a class to undergraduate students at the University of Zagreb. I felt at home.


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Sabbatical adventures

There is no doubt that the opportunity to spend my sabbatical in Europe also brings with it many tempting distractions. Especially travel. By the time I leave I will have been in seven countries: Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Croatia, Italy and Poland. Hungary and Slovenia are also possibilities. We keep thinking—it’s so close! The trains are so excellent (fast, cheap, comfortable, convenient, frequent—oh, the trains)! Why would we not go there?

So we do.

A couple of weeks ago we went to visit my aunt and uncle in Germany. They live in the village (now incorporated into a town) where my mother’s family landed after “die Flucht” as refugees and about which I have written. They lived on the second floor of this house.


Burgartenweg, Stederdorf, Peine

Burgartenweg, Stederdorf, Peine

I am speaking with the departed. I am recalling their life stories.

Visting my great-grandmother, grandmother and grandfather, all buried in the same gravesite.

Visting my great-grandmother, grandmother and grandfather, all buried in the same gravesite.

Before I leave Europe I am planning to go to the town in Poland that was my mother’s ancestral home: it was then Hammermühle, then part of Pomerania; it is now, post WWII, Kępice in Poland. I consider this trip to be part of my research—my academic research. Because one of the projects I will be working on is another piece about German immigrants who once lived in the East and were expelled, especially people now living in the Kitchener Waterloo area. This is part of an oral history project that my colleagues in the Department of German and Slavic Languages have been engaged in. I have been asked to write a chapter of what will eventually become a book of interviews. I am thrilled to be part of this project, and I am looking forward to getting my head into it.

But right now I am getting ready to move from Vienna to Zagreb, where I will pick up on a life I enjoyed during my last sabbatical three years ago. Remember Lady Professor in the Balkans? This time I will not be teaching, but I will be giving a guest lecture and reuniting with Croatian colleagues.

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