Category Archives: Life writing

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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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.


Filed under Life writing, publishing, Reading

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 good it feels

Every academic reading this post will know this feeling. You get an idea for an article that you want to write. It might be part of an ongoing research project or a new one. You do the research (which to me is the fun part). You spend hours working through your research material trying to put it in some sort of logical order. You begin writing. You hate writing (or at least I do). You force yourself to write. Then you have to edit and revise until you can’t change one more sentence. Then you give your essay to someone (maybe) who will say nice things about it (maybe) but will also (hopefully) suggest how you can make it better, clearer. You revise again. You finally send it off to a journal. You wait. And wait. And wait. Then the happy day comes when you get an email from the journal in your inbox. There are butterflies in your stomach as you open it. Relief! They like it! BUT there are three readers who have written reports and want you to revise again. You go back into the essay and painfully rewrite. You send it back to the journal. They’ve accepted it! it will appear in at least a year . . . which gives you plenty of time to acquire permissions to reproduce images, get digital copies of them, fiddle with abstract, keywords, and author bio.

Then, one magic day, the issue that contains your essay is published. Yay! Celebration! But also immediate (if minor) trepidation, because now that it’s out there you have made yourself vulnerable.

Dear readers, if you are interested in “Flucht und Vertreibung and the Difficult Work of Memory” (aka “my mother’s story”), you can read it here, if you have a U Waterloo login. If not, it’s in volume 10 issue 3.


By the way, Life Writing was an awesome journal to work with. Just wonderful

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Autobiography Across the Americas

One of the highlights of the academic life is going to conferences in interesting places. I have been anticipating this one for months and months. It is (actually was, as it ended yesterday) a “by invitation only” conference. The aim was to gather scholars from across the Americas (North, South, Central and the Caribbean) who work on autobiographical texts to talk to one another about their research. The ultimate aim was to establish a regional chapter of the International Auto/Biography Association, titled IABA Americas. At the end of four days we held a business meeting and decided to do just that.


The conference was held in San Juan Puerto Rico, in the Sheraton Hotel in the Old city, right on the harbor. The hotel was a mixed blessing. The location was fabulous; the beds were comfortable; but the hotel is undergoing construction and sometimes the noise during the day made it impossible to be in the room. Not much of a problem for me as I was stuck in the conference room/s all day, but it was still inconvenient, especially for Arlequino who accompanied me. Plus there was a noisy casino. We were not at all tempted by it.

I spent four days, from 10-4 (at least) in this room. While Arlequino explored the city.


I was taking notes and trying to listen carefully. It was a special pleasure to make new academic connections with people from various parts of the Caribbean, Brazil, Mexico, as well as Canadians whose work I knew of but whom I had yet to meet in person. There were also several old friends and acquaintances in attendance.


Weather was steamy. It was hot, hot, hot, intensified by high humidity and the close packed streets of the old town. The cobblestones are lovely shades of blue.


On our last night in San Juan, after the conference had finished and after ¾ of the IABA 2014 team had met to talk about the conference we are planning in Banff next year, Arlequino and I encountered this restaurant. We have eaten very well in San Juan. Spanish, Italian, Turkish, and Puerto Rican food. We had tasted excellent coffee. We have drunk a few mojitos and good beer from the local craft brewery. But this vegetarian restaurant (albeit with fish) was excellent.


In the morning we realized that although we thought we had one more day at that hotel we had actually miscalculated (read: Linda messed up). So we packed our bags, went out for one last coffee, and took a taxi to a beachside boutique hotel outside of the city. Thank you Expedia for finding us something gorgeous and available. Now we’re ensconced in this modern, very blue and white hotel.


Lunch at a rooftop bar. A few hours on the beach across the street. A shower and now it’s time for a stroll.


Autobiography Across the Americas, thank you for bringing us to Puerto Rico.  I am at the point in my career when I’m not a big conference goer anymore. But these people, the autobiography folk, are my family. I sometimes think that people who work on autobiography are actually pretty decent human beings—because we care about the human. Hasta luego muchachas y muchachos!

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Off-site editing–a working weekend in Montreal

A week ago I was in Montreal, one of my favourite Canadian cities—actually one of my favourite cities anywhere.


I had some work to do with a colleague with whom I am co-editing a book, and I have learned from past experience with projects of this kind that there is only so much one can do by email and trading documents back and forth. My colleague lives on the prairies and rather than me going there or her coming here, we decided to rent an apartment in Montreal. What an excellent idea that was! We had a two bedroom fully equipped apartment on the Plateau, steps away from Parc LaFontaine, the Metro, a taxi stand, shops, cafes and restaurants of all kinds.


It was hot, hot, hot, as July can be in Montreal, so we were grateful to have air conditioning and a good shower. The apartment was clean, modern, comfortable. I could have lived in it quite happily.

We quickly established something of a routine. A walk (me)/run (her) in the early morning before the humidity set in.


We breakfasted in the apartment on bagels, cheese, fruit and tea and then went to fetch a coffee to get us set up for the beginning of the workday. We worked at the dining room table, each of us with enough room to set up laptops and spread out essays and notes. We talked a lot, riffing ideas off each other, suggesting revisions and remembering sources that we could recommend to authors. We googled a lot.


Lunch break was something to look forward to. Especially the Lebanese food at the corner.


A few errands after lunch (ahem. cough. go and buy wine) and then back to work. We took turns writing the notes and we had a lot of fun getting into the book, imagining it taking shape, noting what we want to write in the introduction. Stop at 4 o’clock and nap or go out. Dinner in the neighbourhood—why go anywhere else?


And then some Netflix TV.

We both slept well—it was a quiet, cool, safe neighbourhood. And we both felt that we had accomplished what we needed to in terms of the progress of the project. Added bonus was spending a few days in Montreal. Extra added bonus was getting to know my colleague better. Oh, the gossip!

On my way home by train I was boarding the train from Toronto to Kitchener, the last leg of the journey, just as the deluge hit. The sky darkened; the heavens opened. We got soaked to the skin just walking along the platform to the train. While in the train the windows were running with water. It was like being in a car wash. But then we looked out of the window and saw the flooding. The track was covered in water; water was cascading down embankments; we saw underpasses flooded and cars up their bumpers in water or worse. Sirens, lights, drama. Wow! I’d never seen anything like it. Luckily we kept moving, slowly. I got home safe and sound.

Work done. Pleasure had. Weather survived.

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Filed under Editing, Life writing

Field trips for English students!

If we were anthropologists or water specialists or architects we’d often be doing our research and teaching elsewhere. We’d do field work. We’d pay site visits. We’d gather data from the environment. English students, however, tend to fairly bound to university classrooms, desks in offices and libraries, or inside their own heads. So whenever I can dream up a field trip for English graduate students in my courses I do it. And I’m not talking about a trip to Stratford to see a Shakespearean play (though there’s nothing wrong with that, of course). Over the years I have managed just four field trips.

1. Ste. Marie Among the Hurons. This was in a course about spatialization and Canadian texts. We read books that created verbal maps of different parts of Canada at different points in history. We began by reading excerpts from The Jesuit Relations, so we made the trek to the place from whence most of the missives were sent. Not only did we tour the site, talk to the re-enactors who play priests, donnees and Indians (Wyandot) we talked to the archivist who showed us originals and made us aware of the other unpublished texts written by the Jesuits that are held at Ste. Marie Among the Hurons. Mind blowing.

2. In another course that connected texts and places we read Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion, which is set primarily in Toronto. The novel maps some offbeat parts of Toronto, including the iconic R.C. Harris Water Purification Plant. So, of course, we did the Michael Ondaatje walking tour of Toronto, complete with a visit to the Riverdale library, a stroll across the Bloor Street viaduct, a tour of the water plant and lunch on the Danforth in a Greek restaurant.

3. A course in African Canadian literature culminated in a trip to North Buxton, Ontario, site of a Historical Museum and location (in the wider area) of a once large and vibrant African Canadian community. It’s not gone, of couse, just rather smaller than it used to be. This was one terminus of the Underground Railroad, but as we learned in that course black history (and literature) in this country is much more extensive than what is popularized. In the museum we saw a model of a slave ship, the printing press upon which  Mary Ann Shadd’s work was printed, a Ghanaian mask that had made it over the middle passage and all sorts of domestic objects that spoke to life in the community. Josiah Henson’s house, which is a historic site, was, unfortunately closed. Timing is everything.

Today, after the students have met each other to peer review drafts of their final essays, we are going on another field trip, this one closer to home. In the Waterloo City Museum, which is tucked away inside Conestoga Mall, there is an exhibit of Scott Chantler’s work Two Generals, which we have read in the autobiography course that is just winding up today.


Chantler came to talk to the class the week we studied his work–which was brilliant!–and now we are going to look at artifacts that are associated with it.

Field trips for English students. Fun, informative, informal. But teaching opportunities nonetheless.

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