Tag 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 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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Thinking through the holidays

It’s the day after the day after Christmas, and celebrations are over–for the most part. It has been great to relax and not think about work. My activities over the past several days have included:

  • shopping for and wrapping gifts for my beloveds
  • shopping for, cooking (or watching Arlequino cooking), and eating wonderful food (best scalloped potatoes ever! lamb curry!)
  • hanging out with family (all of them this time! a first!) and dear friends
  • enjoying wine, including a freshly squeezed clementine and prosecco mimosa on Christmas morning
  • reading
  • knitting
  • yoga
  • walking

We went away for a couple of days just before Christmas and had a lovely quiet time together–with some swimming and gym workouts to interrupt the sloth. Muskoka resort; great deal; awesome food; enormous room. No people. Perfect.

But now I find my mind turning back to work, and that’s okay. There is always work to be done, and i LIKE my work. I’m not thinking much about teaching yet, but I am thinking about conference papers that have to be written for the coming year.

Arlequino and I have decided to write a paper together (our first academic collaboration). It will be about Two Generals, a graphic ‘novel’ (it’s not a novel) based on Scott Chantler’s grandfather’s WWII diary. If you want to see a promo video about the book click on this link: AgsyhAtzYcs?hd=1

The analysis of the text lends itself well to our different areas of expertise: Arlequino knows everything there is to know about Military re-enactment, performance, Canadian political history and more. I know a thing or two about life writing, especially Canadian and including graphic memoirs (or, in this case, a biographical text). The personal in the historical; the historical in the personal. We can do this. And I’m enjoying thinking about my contribution to this paper. Plus I’m starting to love working on graphic texts, where the visual design is so very important. For instance, I’m so impressed by this particular author’s use of frame size and repeated images to enact the pacing of the narrative. The text is also a frame narrative. And it’s very literary–uses intertextuality, for example. Nice. Interesting.

And, of course, I am writing more and more about family histories, family stories, personal stories about WWII.

Brain still functioning!

Happy Christmas/New Year week, everyone.

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A blog that uses the personal to explore the professional

A colleague of mine contributes to a blog about writing and he included a link to this blog post on the blog Harlot.  I love this post by Sue Webb, which is about her father, but as you’ll see she has manipulated the blog layout and has combined recipes, song lyrics, poetry, and essay to talk about her relationship with her Dad. It’s also about how her relationship with her Dad partly made her who she is.  Love it!

See the blog by clicking here: Webb.

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Filed under Blogging, Life writing, professor blogs, Research

A difficult article

My research this summer has marked a shift in my life as a thinker. Always writing about life writing, I’m now writing about something closer to home. My mother’s experiences of being a child in Germany during the second world war. What’s so special about her story?, you ask, knowing that millions of Germans were children during the war. Well they had a very particular experience that has not been talked about much here in Canada. It’s not widely known. Immigrants (like us) who came to Canada to leave difficult histories of Europe behind don’t want to remember. My mother, as well as my grandmother and great-grandmother, were just three of the millions who were forcibly expelled from their homes in the Eastern zones in 1945. They had lived in Hammermuhle, a village near Stolp in Pommerania. That land is now Poland. The Russians were advancing on them. They had to leave. They were Fluchtlinge (refugees). They travelled by train, boat and on foot almost 500 km to the West.

Mum was born in 1932. This is a map from 1932. This was her world. Of course you can’t read this map. And can hardly write this article, but I also cannot stop writing it.

A version of this map hangs on a wall in my mother’s house. Hers came from her school text book. She never went back to school after the expulsion and resettlement, so her school map is from her primary school days. Hers is in colour! And has traces of her pen marks on it. It’s a family heirloom. Her  mother must have saved it, hung on to it, and then gave it to my mother at some point. She saved it. Folded up between the covers of a book. Several years ago my father had it art-framed with special glass that will prevent it from fading. It is the only object I want to inherit from my mother when she passes. I will keep it safe.


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