Babushka’s Journey by Marcel Krueger review – portrait of WWII’s toll on lives
Family memoir of suffering tells story of eastern Europe in first half of 20th century
Marcel Krueger and his grandmother who was born Cilly Anna Barabasch in April 1923. She stuffed him with “proper Granny food”, tucked him up in bed at night and examined his cuticles for vitamin deficiencies
Babushka's Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin's Wartime Camps
In the hierarchy of the victims of Nazism, the German people usually finish last. In 1945, the occupied peoples of Europe took a fierce revenge on their erstwhile tormentors. In a vanquished Germany, there was, for them, no innocent Germans. Having sown the wind, the German people reaped the whirlwind of vengeance.
This mentality fuelled the excesses of the victorious Red Army in 1945 as they first reclaimed their own territories and then invaded Germany. In the pitiless existential conflict between fascism and Nazism, the Soviets lost 20 million people. They were loathe to distinguish between guilty and innocent Germans. In his book Berlin, the military historian Antony Beevor recounted the rapes, torture, murder and plunder carried out by Red Army soldiers in Germany. These accounts were denied by the Russians, but confirmed by their own archives.
The events of the last year of the second World War provide the backdrop for Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps by Dublin-based and German-born author Marcel Krueger.
His book tells the story of his beloved grandmother who was born Cilly Anna Barabasch in April 1923. Cilly fussed over Krueger, stuffed him with “proper Granny food”, tucked him up in bed at night and examined his cuticles for vitamin deficiencies.
Her home had been in East Prussia, the enclave of the Weimer Republic created out of the Treaty of Versailles and separated from the rest of Germany by the Polish Corridor. Its separation from the Reich would be the casus belli for Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939.
East Prussia, with its stout farmhouses, Junker estates and prosperous Hanseatic cities, was the heartland of Prussia – the dominant power which united Germany into one country in 1871.
Cilly grew up near the city of Allenstein. To the victors the spoils and at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, East Prussia became part of Poland. The Germans, who had ruled the area for 300 years, were expelled. Allenstein is now the Polish city of Olsztyn.
In February 1945, Cilly was transported to Russia to work in labour camps and did not return to Germany for four years. The mass transportation of German civilians to Stalin’s labour camps was done with the sanction of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.
Cilly’s family were anti-Nazi, though two brothers died in the war. A third was executed for collaborating with the Poles in 1942. A family story goes that when Nazi officials arrived to give Cilly’s mother the “Mother’s Cross” for having more than four children, she threw the medal on the floor.
Part family memoir, part history book and travelogue (Krueger is an established travel writer), this thought-provoking and tautly written book is a timely reminder of how the second World War affected individuals and families, usually with life-long consequences.
Krueger takes a trip across Poland and Russia to retrace the journey his grandmother took in February 1945 from her home in East Prussia to labour camps in the Ural mountains.
He finds distant echoes of the past when he visits the site where his grandmother grew up and where she was brutally taken away from everything she knew.
He travels mostly by train, a means of travel which causes him to reflect: “It seems to me that, in our time and age, we have lost the art of travel. No longer does it mean conviction and an acceptance there is a distance between point of origin and destination. Instead it has become an inconvenience, transit time between home and the selfie on the beach or by the pool. We are hardly ever concerned with the present, only living for what is to come and how we can best document it for our social media followers.” Wise words indeed.
In 1949 Cilly returned to Germany, but not to her home. She settled in the West German town of Solingen and married a former German POW who, like her, was a refugee from the east.
Krueger contrasts the cosiness of the home environment she created in West Germany with the horrors she endured as a prisoner in Russia. He bases his testimony on accounts given of women herded into cattle trucks and transported thousands of kilometres.
Starvation and disease
There they faced semi-starvation and disease. For years they did not have enough to eat, but Krueger magnanimously points out that the Russian people did not have enough to eat either as the Ukraine famine in 1946 killed millions who had survived the war.
Krueger admires his grandmother’s stoicism and her desire to see the best in people and in life. She taught him to appreciate the good things in life because “someday you might not have them anymore”.
She was not unaffected though by her ordeal. Krueger writes candidly of her temper and the hard time she gave his father. She was not perfect, he states, but there were no psychiatrists back then and she coped as best she could. Sooner or later every grandchild has to face up to the fact that their grandparents are not the archetypes of endless benevolence, but flesh and blood characters.
“I still find it hard to connect that tough young woman who was raped and almost starved to death with my cuddly, teddy-bear round granny of later years,” Krueger writes.
The story of Cilly is the story of eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. It is a remarkably well-written book, all the more impressive as English is not the author’s first language.
Its one weakness are its photographs. The subject matter demands good illustrations, but the photographs feel like an afterthought. They are grey and poorly cropped. Fortunately, though, readers will not be buying this book for the photographs.
Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps is published by IB Tauris, €20