Strawberries with the Führer
Shoal Bay Press, $29.95,
The first chapters of Helga Tiscenko’s memoir of her life are in large part a tale of the ordinary. Her childhood with her younger sister Sigrid in a secure, well-to-do conservative German family is full of experiences and rituals familiar to many children: jealousy of a new baby, visits to grandparents and to the zoo, the excitement of starting school, first friendships, piano lessons, hobbies, pets, horse-riding, summer holidays by the lake or seaside, Christmas festivities, adolescence and first ventures with the opposite sex. There is even that appurtenance of so many families, a mad aunt.
Yet Helga’s story is by no means ordinary. For, born in Germany in 1929, she was raised by parents who were early and committed members of the Nazi Party – hence the momentous childhood encounter of the title. At school she absorbed Nazi ideology and learnt of the “perfidy” of the Jews; in 1944 she was promoted to Group Leader in the Bund deutscher Mädchen, the counterpart for girls of the Hitler Youth. Her father, a professional soldier, became in 1943 at Himmler’s pressing a general in the Waffen SS, Obergruppenführer and Chief of Police for the central part of Germany. After the war he was not indicted at Nuremberg, but extradited to the Czechoslovak Republic, tried and executed there in 1947. Helga and her sister were 18 and 13.
Helga is now 71, and since 1951 has lived with her Russian-born husband in New Zealand. Writing her book was a response to the curiosity of her children; she was also encouraged to write it by Owen Marshall. It did not come easily: in her own words, “I have had to relive and come to terms with painful events of the past, opening many a door in my mind that I had kept firmly shut all those years.” Yet the result is a triumph. For not only is Helga’s life out of the ordinary, so is Helga.
This is evident from the beginning in the rational perspective from which she relates historical events and in her balanced assessment of what happened in Germany. It shows also in her rare candour, her zest for life, her sense of fun, and a self-irony which makes her writing always enjoyable. It shows too in her unusual personal pluck and resourcefulness, especially during the war and in the turmoil of the last days of the Reich: surviving bombing raids and strafing aircraft, the closing in of the enemy, the carrying of cyanide capsules by mother and daughters, the alarms and confusions of flight, brave self-defence.
At times there’s excitement: narrow escapes, even a short spell in Dachau; there’s a terrifying confrontation of the two girls with a rabid SS lieutenant bursting in to shoot the “traitor” (their father) who had secured the peaceful surrender of their village. Yet there’s also comedy – as in her account of an 81-year-old professor furiously fighting with his wife as she tries to wave a white tablecloth from the window to an advancing American tank, and he to wrest it off her. Then the end: the prolonged struggle with privation, the revelation of Nazi atrocities, the shock, shame and humiliation of coming to terms with what it all meant, and worst, her father’s execution.
In her first chapter, Helga writes:
I cannot understand how my parents, two decent and intelligent people, could ignore all the signs pointing to Hitler’s madness and megalomania.
How they could turn a blind eye to the manifestations of racial hatred that led to the Holocaust, how they could swallow all that nonsense of the “Arisches Blut” (Aryan pure blood) and how they could reconcile their personal compassionate actions with those of a callous regime, responsible for the suffering and death of millions of people.
The question recurs: she cannot find an answer, beyond speculating on their ideals of loyalty and honour, and acknowledges that this is a burden she shares with many Germans of her generation. (The truth of this is proved by the many autobiographical books published in Germany by the sons or daughters of Nazis, a prominent recent example being Martin Walser’s best-selling novel of 1998, Ein springender Brunnen (“A surging Spring”).)
There is every evidence from Helga’s account that her parents were in fact decent, compassionate people – but as Helga was so young at the time we learn nothing of, for example, their response to the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935, the Kristallnacht of 1938, the boycotts, the beatings and deportations. Their little daughter thought that concentration camps were places where “traitors” and Jews were sent to be re-educated, to “concentrate” on positive thoughts. As for her father: Helga remembers him assuring her mother that he had told Himmler he would not have anything to do with the Jewish problem, and adds: “He did not, either, to the best of my knowledge.” However, there follow three eloquent, terrible sentences: “But he knew. They all knew. Nobody talked about it.”
Helga’s grit, pluck and humour continued to sustain her when she faced the different horrors of 1950s New Zealand. The chapters describing arrival in Wellington, the refugee camp at Pahiatua, the workers’ camp at the Roxburgh hydro dam and life in Stratford, contribute to a now substantial literature detailing the shock and bewilderment felt by many German immigrants on arrival here. There’s often real frustration expressed, along with some hilarity. But Helga’s zest for life always carries her through. For this achievement alone she is to be congratulated: for having tackled in so positive a spirit the feat of adapting to this peculiar country of ours, for having brought up a family here and reached a contented old age. But she deserves congratulations too for having confronted her past, and for narrating it so courageously and so well. It is a tribute to her that a book about Germany’s darkest years should yet seem to shine with an inner light.
Peter Russell is Associate Professor of German at Victoria University of Wellington.