German Boy

I had already read stacks of Holocaust memoirs and was suffering “misery fatigue” when I bought German Boy. What compelled me to buy and read this book? Simply because it is written from the point of view of a German boy; other than Hitler’s Mein Kampf and All Quiet on the Western Front, I had not read a German narrative. Apparently, misery does not recognize boundaries. Once again I am astonished at the suffering a human being can survive.

Wolfgang Samuel’s story covers the time between his tenth birthday, January 1945, in Eastern Germany to January 1951 when Samuel, his mother and her new American husband leave Germany for America.  As the narrative begins, Wolfgang, his sister Ingrid and their Mutti  (German for “mom”) leave in the middle of the night to flee Russian troops entering their city. This is the first of many three-suitcase trips. The family of three lives with Mutti’s parents until they again travel west.  The formal end of hostilities did not bring an end of deprivation, an end of hunger, or an end of violence.  

An uncomfortable aspect of this story is the extent Mutti went to provide for her hungry family.  It is a sad story, delicately told, of a desperate woman who exchanges sex for soup. Mutti was a beautiful woman, estranged from her husband, who was used to flirting for favors.  In the flurry of packing up and leaving, Mutti dons a silk blouse, silk stockings, a black velvet jacket and makeup.  When her mother disapproves, she replies:

Mother, our only chance of escape is to be picked up by an army
truck heading west to the American lines. Do you think anyone is going
to stop and pick up a frumpy-looking woman with two children and an
old woman by her side? No. They’ll stop for a pretty, well-dressed woman,
if they stop at all. I am trying to look my very best. If we are lucky,
someone will have a heart and will take a look at me–and stop for us.

Amongst the multiple migrations searching for a safe place, the family takes a small room near the train station.  After months of dwindling food supply and no way to feed her family, Mutti does the unthinkable.  A Russian man starts to visit at night; in the morning a steaming two-liter can of soup sits on the windowsill.  Even so, Wolfgang protests: Mutti, you shouldn’t be doing what you are doing. Only Dad should sleep with you. It is a raw story, a poignant story. Almost every woman Wolfgang was associated with at this point in his life was raped by soldiers. 

Carnage caresses his life.  Besides daily bombings, Wolfgang lives through a strafing attack on a long column of refugees where people five feet from him were killed. He witnesses a school fellow’s drowning.  His father shows up and leads them in a night crossing, dodging Russian patrols, through a blizzard to the American zone. And yet, in the way a child focuses on the immediate things, he also remembers the loneliness of being ostracized by other German boys, the boredom of bad schools, the shame of ill-fitting clothes and the petty corruptions of life in a refugee barracks.  

Living next to RAF Fassberg, Wolfgang witnessed firsthand the continual air traffic of the Berlin airlift. When the Americans arrived, Sergeant Leo Ferguson made his entrance.  He fell in love and married the now-divorced Hedy (Mutti’s name); he was the means for Wolfgang and his Mutti to move to Colorado.  Wolfgang’s sister Ingrid remained with her father.  Enamored with pilots and airplanes, Wolfgang served in the U.S. Air Force for thirty years, retiring as a colonel.  In June 1998, Wolfgang Samuel was a speaker at a conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin airlift. His story arrested the attention of Stephen Ambrose, who encouraged Samuel to publish his book.

I cannot conceive of circumstances leading to the choices Hedy made.  I shuddered and recoiled as I read.  I have a relative who lived through post-war Austria.  In the past, when I have asked for this person’s story, the answer was always a silent shaking of the head, a polite refusal to revisit that period.  I still have no idea what that story would be, but after having read this book, I am inclined to never again ask that question.


5 thoughts on “German Boy

  1. Wow, Carol. Before reading this post, I was discussing the movie “Schindler’s List” with Luke in a google chat. I, too, am suffering from “misery fatigue”. We finished “Night” in the English class I was subbing for the past five weeks, then watched scenes from Schindler’s List. I also read “Island of the World” twice in the past two months and started the biography of Pope John Paul II, “Witness to Hope” which of course starts in war-time Poland.  That combined with all the weather-related misery in the news and near us these days and I am ready for something upbeat and light-hearted. But this book sounds fascinating.Thanks once again for a wonderful recommendation.

  2. @secros60 – Island of the World twice in the past two months??? Wow.  I’m ready emotionally (I think) for a re-read, but I sent my copy to a friend.  And may I, my friend, recommend a perfectly wonderful upbeat book for you? Particularly for you? A Green Journey by Jon Hassler.  Trust me, you will love it.  This is my sacred promise: you. will. love. it. And it is lighthearted with laugh aloud lines.  Oh, oh, oh!!!  I cannot wait to hear your response.  I have a growing stack of books which I need to review; I think A Green Journey needs to be on the top.  Excuse me for being redundant, but Sandy, YOU WILL LOVE IT.There. I think I can now move on with my day. πŸ™‚

  3. Wow, Carol.  I responded to your FB comment and then I saw I DID have a followup of this comment in my email.  Substitute teaching (and unreliable internet service at home due to all the recent rains) left me away from my online routine for too long. πŸ™‚  OK, this book goes to the top of the list!  I have learned to completely trust your recommendations. :)I read IOTW on Kindle and read it so quickly I couldn’t remember key parts (like how he got to Italy. Ha.) In trying to find the passages I was looking for, I got frustrated and decided to start the book over.  I enjoyed it so much the second time through as I slowed down to really enjoy the prose and the symbolism.  The first time through I was so worried about the character and his journey I had to rush on to see what happened next. :)Did you see my recommendation on FB?  “The Brothers K” by David James Duncan. It’s about baseball, a family, and the part religion played in the family’s life.  Lucas tells me it becomes more and more like its namesake.  (And the pun of the “K” being a baseball strikeout, too.)  I’m 20% in and it is good so far.  How can one go wrong with God, family, and baseball??  (shameless self-indulgence there.)Thanks for the heartfelt recommendation.Sandy

  4. Mutti reminds me of Angela in Angela’s Ashes.  She did something similar to keep a roof over her children’s heads.  I have sometimes wondered what I would do in her circumstances.  Probably the same thing.  I cannot imagine the difficult decisions people sometimes have to make.  May the Lord have mercy on us all.Thank you for your thoughtful review!

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