Friday, 5 February 2016

Book Note: Karin Finell’s Good-Bye to the Mermaids

 (University of Missouri Press, 2006) is an autobiographical account of life in Germany during and after WWII from the perspective of a young German (non-Jewish) girl.  I learned about this book after my book club discussed Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life – which is partly set in Hitler’s Germany--and another member told me about it.  (For a review of Atkinson’s novel, see my blog of January 26, 2016,
Good-Bye to the Mermaids: a Childhood Lost in Hitler’s Berlin

I read Good-Bye to the Mermaids in almost one sitting on January 30, 2016, while waiting for a delayed plane to Winnipeg from Toronto airport.  It’s quite readable, and presents a subtle understanding of what life was like for anti-Hitler but not activist Germans, simultaneously hoping for an Allied victory and fearing Allied bombing.

Born in 1933, Karin Finell came from an educated and accomplished bourgeois German family.  Unusually, her parents were divorced and she lived with her mother and grandmother.  Her father, with whom she rarely had contact, was a newspaper editor in a small town in what eventually became East Germany.  Her father’s sister was a well-known poet.  Her grandmother had grown up in the United States and was thus somewhat immunized against Hitler’s propaganda.

During the war Karin experienced bombings and barely escaped death with her mother when one of their many temporary homes was destroyed. They moved from place to place as housing became ever scarcer; in between times, Karin was sent to various schools in the countryside.

Karin joined Hitler youth group for girls, as all German girls were obliged to do. Nevertheless, she seems not to have picked up the required amount of hatred of Jews. On a bus one day, she offered to give up her seat to an old man, as she has been trained to respect her elders. She did not realizing that the interesting star he wore on his coat meant he was a pariah: another man reprimanded her for offering her seat to a Jew.

Karin believed all the propaganda she was fed and worshipped Hitler.  Her family, fearful that she would betray them if they criticized Hitler in her presence, listened quietly and without argument whenever she told them how wonderful Hitler was. She did not realize until the end of the war how she had been duped, in part because—in her still childish mind—she felt betrayed when Hitler committed suicide.  

Like many “Aryan” German families, Karin’s family had Jewish, “half-Jewish” and other assorted “impure” relatives.  Karin overheard her family talking about how her cousin Maria wore around her neck  a gold locket containing cyanide.  She did not understand why: the reason was that Maria’s deceased father was Jewish, but that her step-father, a heroic General in WWI, was protecting her.

One of her mother’s closest friends was adopted by a non-Jewish couple, but her birth mother was Jewish. The Nazis locked her up until they could figure out whether her birth father was Jewish as well, so that they could properly categorize her, and she survived the war. Tragically, her adoptive parents were killed because they would not reveal her biological origins.

Another of Karin’s mother’s old friends lost her father, one of the 1944 plotters against Hitler.  He was hanged.

Image result for Karin Finell images
Karin Finell

As the war was winding down, Karin was permitted to leave a boarding school in then East Prussia (now Poland) on account of illness.  Shortly afterwards, the school was evacuated as the Russians advanced, but not soon enough.  The Russians raped a trainload of her fellow students. Karin ran into one of her friends some time later: the friend was attended by a nurse, and her eyes were completely was vacant.

Like almost all German women, Karin, her mother and grandmother were petrified with fear when the Russians invaded Berlin. They were living in the cellar of their bombed-out building: every so often a Russian would come in and say “Frau, komm” (woman, come) and take away some women to be raped. At twelve, however, Karin was already an excellent actress (she was later offered a job in East Berlin in a theatre run by Berthold Brecht, but turned the opportunity down to move to the U.S.). She disguised herself as a filthy, disabled and drooling female, so the Russians would overlook her. It’s not clear, though, how her  still-young mother escaped the fate of so many other women. 

Karin paid frequent visits to a 14-year-old friend who had been raped and impregnated, and who also contracted syphilis. Treatments for syphilis at the time were extremely painful, as was the friend’s illegal abortion: eventually, the friend escaped to the American zone of occupied Germany.

After the Americans took over the part of Berlin in which Karin and her family lived, life improved, as they were no longer close to starvation. By contrast, Karin’s three half-brothers living with her father in East Germany were still short of food in 1952. Her father visited her shortly before his death and was horrified to see her feeding a piece of chocolate to her dog, pointing out that her brothers had not seen chocolate since the war years.

This is a very good book just for people who like to read: it’s a shame it was published by a university press and probably did not get much publicity.  I also recommend it to colleagues who teach German or WWII history to assign to their students.  It would also be good for literature courses on autobiography, for women’s studies courses, or for courses in memory studies.