Haunting memoir

by | Aug 16, 2013 | Book Reviews

The Shame of Survival:
Working Through a Nazi Childhood
Ursula Mahlendorf
University Park:
The Pennsylvania University Press, 2009
365 pages, $21.95 (paper)
ISBN 978-0-03448-5

Ursula Mahlendorf has been teaching for more than 40 years, most of them as a professor of German at the University of California at Santa Barbara. During these years, her major research interest has been the history of German fascism and its psychological aftermath as reflected in post-World War II German literature. Realizing that only few personal accounts of involvement in the Hitler Youth existed, she decided in her mid- 70s to tell her own story.

Born in 1929 in a small German town in Lower Silesia, which is today part of Poland, the author begins with recounting her early childhood of growing up in a working class family. While she herself is grappling with feelings of inferiority for being an unwanted child—“I am the aborted baby”—her family is struggling with the larger social issues of rampant inflation and rising unemployment. Having lost her father at an early age, she recognizes in hindsight that the powerful figure of the Führer soon became for her a surrogate father figure. Following his call, she joins the organization of the Hitler Youth and as the war progresses she rises through its ranks.

The subsequent chapters describe in vivid detail her personal experiences during the Third Reich, from its early military conquests to its final collapse, followed by the Russian invasion and the final expulsion of her family and all her fellow German Silesians from their ancestral homeland Silesia. The author continuously contextualizes her own experiences within a larger social and historical context, reflecting on formative aspects such as Nazi ideology, mass propaganda and postwar Allied policies.

The last two chapters focus on her postwar studies at the University of Tübingen in Germany, her subsequent emigration to the United States, her experience of finding an intellectual home in the world of academia and, last but not least, her lifelong struggle and many years of therapy working through her Nazi past and her deeply traumatic feelings of guilt and shame. In the end, she states that she found a measure of peace in the process of writing, remembering her family and even celebrating the natural beauty of her lost homeland. But she concludes: “I don’t think that I can ever escape the questioning of my Nazi experience. On the contrary, with age and greater knowledge and insight, with openness to new friends of different national, ethic, and social backgrounds, my self-questioning has become more demanding and more keenly felt,”

This haunted and haunting memoir is a powerful testimony to its author’s concluding confession and I can confirm its deep sincerity. Ursula Mahlendorf was one of my teachers in the early 1980s at the University of California at Santa Barbara and she even served on my dissertation committee. Of the many courses I took as a wandering student in my 13 years of studies at five different universities in Germany, Great Britain and the United States, hers were the most personal and passionate in her search for truth, a lifelong quest which has crystalized in this book into the recurring leitmotiv of her reckoning with her younger self: “What if I had been older? What would I have […] done?”

—Editor’s Note: Frederick Lubich is a professor at Old Dominion University in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. He has lectured at the Simon Family JCC under the aegis of the ODU Institute of Judaic Studies and Interfaith Understanding. We welcome him to the Jewish News.