Literature by and about people fleeing during conflict and crisis


The Living Force
FOTCM Member
Literature by and about people fleeing during conflict and crisis is sometimes called refugee literature or more broadly migration literature. While the exact definitions have been discussed one can get an idea of what it may mean by browsing through a few articles about modern examples like:
Modern books about refugees you need to know about - UNHCR Ukraine

Yet, I have not read any of them, and I only discovered the existence of the genre, as I wondered how to tell about a book in German Auf der Fluch Geboren by Bärbel Beutner which contains 17 eyewitness accounts about children being born while their mothers were fleeing from Eastern Prussia at the end of WW2. The blurb when translated reads:
Although flight and displacement were decades ago, the memory of the decisive experience of having given birth to a child on the run has remained fresh. The authentic reports - compiled by Bärbel Beutner, who herself was born as a 'refugee child' - contain many details: A forgotten bottle turned into a catastrophe: immediately after a birth, windows and doors flew onto the bed of the woman who had recently given birth and the newborn with her body protected; A girl was born on a cargo ship with the help of two veterinarians. One wanted to survive - the double challenge of flight and expulsion and the hardships of childbirth probably released special forces. The child who survived became a sign of new hope.
The accounts in this book took place in 1944-45, and while they might be of special interest if one has ancestors that went through these events, there is also a meaning to the tales that reach beyond the narrow timeframe and historical context of the end of World War Two. The fortitude, patience, alertness, foresight, creativity, the spirit of love and cooperation as well as the endurance to overcome setbacks and disappointments is uplifting.

The longest and I think most touching story is told by Hedwig Pohl, an expert horsewoman (apparently she was the first woman to win a major championship) and trained as a nurse. She gives birth to her youngest daughter while on the run in deep winter with plenty of snow, temperatures down to -30 degrees Celsius, and little to eat. She tells how they are told to give up what they have and leave. They move from place to place with less and less as time goes by and they are relieved of most of what they have by circumstances and violations. Pohl traveled with her older son and a younger daughter of four years. Along the way, they meet up with her aunt, sister, sister-in-law and a couple of other friends and acquaintances. Companionship helps to save the day, even if they get overtaken by the Red Army and witness humiliations which she alludes to, and which must have been similar to what is described here or perhaps by Marta Hillers in A Woman in Berlin, quoted and commented on in this Russian blog. Regarding the same topic, another article explains some of the problems that follow such mistreatment and while this happened in Germany it might have happened in many other conflicts with a victor that feels superior to the vanquished population.
GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany

In her book “Against our Will”, Susan Brownmiller points out that American soldiers did not have to resort to rape because the sight of the Dollar presented sufficient means of coercion and temptation for hungry women in the liberated countries. However, one of the interviewees in the film said: “I would say Yes to chocolate and stockings but No if I were to do all this for them”. She had been raped by a US soldier. French soldiers were guilty of hundreds of cases of rape in Southern Germany, above all in Stuttgart, Pforzheim and Freudenstadt. Research showed, however, that British soldiers were practically blameless in this respect. After the war, the Western Allies showed little interest in bringing up the rapes by members of the Red Army because they would have had to question the behavior of their own troops as well.

Nazi propaganda had prepared German women to regard Russians as rapists but little credence was in fact given to these horror stories. The disappointment at the behaviour of the liberators was therefore all the greater, particularly among communist and social-democratic women and the few Jewish women who had survived the war on German soil.

Ruth Andreas Friedrich, a journalist and underground fighter, wrote in her diary:
“For four years Goebbels kept telling us that the Russians were rapists, that they would violate, murder, rob and pillage us. Such propaganda did not shock us and we looked forward to being liberated by the Allies. We did not want to be disappointed. We could not bear it when Goebbels turned out to be right.”
The German Women Suffered After The Rape:

The first hours and weeks following the event: the reaction, particularly of young girls, was one of total disintegration. The shock persisted for many weeks. They had no prior knowledge of sex and the shame was enormous: “I was panic-stricken - I was always afraid that everybody could see it in me. I was insecure in myself - I felt so empty.” Young girls became suicidal: “I wanted to do away with myself and kept crying. My mother would not let me go anywhere alone, not even to the toilet.” The reaction of adult women, some married, was calmer: “Apathy sets in - I kept thinking, I wish it was all over.” There was something of a team-spirit during that first period, some mutual understanding among the women. But this understanding disappeared almost totally once the gossip of the cellar, bunker and escape communities got going: “There was no compassion for us.” The reaction of husbands, families and neighbors was nearly as hurtful as the rape itself: “My husband said that he would leave home if I had the child - You promised me to be faithful - Ah, this is the one the Russians have had.”

The following two years: the women tried to regain control of their lives, to organize their affairs and the survival of their children. In this way they hoped to escape the magnitude of their emotional upheaval. The fear of death which they had experienced became a phobia for some women: “I was a bunch of nerves, full of anxieties.”

Three to five years afterwards: women became extremely cautious in their relations with other people, single women particularly in their attitude to men: “Relationships would develop just up to a certain point and then I acted as if I were totally numb. I promised myself I would remain single.” Married women had to realize that “the marriage was never the same as before”. There were many divorces. Plenty of difficulties developed in those marriages which survived. A patient and sympathetic man was needed to make a new marriage work out. Only a few women had the good luck to find such a husband. When a child was born, the relationship between the mother and the child was rather distant because each physical touch and each physical contact was difficult for them. Their attitude to their own bodies was just as confused as to other people.

Situation at present: the women realize the full depth of how the act of rape affected them and that their endeavours to blot out the enormous significance of the event from their lives were futile. Their attempts at coming to terms with the situation yielded various results: they had more pity for the men returning from war than for themselves; they did not want anything for themselves; in later life, they existed more for others than for themselves. When it became clear to many women that “they paid the price for what the German men had done in the countries which they had invaded” they felt that they had no right to complain and did not consider themselves any longer as the victims. Some of the women became purposely active in politics (against rearming West Germany, in the extra-parliamentary opposition etc.) but they never publicized the personal motivation that drives them.

Only a small fraction of these women took the opportunity to claim compensation for themselves (offered by the West German legislature) or the payment of maintenance for children born as the result of rape (in accordance with the Compensation for Occupation Damages Law). Apart from the fact that most women were not aware of these possibilities, applications for compensation also involved the publication of the victims’ names. Many women shied away from this and decided against applying at least until their financial means were exhausted. Those who did apply experienced depressing situations with the authorities. Women had to prove that they were victims, i.e. that their cases were indeed cases of true rape and not just of coercion and that the damage to their health could be directly attributed to the rape. This was almost impossible to prove.

Pohl mentions that prayer and faith were important to her during the migration, and ends her tale with a prayer that God may save all who read her story from experiencing fear, war, and destitution. She quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran priest whose family opposed Nazism, who wrote a song that in German is called "Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen". The translation of the quote from the song goes like this:

Sheltered wonderfully by powers of goodness
We are looking forward confidently to what may come
God is with us in the evening and in the morning
and for sure on every new day

Finally, she quotes from the Book of Daniel, a part that in King James is 6:22 reads as: "My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions' mouths, that they have not hurt me:"

This expressed faith is not so present in other stories, but I could imagine many might have shared a similar sentiment even if they did not write about it. Perhaps the above quotes also tie a circle to the present insofar, as I visited a German refugee cemetery in Denmark at the casual suggestion of the people, I stayed with. While we exited and discussed what we had seen, the book, (Auf der Fluch Geboren) was mentioned in passing along with the story of Mrs. Hedwig and her family who as I understood played an important role in saving the Trakehner horse with one family member driving 200 horses from Ukraine to West Germany at the end of the war with only two foals lost. Eventually, I asked if I might borrow and read the book. As I prepared this post, I learned the young four-year-old daughter, Brigitte, grew up and celebrated her 80 years birthday in 2020.

At the end of the book the author and gatherer of the accounts, Bärbel Beutner, herself a child born while her mother was fleeing, has two chapters where she takes the perspective of a child many years later revisiting the place she was born but never had a relationship with. She also tells about some research done on the lasting effects on the children born under such conditions. The book is from 1986 and therefore not updated in terms of research, but she notes that the children feel quite safe as long as their mothers are not stressed out. That is all well, but for a mother to remain balanced, when the world around her is falling apart, when she is exhausted, starved, has no milk for her baby, when the sanitary conditions are deplorable, to continue sharing her love when that is all that is left to share, must be a difficult test. If she succeeds, does it not shows her power and the power of her love?
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