Review: An important and gripping memoir about survival in Soviet occupied East Prussia
By: R. Milleron
I am a little upset with Evelyne Tannehill for writing Abandoned and Forgotten. The book is so good, so well-written, the story is so interesting, extraordinary, gripping, exciting, that I had to put all my plans aside in order to finish reading it. This is a book the reader has to read non-stop. Once you start reading it, you will find it impossible to put down.
Abandoned and Forgotten is fascinating on many levels. Evelyne's father was an American citizen who wanted to move his dual nationality family to America, but unfortunately was caught up in the madness of WWII, and was not allowed to leave. One of the most comical incidents in the book occurs when Eva's father returns from the United States (Alabama) in full cowboy regalia. This of course was shocking to the Hitler-era East Prussians who viewed him as that American nut. Because of the dual citizenship, the Rapp family was under suspicion by the Nazis. Detailing life under Hitler, the author writes at location 809, "Centralization and government control became the new catchwords." (An American in this era might ask his/herself about why this is going on in our country too.) As the toll of Hitler's war increased on the German population, the author writes the following: loc. 816 "The turning tide divided the country between those who still believed in Hitler's magic powers and the disillusioned who, win or lose, wished for a quick end to the war. As the death toll and number of missing in battle rose, the population's morale sank and an oppressive mood hung over the country." At loc 967 "Normal human relations were breaking down everywhere. No one trusted anyone. If in the past people spoke in whispers and behind closed doors, they now did not speak at all for fear of being reported." Tannehill does an excellent job of describing life in East Prussia during the war. At Loc 1178, the author's Aunt Gertrude is quoted as saying "I'm so tired of those endless telegrams coming through the telegraph about another lost son, father, or uncle. And all those bombing victims. Where is it going to end?" I too can identify with this, as I watch the TV commercials for the Wounded Warrior Project, and news stories about American kids who are maimed by IED's in our absurd, never-ending Afghan war.
The author further displays her father's and aunt's attitudes at location 1248 "Then the most alarming rumors of all reached us - rumors about the gassing of Jews. The media squelched these stories as enemy propaganda. Aunt Gertrude refused to believe them and accused Hitler's adversaries of spreading vicious lies. But Father said, "That man will kill his mother to serve his purpose." After the plot to assassinate Hitler failed, the author writes (location 1305) Aunt Gertrude said about Hitler "It's a miracle he survived. That man has made a pact with the devil."
Location 1765 "In this war, death was the overwhelming victor, and we were its silent witnesses." After their part of East Prussia was overrun by the Red Army, Tannehill writes the following about the Russians (Loc. 1787) "They held us at gunpoint, rummaged through our possessions, took whatever appealed to them, and repeatedly raped the young women. They committed the most odious acts without inhibition or restraint, while Mother pushed my head into her lap to keep me from seeing."; later, at Loc 1964 "All elements that kept society functioning in a civilized and orderly way had vanished overnight."
The author touches on the paranormal when writing about a dress she was wearing that had belonged to someone else. (Location 2611) "One day, I glimpsed my distorted reflection in the large window of the schoolroom. I saw a ghost-like apparition in the old wavy glass. The stiff ruffles over my shoulders looked like wings, and suddenly, my mirror image appeared to be floating toward heaven. It startled me. I saw the ghost of a dead girl, the rightful owner of the dress. Frightened, I ran into the house, tore off the garment, and never wore it again. The spirits of the dead hovered so close to the surface in my imagination that even a strange, distorted shadow could bring them to life." Evelyne's mother dies of typhus and is raped by a drunken Russian soldier on her deathbed. Afterwards, Evelyne lives with a highly dysfunctional Polish family named the Ilowski's who take over her childhood home. Their life is a life of one pregnancy after another, alcoholism, and violence. The author essentially becomes a child slave laborer to the family, while her older brother becomes a valuable assistant to the illiterate Pan Ilowski. After being kicked out by the Ilowski's, Ms. Tannehill lives with other Poles, some decent, some not. She is also the victim of sexual molestation by a teenager and an older adult male. The author by this time was perhaps 11 or 12 years old.
The Epilogue is one of the most interesting parts of the book, where Evelyne returns to her childhood home along with another German expellee named Georg. She writes "I forgot what was normal and came to look upon the Ilowskis' behavior as normal. Not until I got away from there did I learn that not all Poles were evil. I forgave them a long time ago. But you know all that." ..."That's how life is," I said turning to Georg. "We don't realize how far reaching our casual acts and mindless words, good or bad, can sometimes be."...."We had a leader who allowed the dregs of society to rise to the top, and they were most willing to carry out his evil schemes." Well, they gave the Russians good cause for the violence they unleashed on us," I said. "It's just too bad that we, the innocent, ended up paying for their crimes." I would give this more than 5 stars if I could. It is quite possibly one of the greatest WWII memoirs ever written, and being about a subject (East Prussia) that is unknown in the west and simply not talked about in the American media makes this book even more valuable.
QUESTIONS FOR BOOK DISCUSSIONS
Why did you write this book?
As my children were growing up I never talked about my past. When they became adults I realized that if I don’t write it down it will be lost forever and they will never know. Also, I think my story has great historical value for the younger generations who know next to nothing about WWII and it is written in an easy way to understand the times (WWII).
How long did it take you?
It took me about six years to write and an additional four years of letting it just lie there. I thought about writing my story when the iron curtain came down and I visited our farm in East Prussia, now Poland, where it all happened. After fifty years I was no longer sure what was real and what I imagined to be real. But I soon realized that it was all too real and that I needed to write my story down. It was a long and difficult process, because it brought so many painful memories back to life. Especially in my dreams, or better said, nightmares.
How old were you in your story?
My story covers about 10 years, starting with age 5 and ending a few days before my 16th birthday when I am on my way to America.
Was Hitler in total control of East Prussia?
Hitler and his gang were in absolute control of all of Germany. Nothing went unnoticed or unreported. There was the Blockleiter, block leader, with three to four farmers under him. Then came the Zellenleiter, cell leader, who presided over half a village. Above him stood the Ortsgruppenleiter, next came the Kreisleiter, county leader, and above him, the most powerful man, the Gauleiter, who oversaw the whole province of East Prussia. This hierarchy, enacted everywhere, enabled Hitler to maintain total control.
Were any of the Russian solders nice to you?
Yes, we did experience an occasional compassionate act of kindness by the Russian soldiers. For example, there was Ivan who stopped by our farm several times by himself just to visit. He came to warn us to leave the isolated farm and go to the village where order was slowly being established.
How did you get to the US?
I came to the US unaccompanied by boat as an American citizen through my naturalized American citizen father who perished in a Russian prison camp. I started life in America in Chicago.
Have you ever been back to the farm?
I went back to East Prussia, now Poland three times in the early nineties after the Iron Curtain came down, to gather background data for my book. These trips made my childhood memories come alive.
How do you feel about the Poles who took your farm?
I have no feelings of resentment towards anyone, neither the Poles nor the Russians. Atrocities were committed by all sides including the Germans. I have learned that every human being has the capacity for doing great good or evil, depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. The strong desire to want to live and survive makes people commit acts they never thought they would be capable of.
Did you ever consider going back to Germany to live?
No, to visit yes and as often as possible. But America is my home, my country, my well being. This is where I belong.
How do your family and friends feel about your story?
My family was surprised to learn about my journey through hell. We never talked about it in the past. It was easier to create a new life by burying the unpleasant experiences rather than to allow myself to be dragged down and held back by them. I could not change the past, but I could do a lot about the future. My brothers, too, have gone through some horrifying experiences, especially my oldest brother who spent three years in a Russian prison camp, but he still cannot talk about it. My family, especially the next generation who know so little about history and WWII, is glad I wrote my story.
Are the people and places real in your story?
The people are real as are the places, only some of the names have been changed. Rape, to this day, is a subject not to be discussed by the surviving women who were forced to submit. Very few women escaped that traumatic persecution, but they will not talk about it, or admit to it if asked.