Living Through Nazi Germany

So many books have been written by Holocaust survivors. They are all unique; they are all the same.

Fewer books have been written by non-Jewish Germans. I have read a few of them and have been impressed by some, although it is true that you can’t be sure what is factual.

This afternoon, I picked up a short book by Wendelgard vonStaden, a German woman who lived through the war years in a small village not far from Stuttgart and who later became the wife of West Germany’s first ambassador to the United States. The book is titled “Darkness Over The Valley”.

VonStaden, the daughter of a family that farmed and owned an estate in the village, was just a girl when Hitler came to power. She came from an area where there were virtually no Jews so the anti-semitism of the Nazis did not appear to register for her. Hitler was clearly a charismatic figure for everyone but her mother, who was convinced from the start that Germany was doomed. All the young people in her village joined the various youth movements and all the young men were conscripted into the army.

A number of things struck me. First, virtually everyone supported Hitler. Second, no one seemed to believe that war would come and, when it started, Most thought German victory (whatever that meant) would be swift. At least that is what they thought until Germany invaded the USSR. That act led to immediate pessimism. They thought of how difficult it would be in Russia and they worried about their children in the military.

Second, the extent to which Germany, whose work force was to a great extent in uniform, relied on prisoners, gentiles and Jews, to carry out normal activities – kitchen, cleaning, farming, factory jobs.

Third, the number of young Germans that died in the fighting, virtually all the boys the author had grown up with.

VonStade’s experience was undoubtedly unique. The military condemned part of her family’s land (the Valley of the title) and, hidden from public view, built a large prison work camp with the prisoners for the most part to build a new airplane factory in a large abandoned quarry. From this same prison camp came the prisoners that helped on the farm, mainly Jewish and in terrible psychological and physical condition. These are the men her mother tried to help – with a little extra food and occasional shelter.

So what did the average German know? This average German knew about prisoners and prison camps and how inmates were treated. She had heard from a soldier on leave from the eastern front that Jews in the Ukraine were being systematically shot and she eventually learned of Auschwitz-Birkanau from one of the prisoners assigned to work on her family’s land. Of course this was not until 1942 or so. And who knows how typical this knowledge was.

My guess is that it was fairly typical. There was too much going on for people not to suspect the worst.

How does the author come out? She clearly portrays herself as a young person who would not herself want to get involved in such terrible activities, but she was not required to as were young men in the military or people who needed to earn a living to feed their families. But on the other hand, she did very little affirmatively to help, although it is hard to criticize one living in totalitarian conditions.

One last thing. Throughout all of the horrors – the young men dying, the bombings and strafing, the visible prisoners, the shortages, and the fear of defeat, life went on with more normalcy than you might imagine.

This is not a great literary work, to be sure, but it’s worth reading to get a feeling of how at least one young German girl survived the Thousand Year Reich.

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