Tag Archives: refugees

This House is Mine: Dörte Hansen

My first selection for German Literature Month X (2020) is the rather grim read: Dörte Hansen’s This House is Mine. Spanning 70 years, this is the story of a drab farmhouse and the three generations of tough women who live there. The book opens in the aftermath of WWII. Dour Ida Eckhoff owns the farmhouse and shares it with her son, Karl, who was lucky enough to return home from a Russian POW camp. He’s not the same man any more. His mother “didn’t recognize him, now that he’d started talking to snowflakes and trying to escape from the Russians.” The arrival of Polish refugee Hildegard von Kamcke and her 5 year old daughter, Vera, ignites a war as the two women, Ida and Hildegard struggle for control of the house. Hildegard wins, marries Karl, and after Hildegard lays down an ultimatum to her mentally absent spouse, “it’s your mother or me,” Ida is found hanging from an attic beam.

Possession of the house brings no joy to Hildegard, and a few years later, she buggers off to a Hamburg suburb with a lover, abandoning Vera to Karl’s dubious care. But it’s Vera who ends up taking care of the childlike Karl, and in time, Vera grows up and becomes a much-feared dentist.

Vera is a respected and yet also loathed figure. In spite of the fact that she has lived in the farmhouse for almost her entire adult life, she does not fit in.

For just as long as it took to do one round of the garden, she longed not to be the other, the foreigner.

She owns ferocious dogs, is an avid hunter, and the local men are afraid of her (with good reason). Enter Anne, Vera’s niece, another displaced person (for a different set of reasons) who seeks refuge at the inhospitable farmhouse.

This is a grim tale and it includes a few scenes with Vera slicing and dicing her many kills from hunting. The women in these pages are tough, tougher than the men, and even though the story spans 70 years, from the grimness of post WWII to the 21st century the stains of the war remain for those who endured it. For this reader, the house is a metaphor for life:

This house wasn’t built for people who wanted warmth and comfort. It was the same as with horses and dogs; you couldn’t show any weakness, couldn’t let yourself be intimidated by this colossus, which had stood with its legs apart on the marshy soil for nearly three hundred years.

This House is Mine is a tale of fitting in–fitting into the world, fitting into our families, making choices and dealing with the tragedies life throws our way. The story moves between the fearsome Vera who projects the desire to be left alone, when in fact all she wants to do is belong, and her niece Anne who rather intrepidly begins renovating the decaying farmhouse.

She still didn’t trust this house, but she wasn’t going to let it throw or spit her out. She wouldn’t let herself be rejected like a foreign organ. She refused to let herself be rejected like the majority of refugees, who’d gotten out of the large farmhouses as fast as they possibly could and moved into small houses in developments grateful and scrupulously intent on avoiding becoming a burden to anyone else for the rest of their lives.

Translated from the German by Anne Stokes



Filed under Fiction, Hansen Dörte

Crossing: A Love Story by Anna Seghers

“There’s nothing like departure. No arrival, no reunion. You leave a part of the earth behind you for good. And whatever joy and pain you encountered there, once the gangway is raised, ahead of you lie three clear weeks at sea.”

Back in 2013, I read Anna Seghers’s novel, Transit, the story of young German man, a concentration camp escapee, stuck in Marseille, mired down in bureaucracy, trying desperately, to get passage on a ship to safety. Transit made my best-of-year list, and now, three years later, I still think about the story.

One of the things that struck me when I read Transit is how the refugees fleeing Europe were so desperate to escape, passage on a departing ship became the end goal. The refugees didn’t stop to think that a new host of problems would present themselves when they landed on another, distant continent, and that brings me to my first selection for German Literature Month: Crossing: A Love Story in its very first English translation. In many ways Crossing can be considered a companion novel to Transit, for the former follows the fragmented lives of German refugees as they settle and then move on from temporary homes.

german-literature-month-2016The story takes place post WWII on an ocean crossing from Brazil and is narrated by engineer, Franz Hammer. While cargo is still being loaded, Hammer notes, amongst the throng of passengers, an “odd” young man, a doctor named Ernest Triebel. Gradually over the course of the long sea voyage, Triebel tells his story to Hammer. It’s a wonderfully structured story of exile, identity, displacement, and of course, love. …


Ernest Triebel fled Germany as a young boy with his parents shortly before Kristallnacht, and the family arrived safely in Brazil only to face numerous problems, in spite of the fact that they have relatives there to help. Ernest is separated from his parents, and shortly after arriving his mother dies of Typhoid. We get a glimpse of the difficulties these exiles had:

The head of a new practice told my father he would be glad of a fine German doctor–although in actual fact he couldn’t legally employ him. therefore he would register him as one of the nursing staff. He admitted that he couldn’t immediately pay my father a registered doctor’s salary.

So little Ernest Triebel grows up in Brazil, and one of his childhood companions is Maria Luisa Weigand, another German refugee who teaches Ernest Portuguese. Of course, it’s easy to see that there’s going to be a romance between Ernest and Maria, but that’s all that’s predictable here. Any more information would spoil the story, but I will add that while Maria is fully integrated into Brazilian society, Ernest is not, and so the time comes when a decision about returning to Germany raises its head. There’s a central mystery here that takes place, and Maria’s behaviour is open to interpretation.

While the war may be distant for the refugees, ripples of the chaos seep through to Brazil:

The war was far away. Its destructive fire was far away. Only now and then did we breathe the smoke.

For the smoke, it reached us. We saw harrowing things in the newspapers and the cinemas. We couldn’t believe that our gentle and quiet native land should suddenly have pierced the world like a thorn.

But the ripples continue even into the long sea voyage which takes place many years after the war has ended. Hammer, for example, must share a cabin with a hostile Polish man. Hammer thinks the Polish man hates him because he’s German and Hammer mentions that his own father was killed in a concentration camp. The Polish man, however, has simply gone Tropo.

The story is peppered with references to the GDR, and it’s important to remember that Seghers lived there and was subject to censorship and political demands. One character defects, other characters integrate into the new GDR. At one point, there’s a conversation that includes Joseph Conrad, and Hammer notes that he’ll have to find a Conrad novel when he returns home, “if we actually printed him.” While the reference to Conrad includes a hint of censorship and banned materials, it also refers to Conrad for a reason as Crossing is very Conradian in its wonderful structure. And that brings me to the marvellous descriptions of the ocean:

Twilight flooded the sea. Two currents mingled, one already inky blue from the stars’ reflection, the other luminous and restless, perhaps still awash with island foam.

When Communist Anna Seghers and her family fled the Nazis, they’d hoped to make a new life in America, and as the introduction from Min Zhou explains, they landed in Ellis Island in 1941 but were not granted “even a temporary entry.” After the war, Seghers moved from Mexico to West Germany, but in 1950 she became a citizen of East Germany. The invaluable introduction explains how any examination of the work of Anna Seghers is fraught with political implications.

If anyone decides to read this novel, I’d love to have a spoiler discussion about Maria.

Review copy

166 pages

First English Translation: Douglas Irving (with biographical note and an excerpt from The Visit)


Filed under Fiction, Seghers Anna

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi

“And then there I was, rolling down the map. Fate had pushed me on, forcing me wherever it chose, right to the very edge of the sea. Now, if it so wished, it could force me right into the sea-or it could push me along the coast. In the end, wasn’t it all the same?”

Before you start reading Teffi’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, take a look at a map of Russia and Ukraine; it helps to track Teffi’s journey and to understand just how, in the wave of Bolshevik advances, she found herself with a startling lack of choices.


In 1918 Teffi left Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg) and moved to Moscow. Over the course of the book, she travels, after getting the necessary permits, to Kiev, and then to Odessa, Sebastopol and finally, Novorossiik.  By tracing her journey, it’s easy to grasp how she, along with many other desperate refugees, always trying to stay ahead of the Bolsheviks, found themselves with little choice but to escape by taking to the sea.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea is a non-fiction account of the author’s journey from Moscow to Ukraine. Teffi (1872-1952), whose real name was Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was, like many Russian intellectuals, initially in favour of social change. She was a immensely popular writer in Russia, and according to the introduction from Edythe Haber, Teffi was a favourite writer of both tsar Nikolai II and Lenin. She “actively supported” the 1905 Revolution and while she wrote for various Bolshevik newspapers, later Teffi became a critic of the Bolshevik party. Memories finds Teffi post revolution in Moscow, and it’s a very scary place indeed. There are food shortages. People disappear and many of those who remain are “desperate” to get to Ukraine.

Those last Moscow days passed by in a turbid whirl. People appeared out of the mist, spun around and faded from sight; then new people appeared. It was like standing on a riverbank in the spring twilight and watching great blocks of ice float past: On one block is something that could be either a cart packed with straw or a Ukrainian peasant hut; on another block are scorched logs and something that looks like a wolf. Everything spins around a few times and the current sweeps it away forever.

Fueled by the knowledge that an actress was arrested for reading works written by Teffi (and a fellow Russian author, Averchenko,) it doesn’t take much persuading for Teffi, under the guidance of a “squint-eyed Odessa impresario by the name of Gooskin,” to apply for permits to travel for a ‘reading tour’ to Ukraine. It’s a dangerous journey that takes them to the unpredictable violence of a village in the border zone, full of refugees, and ruled by the sadistic “deranged” commissar H-.

In German-occupied Kiev, Teffi can’t quite absorb some of the things she sees. It’s incredible to see Russian soldiers alive, standing in the sun, sitting in cafes, laughing and eating cake “instead of hiding away in basements like hunted animals, sick and hungry, wrapped in rags, knowing that their very existence threatens the lives of their loved ones.” At first, Kiev seems like a miraculous place, almost surreal when compared to the places Teffi has left:

But soon it begins to feel more like a station waiting room, just before the final whistle.

The hustle and bustle is too restless, too greedy to be a true festival. There is too much anxiety and fear in it. No one is giving any real thought either to their present or to their future. Everyone just grabs what they can, knowing they may have to drop it again at any moment.

The scenes in Kiev convey a desperate giddy gaiety which reminds me of the musicians  playing on the Titanic as it sinks slowly into the waves.

From Kiev, Teffi flees to Odessa with the plan to eventually return to Petrograd via Vladivostok, but fate decrees otherwise, and Teffi leaves never to return again. Throughout the book, Teffi meets people she thinks she’d lost and loses people she thought had reentered her life. She recounts atrocities on both sides–although her sympathies are clearly with the Whites.

In spite of the terrible things that Teffi witnesses, there’s a sense of humour accompanying these memories. This does not make the stories funny at all–rather, the things she witnesses and records are that more horrific. We see women grabbing the last piece of crepe de chine before it’s “confiscated” by Bolsheviks, women buying some old velvet curtain to be remade, optimistically, into a gown, while it’s still available, carpets sold in the shadow of retreat, and then there’s one resilient soul who insists on having her hair done before the Bolsheviks arrive.

Another aspect of the memoirs is the instant establishment of culture wherever the refugees land. Within a few hours of arrival, evenings and readings are arranged as if the establishment of a cultural life is vital. There are so many scenes here I’ll never forget: the looted and abandoned hotels, the frantic dash to the steamer, the man walked out onto the ice for execution, the general set on fire so that a bullet isn’t ‘wasted,’ the dogs chewing a human arm, the donkeys being beaten with sticks, and the French soldiers grabbing armfuls of their laundry right before they evacuate from Odessa.  And always there’s the sense that time is running out. Teffi stays in each oasis of safety for increasingly shorter times, or so it seems, with Bolshevik infiltration occurring right before a red surge. The Bolsheviks continue their relentless march, and Teffi jumps from one safe-White held zone to another–until there’s nowhere left.

My memories of those first days in Novorossiisk still lie behind a curtain of gray dust. They are still being whirled about by a stifling whirlwind–just as scraps of this and splinters of that, just as debris and rubbish of every kind, just as people themselves were whirled this way and that way, left and right, over the mountains or into the sea. Soulless and mindless, with the cruelty of an elemental force, this whirlwind determined our fate.

Finally…A quote I have to include for its pure, tragic beauty

I have turned into a pillar of salt forever, and I shall forever go on looking, seeing my own land slip softly, slowly away from me.

Review copy

Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, Irina Steinberg.


Filed under Fiction, Teffi

Little Monsters by Charles Lambert

A few years later, Jozef said that I could make my life whatever I wanted, but I didn’t believe him. I thought he was simply repeating words that other people had said to him, words of consolation. I sometimes think most consolation comes to that, repeating things we know are unlikely to be true, and will almost certainly never be true for us, because otherwise everything we have lived through will be meaningless.

First the backstory to the review: Last year I won a copy of Charles Lambert’s novel Any Human Face from The Fiction Desk and enjoyed it a great deal. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to read the author’s first novel Little Monsters which came highly recommended by Kevin. Unfortunately and annoyingly Little Monsters is now OOP. A trek through several bookshops yielded a big zero, but I finally found a copy and meant to read it in 2010. Fast forward to 2011.

Little Monsters is an intriguing book and certainly one I can’t neatly slot into some genre category. This is an intensely readable book, and part of that readability is due to the fact I had no idea where the book was taking me. Another reason that  Little Monsters is such a good read is explained by the explosive plot bombs dropped on the pages. More of that later. Here’s the book’s first line:

When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother.

How’s that for a grabber first-line?

The novel’s narrator is Carol. After her mother’s murder and her father’s arrest, she’s sent to live with an aunt, her mother’s sister, Aunt Margot–a cold, bitter, unpleasant woman who runs a pub, rather romantically called The Mermaid. Under better circumstances, perhaps Carol would see life at The Mermaid as an adventure, but when she arrives there, hustled through the procedure by strangers who drop her off with a hastily packed suitcase, Carol is really too numbed to feel much at all. She heard her parents’ last fight–one of many as it turns out, and feels partially responsible for what happened. When she first arrives, she’s in a state of shock and cannot really grasp the direction her life is about to take.

Aunt Margot doesn’t exactly welcome Carol with open arms, and Carol’s first days at The Mermaid are painful. Margot is married to a Polish man named Jozef, and it’s an arrangement of convenience. Margot’s husband was killed in WWII, and as a single woman she’s not allowed to run a pub. She marries Jozef, and he has an underling role in the relationship. Margot also has a son, Nicholas–a boy about Carol’s age who’s obsessed with the army and can’t wait to sign up.  Margot introduces Carol to Jozef, “Uncle Joey,” and then follows up the politeness with curt work orders. This clever scene signifies Margot’s utilitarian attitude to relationships and also lets the newcomer (Carol in this case) know just how Jozef rates in the scheme of things. If there’s any doubt about Jozef’s lowly status, it’s further clarified by Nicholas who describes Jozef : “He’s nothing. He’s a bloody Pole.” Margot’s bald, unemotional approach to her relationships sets the tone for the novel, and while it appears that the relationships between the main characters are clearly and bleakly defined by impenetrable demarcations, as the story unfolds, there’s a dark eerie undercurrent of things not known and not fully understood running beneath this splendid, unsettling story.

There are some people who are so unpleasant, they dominate and set the tone for the household, and this is true of Aunt Margot. She shows no tenderness to anyone, and she directs her acidic, critical comments to her family while her sly smiles and well-worn flirtations are reserved for male customers. Jozef responds by hiding out in the basement and working on gliders. Nicholas’s refuge is his dream of escape & promise of masculinity through enlistment in the army, and no one in the family seems to find the fact that Nicholas covers his walls with pictures of Churchill, Stalin & Hitler in the least bit disturbing.

Life at the pub is contaminated by the toxic atmosphere of resentments, anger, and disappointments.  There are no emotional bonds between the people who live there, and their relationships function solely to run the pub:

Nowhere was worth staying in for more than a few moments; nowhere held me. I though at the time that it was the bareness, the shabbiness, the way the furniture was pushed up against the walls. But now I think it was because the pub took over everything. Boxes of crisps in the corner of the living room, which was never used except for storing things; crates filled with ginger beer and tonic water behind the kitchen door; even when The Mermaid was closed you could smell the sickening sweet mixture of beer and smoke. before long my clothes were permeated with it, although I didn’t realize this until I was outside and suddenly smelt myself, shocked.

None of us had a home. We lived and ate and slept around the borders of a public space that influenced everything we did; our lives were peripheral to its needs, its hours. It always puzzles me to read about pubs or hotels with a family atmosphere. How do they manage it? What do they know that we didn’t? What we had was the opposite: a family with the atmosphere of a pub.

At 13, Carol is dropped into a household where she has no place–no defined role. Carol isn’t ready to accede to her aunt’s dominance, and that’s partly because the dominance includes a very nasty view of Carol’s mother. Sensing Nicholas’s loneliness, she strikes up a tepid friendship with him, but the relationship between Carol and Jozef is that of equals. Margot directs her taut, bitter disappointments towards Carol, and while Carol doesn’t set out to defy Margot, the two inevitably clash. To Margot, Carol is a “little monster.” Here’s a rather terrifying portrait of Margot tarted up for a night in the pub flirting with the male customers who are passing through:

The first time she walked downstairs I didn’t recognize her. She had piled her hair on top of her head and sprayed it with lacquer. With the light of the landing behind her, it shone like candyfloss. She wore a lot of make-up, more than anyone wears today, green eyeshadow, thick mascara and pale pink lipstick. She had on what she called a cocktail dress, stiff shiny material that reached to her knees, with lacy white stockings beneath, but nothing on her feet. I found out later that she kept a pair of slippers behind the bar and a pair of white patent high heels by the flap that led to the other side, so she could put them on when she had to go out into the lounge and collect glasses, or join a customer for a drink. She often did that, sitting on a stool with her legs crossed at the thigh, letting a shoe swing from her foot.

 Little Monsters taps into 60s Britain, and in this well-crafted, multilayered novel, nothing occurs without a reason. The insertion of the seminal film Whistle Down the Wind, for example, is no chance selection. Is there a better film that portrays children caught up in events beyond their moral comprehension?

I don’t care for a child-narrator, but in this case the story is told by a now-adult Carol who’s living in Italy with Jozef (yes, one of those plot bombs I mentioned earlier). The novel goes back forth between Carol’s life at The Mermaid and decades later when she meets her own “little monster,” a 13-year-old refugee named Kakuna. Unfortunately Carol’s childhood experiences have created a void of vulnerability, and in an effort to repair her own childhood, she’s unable to deal with Kakuna objectively. Author Charles Lambert asks whether we ever completely heal from our darkest & most tragic experiences:

Sometimes I think there in only one authentic loss, and the rest, the other deaths and departures, are echoes of it: we learn how to deal with loss just once, then apply what we have learnt until it becomes a sort of skill. But if this is true, it must be the nature of the first loss that determines how we handle later ones, and this is what frightens me.

The plot-bombs planted in the story render this tale a great deal of its power, and the fact that the author does not feel compelled to connect all the dots only increases the novel’s readability and subtle air of mystery. This powerful, quietly disturbing tale of displacement is forgivably marred only by the last few pages, but apart from that, this really is an excellent novel.


Filed under Fiction, Lambert Charles