Those of you who have followed my website for a while may have heard me talk about how my mother’s family was relocated from their home in Silesia. In all, 12 million German Nationals were forced out of Eastern European Countries after World War 2 as part of a pact made by the Allied Powers. The book Orderly and Humane (read my review here–> Orderly and Humane) details the history and process of this less than humane moment in post-war history. In her book Threaten to Undo Us by Rose Seiler Scott, we get a more human picture of what it would have been like to live through this terrible time.
For me, this was not an easy book to read… the story isn’t about some “other people“. It’s not a case of “oh this didn’t really happen like that”. These aren’t other people, these are my people. And it did happen. Rose Seiler Scott puts a face on a few of these 12 million people. The story of Liesel and her her 5 children makes us feel the loss and hopelessness that far too many German Nationals felt.
Some Historical Background to the Novel
I feel I should start with a little historical background to set the stage for this book. Beginning in the Middle Ages, German Nationals moved into Poland. This continued through the 20th century. By 1931, there were over 740,000 Germans in over 3000 Polish villages. As a general rule, each group kept to themselves. Germans continued speaking German, went to their own Lutheran Churches, and sent their children to different schools. For the most part, it was live and let live. And under the Treaty of Versailles, which followed World War 1, Poland agreed to protect the interests of the German Minority.
And then the National Socialists under Hitler came to power. Attitudes shifted. Many in Germany felt that the Germans in Poland should belong to Germany. After the Anschluss which attached Austria to Germany, and the capture of the Sudentenland, eyes eyes turned to Poland, and the tanks rolled in. At the end of the war, Poland’s borders were shifted west… The Soviet Union controlled the area, and they wanted a buffer zone. Germans were moved out of their homes, and sent West to Germany. Loyal Polish citizens were moved in. Sounds simple, right? Straightforward?
Now imagine it’s your family, your home, your life that is uprooted.
Rose Seiler Scott takes us through what it must have felt like… and does it very well. To give perspective, the story begins long before the first shots of World War 2 are fired. Liesel and her family live in Poland, in an area near Lodz. I like the way the story is set up… you get to meet ordinary people living their lives, interacting with neighbors. Liesel has sisters, gets married, and has children. She lives her life they way most people of the time do.
When the War begins, Liesel’s husband Ernst must join the military. She does her best to keep her family afloat. Liesel is also responsible for caring for her elderly parents. Since she still has the farm, she can still feed everyone, but it’s getting harder. Her brother-in-law is a loyal party member who tries to pressure the family into “loyalty”. It’s hard to tell if this helps or hurts. (I personally think the guy is a jerk).
As the War winds down, Liesel’s fortunes change. She and her children are one step ahead of the advancing Soviet Army. They leave their home, their belongings, and race to freedom. Liesel even has to leave her infirm mother behind, in order to save her children. What a choice to have to make. (What do you pack when you have to leave home? Books? Dishes? Photos? What is important, what stays behind? To me, it’s interesting to think about the “things” we have, and how we would value them should we need to make that choice)
Liesel and her family don’t get far, and when they are able to get back to their home, a Polish family has already taken possession of their house, and they are forced to live in the barn. They are only allowed to stay because they work for the people who live in their house.
For the next few years, Liesel is caught between bureaucracy and being treated like an enemy of the State. Because she is a German National, she is put into jail, and even into work camps. But since she is German, the Soviets and Poles want her OUT. She struggles to keep her family together despite constantly being moved. At different times, her younger children are taken from her and put into a “children’s home”, while the older ones are sent to work for farmers. They are plagued by starvation and cold. Her faith helps, although, being Lutheran in a Catholic world is anther strike against her. Even though she’s just an innocent mother, doing her best to stay alive, Germans are an enemy of the State.
I won’t give away more of the story, that is for you to read….
Threaten to Undo Us is an engaging story. It draws you in because the characters are, at least to me, quite relate-able. You can feel the fear and frustration. You can get a sense of what it’s like to be Liesel.
Despite being a book about wartime, there are no unnecessary war scenes, no guns or bloodshed. There is one rape scene, but it is written in a matter of fact way. Not glossed over, but not detailed either. You can lend this book to your mother, or your high school child, without feeling like you need to blush. In fact, if you are a descendant of one of the 12 million German Nationals who were moved, I would consider this required reading. It gives you a real sense of what your parents or grandparents went through. (That said, I know my mother, who lived this, will not want to read it….but it’s not for her, it’s for me, and for my daughters to understand our past).
A Bit about Rose Scott
“The story originated with my relatives telling little anecdotes as I was growing up and later into my adult years. The actual plot of the book matches fairly closely what happened to them, but I freely embellished, made ups events, re-imagined and re-ordered some. I also read as many first hand accounts as possible of people with similar experiences.”
“My Oma lived until 2010, so over the years I kept getting a little more, but as you can imagine, some things she wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about.”
(I can completely relate to that… these are not stories that are easy to tell. My grandparents never talked about that time, and my mother was very young, so she doesn’t have the strongest memories of day to day life at the time.)
Did the family did come from the area around Lodz?
“There was quite a German community in the area, as I understand it– as well Jews, Lithuanians, Poles etc. My grandmother once described the village she grew up in and each neighbor was a different ethnicity, but they got on okay.”
“In 2009, I visited Lodz and the village my Dad was born in. We went with my parents and a cousin of my Dad’s who had lived in the GDR. I felt I had to actually go there in order to write about it, but of course it is a very different place than it was back then.”
Thank you so much to Rose for sharing her family’s story with us.
Threaten to Undo Us was the Winner of The Word Guild’s 2016 Word Award for Historical Fiction. The second edition is due to hit the bookstores on April 1.
You can follow her blog here–> The Rambling Rose
You can order Threaten to Undo Us by Rose Seiler Scott HERE