memory. culture. art.
Literary transformation of memories on flight and expulsion in consequence of WWII
Text by Tanja Dückers

The following abstract is taken from her contribution about literary transformation at the Berlin conference “Memory, Culture and Art”, July 2008

The Second World War has raised my interest from childhood on – I remember how impressed and shocked I was as a child that the church closest to my parent’s house was a bombed, destroyed church – the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Memorial-church, which was left as a ruin in order to remind of the terror and brutality of war. Also on my way to school I still saw many houses with traces from shootings, from bombs. But it was not until I was about 30 years old that I got really involved with the topic of flight and expulsion in and in consequence of the Second World War. In my family, like in many German families, some topics concerning the Second World War were talked about, others not.

Cleaning the house of my grandmother I detected old letters through which I found out that my aunt and uncle had escaped from West-Prussia with a minesweeper heading for Lübeck on January 30th, 1945. They survived the flight from West-Prussia, because they decided against the Wilhelm Gustloff, but instead went on board of this small minesweeper. Most people would consider the big very modern Wilhelm Gustloff a very safe ship, the best to get on to flee the invaded Reich. My uncle was a harbour-engineer with a lot of knowledge of harbours in war. Maybe he also had some special information by Nazi-authorities, in any case he knew more than the majority of the fleeing people back then. My uncle thought that the route the ship had to take, was dangerous because of russian submarines. He knew that there were two routes in discussion among the four captains, who were to navigate the Gustloff. One was the geographical and timewise longer way- the so called “coastway”, the other onto to open ocean the shorter but more dangerous one – because of the submarines, who could only stay and operate in deeper water. The evening before the Gustloff left the harbour, my uncle was told that the captains had decided on the open-ocean way, called Zwangsweg 58 (“forced way 58”).
Because of his extra-knowledge, from whomever he had it, these family-members of mine didn’t sink and drown with the Gustloff.
The Gustloff was indeed, as my uncle feared, hit by torpedoes of a Russian submarine. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was the biggest maritime catastrophe of mankind, ever. Almost 10.000 people drowned within a few hours. A complete terrible catastrophe - my own critical view of the Germans won’t miss that. Hardly anybody could survive until other ships came to save people, because of the extreme climatical situation with more than minus 20 degrees Celsius. Most people died within a few minutes, others were caught in the gigantic sinking ship like in a coffin. They couldn’t get out on time and died a terrible death.

This story of my uncle and my aunt made me think a lot and I wanted to write about it. Before I had written about these repetitive war-stories of grandparents or other elderly people, about their specific way of telling these stories – gaining distance to the emotional impact of the event by means of overt heroism, self-pity or a forced way of “just rendering facts”. I call this phenomena „hiding by telling“ or “hiding by talking” – this kind of ritualistic talk with always the same elements appearing, as a quite widespread way of dealing with incredible traumatic experiences – if you can’t grasp and understand a certain experiences you at least find a very solid, clear shaped, structured way of talking about it. On the semantic level these narrations usually omitted own guilt, but focused on talking about one’s own misery in the course of the war. This is a way to structure the pain one experienced oneself and a strategy to prevent thoughts about guilt, which could now, in the present, be uncomfortable and create disorder in one’s own laboriously re-established life.

I dealt with the subject of German Flight in my novel “Celestial Bodies” (“Himmelskörper”, 2003) and my view on the fleeing Germans was ambivalent – I didn’t consider them only as poor victims. I knew also from my the story of my aunt and my uncle that people with good connections to higher ranking Nazis had a far better chance to safely arrive on the other side of the sea than people with no connections.
My uncle had died a long time ago, so I could only talk to his daughter, who was a small child at that time. I did a lot of research-work, still, many things I will never find out. That is also a kind of collective punishment fort he post-war-generations: to be left by the elder generation with no or only half-information – and to be confronted with numberless unanswered questions and therefore with a huge voracious emptiness: not for a while but for the rest of your life.

I believe the work of an artist, in contrast to the work of an historian or journalist, can rather communicate on the level of “private” and not of “official” memory – because he sets out in the world from the perspective of an individual. Therefore the creative approach is usually an inductive one, in contrast to the deductive approach of an historian or political scientist. At best it is possible with art to exactly substitute this lack of knowledge what other people have felt and experienced in a certain situation. A good piece of art, whether a novel or a painting or photograph and so on, can enable us to identify with people with a completely different background, even with our enemies.

Art is a medium to explore emotional landscapes one usually has no access to. It is like an invisible but colourful (this contradiction I leave for you to solve) telescope into hidden areas of identification and understanding.

For me it was a big challenge to write about important political issues in my novel “Celestial Bodies” as well as in my short story “The Lighthouse Keeper (Baltic coast, Poland)”. It is really very difficult to let art breathe, to avoid overloading it with meaning or at least to find a way, that one writes as a writer of fiction in a distinctively different way than a journalist for example about a topic like the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
It is important for me to pay attention to aesthetic questions and not only to put the political aspect of my texts into the foreground. Political issues have to emerge organically from the experience of my figures; they have to be a part of their lives – and not the other way round: the figures cannot be just tools to demonstrate a certain political viewpoint. I call my view on treating history within fictional texts “sensual historiography”.

In my short story “The Lighthouse Keeper (Baltic coast, Poland)” I tried to look at the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff once from another perspective, from the perspective of polish people living at the Baltic coast. The story has a true base. I was told the very nucleus of this story by old people living in a little town near Stolp, very near to where the Gustloff was hit and sank. I was told about a certain old man only a few facts and tried to imagine how the life of this person could have looked like. I tried to melt facts and fiction in order to remember this man and his fate.

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