Title: Inge’s War
Author: Svenja O’Donnell
Page Length: 320
Publication Date: April 28, 2020
Synopsis: The mesmerizing account of a granddaughter’s search for a World War II family history hidden for sixty years.
Growing up in Paris as the daughter of a German mother and an Irish father, Svenja O’Donnell knew little of her family’s German past. All she knew was that her great-grandparents, grandmother, and mother had fled their home city of Königsberg near the end of World War II, never to return. But everything changed when O’Donnell traveled to the city–now known as Kaliningrad, and a part of Russia–and called her grandmother, who uncharacteristically burst into tears. “I have so much to tell you,” Inge said.
In this transporting and illuminating book, the award-winning journalist vividly reconstructs the story of Inge’s life from the rise of the Nazis through the brutal postwar years, from falling in love with a man who was sent to the Eastern Front just after she became pregnant with his child, to spearheading her family’s flight as the Red Army closed in, her young daughter in tow. Ultimately, O’Donnell uncovers the act of violence that separated Inge from the man she loved; a terrible secret hidden for more than six decades.
A captivating World War II saga, Inge’s War is also a powerful reckoning with the meaning of German identity and inherited trauma. In retracing her grandmother’s footsteps, O’Donnell not only discovers the remarkable story of a woman caught in the gears of history, but also comes face to face with her family’s legacy of neutrality and inaction–and offers a rare glimpse into a reality too long buried by silence and shame.
Svenja O’Donnell knows little of her aloof grandmother’s past, and it isn’t until O’Donnell tells Inga that she traveled to Konigsberg, Inga’s childhood home, that Inga feels compelled to tell her story. Gradually, O’Donnell learns of her grandmother’s past and the secrets that Inge kept for over sixty years.
Inge is a private, somewhat selfish, and distant woman who occasionally spoke of an idyllic childhood with her parents as well as her schooling in Berlin. But Inge never spoke of her doomed love affair with O’Donnell’s biological grandfather, a man no one in the family knows. What caused the relationship to end? What happened to Inge’s love? Why didn’t they end up together, as planned, after the war? The more that Inge reveals, the more questions her granddaughter has about the lies, betrayal, abuse, and sacrifice Inge suffered during and after the war.
O’Donnell uses her skills as a journalist to research and fill in the blanks of Inge’s complex and captivating story. While conducting her research, the author finds family photographs, documents, letters, and even a recipe, which she included in the book, providing added clarification and visual context to the story.
O’Donnel, when recounting Inge’s story, says that she thought people during the war were “divided into either the good, who resisted, or the bad, the perpetrators.” She never really considered the people “whose disagreement was quiet or unspoken, those who, for want of heroism or even simple courage, chose to look the other way…” I found this concept interesting, as books often focus on the heroes and the villains but not the people in between – ordinary people who live in fear and helplessness but don’t have the power or courage to invoke change.
“Though hers was a story of violence and displacement, it was one shared by many women who became collateral damage in the wreckage of Europe’s collapse.” Inge’s War examines the horrors that women, in particular, are subjected to during war including violence, rape, abandonment, and more. It also shows the resilience of people like Inge and her family who do what they must to survive, which in their case means fleeing the only home they’ve ever known to rebuild their lives in another, safer country.
This is a powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking book that offers a fresh and unique perspective on World War II Germany and one woman’s search for the truth.
“Memory is deceptive when it comes to recalling the events and places of our childhood; it tells us a story of our past, idealized and distorted by the passage of time. Loss is the most powerful of these emotional lenses, endowing the places we can never return to with a magic that magnifies the good and softens the bad.”
Readers of historical fiction specifically related to WWII will appreciate this unbelievable true story.