Sewanee Review – Volume 115, Number 4, Fall 2007
A Path Through Childhood
Johnson, Nancy Revelle.
Nancy Revelle Johnson – A Path Through Childhood – Sewanee Review 115:4 Sewanee Review 115.4 (2007) lxxxix-xci Muse Search Journals This Journal Contents Reviewed by Nancy Revelle Johnson Good-bye to the Mermaids: A Childhood Lost in Hitler’s Berlin ; by Karin Finell; (University of Missouri Press, 2006. 352 pages. Illustrated. $29.95) On September 1, 1939, a six-year-old child observed the waves breaking near the shore on the island of Sylt in the North Sea. She imagined their breaking foam to be made of mermaids’ souls. Her childish reverie was broken by her weeping mother, who told her that Germany had invaded Poland. The chaotic return train trip of mother and daughter to Frankfurt served as a prologue to a childhood shadowed by war. Good-bye to the Mermaids by Karin Finell is a story of the loss of childhood innocence. It is also a story of three generations of women bound together by ties of family but separated by generational status. The women were Oma, the grandmother; Oma’s sister, Margaret; Astrid, the mother; and Karin, the…
…Finell draws on a kaleidoscope of memories to describe her coming of age in a horrific time. The memories she records provide a more detailed picture of life in postwar Berlin. By providing a perspective on the role of women and children in that time, Finell, in Good-bye to the Mermaids, makes an important contribution to a fuller understanding of that era.
Publishers Weekly (Sept. 18, 2006 edition)
Good-bye to the Mermaids: A Childhood Lost in Hitler’s Berlin
KARIN FINELL. Univ of Missouri, $29.95 (360p) ISBN 0-8262-1690-0
At the opening of this rich, descriptive memoir of WWII Berlin, Finell writes of the mermaids whose souls, according to legend, are the foam of the ocean she loved. Thus, the title evokes the childhood that was lost to the war, and equally the childlike desire to believe, as the author did, in what Hitler was selling. Most of Finell’s family failed to share her belief—her divorced mother, an artist, did not, and her half-Jewish relatives certainly did not. Finell, who was six when the war began, lived through many of the quintessential German wartime situations. She participated in the Hitler Youth and fled her home during the bombing campaign, but much of this territory has been mined by previous writers (like Irmgard Hunt in On Hitler’s Mountain). More compelling here are Finell’s descriptions of the war’s end and the immediate postwar years, as she deftly depicts the chaos, poverty and hope that coexisted. She also shows how the truth about the Nazis and their actions slowly seeped into her consciousness. This gracefully written memoir adds to our growing understanding of the German experience of the war. (Nov.)
Santa Barbara News Press (Nov. 5, 2006)
“Coming of Age in War-Ravaged Berlin”
IN PRINT Susan Gulbransen
KARIN FINELL. Univ. of Missouri, $29.95 (360p) ISBN 0-8262-1690-0
What is it like to live in a major city during the worst of a war? This is a topic we Americans know little about first-hand, something far away that happens to other people, those who exist out of camera range for nightly news reports. In Good-bye to the Mermaids: The Lost Childhood in Hitler’s Berlin (University of Missouri Press, Oct. 2006), local author Karin Finell tells her story of the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of a child.
Six years old at the start of World War II and believing in Hitler, she was the youngest of three generations who, with her mother and grandmother, lived, suffered and survived. It is the story of a convoluted world where daily lives are torn between fear and hope, total incomprehension of events and the need to deal with reality. She tells her story from the perspective of those often ignored during the fighting, the same ones who must reorganize their lives after the tanks, guns and politicians have gone home.
From her hilltop home behind Santa Barbara, Ms. Finell talked about writing her experiences and what she learned. “I was close to my grandmother and her sister. I loved both of them fiercely. They represented goodness, understanding and acceptance. Meanwhile, I had issues concerning my feelings towards my mother. Writing the book made me understand my mother and the terrible times she lived through. Here she was, a good-looking woman in her mid-thirties, divorced and without chances for remarriage during the war.
“She worked over 12 hours a day in two jobs, one as an assistant costume designer for the Berlin state opera, the other as a translator, censoring French and English POW letters, a post to which she was drafted. Her nights in Berlin were spent with the sound of sirens and bombs in her ears, interrupted by trips to the air-raid shelter. When our apartment house burned down, she returned to the flames and emerged from the collapsing building bringing me my teddy bear. I visited her grave in the Santa Barbara Cemetery and told her that I finally understood her, her nervous behavior and told her how I appreciated her bravery, and her sacrifices after the war, when she, who was raised with servants, worked as a housekeeper for Americans, so my grandmother and I could have her food-ration cards. At the grave I told her I loved her, but more than that, I finally knew who she was and I was proud of her.” As is true of writing memoirs, Ms. Finell adds, “There were times when I had to relive the pain of loss, when unspeakable things happened, and later grief of losing my grandmother and aunt. I wept writing these scenes, but at the same time felt a close connection to them. It was as if they were guiding me and wanted our story of this humane love in war to be told.”
Ms. Finell signed her book 3 to 5 p.m. Nov. 11,2006 at Tecolote Book Shop, Santa Barbara CA
CASA Magazine (Nov. 10, 2006)
Well-Said Good-byes are special gifts that often emanate from heart-felt memoirs. Karin Finell has found a clear voice to author her good byes to the mermaids of her childhood that was cut short in Nazi Germany. The gifts that arise from these memories are plentiful.
Good-bye to the Mermaids unfolds a narrative about a German child, too young to be a perpetrator, who fit Hitler’s privileged profile, was traumatized by war, blessed with a strong grandmother and mother, and who eventually struggles and succeeds at finding balance in her life.
“During my early years in America, I too tried to forget the terror of my youth. There were occasions when an airplane flying low overhead would make me duck for cover. Memories were mere reflexes then, not to be brought back into consciousness. I never talked to my mother about those times. I, like many others who had lived through the war years in Berlin, tried to erase those memories,” states Finell in the Prologue to her book.
A first author’s reading of the book, by Karin Finell, a local author, will take place at the Tecolote Book Store, on Saturday, Nov. 11 from 3 pm to 5 pm, which is Armistice Day. The public is invited to attend.
This story is about three strong women who hold the perspective of being German middle class and Lutheran during the tumultuous years of World War II. There are few memoirs of the war from this point of view. Her recollections describe Berlin through the eyes of a six-year-old that lives with her artist mother and an exceptionally bright and thoughtful grandmother who had grown up in America.
“But memory is not a slate that can be erased with ease. Memories are like fleeting shades or like dreams, which can be recalled in great detail upon awakening, but then retreat into the shadow and are soon forgotten. Mine had only retreated; they had never been forgotten. Little by little my memories and the stories emerged,” continued Finell.
In her memoir Finell describes what was considered “a normal life” for war-time: not attending school and then attending boarding school, the Hitler Youth, divided families, the struggle to survive and the will to live a quality life. She witnessed air raids, bombings, firestorms, mass rapes, and evacuations that were part of life for the women and children in Hitler’s Germany.
This memoir holds true to the author’s memory, perspective, and adds her research to document historical moments. This combination creates a chronicle that is successful at both telling her story and sharing new perspectives on the war years in Germany.
Santa Barbara News Press (Nov. 26, 2006)
Review by Lin Rolens
War is hell.
There’s no news there, but it’s a different kind of hell for children.
Longtime Santa Barbara resident Karin Finell was a girl in Germany during World War II, and her growing up and coming-of-age memoir offers strong and personal insight into the experience of the war and its aftermath for the German people. She writes this not as any sort of justification of anything at all but because, as she quotes Susan Sontag, “Remembering is an ethical act.”
Ms. Finell is 5 in 1939 when Hitler marches into Poland, and her memories are those of a child; there’s no Kristallnacht or a larger political picture, but there is a clear immediacy of the reality of daily life and survival. She is a sassy, good girl, and she grows into a young woman in the course of the war and its profoundly difficult aftermath.
Fed propaganda at school and automatically enrolled in Hitler youth programs, she is for years, as only a child can be, a true believer that the great father of Germany would protect and honor his people.
She sees the mermaids of the title in the foam of breaking waves, where, according to legend, their souls wash to the shore. Ms. Finell’s innocence is as evanescent as these bits of foam pushed to the beach, and it is on a lovely and indolent beach holiday that her mother first hears of the beginning of the Nazi aggression.
Women center this book; the men are largely gone; her grandfather dead, her cousin and uncles (who largely refuse the officers’ commissions offer so they won’t have to proclaim loyalty to Hitler) either in action or missing in action, her father trying to maintain his honor as a journalist while trying to keep his new wife and trio of sons safe in the Baltics. The very young Ms. Finell, her artistic mother and her salt-of-the-earth grandmother are left to fend for themselves in a Germany in the grip of Hitler’s obsessions.
Ms. Finell’s mother is outspoken against Hitler, as is much of her artistic community, and early she’s warned about speaking her mind, about the dangers of arrest or disappearance. Ms. Finell and her mother and grandmother are repeatedly separated or flee for safety, and only late in the war do they come together in part of a family home and try to reassemble a more normal family life.
Ms. Finell doesn’t pretend to remember all the conversations, but re-creates them as she can, according to the character and voice of her family and friends. She re-creates individual scenes with the kind of detail a child remembers, and this lends a remarkable sense of veracity to most of what she recounts here. Her accounts of the bombings of Berlin and of their aftermath are vivid as are the characters of her mother and beloved grandmother.
The family trio survives those incessant bombings and ongoing brutal food shortage, and they witness the war’s immediate horrors: dozens of passengers shot when fleeing a train, an arm on the street still clutching a patent leather purse, and the helplessness of those around her to do anything except try to survive.
Listening to the BBC is cause for arrest, so the Berliners hear little more than government-spun news and fabrications. During rubble clearing, they come across decomposing bodies of their neighbors. The final blow –bringing with it disillusionment–comes when Ms. Finell finds a young soldier, maybe a couple of years older than she is, hanged from a lamp post.
When Germany falls and the Russians arrive, no female over age 10 is safe from gang rape; the whole of the girls’ school Ms. Finell had attended for a while is captured and shipped off on a trail-car brothel to service Russian soldiers. Ms. Finell, a strapping 12-year-old, disguises herself as a drooling hunchback and moves through the streets.
When the Americans arrive, promise is in the air and Hershey’s chocolate bars thrill the children, but rations hold the population at just above starvation, about 900 calories a day. Her artist-mother goes to work as a maid for an American colonel’s family to increase the family’s food supplies.
Reconstruction proves to be a long and painful process, and cigarettes essentially replace worthless German currency as the medium of exchange: Hungry Berliners trade their heirlooms for cigarettes, and bits of luxuries such as butter and jam begin to creep back into their diet. It’s not until they are required to see a film and then trade their tickets for the vital ration cards that Ms. Finell and her family understand the true horrors of the holocaust.
Karin Finell’s memoir brings home the human costs of war. Without ever being shrill or aggressively dramatic, her absorbing accounts of growing up among the chaos, betrayal and ongoing horror of this terrible era make this real and immediate as few works have.