Svenja O’Donnell was never particularly close to her grandmother, Inge, whom she describes as an “aloof, somewhat selfish woman.” Unexpectedly, though, when O’Donnell visited the East Prussian town where her grandmother grew up, Inge suddenly announced during a phone call, “I have so much to tell you.” Thus began what the author calls a “decade of discoveries” into the secrets that lay at her “family’s heart, unspoken, undisturbed, unsuspected for years.” At one point, her normally reticent grandmother even began hearing the voices of her dead friends and family in the form of “waking dreams.” The past had come back to haunt her.
As a seasoned print and television journalist and a former political correspondent, O’Donnell was well-equipped to track down her family’s buried truths. In Inge’s War: A German Woman’s Story of Family, Secrets, and Survival Under Hitler, she lets events unfold chronologically while seamlessly interspersing conversations with her mother and grandmother, both natives of Germany, with her own research and travel to important family landmarks in Europe.
In the midst of World War II, Inge became a young, unmarried mother while her beloved boyfriend was off fighting the war; his father forbade them to marry. Later, as the Russian Army approached, Inge, her toddler (the author’s mother) and her elderly parents escaped just in time to Denmark, where, as Germans, they weren’t well received. The tale of their flight is harrowing, and O’Donnell provides thoughtful commentary every step of the way, observing, “Silence has always dominated women’s experience of war.” She notes that German children like her mother had “to bear the weight of an identity that made them pariahs at birth” and that she herself remembers feeling uneasy during a school trip to a war museum in Normandy, as she was the only half-German student in her class.
Even so, O’Donnell makes no excuses for anyone, noting that many Germans conveniently hid behind the phrase “I did not know” when it came to the realities of the Holocaust. As she notes, the goal of her investigation was “to learn the truth of my family’s story, to recognize in its shifts, its hopes and its flaws, the hybridity that shaped my own identity.”
Mission accomplished—with Inge’s War, O’Donnell has created a story that reads like a novel filled with fascinating history and excellent detective work.