CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 7 . . . . November 24, 2006
Contemporary adolescents not only have access to their own nation’s output of literature, but, via translation, they can read books originally authored for the youth of other countries. Such is the case with Gudrun Pausewang’s Dark Hours which presents the plight of German civilians during the closing months of World War II.
The story opens with a letter from a 76-year-old grandmother to her granddaughter, Stefanie, on the eve of the granddaughter’s sixteenth birthday. In the missive, the grandmother explains that her gift to Stefanie will be a story she has written about her own sixteenth birthday 60 years ago. She closes by saying:
The story then begins with Russian troops advancing closer to 15-year-old Gisel Beck’s home in Silesia, a situation causing her and her three brothers, Erwin, 12, Harald, 6, and Rolfi, 18 months, their pregnant mother and 68-year-old grandmother to join other refugees in their flight westward, the Beck family’s destination being the Dresden home of Gisel’s maternal grandparents. During their train trip, Mummy must be abandoned at one of the train stops when she goes into labor; however, Granny says she will return for Mummy and child once she has escorted the rest of the group safely to Dresden. The remaining five continue on, but the children become separated from Granny while changing trains, and, when an air raid siren signals the imminent arrival of allied bombers, they must seek sanctuary in a bomb shelter. Their shelter is struck by a bomb, and only the children, another refugee girl, seven-year-old Lotte, plus a badly injured soldier, Herr Rockel, survive, with Rockel being trapped in another part of the shelter and only accessible by voice. Because the shelter is buried in rubble, the group finds itself in complete darkness, with little food and water and no assurance that they will be rescued.
Although the events in Dark Hours focus on just four days, from Friday, when the Beck family’s odyssey began, until Monday, Gisel’s sixteenth birthday and the day rescuers reach the group, Gisel’s recollections of her family’s life and the lives of her neighbors under Hitler’s rule provide readers with a much broader view of this period of German history. Readers see how the nation’s initial euphoria over its military successes came to be replaced by many negative emotions as the war’s various human costs began to be visited on the populace.
Recognizing that World War II is “history” to today’s youth, Pausewang introduces the book’s content with “Germany’s Dark Hours,” a seven page section, including two maps, which provides readers with the necessary factual information in which to situate the story. As Pausewang says, “Anyone reading a book about an event that occurred during World War Two (1939-45) should know how that terrible conflict started and how it turned out.”
While the specific event ended happily with the children’s being dug out by rescuers, Pausewang provides a kind of epilogue in which she shows that the war’s ending did not immediately restore peoples’ lives to their previous pre-war conditions, and one of the more telling statements is Gisel’s observation about her father who had been conscripted to fight on the Eastern Front. “Our post-war Daddy was very unlike our pre-war Daddy.”
A powerful read, Dark Hours is a most worthy addition to libraries’ historical fiction collections, but it would also not be out of place as a resource in any peace studies curriculum. Bravo to Annick Press for making this book available in English!
Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in adolescent literature in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, MB.
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