WARNING: This post contains material which some readers may find upsetting.
We don’t talk about my paternal Grandfather. I know he was Russian, and that he and my Oma spent very little time together. It would have been in the final months of the war in Austria – as the Allied troops closed in on Germany and Austria, as the Nazis fell to suicides and lynchings, hid themselves or fled across the world. The world was trying to bring an end to the immense upheavals and tragedies that had for so many Europeans, been the only world they knew. In the wake of all this, all my Grandfather was to me was an anonymous Russian soldier. No name, no rank, no other information given. And thus the immortal line of John Cleese’s character was the best descriptor of my attitude to my murky family history.
“Listen, don’t mention the war! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.”
That was until Eine Bucklige Welt, a historiographic work containing my father’s story is released and I receive a copy two days after Christmas: that same Christmas that my father calls and asks for forgiveness for things he had said and done, some of which I remembered, some of which I had no memory of. Of course I forgave him, who couldn’t? I stood at the side of the house crying into the phone, hearing him crying into the phone, the signal sent through 10,000 miles of space, Sydney to Vienna, father to son. And just like that, everything was okay between us, the best present I have ever been given. He mentions the book, and says, “If you read it, then you will understand why I did the…things I did.”
The title of the book translates to “A Buckled World: War and Persecution in the land of a thousand hills.” I read the book the day after I receive it. I find out a new version of who my Grandfather was.
My Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother are with their two daughters. One is my Oma, the other my Great Aunt. They are in the garden — probably working to grow food and tend to crops. It is early April – about a fortnight since Commander Fyodor Tolbukhin marches into Austria to begin a decade of occupation. Two Russian soldiers enter the garden, they raise their rifles to the older couple’s heads and tell them that they are going to rape their daughters in front of them. If they do not watch they will be shot, the girls raped anyway, and then also killed. They comply, and both soldiers rape the two girls, and for them, the story is over. They leave.
In the aftermath of the war, it has been estimated that Soviet servicemen raped 2 million German women. One in ten of these victims died in the aftermath, either at the hands of their rapists, or during failed attempts at abortion.
In some horrible twist of fate, both girls fall pregnant, and attempt to abort the seeds of life inside them. It is unclear whether they go to the hospital or use Tansy oil, a method used since the middle ages. It works for my one girl, the other, my Oma falls pregnant with the baby that will one day become my father. Ironically Tansy oil is also used to prevent miscarriage, so perhaps there was never any chance for this young woman to exercise any control over her life and her body. It may be that she truly was flotsam in the wake of the war, and that nothing was ever to change what was to happen.
* * *
A War Child is someone born to a native parent and a child born to a foreign military parent. It is a practice that seems to date back to every documented conflict in human history by known historical authors such as Homer, Herodotus and Livy. Attitudes to the practice have ranged from it being a collateral effect of war, to an assault on the property of men (their wives and daughters) to the more modern understanding of its incredibly grave impacts upon whole societies.
But the grim reality is that a War Child faced a life of persecution and hatred, as indeed did their mothers. Suicides and mercy killings of young children to avoid rapists were all too common in those days as the Red Army pressed into the Axis nations, and despite Stalin’s assurances that their revulsion for the German people would prevent any Russian soldier from touching the ‘women of the enemy,’ the opportunity for reprisals against similar behaviours by German and Austrian troops was rarely passed up. Special dispensations to provide abortions (which were illegal in Germany and Austria) in the case of these rapes give us an indication that there was an awareness of how undesirable it would be to have children born to Russian soldiers in the defeated nations.
War children were excluded, mocked, attacked and abused. Their mothers were called whores and traitors, and for widows, often struggled to remarry, as the stigma against them meant they were perceived as ‘tainted.’
All the other children were allowed to go to Kindergarten. Only I was not allowed to go there. I asked my mother why not? ‘Why do all the other children get to go to kindergarten, yet I cannot?’ She told me it was because I was a Russian Child, and all the other parents would take their children out of the school, if I was allowed to attend
My Father, 2015
These struggles then were all too real. In my fathers case, he was to not only spend his life excluded in that little village, but suffered physical abuse at the hands of the Mayor, who was his legal guardian who would lock him in a little cage in a cupboard for being naughty for hours at a time. Or the relative who would force his head under water and hold it there, for sometimes thirty or forty seconds, as a tiny, five year old boy struggled under his grasp. Or the constant mutters of Russkind (Russian Child) and the sneers from adults, or the way their children were encouraged to target him, bully him and make he and his mother suffer for something they had no choice in. To learn these stories was to contextualise the man that I both loved and feared, and to make forgiveness of that turbulent childhood as easy as it was. Understanding and empathy was the gift that many War children and their mothers were denied. And indeed continue to be denied. The Russian Government has recently criminalised any criticism of the Red Army, particularly in regard to the rape of civilians in occupied territory. Yet awareness of the actions was seen by the high command, and Stalin himself, as noted in Anthony Beevor’s The Downfall of Berlin: 1945.
“These (reports of rape) were passed on to Stalin. You can actually see from the ticks whether they’ve been read or not – and they report on the mass rapes in East Prussia and the way that German women would try to kill their children, and kill themselves, to avoid such a fate.”
Yet denial is not simply the mandate of government bodies and dictators and bigots. Indeed the response by everyday people to such horrors that may be most worrying. Perhaps most sadly my own mother’s response earlier this year, saying that she doesn’t believe that my father’s story is true, that most likely Oma concocted the story out of shame, or that my father created the narrative to allay his own sense of not belonging.
And on a personal level that is upsetting, not least because the people who experienced the story are dead, and can no longer speak for themselves. But beyond that it tells us a story of why even to this day, sexual assault and violence against women is treated through a lens of bias. With the constant grim revelations about paedophiles being protected in the media, schools and churches, with the babbling voices around the Bill Cosby rape case, it seems clear that the narrative of the victim is never free from suspicion, yet why this should be the case is difficult to ascertain. Does it go beyond patrimony and sexism, or even more worryingly are women also playing their part in robbing their sisters of the right to be heard, understood and empathised with?