Book Reviews

Tales From a Child of the Enemy
Ursula Duba

Reviewed by Gillian McCann.
Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto.

© Gillian McCann, 2001

New York: Penguin Books, 1997. 153 pp. $11.99 (paper), ISBN 0-14-058787-X.

Human beings turn instinctively to poetry when faced with issues that take us to the threshold of what is expressible. As Ursula Duba’s subject matter is centred upon the Holocaust, her choice of poetry as a medium is an understandable one. Duba, a German gentile who was six years old when World War II ended, has written a complexly structured collection of poetry about her experiences. The themes of silence, guilt, responsibility, and the legacy of history run throughout her work with interweaving stories propel the narrative. The slim volume is written in condensed, crystalline prose that packs a devastating emotional punch. The poems follow more or less chronologically, depicting Duba’s childhood, her personal end of innocence, and her life as an adult living in the United States in the mid-1960’s among Holocaust survivors. The work begins with a poem that gives the collection its title. The author and a Greek friend are exchanging their childhood memories of suffering during WW II when as Duba writes, " I see in her eyes/ that I am a child of her enemies." From the beginning of the work Duba establishes the impossibility of escaping from history.

The poems that follow describe the carpet bombing of Cologne, Germany, the destruction of that city, and starvation of its population, from the viewpoint of Duba as a child of five and six. She goes on to describe how she heard constantly of the suffering of the German people during WW II while growing up. In the poem The Good Old Days she notes that, "nobody mentioned/the Kristallnacht/people having to wear yellow stars/arrests in the middle of the night." It is only at the age of nineteen, on a blind date with a Jewish man, while on a trip out of Germany, that she is made aware of the Holocaust.

Blind Date is the pivotal poem of the collection, and this revelation of German atrocities committed during WW II was clearly the turning point in her life and she writes:

Till the end of her life
She would have to prove
That she wasn’t one of them
Like the ones who had kept silent
Like the ones who had colluded
Like the ones who had participated

From the poems it is evident that repudiating the silence and taboo surrounding the subject of the Holocaust in Germany in the period directly after the war became a mission for Duba. She notes that she was taught in history class by her teacher, an ex-Nazi, that "the German soldier is the best in the world." The poems that follow Blind Date describe Duba’s rage at her family, teachers, church and government for keeping her in ignorance. As a result Duba educated herself about Germany’s real history and she began to confront the people in her life who maintained what she describes in a later essay as an "impenetrable silence." These people, who were busy building the "new Germany", had no interest in self-reflection or issues of responsibility. When questioned they reacted with anger, defensiveness and denial. Among her co-workers and neighbours she was reprimanded for pointing out Germany’s culpability in WW II and called a traitor for refusing to accept the idea that Germans were passive victims during the war. Duba writes in The Victims "they couldn’t understand/wouldn’t understand/that anybody/could be cross with them-/the hardworking Germans/who had suffered so much." Her parents told her that "they hadn’t known any of this" and her mother instructed her to remain silent about the past saying "a bird does not dirty its own nest." In Family Secrets Duba’s dying mother admonishes her not to speak of either her country’s or her family’s past because as Duba reasons "the murderer among us/has to be protected/at all costs/after all/he is one of us."

Tales From a Child of the Enemy gives an insider’s view of German attitudes during WW II and in the immediate post-war period. Tracing the connections between the microcosm and the macrocosm Duba provides insight into aspects of German culture that may have contributed to an acceptance of the Nazi regime. In the bone-chilling poem Aunt Selma the author’s aunt, who is epileptic, is treated with cold disdain by her brother, Duba’s father, because her illness "would shed/a terrible light/on all of us/ being of sound genetic stock/was all-important/in the time of the master race." While Duba’s father was a socialist who refused to join the Nazi party, he is depicted as a harsh and brutal man who abuses both his wife and children. Her father also does not question the actions of his brothers who were active in the Nazi party.

Outraged at her country and the complicity of members of her family, Duba goes into a voluntary exile travelling to Israel, marrying,and eventually living in Brooklyn, New York where many of her neighbours were refugees from Eastern Europe and Holocaust survivors. In this middle section of the book are some of the most moving poems of the entire work. Duba cuts to the core in these portraits which emphasize the particular and individual experiences of survivors and the continuing legacy of the Holocaust. These poems are based upon actual experiences of people she met in Brooklyn and are oral histories in poetic form. In Still Looking Duba describes meeting Mrs Kaufman who "left Vienna in 1939/on the last children’s boat/allowed to enter Palestine/who was thirteen years old/and never saw anybody of her family again." In the same poem Duba draws a portrait of Mrs Berkovitz and her husband. While at their home the author notices that Mr Berkovitz is watching her intently and then begins to ask questions about her family. Duba wonders why he is so interested in the names of her family members until it is explained to her by Mrs Berkovitz that:

My husband is looking for lost relatives
Ever since he first saw you
He had detected a family resemblance
And even though I told him it was impossible
He persisted

The poems As You Wish Madam and If Only I Had Known contain the story of a woman haunted by guilt over the death of her mother. Arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau from Hungary in 1944 the woman, nineteen at the time, insists that her mother take the bus as those who do not are told by the SS to run the rest of the ten kilometres to their destination. The woman discovers later that the German word laufen means both to run and to walk and that she had mistranslated it. As a result her mother was sent straight to the gas chambers. Guilt over surviving is also the theme of In the Shower, which describes the daily agony of a man who was unable to sponsor his parents’ move to America in time to save them from the death camps. These poems show vividly the day to day effects of the Holocaust on those who survived. The strength of these poems lies in their particularity, their depiction of individual lives, and in this way they are the opposite of impersonal statistics. These vignettes reveal that, in these cases, time does not necessarily heal all wounds, and in fact they often continue into the next generation.

The effects of the Holocaust on children of survivors is addressed by Duba in The Golden Childhood. She describes a girl known to her since childhood who was envied by everyone in her circle for being the only and cosseted child of a sophisticated mother. Meeting again as adults the true story of the woman’s childhood is told to the author when she says, " Do you know what it is like/to hear Auschwitz stories/on my mother’s lap/day after day/when other children heard fairy tales." For this girl, unlike Duba, there was no innocence of the Holocaust even in childhood. The woman as an adult is haunted by illnesses and phobias, rendering her unable to lead a normal life.

The last poem in this cycle is called Guests of Honor and recounts the story of the Schuplers a German-Jewish couple, who escaped Nazi Germany, and who are invited back to their hometown as honoured guests. Torn they eventually decide to attend the ceremony in remembrance of Jews forced to flee Germany. Their decision to accept the invitation springs from their desire to see old friends and upon their return they participate in elaborate ceremonies intended to show that Germany is now a "humane and caring country". The poem ends with the couple meeting with old classmates only to be regaled with tales of their suffering during the war. None of their former friends even bother to inquire about the life of the couple as refugees in the United States, or to inquire into the fate of other members of their family. This poem connects with the earlier theme of the unwillingness of Germans to accept responsibility or face honestly the personal losses that are the continuing legacy of the Holocaust. The poem also brings the volume up to the present and shows the complex issues involved in any attempts at dialogue between Germans and victims or refugees of the Holocaust .

Tales From a Child of the Enemy intricately combines autobiography and biography throughout the collection, and while each poem can stand on its own, it holds together as a complete work. Themes are introduced and then are amplified in a later poem or viewed from a different angle. Taking on as she does a topic so charged and so complex, Duba manages never to fall into sentimentality or self-pity. Her primary method for avoiding these pitfalls are her absolute, unflinching honesty. In her final poem Not Fixable, Ursula Duba is clear that, in her opinion, there is no easy or quick resolution to the issues she has raised. The author notes that the attempt by the German people to forget history by immersing themselves in economic activity and the repair of their country in the immediate post-war period was doomed to failure. She writes "it’s hard for them to accept-/the Holocaust/is not forgettable/the Holocaust/is not erasable/the Holocaust in not fixable." In refusing to collude in this national amnesia Duba’s volume is a powerful statement of conscience. Her work stands as a personal act of witnessing and challenges her readers to face the effects of history with the same courage and honesty.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.