The Storyteller and the Listener

The Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi Childhood

By Ursula Mahlendorf

University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009, 365 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Marcie Hershman


I’ll begin with an admission I’m not proud of: when asked to review The Shame of Survival my first thought was “No, I don’t want to go back there to think about that. I want to move on.” The reply I gave, though slow to find its way through to my voice, was both more measured and more equivocal: “Well, let me check my schedule. I’ll see what I can change to make it fit.”

Of course I’d been asked to consider Ursula Mahlendorf’s book because of my own past, not as the author’s contemporary in Germany but as a descendent of those who were, those whose parents, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles, did not survive the times—could not survive them, living within the shifting borders of Hungary/Czechoslovakia, and, as Jews, separated out from all others. As a child I had heard not only my grandmother’s sweetly happy childhood stories, full of a cast of characters she so clearly loved, but also the difficult silences that cut through and with an abrupt lift of chin ended them. When pressed for a fuller ending or at least for some hint of what happened to her dear ones—where, after the joyful escapades, did they all go?—my grandmother could manage only this: “Hitler got them.” That was the end. Yes, that was that. Lift the chin. Eyes ahead. Onto what’s new.

But in the way of history, of families, of individual lives, the stories my grandmother imparted did not—could not—fully end there. Silence does not always claim all unfinished accounts. Sometimes it is the storyteller who changes, fortifying herself to press onward toward discovery and articulation despite confronting each step of the way inner and outer barricades; other times, it is one of the listeners who exchanges places with the storyteller, taking up the exploration of “back then” and “what came next” because she is distanced (and hence protected) from personal involvement in the original events. I, the American granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, am an example of the “exchanged” storyteller; in 1991, I published Tales of the Master Race, a novel exploring the psyches of small-town Germans during the Nazi era, and a few years later Safe in America, about one Jewish family. Ursula Mahlendorf, a naturalized US citizen, the German daughter of an early member of the SS and as a girl a Nazi youth leader herself, is an example of the “changed.”

Memoirs such as The Shame of Survival don’t take shape easily. As the subtitle has it, this is a childhood and young adulthood that must be “worked though” in order to get told. Each memory brings a difficult parsing. Mahlendorf says as much in the introduction:

Writing led…to a head-on conflict between memory and history. The same remembered event looked different in light of later historical research and changing perspective and my own later personal or social judgments. Over a lifetime, I have experienced many, sometimes radical, physical, emotional, and intellectual dislocations: from German Silesia to Polish Silesia, to the Federal Republic, to the United States; from enthusiasm for Hitler Youth, to ambivalence, to anger, to rejection, to condemnation, to remorse and shame; from nationalism, militarism, and ethnic phobia to internationalism, pacifism, to multiculturalism; from Nazi to feminist…. Often, for those of us who recall a Nazi childhood, the sudden emergence of a forgotten detail may turn a harmless idyll into a suggestive nightmare. 

For both writer and reader, such looks backward are wrenching to absorb.

Yet once begun, the process of re-envisioning a distorted, destructive past is compelling. I slipped so many yellow post-its between the pages to mark passages I needed to revisit that the book bristled—this, even though the general trajectory and history of life in Nazi Germany have been widely documented. Mahlendorf’s story enters territory that is less familiar, at least outside of Germany, when she recounts how social institutions fell apart, as if all at once: the war was lost and no one admitted it. Meanwhile, the criminal activity that most German citizens had refused to see behind their triumphant militarism began rushing through their own doorways. Running ahead of the Russian army and cut off from family and governmental supports, Mahlendorf becomes a “refugee” in her native country. Eventually, she is evacuated to the newly divided western territory in Germany. There, slowly, another life begins.

Mahlendorf, professor emerita of German, Slavic, and Semitic Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she also taught Women’s Studies, structures her tale chronologically, starting with dry-eyed portraits: a mother who admitted to having tried to abort her and, worn out from seamstress jobs, continued to cut her loose, time and again; a father who “fortunately” died of illness before he was involved in those SS actions the adult author shudders to imagine; an older brother who got the coveted schooling that she, as a “lower-class” girl was denied and who, as Germany spiraled downward, volunteered for the army; a younger brother who, innocent of any role in the war efforts, is barely part of her vision during such frenetically filled years. These family members disappear and reappear throughout the book, emotionally remote but physically present, closed-lipped but in that chill speaking volumes. In fact, most of the characters, though named and briefly described, including the narrator, seem flattened; in such a landscape, the shadows they throw are many but small. Whether or not this is due to the difficulty of drawing deeply as a novelist might, the reality is that the individual mattered little in Nazi Germany. It was the mass, the collective identity, which mattered. To think of this as an individual or family story akin to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996) would be to take a wrong turn. The Shame of Survival is—despite its narrator and focus on the girl and young woman Ursula—overwhelmingly the story of a time, town, and society where bonds are purposefully constrictive, roles are rigid, and any circle of safety stays closed to outsiders.

“At least in theory, one’s private life, one’s own personal, intimate sphere, did not exist for Hitler Youth,” Mahlendorf writes.

Each member was required to serve a cause larger than him- or herself, in ceaseless effort; thus activity triumphed over thought and reflection…. From eligible males and females the Nazi Party demanded total involvement and lifelong service…. For females from age ten to eighteen, total involvement and service in the Jungmadel [Young Girls, a branch of the Hitler Youth] and the BDM [Bund Deutscher Mädel or League of German Girls]; for the next six months, in the Arbeitsdienst; [Youth Labor Service/Labor Battalion] and beyond that, lifelong membership in the party and its women’s groups.

If there is a single gleaming thread of the personal that unites the girl Ursula to the “I” of the adult narrator, it is the high value she places on education. In the early years, that desire to be taught drives the “lower class” girl headlong; she goes after the leadership roles in her Hitler Youth groups because leaders get instruction. But in an educational system that poses math problems thusly: “The inmate of a mental hospital costs the state 5.20 marks a day. How much does that come to in a month? A year?”—the aim is to indoctrinate students rather than to open their minds. To get taught, in other words, does not mean to learn how to think. Mahlendorf’s account of those pre-refugee years is disturbing, and the portrait she draws of herself is unsympathetic. As a reader I disliked the young Mahlendorf who, by turns and situation, was insecure yet driven, lonely yet shrill, closed and angry, a pawn of larger events yet a leader of groups that sided with and at least indirectly aided the Nazi regime and its goals. To her credit, it is the adult narrator who presents this child-self for our scrutiny, if not our various judgments, historical, political, and personal.

The view gets too close-in, and the focus too suddenly narrowed, however, in the epilogue, where a second meaning of the subtitle’s “working through” comes to light: the therapy definition. It’s usually a mistake to include such sessions in a book, however useful they may prove for the individual who later sits down at a desk to write. When a weeping Mahlendorf follows her therapist’s advice to take a sabbatical so she can play with nursery school students and integrate joys she’d been denied in her own childhood, of course it makes psychological sense. Yet, since the bulk of the book concerns events set in the 1930s and ’40s, and since in the brief contemporary sections there are no accounts of or allusions to any other intimate connections or adult relationships, and further, no wider sociopolitical context, the leap to include the author’s sabbatical-year activities in her new country seems an unfortunate choice. I can’t help but think that even at the very end, it’s not quite clear where the true borders of this story lie.

That final uncertainty, about what belongs, who belongs, and where innocence fits, might prove a weakness in terms of a shapely book. In the larger sphere, though, it is a central question. Uncertainty is why so many of us, after all the dislocations, losses, fragmentations, are compelled to return—however much we wish it otherwise—to look again at what happened “back there.”


Marcie Hershman is the author of the novels Tales of the Master Race (1991) and Safe in America (1995), and the memoir, Speak to Me: Grief, Love and What Endures (2001). She teaches writing at Tufts University.

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