For some weeks now I've been slowly reading Lena: unser Dorf in der Krieg by Kaethe Recheis. I am still a fairly slow reader of German-language texts, but I persevere. Lena is an award-winning novel of World War II from the perspective of a young girl named Lena, in rural Austria. Her little village is in the middle of farm country, Linz being the closest real city nearby. The book opens with the Anschluss, Hitler's invitation for Austria to join the Reich. There was a vote, in case you were unaware, Austria being allowed to choose if they would remain independent or if they'd "rejoin" their German homeland. I don't understand the politics of the day, and 10 year-old Lena doesn't either, so all I know is that some Austrians were pro-Nazi and pro-Anschluss, and others were not, and in Lena's village emotions ran high before the election. Emotions ran even higher after the vote: Hitler sent squads of Nazis into Austria to manage the election:
"Er kränkt sich so sehr", erklärte uns Tante Steffi. "Nicht einmal das Kreuz haben sie ihn selbst hinzeichnen lassen. Die Hand haben sie ihm dabei geführt. Und so was nennt sich eine Wahl!" Ihre Stimme wurde dabei immer lauter, immer zorniger. "Draußen auf der Straße sind die SA-Leute gestanden, und drin im Gemeindeamt war es nicht besser. Alle Nazis aus dem Dorf waren da und haben zugeschaut, was wir wählen. "Das müsst ihr euch ankreuzen", hat der Perwanger gesagt und auf den großen Kreis gezeigt. "Ich weiß schon selber, was ich tu", hat der Großvater geantwortet. Und dann hat er die zwei Kreise lange angeschaut, und der Perwanger hat um seine 100 % Ja-Stimmen zu zittern angefangen. Da hat er die Hand vom Großvater genommen und ein Kreuz auf das Ja gemacht und gesagt, alten Leuten, die schlechte Augen hätten, müsse man helfen. Und dabei weiß jeder im Dorf, dass der Großvater keine Brille braucht!" "Reg dich nicht auf, Steffi", sagte der Großvater. "Sind doch alles Lumpen! Ich geh' jetzt in den Garten." "Es war keine freie Wahl!" sagte meine Mutter. Mein Vater sagte gar nichts.Which is to say, the Nazi election marshalls "helped" everyone to vote in favor of the Anschluss. No ballots were cast privately. There was a 100% "yes" vote in the election. Red and black flags festooned the town the next day, hurrah for democracy!
As you can imagine, things get progressively worse as the years go by. Young men are conscripted into the Wehrmacht and there begins a series of empty-casket funerals in the local church as reports begin to come in from the various fronts. The Jews, the mentally ill, the gypsies, and the vagrants are rounded up by SS squads, and taken to a "hospital" where they soon die of sudden mysterious illnesses. A pillar of smoke rises above the "hospital." "They are burning the mentally ill," young Lena thinks. The village is rife with informants, and citizens who voice anti-Nazi views are snatched up by the SS and sent to Vienna or Dachau. Recheis is a wise author, interrupting all of this paranoia and terror with comic episodes and nature writing, which she does well, and there is also the continuous maturing of Lena over the years to take focus away from the horror of the Nazi rule now and then. But with maturity comes a greater realization of consequences. In one of the most moving parts of the novel, Lena has visited a neighbor, Rosa, an invalid teen girl who has been a Nazi supporter from the start of the novel. Lena becomes angry at Rosa and blurts out that it would be a terrible thing if Hitler were to win the war and eliminate freedom from the entire world. "Where did you hear this?" Rosa demands. "The chaplain said so," Lena answers, and immediately regrets having said anything. Soon after this conversation, the chaplain is arrested by the SS and taken away to Vienna. Lena is certain that her "betrayal" of the chaplain has led to his arrest, and she is torn apart by her guilt. After getting out of school (in Linz) the next day, Lena walks to a high bridge over the Danube, where she stands between carved figures of the Nibelungen and looks down at the waters rushing past. There is a lot of traffic on the bridge but nobody notices the remorseful young girl considering suicide. It's a great scene, Lena deliberately building emotional distance from herself as she tries to will her body off the bridge. Perhaps life in a repressive state is like that.
This novel, I suppose it's a young-adult novel as we say these days, has won all sorts of awards in the German-speaking world. I'm surprised it hasn't been translated into English.