Sabine Fuchs


Austrian Writers remember their Childhood in World War Two and the Postwar Period

Autobiographical literature interests many readers from all over the world. Is this also true for children and young people?  And when books treat historical events of especially the last century – that is contemporary history – what can autobiographical literature offer more than fiction? Do autobiographical texts interest readers from totally different national backgrounds and do they consider them worth reading? As to the book market and publishing companies, will translations pay?

Let’s adapt the question to this congress. What are you interested in when you read or hear about autobiographical texts of Austrian writers?

To start with few general aspects

Autobiographical literature is characterised by its validity with regard to real life. Readers have a desire for historical truth and writers consider it as a criteria or a starting point for writing. Subjective memories in autobiographical texts are always fiction too. It can’t be always separated from historical authenticity though. So we find a wide range of autobiographical texts, from novels where a first person narrator tells his/her own story to texts which are told by a distant third person narrator. It’s this wide range that is fascinating.

It’s especially difficult to handle memories and historical events when your own story is closely linked to such a terrible time in Europe as the rise of the National Socialists and the Second World War. Autobiographical writing then is even more difficult for German and Austrian writers, as they are citizens of countries that caused so much terror, racism and misery. Moreover they are well aware of their responsibility, especially in the case of ambivalences and fractures.

As Hildegard Adler puts it – “It’s important to get access to one’s own feelings, impulses and thoughts that are not dear, valuable and pleasant, but bitter, embarrassing or humiliating for an observing controlling me.” 

Many Austrian writers tried this painful access, for example Robert Neumann, Ingeborg Bachmann, Ilse Aichinger or Thomas Bernhard, to name just a few. But there are also writers of children’s and youth books. I’d like to present you autobiographical novels of Käthe Recheis, Christine Nöstlinger und Renate Welsh, who are three of the most important living writers of Austrian literature for children and young people. They are vital for German-speaking literature for kids after 1945.

Käthe Recheis

70 years ago, in September 1938, shortly after the invasion of the German troops in Austria Käthe Recheis started attending grammar school. At the age of 10 years she was already old enough to be aware of the political changes.

In 1928 Käthe is born in Hörsching near Linz in Upper Austria. She grows up in a Catholic family that disapproves of any discrimination of other people and that speaks out distinctively against the ideology of National Socialism. Together with some others in the village the family opposes public life that is heavily influenced by propaganda (school, village talk). In “Lena. Unser Dorf und der Krieg” (Our village and the war), first published 1987, she writes: “I pieced together my own memories, as well as those of my mother, my siblings and the people of the village Hörsching to a story like a mosaic.”  After 40 years Käthe Recheis remembers chronologically in short dramatic episodes the annexation of the National Socialists, the seven-year dictatorship and the course of the Second World War. She tells the story in a realistic way without embellishing anything, like her passing fascination during the so-called Blitzkriege . She raises problems like the consequences of the growing limitations during the war , her own pangs of remorse  as well as those of her friends or describes the few pleasures of a childhood in the village, a childhood that was not observed by adults. We learn about her emphatic gesture when she puts flowers on forgotten “Russian graves” and about the reactions she causes. She might have been considered a friend of Russians, a traitor of the German people or a saboteur, so-called crimes that were punished severely then.  So we see quite clearly how a bright and keen child learns to keep quiet in order to survive, how it learns to suppress its own attitude and it learns to bear inner conflicts without the help of grown-ups.

I didn’t forget it” , that’s what Käthe Recheis stresses in her preface to “Geh heim und vergiss alles” (Go home and forget everything), first published in 1964 under the title “Schattennetz”.  So she doesn’t only mean the local fixation of the story but especially the associated emotions during the first postwar years. The locals knew about the existence of concentration camps already before 1945 as there were some nearby, a Russian camp in Hörsching, Schloss Hartheim, a lunatic asylum or the concentration camp Mauthausen. Seventeen-year-old Käthe Recheis, however, was only confronted with the terrible truth when the first camp prisoners who had just been liberated by the Americans were taken to a provisional military hospital because they were suffering from spotted fever. Recheis’ father tried to attend the sick together with three almost starved Jewish doctors of the camps.

Käthe and other young people helped the four men. Käthe’s father finally died of spotted fever too. The seventeen-year-old volunteer could hardly bear the physical and mental misery. Käthe Recheis extraordinarily gets across all those resentments, the complete lack of official help and hope despite all engagement as well as the closeness and the developing friendships in “Geh heim und vergiss alles”. Reading the story you’ll feel empathy both for the victims and the helpers.
The personal experience has always been vital for Käthe Recheis. “All I experienced then still haunts me and I start writing again and again to deal with it. As a consequence I started caring for the victims of political persecution and for the suppressed, for example the Native Americans.”  One part of her engagement can be seen in her literary work, for example “Der weiße Wolf” (1982), “Wolfssaga” (1994) or in the editions of Indian Tales, the other one in her relief project for Native Americans. 

Christine Nöstlinger

Christine Nöstlinger witnesses in “Maikäfer flieg” as well as in “Zwei Wochen im Mai” authenticity: “The story I am going to tell is true. It happened to me. It is a tale of Gunpowdertown.”

In 1945, the Third Reich is going to decline, World War Two comes to an end and Christine Nöstlinger is just 8 years old. Born in 1936 into a Socialist family in Vienna her life is affected by dictatorship and war. She learns about other circumstances only through the glorified memories of her family, from her elder sister about the flavour of chocolate, from her grandfather about democracy. When their flat is destroyed in a bombing the family lives in an exclusive residential area in Vienna. The end of the war is adventurous and exciting for her. There is no moralizing when she remembers all this in her autobiographical text “Maikäfer flieg. Mein Vater, das Kriegsende, Cohn und ich” – translated by Anthea Bell for Andersen Press titled “Fly Away Home”. After more than 25 years she tells her story chronologically in short episodes. Her direct style and the childlike perspective revive once again the chaos of the end of war with its constant bombings  and the looting of a food depot of the NSV (the National Socialist Welfare)  and the stoked fears because of Russian soldiers .

But for Nöstlinger it’s a Russian cook who symbolizes peace in a way. “I loved the cook because there was absolutely nothing about him that had anything to do with war. He was a soldier, but he had no gun or pistol. He did have a uniform, but it looked more like a fag-and bone man’s outfit. He was a Russian, but he could speak German. He was an enemy, but he had a soft, deep voice for singing lullabies.” 

It was quite difficult to get used to peace. Nöstlinger describes this experience without glorifying or trivializing the situation in the novel “Zwei Wochen im Mai. Mein Vater, der Rudi, der Hansi und ich“ (Two Weeks in May. My father, Rudi, Hansi and me), published in 1981. She confronts the peacetime – they all have dreamed for so long – with reality and her first love that her parents finally stopped.

Relentlessly she shows the difficult situation of children to understand the demanded ethics. ”Kids then accepted almost everything without contradiction: the war, the bombs, the Nazis, the end of war, the liberators, the hunger, the donations – we didn’t experience anything else, nothing that we could have opposed to this misery. […] We lacked orientation. We lacked ethics. […]. Times were so hard, I couldn’t care or bother about other people. Nobody taught me to do so". 

But in her career as a writer Christine Nöstlinger managed to draw attention to suffering children worldwide, to encourage them and to point out their rights in her realistic and fanciful books for children and young people, like – in English available novels – “But Jasper Came Instead”, “Marrying Off Mother” or “Conrad”, “Mr Bat’s Great Inventiion”. Her humour and her impressing style were also international honoured, for example with the Hans-Christian-Andersen-Medal or with the first Astrid-Lindgren-Prize. 

Renate Welsh

Renate Welsh, however, chooses distance and a third person narrator in her novel “Dieda oder das fremde Kind” (You over there or the strange child) published in 2002. Those who are familiar with her autobiographical statements  know that it is her most intimate book.

Born in Vienna in 1937 Renate Welsh tells the story of a six-year-old haggard child during the last war years. The child suffers a lot. She misses her dead mother terribly. Although she seems safe enough in Bad Aussee where she lives with her stepmother’s family, she is an outsider; nobody cares about her, loves her. So she refuses her name – her identity – and only reacts when she is called “Dieda” (You over there). All adults of the family are unkind and unjust, but it’s especially her grandfather  who provokes naughty behaviour which is then punished. The adults have to struggle to survive; they are not able to interpret the behaviour of the girl as an outburst of her emotional constitution. There is not much for the girl to survive emotionally. It’s the world that she lives in with the other kids and it’s memories and letters of her father who lives in Vienna.

The author does not reveal that this haunting, personal novel has autobiographical characteristics. But more than 50 years after the war she chooses such a specific literary form for her experiences that adults and kids alike can’t defy the description, how this child in this years hates itself and suffers from its loneliness.

It doesn’t matter whether the readers know the autobiographic reference.
The experience of being a stranger and of being different can be found in other novels of the author too. She is known for investigating the background of her stories fastidiously and she always finds the right register for those stories whatever they are dealing with. Let me give you some examples: Her text with historical background like “Johanna” 1979, or about resistance fighter in Austria in “In die Waagschale geworfen” (Cast in the scale) 1988 or with historical facts in “Besuch aus der Vergangenheit” (Visit from yesteryear) 1999. About experiences to be strange or different nowadays like about violence at school “Sonst bist du dran!” (It will be your turn next Time) 1994 or about people with special needs like in “Drachenflügel” 1988 or about outsiders like in “Ülkü, das fremde Mädchen” (Ülkü, the strange girl) 1973.

Why should children and young people read these books especially nowadays?

These days’ kids can hardly imagine that their grandparents or great-grandparents lived during a war or experienced one as a child. They have seen documentaries about this period on TV or in school. But they have hardly talked with people who have experienced this time. The little they know from these personal sources is hardly relevant compared to the information they have seen on TV. Thus, historical knowledge is communicated technically but not personally . Thus Austrian children and young people are hardly aware of the Second World War as part of their own family history. That’s why authentic autobiographical literary texts by authors who experienced difficult historical periods are increasingly important.

Moreover autobiographical literature enables such empathy that fiction or documentaries can’t provoke. They facilitate understanding for people who are refugees, who are persecuted and tortured, for kids who don’t know anything but war these days. But perhaps these texts can also help to understand people who follow wrong ideologies like new racist waves without being aware of the consequences for themselves and their neighbours.

Sabine Fuchs (Austria)
IBBY World Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark, September 2008

Translated by Sabrina Rauchenwald, Austria