In her debut, German-born Valensi recalls the hardships her family endured during and after World War II.
This memoir is a series of recollections by a girl born to an affluent Christian East German family in 1938. Valensi was 6 years old and living with her two older brothers when war broke out, and by the war’s end, she had two younger sisters. She and her family were forced to relocate during and after the war. Although they were not imprisoned or tortured, they suffered at the hands of the occupying Russians. With her father drafted by the German army, her resourceful mother was required to find food and shelter for the children. Valensi describes life in exile in Czechoslovakia in 1945: “We had only what we could carry....Life was living in fear and hoping to find home again.” When they were permitted to return home, they found it unspeakably filthy and occupied by the former mayor. The shops were gone, and only meager black market goods were available. To survive, “Mother collected shafts of grain from the fields and boiled them,” along with field potatoes and nettles found in the meadows. After a succession of humble residences, they were exiled to a West German town. From there, with determination and some luck, Valensi opened doors, ripe opportunities behind each one. She became a nurse and made contact with wealthy Americans who helped her immeasurably in her career. In the book’s first half, Valensi effectively conveys the distress a young child would experience when forced to leave everything familiar by focusing on the small things, such as the pain of leaving a beloved doll behind and her ability to endure exile with the sanguine expectation that they will be reunited someday. But Valensi’s inability to contextualize her experiences is disappointing. Employing a child’s-eye perspective limits any inclusion of the true horrors of the Holocaust—a word that doesn’t appear in the book. One of a handful of allusions to the Holocaust is her statement that “Hitler resented the Jews.” In the book’s second half, once the family settles in West Germany, the reminiscences lose the immediacy of wartime.
Anecdotes and recollections of a family’s small heroics and large privations during wartime by one who endured and thrived.