A debut memoir offers insights into relocation during World War II and glimpses of subsequent life in Austria and the United States.
Smolik was born in 1942 in Vocin, Yugoslavia. Two years later, as local fighting intensified, she and her family—two sisters, mother, and maternal grandparents—moved to Dresden, where they remained until just before the 1945 bombing of that city. The family was relocated to Austria, reunited with Smolik's now ex–prisoner-of-war father, and stayed briefly in various refugee camps until settling in a village near Steyr. In 1952, through the International Refugee Organization, they moved to rural Iowa and then to Des Moines. Smolik admits to recalling little of Yugoslavia, the war, and the early years in Germany and Austria, events that constitute the first half of her book. Nonetheless, she draws on historical records and her older sister’s recollections to aptly describe the tumult of displacement and the wherewithal required to maintain family life, faith, and tradition in a new country. Not surprisingly, Smolik’s writing is most poignant when relating her own, very childlike memories of this time: decorating the Christmas tree with apples, eating roasted snails, receiving tooth powder in an aid package at school. The second half of the volume describes life as a new immigrant in the U.S.: early days as a fourth-grader who knew little English and few American customs and later years as a high school and university student. At times, these later accounts—of friends, shopping, dances, church—read like those of any young girl in 1950s Iowa, perhaps a testament to Smolik’s acclimatization. Yet she always circles back to how war has shaped her and her family. She calls herself “both a casualty and a survivor” of World War II, a many-layered “haystack” buffeted by external events yet strong at the core. Despite occasional lapses into encyclopedialike summaries of history, religion, and geography, Smolik’s writing is clear and her narrative compelling.
While somewhat uneven in organization and recollection, this book remains an important historical document and a reminder of the lasting effects of displacement.