CAMP WIESENGRUND has not become one of those ominous, symbolic names like Auschwitz and Buchenwald. A relatively small institution with 2,500 inmates, it was built near the end of World War II and not fully operational by the time the Allied armies came marching in. Its guards were seasoned, sadistic SS veterans from other camps, and they practiced the systematic starvation and other routine cruelties that were the background of life in all the extermination camps, but the scale was smaller, closer to everyday reality.
This makes it all the more poignant when Wendelgard von Staden delivers a final verdict on the work done by herself and her mother for the inmates after the camp was built literally in their back yard: "Our efforts to help the twenty-five hundred prisoners in Wiesengrund must have seemed like a teardrop falling into the sea."
This book touches on many subjects in small vignettes and integrates them all into a haunting memoir about growing up in Hitler's Germany. The concentration camp episodes form the book's vital core, but there are dozens of other memories, still vivid after decades, that put the camps and the whole Nazi period in a fresh perspective. The author was about 12 years old when she first saw Adolf Hitler in 1937, almost 19 when his empire finally collapsed, and she tells the story of those years with a frankness that disarms criticism.
Her father, Baron Ernst von Neurath, was a member of the German nobility, undermined financially by the inflation of the 1920s until he had nothing left but land, on which his family worked like the simple farmers who were their neighbors. On this land, a concentration camp and the beginning of an underground base for airplanes were built late in World War II, shrouded in a deep secrecy that the von Neuraths were able to penetrate slightly because of their position as titular owners of the property.
Until they discovered, gradually, what was happening in the camp, the von Neuraths (except for the mother, a dedicated Socialist) had not been Nazis but "good Germans," loyal to a fatherland that had perhaps fallen into the wrong hands. Wendelgard is unsparing in her description of her adolescent reaction the first time she saw Hitler: "He stared straight ahead, past the crowd. It seemed as though he saw no one. His eyes were very blue. I wanted to scream, but I could not. I was struck dumb. I saw him slowly striding in high boots. I saw his eyes, so blue they seemed fluorescent. . . . Late that night, I still could not bring myself to speak. I did not want to hear what my mother was saying. My feelings had been stirred. I swore deep in my heart that I would die for the Fuehrer if that was what he wanted."
Her father was less excited but, on the whole, a prudent man inclined to accept situations that he could not change. Once she discovered the plight of the prisoners and got to know some of them personally, the mother plunged whole- heartedly into an effort to save lives, which in Nazi society amounted to treason, and the daughter was not far behind.
This was not the mother's first protest against Hitler. When Germany invaded Russia, her reaction was dramatic and prophetic. The table was being set for lunch when the news arrived, and von Staden still recalls the scene: "In great agitation, mother grabbed the tablecloth and flung it over the plates. 'See how this cloth covers the plates?' she cried. 'That's how the Russian snow will bury our soldiers. They'll be under the snow on the Russian earth, shot down, frozen stiff, starved to death.'"
Her cousin Carl from Berlin, who eventually died on the Russian front, was equally prophetic. A painter whose experimental style was forbidden as "decadent" by the Nazis, he showed cousin Wendelgard one of his paintings a few months before the war: "green houses with crooked walls, a violet sky, pipes dangling from ripped-open walls, a sagging bathtub on a second floor, and people in the streets with blank disks in place of faces." Later, during an air raid in Berlin, she says, "Carl's painting suddenly sprang to life before my eyes," even the blank faces of the people scurrying to put out the fires. But when she first saw the painting, she could not understand why Carl wanted to avoid military service.
More than four decades later, von Staden still recalls the first impact of war on the small village--the boys who marched away, many to return crippled or never at all. Then the prisoners of war, male and female, who began arriving to take their place in the fields. These first workers, from Poland, were relatively lucky. They were treated humanely by the von Neuraths, and some were allowed to bring in their families ("That was possible," she says, "if you knew how to get along with the officials."). Then came a foretaste of later horrors--the first eyewitness report from a village doctor who had been at the Russian front: "Behind the lines they're purging the villages of Jews."
Von Staden is vivid but impersonal in describing her first sight of Jewish prisoners from the camp: "a procession of thin, staggering figures with shaved heads and greenish faces. They shuffled along in wooden clogs, their jackets and pants hanging loosely." And there is a touch of distaste, still impersonal, when she describes the pandemonium after her mother cooked a kettle of potatoes for a group of starving prisoners: "They all rushed at the kettle, knocking it over and causing the hot potatoes to roll out onto the ground. The men grabbed at the potatoes, fought over them, began to bite into them; then, using both hands, they stuffed them into their mouths--boiling hot and dirty. . . ."
Then, there is a sudden, transfiguring touch of humanity: "They are Jews . . . subhumans," growled an SS guard. "It's you who've made us into animals, and you'll pay for what you've done to us," answered a young prisoner who had stayed out of the scramble. This was Jakob, with whom the author eventually fell deeply, awkwardly in love. Their parting scene gives the book its poignant ending.
Because of their special position, the von Neuraths, mother and daughter, were able to feed some of these prisoners under the pretext of using them as farm workers. "Slowly," she reports, "I was drawn into the world of the prisoners. Without really being aware of it, I lost interest in anything not connected with the camp." With the Allied armies drawing closer, her mother began looking for a plan to keep the inmates of the camp from being liquidated at the last moment, and this effort provides a touch of narrative suspense in the book. There is also some suspense when, after the war, the mother is denounced as a collaborator by the local Communists and is taken into custody by American occupation authorities.
The book is well written and translated, if not professionally organized, but style and structure are almost beside the point. The story is worth reading for the people in it, people struggling to bring small touches of humanity to a nightmare not of their making.