Saturday, May 18, 2019

In Search of Babushka

Babushka's Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin's Wartime Camps is an eloquent travel memoir that also manages to do the heavy lifting required by great historical writing. Though German-born and typically Ireland-based, author Marcel Krueger is currently carrying out the duties of writer-in-residence in Olsztyn, Poland. You can follow his blog in German and in English.

Published by I.B. Tauris in 2018, Babushka's Journey is a welcome addition to the better known histories of trauma of the twentieth century, filling a niche that most World War II and Gulag narratives barely mention: the fate of East Prussian women during the final days of the war.

Krueger beautifully narrates both the story of his grandmother Cilly and her rural childhood that was interrupted when the Soviet army advanced into the region in January 1945 as well as of his own present-day attempt to trace her journey east, through Poland and on to Yekaterinburg, where she worked in various POW labor camps in the region until October 1949.

He brings fresh insight into what it meant to be a German POW in Stalin's Soviet Union by not only conducting archival research and interviewing primary sources but also through recreating the diet that his grandmother would have eaten in the camps and the physiological toll such a diet will take on the human body. He captures both the bleak winter of 1945 and the stifling summer heat of Eastern Europe during his own travels.

Babushka's Journey raises the standard of historical research and how that research can serve as the basis to a compelling and memorable narrative.

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  1. Need to add this one to my reading list!

  2. I devoured this memoir the way Cilly devoured her British-made chocolate on the sunny grass in Friedland. Cilly's and Marcel's stories have profoundly affected me, complicating my understanding of history, the human condition, and my own heritage. I am glad that this book has become a part of my world. Thank you, Frank, for sharing this with me.

    1. I’m really pleased you liked this book. It is surprisingly a great read—surprisingly because I wasn’t even sure I wanted to know much about this history. I’m so glad that Marcel wrote it.