Ursula Mahlendorf was born the same year as my mother. They were kids during WW2, teenagers by the end of it. While my mother was in a concentration camp, she was in Hitler Youth–so you can imagine the personal interest I bring to it. I found it a gripping memoir, as much for her personal story before, during and after the war as for its perspective on indoctrination and subsequent guilt.
Mahlendorf’s writing is lucid and evocative. I came to the memoir to find out more about the BDM (Bund Deutscher Mädel), the teenage girls’ branch of Hitler Youth. But ultimately what kept me riveted to the book is her personal story, and her ability to bring it to life layered with reflections of her older self.
She grew up to become a pacifist, left-leaning, pluralistic professor of literature and feminist studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. I would have liked to know more about how that change occurred. For example, she mentions that she came to know holocaust survivors personally–I’d have liked to hear how she related to them and how that affected her as well as them.
Having said all that, the memoir is gripping for what it is: the story of a determined and highly intelligent girl living through the Nazi era in a single parent household. She was neglected by a mother who drank and partied when she wasn’t consumed by the demands of survival, and Mahlendorf had little love from any quarter after her grandmother’s death. The only thing that gave her a sense of belonging was Hitler Youth until she discovered that it was based on hateful lies. And yet, despite betrayal and rage at the way she was shaped, she re-shaped herself in an image of her choosing.
It’s a book that excited me while I was reading it, that left me with the sense of having been elsewhere and elsewhen, wanting to talk it over. As soon I was done with it, I was passing it around.