GERMAN BOY: A CHILD IN WAR by Wolfgang Samuel

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book'em ...take our poll!

German Boy: A Child In War

(June 8, 2006) The memoir German Boy: A Child In War struck a responsive chord with the members of Book’Em. Wolfgang Samuel, now a 60 year old retired United States Air Force Colonel, was ten years old in the winter of 1945. His father, a Luftwaffe pilot, had not been heard from in months. His ‘Mutti’, Hedwig, “lived in her fantasy world, refusing to read the newspaper or listen to the radio. All she cared about were her parties and tap dancing for the wounded soldiers.” The Third Reich was collapsing and the Russian Army was rapidly approaching.

German Boy chronicles the years between 1945 and January, 1951, as Wolfgang, his mother and younger sister flee their home and live a nightmare. Samuel writes of this time: “I felt I should face up to what I had tried to forget.” The family is first trapped in the Russian occupied zone with extended family members; this is perhaps the most harrowing part of the narration. Eventually they will make their way to the British zone of occupation and finally to relative salvation in the American zone. This is a refugee story of hardship and privation, hunger and fear, uncertainty, illness, danger, struggle, personal violation and sacrifice, tragedy, loss and perhaps, ultimately, fate. There are minor kindnesses, brief reprieves, narrow escapes, miraculous reunions, all of which seem magnified by stark contrast with the bleakness of their plight as well as by the hopeful heart of a boy.

Samuel is an able, believable narrator. His recollections are vivid and emotional. They are those of a child but strengthened by the insights of his adulthood. He is a sympathetic figure; his singular story illuminates the plight of all refugees, past and present.

The majority of our group were overwhelming advocates of this story. However, several had one major reservation regarding the chronicle: the glaring absence, even in the author’s introductory comments, of the existence of the Holocaust. This omission struck one reader as “disingenuous” in an otherwise truthful narrative. It caused another, in her discomfort, to question the value of this story, leading us to look at how identification with a particular group can influence one’s reaction.

Nevertheless, the consensus was that this refugee story is an important one because it can be generalized; in every war “there are innocent people caught in the middle who are trampled” was the feeling expressed by the group. “I had never before thought of war from that perspective, from just the regular person,” one mentioned. Another noted how infrequently we look at the Second World War from a German point of view. “It seemed to me that the whole world was the enemy of my country and they wanted to kill us all. Why? I am a German boy. I am not bad,” the author writes.

Hedwig Samuel, a narcissistic but resourceful woman, was the character that generated the most commentary. Admittedly, she was responsible for the survival of her family but her selfishness and shortsightedness evoked animated reaction. Wolfgang’s own presentation of his ‘Mutti’ adds poignancy to this tale of a child.

In general our impression of the German people was not a positive one which prompted conversation on cultural stereotypes. The favorable and enthusiastic portrayal of American soldiers in German Boy was a refreshing note.

We couldn’t help but wonder about the future stories Sudanese or Iraqi children will be telling. If that appeals to your book group, then Book-‘Em recommends German Boy as your starting point.

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