Giselle Roeder (Autobiography)
Subtitled, ‘An amazing story of survival’ this autobiography is surely that. Giselle Roeder was born in a German province which after WW2 became part of Poland. Her story is by turns illuminating, shocking, awe-inspiring and uplifting – beautifully written in a style that simply draws the reader along.
The first third of this autobiography tells of peaceful family life between the wars in a quiet farming area. For the majority of the war, little seemed to change until the beginning of 1945, when the Russians came.
WW2 and what led up to it, most people know about: Hitler and the Nazis, the ‘Final Solution’ and the terrible events of the Holocaust. From the books that came out of the USSR in the 1960s, I’d read about Stalin’s pogroms and the Siberian gulags; about a political system that was akin to the Spanish Inquisition. But what happened
in 1945, when the Russians overran eastern Germany – including the Baltic states and the Balkans – I knew nothing of that.
Giselle Roeder has enlightened me. I found it deeply shocking to read of wholesale rapes by the Russian soldiers – ordered by Stalin – to demoralise and subdue the German population. This personal story – the things she witnessed and experienced – is told without undue emphasis, and without begging for sympathy, but simply, ‘the way it happened’. And her words carry more weight because of it. I can fully understand the title of this book: ‘We Don’t Talk About That,’ since to speak of it is to re-live the horror. And yet people should know – it’s the other side of the coin.
The story of her family’s escape towards relatives living on the Baltic coast, put meaning into the phrase ‘displaced persons’. And it proves the sad adage that ‘nothing really changes.’ Her story makes personal current TV pictures of people bombed and/or ejected from their homes, trailing along roads, carrying children, pushing handcarts, sitting in camps. How her baby sister survived starvation on that journey is one miracle; how Giselle survived diphtheria while on the road is another.
But those experiences bred a woman determined to succeed. Her escape to West Berlin is a story in itself; how she was saved by kindness, and subsequently abused by her employer is another. But all the time she was striving and learning, acquiring business experience as well as knowledge. Towards the end of the book, an intolerable situation makes another move imperative – this time, it seems, abroad to Canada.
If I have any criticism at all, it is to do with the ending, which is abrupt. Fortunately, there is a ‘taster’ of the beginning of the second half of Giselle Roeder’s autobiography, which is (in my opinion) the cliff-hanger on which the first book should have ended. But that is a minor point. As a personal, brave, and extraordinary story, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. As a piece of social history it is a valuable document.
Thank you, Giselle Roeder, for writing it.