Two Survivors

Reviewed by Graham Nicol Forst

“Kanada” was the name given by prisoners of the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp to the enormous warehouse section there, where prisoners’ belongings were sorted out. It was so called because it was regarded as a place of abundance. Canada ultimately became a preferred destination for hundreds of Europe’s wartime detainees; and the lives of two of these Canada-bound prison survivors are documented in these two new books from prairie university publishers. It is hard to imagine two more dissimilar books.

German-born Ilse Johansen was a civilian in the German military; she almost certainly (although it is never mentioned) was a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM; League of German Girls), and certainly, according to her editor, became a Nazi party member. After she was captured by advancing Russian troops in 1945, she spent four harrowing years in Russia’s dreaded “Gulag Archipelago.”

Surviving the Gulag is Johansen’s extraordinarily detailed account of these four bitter years. Recently discovered by family members, Johansen’s German-language memoirs were edited by her grandniece, Heather Marshall, and are here skilfully translated from the German by Hans Rudolf Gahler. The book’s subtitle reveals its uniqueness: readers of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would be unaware of the particular indignities suffered by women in the Gulag (the affronts to modesty, the sexual advances, the inordinate physical demands, and so on), although, ironically, it was her “feminine” skill as a seamstress which often won Johansen favour amongst the prison guards and authorities, often leading to relatively comfortable conditions.

Hunger, freezing cold, typhus, lice, mosquitoes, bedbugs, rats—all were part of Gulag life, and Johansen survived these dreadful conditions through luck, extraordinary resourcefulness, cunning, audacity, and discretion, together with an icy, tougher-than-nails fortitude and, above all, a remarkable skill with learning foreign languages. The fact that she was German, of course, often made her a particular target of cruelty from the Russian guards, a fact rooted in Germany’s genocidal attack on Russia starting in 1941. On this point, Johansen is silent. Nor is she forthcoming about her Nazism, or about the disastrous results of her fellow Germans’ racist and expansionist policies. Hitler’s name does not appear in the index.

A completely different prison-time experience of a German national during World War II is recounted in Eric Koch’s Otto & Daria. Koch, who was born about twenty years earlier than Johansen but still lives in Ontario, was a German citizen and Jewish refugee who escaped to England before the Holocaust; he was imprisoned there as a German national, and was subsequently deported, along with 35,000 other German nationals, to a Canadian internment camp for “Enemy Aliens” in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Otto & Daria is Koch’s memoir of his eighteen-month internment in the Sherbrooke camp, and of the seven years following his release, leading eventually to his long career with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Canada’s internment camps—at least those in the east created for Europeans, in contrast to those ramshackle abodes created (mainly) in BC and Alberta for Japanese Canadians—were vastly more liveable than those in the Russian prison archipelagos. Consequently, Koch’s brief internment was relatively benign, and his prose accounts of those years, unlike Johansen’s bitterness, are quite breezy and witty, and often nostalgic, especially when he turns to letters he received (and kept for eighty years!) from an English bohèmienne he met briefly while in England, named Daria.

Although Koch (he later changed his real name “Otto” to “Eric”) only met the teenaged Daria twice, their friendship was strong, as her quirky, precocious letters to him reveal. These witty and droll letters provide a sort of metonymy for the nonagenarian Koch’s sense of lost life during his long sojourn in “No Man’s Land,” and also for his guilt in deserting Daria; they take up only a few pages of the memoir but their teenaged author is so articulate, intelligent, and mature beyond her years (never mind flirtatious and scatter brained) that the reader has no trouble understanding Daria’s lifetime effect on “Otto.”

Both Johansen and Koch were (are) blessed with an incredible memory for detail; and if Koch’s experiences are less visceral and degrading than were Johansen’s, they offer an interesting contrast to the bitter and anguished Gulag memoir. Here, then, we have two lives torn apart by World War Two, finding a peaceful home in “Kanada.”

This review “Two Survivors” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 164-166.

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