A photo of Inge’s passport. Picture: SUPPLIED
A photo of Inge’s passport. Picture: SUPPLIED

The day my grandmother Inge told me about the trauma that defined her life, I was standing at the kitchen table making my cousin’s wedding cake. I stood for a minute, frozen, the cake icing cloying and sticky between my fingers.

She had been a girl of 22 when it happened, shortly after the end of World War 2. Sixty years later the recollection still made her hands, though dotted with age, shake. She looked away as she spoke, not trusting herself to meet my eyes.

“I could never speak about it,” she said. A lifetime of shame still made her unable to utter the word “rape”.

Women of my grandmother’s generation were taught to deal with trauma by not mentioning it at all. This silence was compounded by the nature of historical narratives in which women rarely feature. Their lives, lived away from the front line, were not deemed worthy of much scrutiny.

Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

Silence has its own, pernicious legacy. As a journalist, words are my trade. But in the shock of Inge’s revelation that day, they failed me. I did not know what to say. All I could do then, was to hold her. It was much later, in writing Inge’s War, my account of her life through the war and its aftermath, that I found myself able to put them down on paper.

My grandmother’s decision to share the story she had kept secret for most of her life was the culmination of years of confidences between us, in which she shared a past she had been unable to forget. Ours was a closeness that developed late in our lives. Throughout my childhood, Inge had been aloof. Meticulous about her appearance, selfish at times in her devotion to the regular habits of her small-town life, reluctant to display affection, she was not a typical grandmother. I did not know, back then, that coldness had been her armour.

Thirteen years ago, while working as a correspondent in Moscow, I travelled to Kaliningrad, a strange and little-known Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea. It was the city my grandmother had been raised in, when it still bore the German name of Königsberg. She never spoke about it, though it was where she’d given birth to my mother and the place they would flee from, less than two years later, in 1945, never to return. I phoned her to mark the occasion. It was the first time I had heard her cry.

Over the years that followed, that shared sense of a place, though long wiped from the map, encouraged her to confide the past, and taught me, for the first time, to listen to the woman hidden beneath her carefully curated exterior. In 15 years of journalism, I had travelled the world looking for stories, without suspecting that the most compelling of all had been there all along. I found it within my own family.

Wolfgang, Inge’s soldier lover, at enlistment. Picture: SUPPLIED
Wolfgang, Inge’s soldier lover, at enlistment. Picture: SUPPLIED

My grandmother’s story is not one of heroism or evil, but of the choices we make to survive, and how they shape our lives. Inge, 15 years old when war broke out, by the accident of her birth, lived her war on the wrong side. She and her parents, like many people of that generation, did not realise the full consequences of the rise of Nazism until it was too late. Though they were lucky to survive, their apathy came at a heavy price.

While studying in Berlin, she fell in love with a young soldier, conscripted to fight on the eastern front, where he went missing for a while. Pregnant and unmarried, she was forced to return home to her parents in East Prussia. In 1945, the Russian advance forced them to flee. Overnight, they lost everything, narrowly escaping with their lives.

Peacetime revealed a Germany in ruins. In 1946 Inge was living as a refugee in the north of the country. Her parents, desperate to rebuild a living that war had destroyed, had travelled to the other side of the country. My grandmother was beautiful. She was a single mother with a young child; her soldier lover was still away, a prisoner of war in Russia. This lack of support, coupled with her poverty, made her particularly vulnerable.

She needed food, and medicine for an ailing friend, the mother of the lover who had not yet returned from war. Crippled by arthritis, the older woman had grown reliant on morphine, which it had fallen on Inge to procure. In the devastation of post-war Germany, that meant turning to the black market.

Inge and baby Beatrice, her first daughter and the author’s mother. Picture: SUPPLIED
Inge and baby Beatrice, her first daughter and the author’s mother. Picture: SUPPLIED

The man who offered to help her knew his way around this illicit trade. He befriended her in an almost textbook manner. He was much older, kind, almost fatherly in manner, bought small gifts for her child, and for the farmer Inge lodged with. One evening, after a difficult day, she passed his shop in tears. He invited her in for a glass of wine. She drank it; shortly after, she said, she passed out, and her mind went blank.

By the time she had woken up and picked herself up from the floor, she already knew that to speak out would be worthless. So she went home, and kept quiet. What makes her decision so heartbreaking is that, after all, it’s not so hard to understand. She had been seen with him alone, had entered his shop willingly. To accuse him would have been futile, and made her more vulnerable than before.

Silence was the coping mechanism she knew, her way to stay in control. But it was not without consequences: the memory of that day haunted her all her life. The attack conceived a child, which she was unable to bond with. She bore it in secret, and gave it up for adoption. She raised her first daughter, then had another, and still never told. She had become less trusting, less willing to display affection. Her relationship with her children, which may have been one of loving abandon, became one of caution. Her rape had Inge become a different person.

Inge’s trauma was not unusual. It was lived by millions of women in those final months of war and the precarious years that followed. In a war that had all but destroyed Europe, they were no more than collateral damage. Their story is a chapter of German history that for decades was never even told.

Inge with friends in 1939 or 1940 at the seaside in East Prussia. Picture: SUPPLIED
Inge with friends in 1939 or 1940 at the seaside in East Prussia. Picture: SUPPLIED

An estimated 2-million German women were raped in the final months of World War 2, as the advancing Red Army, fuelled by the memory of the atrocities committed against their own, exacted a terrible revenge. Many others, like Inge, fell victim to sexual violence committed by their own countrymen, in the chaos that characterised the aftermath of war. Destroyed infrastructure and acute food shortages turned sex, whether coerced by circumstance or forced, into a currency. With scores of men dead, wounded or held prisoner, women often became their family’s main support, and this made them more vulnerable to abuse.

Silence has always dominated women’s experience of war. It claims to ensure the survival of the family and to maintain a semblance of a normal society at all costs, even one tainted by horror. In postwar Germany, this silence was cemented by the exigencies of peace, in which shame, social taboos and a reluctance to dwell on the war’s German victims, all played their part. The nation, made a pariah by the atrocities of the Nazi regime, was struggling to rebuild its identity, to find its moral compass. In the decades of soul-searching in which Germany tried to come to terms with its past, there was no room for the tragedies of the women left in its wake.

In the decades of soul-searching in which Germany tried to come to terms with its past, there was no room for the tragedies of the women left in its wake.
Svenja O'Donnell

The historian Anita Grossman attributes this in part to the need to “remasculinise” postwar society after men returned wounded from war. The sheer number of these rapes were seen as an injury to male pride, a hindrance to rebuilding a traditional hierarchy which perceives women as the heart of the home, rather than primarily as a violation of women’s bodies. In East Germany, it was dictated by another ideology. Building a socialist state under the umbrella of Stalinism left no room for grey areas. Victims of rapes by Soviet soldiers were often asked to sign statements saying the attacks did not happen at all.

It’s a culture of silence that’s not unique to this time, but which has defined the experiences of women throughout the generations. Quiet endurance, through the ages, has been synonymous with femininity.

A friend, who had been a child refugee from the former Yugoslavia, told me her mother’s story. More than four decades after Inge’s, and taking place in another country, the similarities are striking. Her mother had come back to their home in Sarajevo one day after an absence of several hours. Curtly, without further explanation, she told her to pack. They never spoke about what had prompted her decision; never discussed the circumstances that had allowed them to secure a pass to get out of the country. For years, she resented her mother for her abruptness, for the cold resolve in which they had made their flight. Only much later, in adulthood, did she remember a few more details. Her mother’s torn shirt. The bruise on her arm. She finally understood, but silence had already done its damage. Their relationship, once so close, strained since that abrupt flight, never fully recovered.

Those who speak up for the victims of sexual violence in war, blame the silence that still surrounds it for allowing it to continue. In 2018 Yazidi survivor Nadia Murad and Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”. Murad overcame immense cultural and psychological barriers in her path to activism. Mukwege, often under threat to his life, has spent 20 years healing women and child victims of rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dubbed the “rape capital of the world”. The Global Survivors Fund they had jointly established aims to provide restorative justice to survivors, and tailored support to help them recover from the emotional and physical trauma they have experienced. But, most importantly of all, it helps those women to speak out.

The author, Svenja, and her grandmother, Inge, at a family wedding in 2015. Picture: SUPPLIED
The author, Svenja, and her grandmother, Inge, at a family wedding in 2015. Picture: SUPPLIED

Sexual violence, of course, is not exclusive to conflicts. The story of Inge’s rape is one which, even outside the extraordinary times it occurred in, will strike a chord with many survivors of abuse. My grandmother’s aggressor was someone she knew. That’s still the case with most women who are raped today. And still, silence dominates. Rape is one of the hardest statistics to compile. Whether in the US, UK or SA, it’s estimated that between 80% and 90% of sexual assaults go unreported. It’s hard to put a number on something that’s kept quiet.

Digging up traumas so long hidden may, of course, bring its share of pain. The past, once it has been disturbed, will not be left alone. But it’s the way the cycle of silence can be broken. My grandmother’s decision to reveal the secret she had kept for so long was not without its repercussions. Her rape had conceived a child whom she gave up for adoption. The knowledge of tragedy, decades after it happened, devastated both my mother and my aunt, who had always thought themselves to be my grandmother’s children. But it was my grandmother’s long silence, and not the events, that hurt them the most. They too, for a long time, struggled to talk about it. Eventually, it allowed them to understand her better.  

My grandmother, first shattered by the recollection, in time grew confident enough to talk to others. She even found the strength, after a while, to call the rape by its name. By telling her story, she freed herself from its shame.

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