Casualty of War: A Childhood Remembered, by
Luisa Lang Owen
College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press (2003)
The early chapters of Luisa Lang Owen’s memoir are an idyllic pastorale. The writing, rich with sensuous detail, transports a reader to a rural village in pre-war -- pre-WWII, that is -- Yugoslavia, Potiski Sven Nikola, as the name appears in one of its many spellings, depending on the language used to give the name. (I select this one to use because it is easiest to manage with the alphabet of my native English.) The story of Luisa’s childhood begins with an early memory of her mother, moving out from there to other family members, and finally taking in the greater village, for the village was as much a casualty of war as the author’s childhood.
Several pages in the beginning of her story dwell lovingly on trees – the sour cherry tree in grandfather’s garden, the blue plum tree, a sweet cherry tree in a neighbor’s garden, the sweet apple, the apricot, the mulberry – each one an individual.
Our plum tree not only had a collective identity; it was itself and not interchangeable with any other trees of its kind. It was something larger than its name or anything one could say about it. Like every tree in the garden, that which it was could not fit into a name.
There were also in the village “misplaced” trees, trees that “did not know how to belong,” those we would now call non-native species, but such were rare. Most trees in the village belonged, as did every inhabitant in the child’s eyes, regardless of ethnicity or religion, all of the villagers rooted in the earth, or what the author calls the “sacred ground.” Owen begins by describing the trees, using them as an introduction to the people and their larger surroundings.
[The trees] were part of our lives. Around them children would play games until late at night, and under them people would sit on benches and talk late into the night.
“I was aware of a feeling I could not name,” she writes, “which felt like belonging.”
Owen’s family were ethnic Germans, but the little girl learned to greet everyone in her village according to their own language.
In conversations with people from different ethnic groups one accommodated according to the language skills of others. Simple words and gestures expressed our shared experiences quite well even among those who did not speak each other’s languages.
There were Catholic and Serb Orthodox churches in the village and a small house that served as the Lutheran prayer house. While there was no synagogue in the village, there were a few Jewish families (the “lady pharmacist” was Jewish), along with Hungarians, Germans, Serbs, Slovaks and Gypsies. No one was a stranger. In this the people were better integrated than the trees, it seems, for the child does not recognize any of the human inhabitants as “misplaced” during the early years of her own life.
Nearly everyone within its orbit lived in the village, even those who farmed or worked on the farms.
In summer people left the village hours before dawn so that the early morning light might find them at their destination ready to work. The wagons returned late in the evening, bringing the smell of hay with them and raising the dust on the road.
That dust on the roads and on the village streets! Like the people themselves, “[t]he earth was at home in the village.” In the streets it was “soft warm powder, ankle-deep, so friendly to bare feet.”
I had a very visceral and personal feeling for these early pages, for the soft dust and fruit trees and gardens that brought back my own grandmother’s poor suburban homestead on the edge of Springfield, Ohio. I recall vividly, even now, the soft grey dust of my grandparents’ road that felt as gentle as talcum powder to my bare feet, and I relive again my joyous delight in being allowed to spend every day barefoot in that poor neighborhood where many of the other children had no shoes and where I was permitted to climb, like a monkey, all the fruit trees in the backyard and ordered to come down only when an oncoming storm began to throw the branches about, quite deliciously, tossing me as if I were on a boat at sea. My grandmother’s chickens and my feeding and egg-collecting tasks; an old outhouse surrounded by hollyhocks, reached by means of a grapevine-covered brick path, the bricks laid in a herringbone pattern; a ragged pony belonging to neighbor children; dogs friendly and otherwise....
Eighty pages into Owen's story the tranquil cocoon of her rural village life begins to unravel, never to be mended. Before getting into disruption, nightmare, and tragedy, however, I want to pause to remark on what gives this book such power.
The author’s story, however it were told, would be interesting, even compelling, but the way she tells it is fascinating, riveting and, despite the nightmare chapters, in many places quite magical. We see the village as it was in the 1930s, described through the eyes of a child. Owen’s remarkable memory for detail is central to her enterprise, but her writing goes beyond objective factual description, recalling for us how that lost world felt and smelled and tasted to her, and then she goes beyond that, as well, animating the whole. Trees, for example, have as much personality as human beings. One sweet cherry tree is noted for its “generosity,” while another is “pinched and proud.” Houses, rooms, and the least small object are presented with feelings and attitudes and personalities of their own. A chocolate rooster wrapped in foil is “conscious of being watched.” When the little girl gives in to temptation and eats the chocolate rooster, experiencing immediate sadness for its absence, the rooster’s mate, the foil-wrapped chocolate hen, “shifted her position and turned her head from side to side as if to get a better look at the cause of my dismay.” A large corner house in the neighborhood “extended its familiar look like an invitation.” The animation of an entire life-world continues throughout the book, but in the beginning it is particularly effective because it draws a reader immediately into the child’s perspective, into her sense of herself at the center of her world.
Then one spring adults lower their voices and begin speaking in hushed tones of war. Tension builds in families and between ethnic groups.
I soon noticed that people changed and became distant; some were unfriendly. They did not smile and they greeted grudgingly. Instead of being themselves, they suddenly became Serb, German, Hungarian, Slovak, Jew, and Gypsy.
They put on, she says, “the mask of generality,” which I read as an impersonal, distant facial expression. The girl wonders if the people with those faces, avoiding eye contact with others, have not already lost themselves. Certainly, they have lost their feeling of belonging together, the feeling of village integrity, and in that greater loss it is inevitable that the child will eventually lose her innocence. Is it possible to be innocent and to feel one does not belong?
Soon men are called up for the armed services, Jewish families disappear overnight, and a little girl who always greeted her in Hungarian vanishes along with the others.
Her empty house, turned inward, like all the other abandoned houses, bore a reflection of the missing. But such houses were no longer part of anyone’s home, and not even the carelessly drawn star could claim them. Like accusing monuments to the violence that diminished us, they recalled the lost integrity of the village.
Luisa’s parents argue. Rationing goes into effect. An uncle disappears, captured and tortured for a month, escapes and returns home, crying out every afternoon, as if from a nightmare, from the pain of his frostbitten feet. In the fall of 1944 ethnic Germans receive warnings to flee, and half of them do, but no one really has any idea what to expect, whether it is better to stay in familiar surroundings or flee before invading soldiers. Luisa’s father, a blacksmith, was conscripted long before to shoe horses for the German army, and no one has heard from him.
Outsiders are in control. Russians come first, invading the village as conquerors. Women are afraid to sleep in their own beds and seek overnight hiding places with their children. Radios are confiscated, as is livestock. Then the fearful Russians depart, leaving Serbs in control of the village. Luisa’s family, as ethnic Germans, lose all rights to citizenship and property. There are public executions. Finally, in January 1945, when the girl is nine years old, her family and other ethnic Germans remaining in the village are ordered into farm wagons for deportation. They have no idea where they will be taken or what fate awaits them.
Luisa’s mother and grandmother, grandfather, great-uncle and –aunt struggle to remain together. It is the beginning of a three-year nightmare, lasting until 1948, an experience of brutality, forced labor, starvation, and – for many – death. Luisa’s ability to speak the language of their captors comes to the family’s aid more than once, as does her knowledge of Serbian folk songs, but straw on the floor of an empty, unheated building makes a poor bed, and a single piece of bread begged from a house with plenty does not go far to feed five people. Whenever groups of people are separated and moved, as happens several times, there is terror greater than that of starvation. At one point her mother becomes ill, seems ready to die, and refuses to open her eyes or leave her bed for days, but somehow during that speechless time the strong woman regained her resolve and went on, doing everything she could to keep her family alive.
I will not attempt to cover here the three years in the concentration camp so vividly described in Luisa Owen’s book. As in the earlier chapters, those nightmare years, too, are recalled from the perspective of the young child the author was at the time. With a child’s instinctive hunger for information, all the greater in this situation where survival depends on it, the girl observes everything and everyone around her. She has lost her innocence, her sense of belonging, her village, and any possible feeling of safety and security, but she and her family are determined to out-wait the nightmare, hopeful (if not sure) that it cannot last forever.
Any story of survival, because the teller has obviously survived, is positive in that it is an escape from death. The author of Casualty of War eventually came to America, achieved university degrees, became a professor of art education, raised a son, and now delights in grandchildren. These sources of happiness were surely not dreamed of by a little girl in a concentration camp under Tito’s reign of terror.
And yet, the losses always remain, as much a part of life as everything gained.
Longings for the past would often emerge unexpectedly. On weekend rides in the country, for instance, I would want us to stop at a farmhouse; I wanted to meet “real” people, and I was convinced they would have sheep cheese and yogurt for sale. On late autumn days, the crisp air would conjure familiar scents, the excitement of a disznótor [pig slaughtering, followed by sausage making]. Though such memories were comforting, invigorating, they informed, at the same time, that the feeling of home was elsewhere and far away.
Reading this book, I had a strong, painful sense not only of a world lost but of similar thefts of childhood being exacted throughout our world today. Owen’s writing ensures that whatever she describes will have great impact. It is also true, however, that the context in which one reads a book affects one’s reception of it, and the splintering of one integrated Yugoslavian village into religious and ethnic groups who can no longer trust each other – to me, sadly, that reads like a microcosm of much of our world of 2014.
Does it, or does it not, “take a village to raise a child”? The child in this book survives years of unspeakable brutality and horror, thanks to her immediate family, but the secure feeling of belonging, of being part of a meaningful whole, is never regained. In our own small village of Northport, there are those who feel secure in their belonging, those who hold apart, and those who feel “misplaced,” despite their best efforts. I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that we are immeasurably fortunate to be here.
[Note: the author is the mother of Erik Owen of Northport.]