Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Read in 2014 - 20: Von Afrika nach Kanada

"Von Afrika nach Kanada" means - as I am sure you have guessed - "From Africa to Canada". It is the 2nd part of Hieronymus Hirschle's autobiography; the first part covered the years 1921 - 1941, and you can find my review for it here.

This book covers a much shorter period of time, the years 1941 - 1946, from the moment soldier Hirschle was captured until his release and return to his home village. A lot happens to "Mus", as he prefers to be called by his friends (short for Hieronymus, which would be Jerome in English). Not only does he involuntarily travel from Africa to Canada and from there to England, Scotland, back to England and finally to Germany, but he also undergoes deep changes. He is still a young man of 26 by the end of the book, and so some of this change would have probably happened anyway in the natural course of growing up, but most of what affects him so deeply would have never happened to him without the war.

I must admit I "quick-read" some of the chapters dealing with the war in Africa. In order to understand the book and follow Mus through his life, I did not need to know in all detail what type of gun each tank had, how many units were fighting over which stretch of desert and so on. But all those chapters also told a lot about what life was really like out there for the average soldier, trying to survive in an environment that was icy cold at night and unforgivably hot by day, fighting, sleeping, eating out there, missing their loved ones and not getting much reliable information most of the time. It probably was the same for all soldiers, no matter whether they were German, English or Italian, and Mus very soon feels that instead of fighting, they should be helping each other.

Let me quote directly from the book. After Mus has been engaged in his first real battle (as part of a crew manning a tank) and sees the first dead "Tommies" (as British soldiers were called), he breaks down, cries bitterly and prays for all the dead, regardless of their nationality. He writes:

Verfluchter Narr, schimpfte ich mich dann selbst [...], bringst eine Menge Leute um und dann betest du für sie. Warum bringst du sie dann erst um? Weil sie sonst dich umbringen? Oder fürs Vaterland? Für die Heimat? Die bestünde auch weiter ohne Krieg. Aber die der Tommies auch. Oder für die Freiheit? [...] Wer garantiert uns, dass wir nach einem Sieg frei sind? Also ist doch der ganze Scheißkrieg umsonst. Mein Gott, wer das alles verantworten muss.

In short, he calls himself a damned fool for first killing people and then praying for them, and asks himself what's the point of the whole "f*****g war" and who will have to answer for all that. There are many more such scenes and thoughts, and as in the first book, a lot of what Mus writes is very moving and thought-provoking.

His years in Canada are not at all bad. He is assigned to a PoW-camp where the prisoners work in the woods, something he quickly learns to enjoy a lot. There is relative freedom for the prisoners; he can often ride one of the working horses through the beautiful forests, they are fed well and live in relative comfort, even earning a little money through the red cross and with some extra work for other companies.
Friendships are struck up between prisoners and the Canadians who work at the camp, and because the forest and the satisfying work reminds him a lot of home, Mus is not as unhappy as one would think. Still, the men are not free, and what news they get from home are not good. They all approach the situation differently; some stick firmly to their Nazi beliefs, others begin to doubt, and others again have long turned their backs on the whole ideology and fight it wherever they can. 

For many, the total absence of female company is the biggest problem, and it is here where I disagree most with the author: to him, homosexual relationships as he witnesses them in the camp are completely wrong, like a disease that spreads, something disgusting. He still loves his friends as friends, and does not end a close friendship when one of them tries to shift their relationship to a sexual level, but he abhors the mere thought and is horrified by it all.

Altogether, I can not help but admire the frank telling of what happened to "Mus" in those years, and what he thought and how it changed him. Again, for me the most touching scenes are the ones involving animals. When the prisoners are finally told to get ready for the long way home, Mus has to say good-bye to his beloved horse. It reminds me very much of the scene in the first book when he leaves home and sees his dog for the last time.

The voyage home is not as straightforward as had been promised to the PoWs; they are held in England, later Scotland and then England again for months before they are finally really put on a ship to Germany. England in the post-war era was still suffering from food and other shortages, and many times the prisoners share their meagre rations with the English men at the factories where they were made to work. As before, Mus sees his fellow human first and foremost in everyone, and tries to find something good in any situation. He is not as optimistic as he was before the war, though, and when the book ends with him coming home, it is not with the great relief and enthusiasm one would maybe expect.

I have already started on the third and last book; it really is a pity that these books have not been translated into English, because I would so much like for you to read them, too.


  1. Hello Meike,

    This certainly sounds to be a most interesting series as it chronicles the life and times of this man. This period fascinates us, perhaps as it is still largely in living memory of so many, and one can wonder what would we have done in similar circumstances. Never an easy question to answer.

    1. Hello Jane and Lance,
      Indeed, what would I have done? I really can't say.
      The life of this man is all the more interesting to me as there is the connection with the place, his home village where my uncle lives, and it almost feels as if Hieronymus Hirschle was a relative of mine. He is the same generation as my grandfather, just a few years younger, and of course the local dialect is one I know very well.

  2. I agree with you that it is a pity that they are not translated into English. I would certainly read them. But it would be very challenging to read them in German, and I would probably miss many subtle points while doing so. It is a very serious sort of book and I cannot help but think the author was lucky to have become a POW and missed years of trench warfare, but whatever sort of war one endures, the effect of these experiences on a person is profound...(It sounds like such a cliche. But so true. It changed him and the entire rest of his life.)

    ON a lighter note, I am nearly finished with Corpse Way and am enjoying it. I think I will go on to read the others in this series.

    1. Glad you like Corpse Way, Kristi! Have you seen that the author actually commented on my post, too?

      You are so right, and although these things sound like such a cliché, they are very true. The author himself acknowledges that he was spared much by being made a PoW so early on. His change is particularly hard on his mother, the person he wants to disappoint and hurt least of all.

  3. Yes, I did see that Susan Parry commented on your post....Very exciting.
    I forgot to mention that Jerome is the more common English form of the name Hieronymus.

    1. Oh, of course it is Jerome, how stupid of me! That is what happens when I try to come up with good responses to my comments after a long, meeting-packed day at the office :-)