After the Russians Came – Turning my Father’s Story into Fiction by Monika Schröder
My first novel, THE DOG IN THE WOOD, comes out in paperback on May 14th. I feel fortunate that the story continues to be available for young readers and I am grateful to the Nerdy Book Club for giving me the opportunity to tell a bit about its backstory.
The novel, set in a small village in east Germany in the spring of 1945, is based on my father’s experiences during the arrival of the Red Army at the end of World War II. My father had told me that his grandparents had committed suicide the day before the arrival of the Russian Army out of fear of what would happen when they arrived at their farm. Later, the Soviets established their headquarters in my family’s farmhouse, and my father witnessed Russian soldiers taking his mother to a prison camp. Out of these harrowing family memories grew my book. I wanted to show a boy’s internal conflicts and pain in the face of great loss and emotional turmoil and thereby depict a young person’s experience during wartime.
Fritz, 11, lives together with his mother and older sister on his grandparents’ farm. The Soviet army has been advancing toward his family’s village and it can only be days until the foreign soldiers arrive. The book opens with a scene in which the grandfather shows Fritz a hole he has dug in the forest in which he hopes to hide the women of the family, while he and Fritz fight the Russians. But when the Soviet soldiers come, Fritz loses his grandparents and his home, and his mother is arrested and imprisoned by the military police.
My father was born in 1939, in a small village north east of Berlin. He left East Germany in 1961, a few months before the Berlin wall was built, and settled in West Germany, where he met and married my mother. During vacations in the 1970s we often visited my grandmother’s farm in East Germany. Yes, I can say that I spent part of my vacation in communism. The farm was simple but seemed enchanted to me. I helped to milk cows, witnessed the birth of calves, and heard my grandmother laugh at my shrieks when the beheaded chicken raced around across the yard before stumbling down. There also was an outhouse which to my mother became the symbol for everything that was wrong with communism.
The East German authorities didn’t make it easy for us to visit our relatives. They thoroughly scrutinized our car and luggage each time we crossed the border. Once we had arrived at my grandmother’s we had to register at the county seat, which meant a long wait in front of black-and-white posters that showed us the evils of Western Imperialism. I remember the stern ladies in the uniform of the East German police asking us many questions before they reluctantly stamped our papers. In later years we even had to pay a daily fee for each visit to our relatives. Since the communist government didn’t spend much money on modernizing the infrastructure of its rural areas, it was common to see bullet holes from Second World War battles in the nearby city, and travel on cobble stoned streets.
The main resource for the book was my father. My questions about his past always triggered very emotional responses. Since I lived in India while writing the book, we usually talked on the telephone, and our conversations often ended in tears. He remembers his grandfather’s frantic attempt to defend the village and how they rode together on a horse cart while the old man yelled at other farmers to help build trenches to slow down the Russians’ advance. My father also remembers that due to a shortage in caskets, his grandmother had to be buried in the wooden dowry chest that was kept in the attic. Another anecdote that made it into the book. He also told me about the Russian officers who stayed in their house and the Soviet tank that was stuck on the slope by the pond near the garden.
I enjoyed the research necessary for writing this book. I listened to copies of Hitler’s insane last speech from Berlin, during which he asks the German people to envision the rebuilding of the German cities while the allied bombs are hitting the very building the speech was broadcast from. I made sure that Fritz could have really heard Admiral Dönitz’s radio address after Hitler’s suicide two days before the Russians arrived.
While writing the book I worried whether it would find an audience in the US. I was lucky that I found a publisher and now, even nine years after its publishing date, it will be “reborn” in paperback. I hope that a story about the effects of war and its aftermath on children, a story about fear and how to cope with overwhelming loss will continue to find readers.
Monika Schröder grew up in Germany and has worked as elementary school teacher and librarian at American international schools in Egypt, Chile, Oman and India. She is also the author of SARASWATI’S WAY (Farrar, 2010) set in India, MY BROTHER’S SHADOW (Farrar, 2011) set in Berlin 1918, and BE LIGHT LIKE A BIRD, (Capstone, 2016), set in contemporary Michigan. Monika lives with her husband and her dog in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Visit her at: www.monikaschroeder.com