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Friday, April 24, 2009

A Memoir--Nay, a Saga--of World War II

Abandoned and Forgotten: An Orphan Girl’s Tale of Survival during World War II
Biographies / Memoirs
Author: Evelyne Tannehill
6 x 9 Trade Paperback
440 pages
ISBN: 978-1-58736-693-2

Reviewed by Douglas Brough, UK Press,

“I will do anything for food and shelter with a little love thrown in and no beatings”

‘Evelyne as a young child during WWII’

From time immemorial society has given men weapons and the knowledge of how to use them. Sent to kill, maim and win the war they were greeted as heroes upon their return, having killed indiscriminately in the name of victory, having sold their souls to the devil. But the true heroes, the true survivors are those without weapons, those without knowledge of war and those without the benefits of age who survive the fiercest of battles based on their wits alone, their compassion stretched to the limit, their tolerance in mankind stretched beyond recognition, solely because of their naïve childhood innocence.

To speak of a war hero, natural thought suggests those who win wars, those who kill in the name of freedom. The “laughing faces of young boy pilots” zooming in on their innocent victims were heroes’ faces in their native Russia during those dark days. Yet Evelyne Tannehill, the face of one of the true heroes of World War II, lies, neglected, in the midst of historical memorial as the forgotten one; forgotten of all recognition as a flesh and bone human being; forgotten because she was guilty of a crime, guilty of the crime of being German, despite her American citizenship. It was Evelyne, the war-orphan of the family who emerged as the true victim, the true hero of this very conveniently forgotten story of survival, survival against the fiercest of odds.

A tale that begins on her ninth birthday, the youngest of five children, on her parents farm by the Baltic Sea in the then East Prussia in Germany. Her family worked the land surrounded by the political legacy of World War I and its Treaty of Versailles which, it is claimed, led the already devastated Germany into its second war in twenty years; a war that was to see all collectively considered as guilty for the actions of the few.

The nearby Russian Front had left relatively untouched their tranquil lifestyle but It wasn’t to be long before the closing and subsequent months of the war were to unleash a surging flood of devastation upon the German people unmatched in 20th century history; a surging flood that was to see “a wave of humanity” fleeing the advancing Russians, complicated by counter-propaganda alleging that the “set-backs were only temporary” and forbidding the civilian populous to flee without prior written authorisation.

“How could God allow this?” were words frequently on the young Evelyne’s lips as her family was drawn apart by the demands of war and survival; as father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister were separated by the cruel aura of war, death and survival.

Evelyne was to see her brother Douglas taken by the Russians looking for German deserters; she was to participate in the family evacuation; she was to be taken by the Russians to herd the cattle and was to endure constant threats of abuse and death for the smallest of reasons, and all this was before the war ended in May 1945.

Perhaps now that the war was over mankind would rekindle some of its humanity but this was not to be so. Her ‘education’ was to take new meaning in the months after the war as she saw her mother raped and then die a painful death brought about by typhoid. It wasn’t to be long before Evelyne found herself alone, separated from her family - her brother Henry she only saw occasionally - leaving the young naïve and impressionable girl to fend for herself in a world of ignorance, bitterness and slavish attitude instigated by the now dominant Polish population. Never in one place for long, she gained few friends but many enemies among the Russian and then Polish inhabitants as she was finally split from her remaining family member, having been moved from pillar to post; the bane of those who took her in.

Despite being treated in a manner more reminiscent of the 1800’s and suffering repetitive sexual abuse and violent outburst from those around her, Evelyne manages to write without bitterness, without anger and without blame for her childhood years where she was moved from one house of servitude to another, her youthful years of no consequence to the labour she was forced to undertake in return for her keep or for the bare morsels that did little to sustain her young, innocent life.

Through one of these friends she was soon to find herself among the mass exodus out of the area and on one of the last cattle trains destined for the new Germany. Being re-united with her brother at the train station was a poignant moment; perhaps the beginning of the rest of her life as Evelyne and Henry soon found themselves in an orphanage in Bautzen where friendships and compassion began to grow; where she was given clothes and where her schooling was to continue; where she was to finally find someone who cared.

Two aunties, Elsbeth and Gertrude had gone to great pains to find their niece; their hard work reaped reward and a letter duly arrived at the orphanage informing them that her uncle Eduard was to shortly collect them. It was a moment of great joy as they fought through the crowds to get to their aunties in Klosterburg. Subsequent years were still tough: Evelyne was schooled at the nearby Gymnasium where she worked hard to master the English language in preparation for her new life in America. She felt loved, but still troubled by the traumas of the past.

Aunt Gertrude took her to the ship which was to take her to America and then slipped away quietly in the crowds, perhaps as Evelyne suggests, to avoid the pain of goodbye. “Sailing to America with a small trunk filled with books, a single suitcase of clothes and an unrestrained optimism that only the young are capable of.” Upon arrival there was to be no family welcome - her brothers were fighting for the Americans in Korea. She ended up staying with an older German couple.

Despite being in America, the ghosts of the past continued to haunt her. Her first marriage suffered. Not until her second relationship was she able to put the ghosts of the past to rest.

When the Iron Curtain was raised she was able to travel back to the land of her childhood; some people had long forgotten her, yet others still remembered this small impressionable girl; one offered to slaughter a chicken before she departed, but had to make to with a gift of apples.

Past memories were overwhelming as Evelyne went to where she remembered her mothers grave was, sending her unspoken thoughts in her mother’s direction, “I want to tell you about my life,” she began, “I loved you more than I knew. Not until you were gone did I learn how much. And I will always love the memory of you”.

One spends a lifetime waiting for ‘the book’ and then along comes a story so full of personal emotion and courageous honesty that it becomes a privilege to read. This, is that book. It took courage to address her past and open her life to public scrutiny and write of her life as an orphan of the Second World War. I offer a debt of gratitude for the privilege of reviewing her story; a story that I hope goes some way towards reconciliation between former enemies; a story so full of emotion that as she finally left her childhood roots after her visit, she decided was a chapter in her life that needed closing.

And then, Evelyne wrote the book, and the rest, as they say, is history…………………

(The author may be found at She blogs at

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