Book Review: Escape From Plauen by Renate Stoever

Posted June 13, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews / 2 Comments

Book Review: Escape From Plauen by Renate StoeverEscape From Plauen by Renate Stoever
Genres: Autobiography
Published by iBooks on November 22, 2013
Pages: 374
Format: eBook
Source: Author


ESCAPE FROM PLAUEN is a first-hand account of life in the German city of Plauen before Hitler’s defeat at Stalingrad that marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany, through the destruction caused by the wrath of the Soviet Army. Caught between Stalin’s advancing Communist Army in the East and the Allies march from the West, the women, children, and elderly of Germany had no place to hide long after the collapse of the Wehrmacht. What was there to bomb in late 1944 and 1945 but women and children? 

An autobiographical horror of World War II as seen from the eyes of a German child, Renate, living in Plauen in the German state of Saxony. A tale that follows Renate through escape, emigration, and life as an adult.

I did receive this from the author.

My Take
Oh, wow. This was a horror of a story and a fascinating perspective from the eyes of a child who lived through it. I’ve always seen, thought of, the war and the Germans as horrible people who allowed this to happen. But the truth is that the average German was as helpless against Hitler and his SS as we are today against Homeland Security.

Imagine a war breaking out here in America. On our streets. How much say do you think you would have in how it’s conducted? How much influence would you have on how food is distributed, how you’re allowed to travel?

Renate sets up the contrast with this beginning of an idyllic world with a loving family until a few years into the war when their lives flew apart. Losing their father to the army, the Dresden-style bombing of their city, Plauen’s occupation by Americans and its contrast with the Russian occupation, and worse, life as Plauen and its surroundings became the new DDR with the Russian obsession with re-education on the party line.

I love the sound of the country cottage in Joessnitz with its huge variety of produce, the camaraderie, the family’s luck in escaping to it before April 10.

It’s an opportunity to learn about the German way of life for a normal family, and its segue and descent into the horror of war. Jesus, it’s such a contrast between the before and after and makes a tremendous impact.

My generation has been lucky in many respects. I know my mother still talks about the rationing Americans had to accept during World War II, and yet it’s nothing compared to what Europeans had to endure. Nor do many books (that I’ve read anyway) address the effects of rationing on German children. It’s also heartbreaking to read of the effects of the bombing on Renate and her family. It’s almost worse than reading of the bombing on the Allied cities, if only because the war was started by her own government. They brought this down on everyone on both sides of the war. And still, a part of me in the beginning, felt the German people deserved this. It’s not rational, I know, and it’s an attitude that changed as the story continued, as I came to realize, remember?, that the average German had no say over the war. That they had to contend with the idiocy of the SS and later with the Russians.

Oma’s proverb: “Better a horrible end, than horror without end.”

I never knew that Disney’s Fantasia immortalized the German annual celebration of “Walburgisnacht”. Proves that there’s nothing new under the sun, lol.

”…setting Christmas trees…”

Not even the end of the war brought any relief.

”…in truth we were liberated from all we owned, from freedom of movement, and we still had no freedom of speech.”

The story certainly hasn’t changed my mind about the “joys” of Communism where everyone is equal, as long as you’re one of the Party elite. One thing I don’t understand is, if Russian and the DDR were so fabulous, why would so many people be trying to escape? It does make me laugh (not the happy kind) that from being a prosperous country, the Russian takeover created a disaster. The Russian Communist Party destroyed all production for every region they took over. When capitalism or socialism is allowed to flourish, the people and its way of living flourishes as well.

I’m embarrassed as well by my own memories of how I treated displaced persons in high school. Renate mentions how the people of Burghausen treated her and her fellow refugees, not understanding the ordeals they had undergone. Displaced people who lost everything and were treated so poorly. I wish the administrators at my school had used the influx of our D.P.s to educate us, to help us understand what these kids had suffered. A good example of how cruel children can be.

Wow, the educational programme Renate went through…talk about demanding! Makes me question our current educational system — all their instructors held doctorates. I know my German nephew and niece are very well-educated with inquiring minds and active lives. Very different from the majority of American kids. Even back then, the Germans were way ahead of us. I do prefer the German approach to alcohol as well; the same as my parents had, and I never did develop any great need for it. I do enjoy alcohol, but it’s not a necessity.

It took years after the war ended before life became truly better for Renate and her family, and her impressions of Americans when they first arrived in America are fascinating. I loved her first experience with pizza, lol. Her exposure to how women were treated in America was also…”fascinating”… I can certainly see why women’s lib took hold! Imagine having to have a male escort if you were out in public! Her career in lace and embroidery design, which carries on a family tradition.

Renate’s cooking skills cracked me up, and her marriage to Fred was truly an American success story…but only because it happened in America. I suspect she and Fred would have been successful wherever they were, as Renate understood the value of work and frugality while Fred was ambitious, opening his own investment firm. Nor was he the only success among the people Renate knew as her world continued to expand.

Oh, man, I’m so jealous! Renate got to ride elephants!! Although, I don’t think it was worth her earlier life. Nor would I want to undergo that tick scene!

Wow, Renate is a force of nature. In dealing with her father’s illness, she explores the history of Native Americans and learns the depths to which the U.S. government sank to eliminate the tribes. I never knew that the people who were the original natives of American were never “granted” citizenship until 1925!

I liked Renate’s commentary on the Lakota religion which sees life as balance and not the Christian version of good and evil. The end of her story is her memories of her mother couched as dreams in which she remembers so much of the sacrifices her mother made to ensure Renate and Margit’s survival. You’ll cry, and you’ll appreciate her mother’s approach to raising children. Definitely a parent who should be granted that license!

My only real niggle was the major info dump at the start. I think Stoever should have integrated this into her reminiscing more.

”There’s no such thing as can’t.”

The Story
Even at the war’s beginning, life was idyllic for Renate. Well-off grandparents, a happy extended family with traditions and rituals. It was as the war continued that things worsened, but war’s end only signaled worse under Russian occupation.

The Characters
Margit is Renate’s baby sister, born after rationing is instituted. Inge is a cousin and playmate. Aunt Traudl and her family, including cousin Ursula, live in Markneukirchen. Ursula’s grandfather had a workshop where he made violins. Aunts Else and Frieda take refuge at the cottage. Her mother’s parents, Oma and Opa are there as well. Uncles Oskar and Arthur were with the German army; luckily for the family, Uncles Carl and Rudy, were with the Americans. Yes, her paternal grandparents were alive through the war as well. Aunt Marie Gross was her father’s aunt who had gone to America well before the war — it’s the gold necklace she sends back to Germany for Renate that starts us off. Steffen Kollwitz, Renate’s cousin’s son, was one of the principle opposition leaders in Plauen when the Berlin Wall finally fell. Inge’s husband is Heinz, a former submariner in the German navy.

Anna is a friend of Renate’s mother’s; she had a white Spitz named Putzi who had his own opinion about the Russians, lol. Lanie owned the house where Renate and her family took refuge after the cottage. Magda is the friend Renate met during the Russian occupation.

When the 347th U.S. Infantry Regiment occupied the area around Plauen, it brought Charlie, the first African American the family had ever met. When the Russian army moved in, it brought Gregor, a young lieutenant.

In Burghausen, Sister Kunigunde was kind while Sister Teresa was tough. The bigoted Father Venus and his pronouncements against anyone not Catholic. Annie was a newlywed with a sense of humor in the barracks opposite theirs and married to Luggy. Ingrid was one of the children whose lot was not improved by being out of the DDR. Karin is a fellow artist and a refugee from Estonia. Abdul Aziz Al Futaih was a pen pal with whom Renate began to correspond; he later became the Yemeni ambassador to the United Nations and States. And another Traudl became friends with Renate, and they met up with Alec, a coworker of Traudl’s. Cousin Roswitha appears.

In America, they finally meet Uncle Rudy and their children, the twins Robert and Elise and Uncle Carl’s daughter, Diane. Evelyn and Ed are their new neighbors at their new house in America in Teaneck. Elio and John are Renate’s first bosses, at the moccasin beading factory. Tippy is Margit’s new puppy. Mr. Weber of Stein Tobler becomes a long-term boss; Willy Michl was one of their designers and the president of the Designer’s Association. Pierre is a French coworker who recommends her to his parents. Fred Stoever is a friend of Abdul’s. Ludwig is a Hungarian aristocrat who fled the Communists, joined Stein Tobler, and opened up a higher class of world to Renate, Margit, and her friends. Ingeborg was a fashion designer for Oleg Cassini.

Renate heads to Paris to represent Stein Tobler. Jean and Nani are Pierre’s parents, and Nani takes Renate in hand, teaching her how to dress. Hank is a young American she meets there. Jean is a dancer at the Lido while Gerard dances at the Crazy Horse, and Maurice are more people she meets. Amelie is the chambermaid at the hotel.

Married life with Fred Stoever — who turns out to be quite the artist — included Carmelita and Frank Braddock as friends. Roland was their son, named for Fred’s dad. Frank Ianoucci was Fred’s father’s foreman at his stoveworks. Dr. Kevin Cahill is a specialist in tropical medicine. Dr. John Wood handled Fred’s medical program.

Their Indian travels found them making friends with Ranjit Singh, the collector in the Mandla District in Central India, who also turned out to be the son of the Maharaja of Wanaker and Badri and John at Kanha National Park. Razza was their guide in Jaipur. Pushpa is Ranjit’s aunt who was married to Dr. Nagendra Singh.

Renate’s Native American experiences included Marvin Ghost Bear who organized dispersement of donations to those who most needed them. His Lakota Sioux name was Mato Wanagi, and his stories of growing up in the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania are hideous. The school’s motto was: “To save the child, kill the Indian!”, which I find appalling. What those schools did to the children destroyed their family bonds. Freedom of religion certainly did not apply. Reading of Ghost Bear and the reservation reminded me of one of John Sandford’s stories from his Lucas Davenport series, Shadow Prey. Christine Red Cloud was Ghost Bear’s cousin.

The Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD) was what we knew as West Germany while the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) became East Germany. It took me awhile to remember to only write Germany on mail I sent my sister once the Wall came down.

The Cover
The cover is a firestorm of Dresden proportions with Renate and Margit holding onto each other for dear life as Plauen goes up in flames.

The title is their only hope, an Escape From Plauen.

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2 responses to “Book Review: Escape From Plauen by Renate Stoever

  1. I too read and reviewed this book a few months ago, gave it 5 stars.
    Her memories of the bombings made such an impact on me. Allied planes flying over shooting at civilians on purpose was frightening and disturbing.

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