Searching for a Soldier through Books

Author Whitney Stewart recently published Meditation is an Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids. Meditation is an Open Sky

She is currently writing a middle-grade account of a reluctant German WWII soldier who disappeared on the Russian front. Her online travel series “Finding Reiner” won a 2015 bronze award from the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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When I was a kid, I learned about World War Two from The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank. The book left me with compassion for Jews and a fear of all Germans. My understanding of the war wasn’t nuanced. There was only ally and enemy.

Anne FrankBut then I married a German and learned of my husband’s uncle Reiner who was drafted at nineteen into Hitler’s army and disappeared in 1945. My husband’s family tried and failed to find Reiner for almost fifty years. Little did I know how many vanished as Reiner did.Reiner

In 2013, I discovered a box of Reiner’s military letters, stashed and forgotten in an attic. As I struggled to read the letters and learn the young soldier’s fate, I wanted to understand the war from the German side. I made a list of WWII books to read and chose both fiction and nonfiction to inform my heart as much as my head. These are some of my favorites:

Book Thief

Marcus Zusak’s, The Book Thief, tells the story of Liesel Meminger, who is forced into foster care when Hitler’s thugs take away her mother for supposed crimes against the country. Liesel’s life is changed through a love of reading and a friendship with a young Jew who hides in the basement of Liesel’s foster home. This brilliant book highlights the struggles ordinary Germans experienced in the climate of oppression.

The Boy Who Daredgrowing up

Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s two books about the Hitler Youth spare no details about the organization’s policies of horror. The Boy Who Dared tells of Helmuth Hübner, a German schoolboy, who learns only slowly that his patriotism and duty are founded on propaganda and lies. Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadows documents the harsh reality of children who informed on their anti-Nazi parents, of those who were eager to fight for their country, and of children who realized the ugly truth too late and gave up their lives to expose it.

Shadow Life: A Portrait of Anne Frank and her Family

Barry Denenberg’s Shadow Life: A Portrait of Anne Frank and Her Family expands Anne Frank’s account through a fictional diary of her older sister Margot. This oral history, based on numerous primary sources, gives details of their lives that I always wanted to know as a child.

In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by acclaimed writer Erik Larson, was my guide to Berlin when I went to follow Reiner’s trail. I can no longer walk through the Tiergarten or past the Reichstag without remembering the lives lost there.

Letters to Freya

Helmuth James von Moltke’s Letters to Freya gave me hope for humanity. Von Moltke was a German aristocrat and devout Christian, drafted into the German intelligence, who worked secretly for the resistance. His letters had me holding my breath for pages.

All the Light We Cannot See

My favorite WWII novel is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr interweaves the stories of two children, Marie-Laure in France and Werner in Germany, who are caught up in tragedy and redemption. Doerr’s stunning imagery and poetry awaken empathy for a continent in conflict.

Alternative readings: 8 Things You Should Know About WWII’s Eastern Front and National Archives WWII Records

What’s the best book you’ve read about WWII?

 

Searching for a Soldier through Books

Medieval literature: English class

Our customer service expert, Lauren Michalczyk, takes us to the 12th century today with a book she read for graduate school!

Medieval literature is an unknown territory to most people unless you’re forced to read a specific text for school. Luckily, my journey through the twelfth century begins with The Life of Christina of Markyate by Anonymous. Before I dive in, I want to clarify that this biography was most likely written by multiple people as the writing style changes many times through the text. In the Introduction written by Samuel Fanous and Henrietta Leyser, both assert that Christina’s friend, Abbot Roger, employed nuns and other Godly people to write about Christina’s life.

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Born Theodora, she changes her name to Christina to fulfill her need for spiritual kinship. Christina wishes to live her life as a recluse to grow closer to God, but her parents object to this idea because they will have to support her financially. Refusing to believe that their daughter wishes to commit herself to God, Christina’s parents tell her promised husband, Beorhtred, to hide in her room and rid her of her virtue as she sleeps. Christina is too smart for these tricks and waits for Beorhtred to come to her room. When he arrives she tells him that she has married God and does not want to tarnish herself for Him when she goes to Heaven. Once Christina reaches the highest level of Heaven (due to her purity, of course) she will consummate her marriage with God. Like many of you, I was shocked by this notion, but rather than ask my professor about it I decided to let it go.

The story continues and Christina moves to Markyate where she is concealed for four years with the help Abbot Roger and her weird, lover-friend, Geoffrey. She escapes many sexual advances from the bishop and other churchmen. SPOILER ALERT: Christina keeps her virginity for the entirety of her life.

Would I read The Life of Christina of Markyate again? Absolutely not. Am I happy that I had to read it for school? Surprisingly, yes. The text itself is 80 pages so it’s a quick read. Some parts of her story are hilarious because her visions are so outrageous. She thinks she’s in a meadow and bulls (a symbol for men) are about to attack her and physically rip her apart limb from limb. It’s safe to say that The Life of Christina of Markyate is unlike anything I’ve read. If you’re looking to diversify your reading list then this book is for you!

Want to chat about it? I’d be happy to discuss it with anyone who is willing 🙂

 

Medieval literature: English class