Großvater used to say: “Don’t look back”
Jens Orback talks about the need
to unlock the doors of unpleasant memories
As a nostalgic person, I cherish stories from my ancestors. It makes me feel connected when I listen to annecdotes of how my kinfolk managed their lifes. The more I am researching in the history of the Kashubian region, the more I am confronted with my own histor. My fathers family once lived in Danzig and Gryfino in Poland. When they were children, they had to escape from the Soviet army. I often ponder about the impact of this tradegy – to loose their home, their friends, their innocence all of a sudden at such tender age, being mocked as refugees by local residents in the villages of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. While travelling to Danzig by train and starring into the countryside, I found myself wondering, if this trauma somehow has left its marks in us as well as the following generations.
When I visited Palast Jackowo Folwark last year, which once belonged to the noble Fließbach family, it was actually the Polish owner Anna Mazuś, who brought my attention to the story of the Swedish journalist and former Minister of Integration and Equality, Jens Orback. In his book he uncovers the traumatising episode of his mothers escape when she was a young girl.
And I started to think: Can you inherit a trauma of war even if you were brought up in a country like Sweden, which has not been inclined to war for more than 300 years? Last year in July I met Jens and Katja Orback in Stockholm to talk about the need to remember, collective guilt and how they managed this rather unpleasant walk together.
Jens, the title of your book is called: „Schatten auf meiner Seele“ („Shadow on my soul“)
JO: I wasn’t too happy with that title, actually. In Swedish the title Medan segern firades means something like „Meanwhile victory was celebrated.“ It captured a little more of what I wanted to say – that while some were celebrating victory, others were experiencing something different, rather horrifying. I wanted to tell that story.
In your book you tell about how you question your mother about her escape from the Soviet army at the end of World War Two. How did this need for digging in the past emerge?
JO: There was an unpleasant feeling. Something from my mother had been transmitted from my mother. But for many different reasons it was untold. The reality is best told if it is seen from different angles. Nowadays there are a lot of people writing about their escape. When I started this journey with my mother at the end of last century, I could not find much on that topic. I went to the National Library of Sweden and looked at articles about the end of World War Two in Germany, but there are was only one tiny article saying: „We don’t know if we should cry or laugh“. So I thought there was something missing and I wanted to contribute a little bit.
Do you remember the beginning of that journey?
JO: My mothers family, the Fließbachs, owned many manors in the Northern area of the Danzig Region in Poland. Hinter Pommern was the name they used. Even when I was still young, we quite often went there to visit the places. I remembered that when I was seven years old in 1966 and we were in Poland, there were a lot of people armed and we were sort of sneaking around the manor houses, not saying who we were. I had a feeling that mother should not mention that she is German, but I did not pay attention to it. Later on, I often could hear my mother talking more about her childhood with my kids but then it sounded more like an adventure story. It did not pass the events on March 13th 1945. And I realized that I was lacking that knowledge as well. When my grandparents came to visit us in Sweden, we never spoke one word about the past. My grandfather used to say: „Guck nach vorne“ – don’t look back.
In the first chapter „transmission“ you say: „You can hide something deliberately, but you cannot deliberatly forget.“
JO: I‘ve always had a very close relationship with my mother. And suddenly there was a story within her that I could feel myself. It infected me, but I didn’t know the story properly and I could not handle it – in an adult way. I think mother was afraid of what effect it might have on her. We spent a lot of energy and time to walk around this hole, that had come between us. So I thought, if we would see the bottom of that hole, might be less afraid. But I didn‘t know, if we would just fall in and there would be no bottom, and that brought up a sort of panic, which was very unpleasant.
But I wanted to have it taken out of my body and to see it on a paper outside my body – so I could handle it with some sort of distance. In the end I forced myself. I brought a tape recorder to our family gatherings and interviewed the oldest ones. In a way, I actually forced my mother, too when I started to talk to people around her, sisters, brothers, neighbours, friends, acquaintances.
Katja, how did you feel when Jens requested to travel back in time?
KO: I am sure, that I would have never said anything about the war if it weren’t for Jens.
JO: My theory is that you gave me hints now and then. Like that comment on the women of the Balkan-story, when they reported on their terrible situation of being raped by the soldiers and and you mumbled: „Oh, I know exactly how they feel!“
KO: Maybe I said something, like that, but that was rather unconscious. Even with my parents, we never spoke about what had happened in the past. We all thought: Why should we complain?
It was our people, well the Germans, who started World War Two, so how could we as Germans complain, while there had been so many people and especially Jews suffering. That burden still lingers inside me. I know that being just a child there was little I could have done back then, perhaps someone else in my family could have. I do not like speaking of a collective guilt. However, although I done any harm to a Jew myself, I do feel guilt. And I am sure that many Germans feel the same way.
JO: Perhaps there is an Us or a We to some extend. It is kind of paradox: In my rational way I oppose collective guilt. But as an individual I can still sense that guilt within myself. Since I am the child of a German I have to take some special responsibility here. I am happy to be half German and somehow there is some sort of irrational collective guilt that has found me (laughs).
KO: This is a good way of explaining it. I always say to Jens: I am still a German, I am afraid!
JO: But you have been more of a Swede in your life than you have been a German. You have a passport, which says that you are Swedish. As a half-German I might understand, because I slightly feel guilt, too. In the beginning of our talks, mother used to say: I don’t remember anything. But the more I was digging, the more I could sense, that she had locked her memories up when she came to Sweden. I think it was possible for me to deal with this topic for so long because my father was dead and to some extend because we lived in Sweden.
Did this journey with your mother change your attitude towards the EU or Europe?
JO: I guess it made it even stronger. She grew up in this school – it was a school were they talked about Kaiser Wilhelm, then it was the Weimarer Republic, it was AH, then it was Polish liberal for a while and then communists – so it has changed all the time. Then the shildren mowed to a EU school in the nerby village.
When I was Minister of Integration, and I was the most positive EU advocate. It is my belief that something good to gain from this Union, although there is a lot of struggle, of course. I think Swedish people, who have not the history of war, see it slightly different. We were not very positive towards the European Union at the start, it took a long time before we went there. We are very hesitant towards any form of federation. I am the opposite and I think it could have a little bit to do with my, the way I would like to incorporate both, Germany and Sweden into my world.
If I could live many lives, I would like to live one life here in Kashubia.
What sort of energy did you feel while you had this timetravel with your mother?
JO: It was a lot of work and it was hard because I had to approach my mother on things that I wanted to know and at the same time did not want to know – so it was a paradox in a way. I had to get so close that I had the feeling that one day she is telling me everything – and then I didn’t need to know more. I just needed to know nothing was hiding and I thought: Am I getting sick or something? What is driving me? But I really wanted to go in all the rooms where she had been taken – or at least have access to them.
KO: It was a relief for me to talk about it. First I was a bit anxious, because talking about it meant that I could be considered an egoist. I was brought up the way to always think first of others and put yourself second. It could have also happend, that other members of our family started to think: Is she becoming a bit weird? But Jens had a good way to ask, I must say.
JO: I still do not recommend sons to be therapists of their mothers. (laughs) They are not supposed to ask her about any kind of abuse. And I hold on the principle, that I respect people who don’t talk, I respect people who talk, and I respect people who change their minds on that. Once you step in there, something might change and you do not know the effect of it, so it is a rather big step.
For my siblings it was a little troublesome. At that point when I outed my mothers story I would also outed something that would change their relationship with her, because now they would know. I did not feel that they were very enthusiastic about my project. And if my father had still been alive, I don’t think I would have written the book. He and mother had their own relationship and they have had their „contract“ and a part of it was not to talk about mother‘s past at war.
KO: But you did a good job, Jens. It matters a lot, how a person approaches. I certainly do not have the right way to approach my younger sister. She also experienced horrofying episodes but when I want to talk to her about that time, she always says: „Stop it! Please leave me alone.“
JO: Mother, she just doesn’t want to talk. As I said, it’s totally fine.
KO: But I find it rather sad. It had a good effect on me to talk and I wish it were the same for her.
Was there a moment for you, when you thought you could not go any further?
JO: Many times I thought, I give up. Both, when it comes to my connection with my mother, when I saw that this is hard for her talk. It felt as if I am digging up stones and it is hard to get stones out of your body. It was an unpleasant feeling but I had to sort it out. Take it out of her body and take out what came in to my body and then put it in front of us as a map where nd we could look at it and say: Ok, here are the Russians, here are you, here are your neighbours, sisters and brothers, and what happend here?
Then we look at it with some distance from outside at least and we could acutally talk about it in an adult conscious way, that was muchnicer. It was not a hole with no bottom any longer. We had a flash and we could walk down the latter, until the bottom, it was solid enough to stand on and then we could walk up and we did not need to put so much energy to always pass around this hole.
KO: And talking to this female journalist from Lativa about the parts when I was taken as a prisoner was a great relief for me. I never talked to my husband about what had happened to me as a young girl. You know, as a woman you feel shame, when you were raped. You blame yourself to some extend, at least. Back in those days sexuality was a rather hidden and shameful topic and when people knew what had happened to you, it was very likely, that they blame you for it. So even when you know, you could not have avoided it, you think: Shame on you, don’t ever talk about it! It was even worse when you got sick afterwards.
So talking about the unspoken with Jens had a very positive effect on me. Since then I also talk to pupils in schools about what it meant to grow up under the Hitlerregime. A Swedish Jewish woman does the same and I think, she is also glad to be able to talk. I think everybody who has gone through traumatic times should be able to talk about it.
JO: I had the tapes and I had to put a lot of effort just to press the play bottom down – but I listened to it at home and suddenly I had the feeling that I had to listen to it together with my mother – so I brought this recorder to my mother‘s kitchen and pressed the button and that was ….ah… very ..we cried a lot…but I had my finger on the bottom – and then, there were other times when I actually also thought that I am not gonna write this book because where should I start? It was so hard to write about it, too, so I gave up on that project a couple of times.
But in the end you published a book – in Swedish and German.
JO: There is this saying: If you put yourself in the boat, you should row it to the land. When I started to ask questions, I know I should be there and wait for the answer – and it could take a long time. It took twelve years or something to have the story.
When I had a lot material and I talked to mother and we thought that perhaps this also could be for some use to someone else and one thing I have heard her says is: I was maybe part of the war but I am not the victim for all my life.
When the book was finished and we had this release, my mother talked to adults about her experiences for the first time in 60 years – it was like a relief to her. For me, that storytelling gave me an access to the story of my German grandparents and the Fließbach-ancestors. That is the pillar, which I now can lean on in a way, something I can hold on to.
How do you cope with the Manor-topic?
JO: We lost the houses and the land, but we were part of a society, who damaged the place around. Of course, this Fließbach-family, they had half a dozen of these houses. I remember when we got a call from the Krockow family, they had a big house, almost a castle. We were asked, if we were interested in buying back one of our estates that was for sale. We talked a little bit about it, but we did not see our future there and I think the collective guilt had it‘s effect of it, too.
I had a strange feeling, that I wanted to go by bike on these small roads, I think it was a longing that I inherited from my grandfather Fritz, well this is my fantasy at least. But I have a strong longing to be on the soil and that could also be a dangerous feeling, if it turns into a thought like “this is somehow mine“.
For our family-gatherings in Septembers, we take a bus and hire a guide and we go around with mixed feelings. Because, you know, what should we say to the new owners? It feels a little tense, but often they are friendly and we can take a look inside and say okay, fine: Good luck to you. We just wanted to see it. We were very fond of the Polish people that were there in Prusewo and Jackowo, for instance. They are very nice and they are reconstructing the place in a nice way – and they are so eager to talk to mother about how the house was before, which made her so happy. If I could live many lives, I would like to live one life there.