German Boy: A Refugee’s Story, by Wolfgang W.E. Samuel, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2000, $30.
Accomplished author Stephen E. Ambrose read German Boy: A Refugee’s Story in one sitting, but it took Wolfgang W.E. Samuel a lifetime to write. Ambrose rates this book as having “all the qualities of greatness, including a strong narrative, the depiction of high drama in ordinary people’s lives, [and] memorable characters.” German Boy is at once a coming of age story and a dramatic depiction of what it was like to be a young child in Nazi Germany. By the author’s admission, German Boy “is the story of one man who chose to look backward in the hope of providing a small stepping-stone in our never-ending human struggle to live forward.”
In 1945, at age 10, Samuel left his home in Sagan, Germany, with his mother, Hedy, and younger sister Ingrid as Fluchtling (refugees), fleeing to Berlin and then on to Strasburg and finally to the west. Their quest was to escape the approaching Soviet army at the conclusion of World War II. They could not have imagined that they would become refugees for six long years. Samuel’s memoir is a brilliant depiction of a child desperately struggling to keep his family fed and sheltered while learning about Hitler, the Wehrmacht and Germany’s treatment of Jews.
Much of this memoir is tied to how Samuel felt about his mother during their tenure as refugees. Hedy was attractive to men but also very clever. She used her wits and charm, exchanging sex for food for her children. While Samuel viewed this as a self-centered act, he learned later in life that his mother was doing her best to care for him and his sister.
Samuel’s mother divorced the author’s estranged father in 1950 and married U.S. Army Sergeant Leo Ferguson. The author moved with them to the United States, where he completed his education and began a 30-year career in the Air Force, flying during the Cold War and then again in Vietnam. Flying had been a lifelong dream of Samuel’s, who had decided at an early age that he wanted to be a Stuka pilot when he grew up.
It may be difficult for some readers to sympathize with the German civilians during and immediately after World War II. After all, many were staunch supporters of the Nazi regime. This, however, is what makes Samuel’s memoir so important, for it reminds us that the pain, sorrow and depravity of World War II was experienced by people on both sides.
Numerous faceless people help Samuel and his family to survive this ordeal, and his gratitude for their assistant is not lost in his writings. In short, German Boy is an absorbing story of survival and redemption, and it is an extraordinary literary addition to history of World War II.
Dominic J. Caraccilo