In my collection of poetry Occupied: Vienna is a Broken Man and Daughter of Hunger, I explore the time period in which my mother grew up in post-WW2 Austria. The book became an idea after I wrote “Hunger,” a poem based on her stories of that time period. My mother was declining with Alzheimer’s, and because she was losing her memory, I conceived a book based on the few stories I remembered and research. I focused on the children. The main sources I used were After the Reich by Gile MacDonagh, Wir Besatuzungskinder: Toechter und Soehne Allierten Soldaten ERzaehlen by Ute Baur Timmerbrink, interviews, and online sources.
From MacDonagh I learned about how the Allies responded to the victory of the war not as liberators but as conquerors. They put soldiers in prison camps and treated them similarly to the Jews. Rheinwiesenlager was one of them, where the prisoners were set in barracks, fed little, and forced to endure the cold out in the hail. They ate little out of their tin cans of food and slept on wooden bunks with no mattresses. Mock executions tortured them. America exercised its revenge and felt justified. The women during the war fended for themselves because most men were away on the battlefield, and food was scarce. The Russian soldiers often raped the women and some children were left homeless. The first section of my book explores the experience of people, mostly children, during these hungry postwar years.
The Austrians suffered more hunger than the Germans because Germany had more infrastructure and industry and was able to recover more quickly than Austria, which had an economy based more on agriculture. An entire bartering system started, where people traded their watches, shoes, cuckoo clocks, etc. for food. I perused antedotes and characters that MacDonagh wrote about to understand, for example, how many apricots were worth how many bottles of schnaps.
I also interviewed Helmut and Ingvild Birkhan and my uncle in Austria. Helmut grew up with a socialist father who never fought in the war. They stayed outside of Vienna in a village. He had to wear an old pair of his mother’s high heels to walk a mile to the school. They gathered nettle, berries, and mushrooms in the forest. When the Russian soldiers came during the occupation, they hid and built shelters out of brambles because the other women hiding in a shelter in order not to be raped wouldn’t let his family join them, since his family had a young baby who cried and made noise that would alert the Russian soldiers. Ingvild Birkhan told me stories of how she and her mother and siblings moved several times. When they left their first shelter, they buried half their belongings. They, too, gathered food from the forest and desperately tried to hide from the Russians.
Some women became pregnant and gave birth to Besatzungkinder, “Occupation children.” Some came from loving relationships, women who fell in love with Allied soldiers who took them out to see music, dance, and drink schnaps. Many of the Americans were African American, and the children born through these relationships grew up in a still racist country where they were frowned upon for being “Negerkinder.” Some were from Russian soldiers who were kind. Some were fathered by rapists. These children usually grew up fatherless, and the mothers were frowned upon.
My mother began declining from Alzheimer’s when she turned sixty. When she resided in a nursing home and lost all her memory, then her language, it was then that I wished I had asked for more stories. What I did know was that they lived in Russian-occupied Leoben, Austria, and my grandmother died of Lupus at thirty-five, leaving my nine-year-old mother and her three siblings to an abusive stepmother and years of hunger.
In the Midwest, where my mother immigrated with my mentally ill father, I grew up as an American. My mother labored all summer in the garden, and our fridge was always packed. The second half of my book explores my life growing up in a family with an immigrant mother and a mentally ill father, who in 2010 committed suicide by throwing himself out of a window in Vienna. The metaphorical broken man of Vienna became the literal broken body of my father.
We need to look at the period after the war as a warning. Immigrants are separated from their families on the border of the U.S. and right-wing countries are gaining traction throughout the world. If we do not address history and learn from it, everyone will suffer. If we project our shadows onto the very bodies we share as the human race, the cost could be tremendous, and we will all pay the consequences.
Kika Dorsey is a poet and fiction writer in Boulder, Colorado and lives with her two children, husband, and pets. Her books include a chapbook Beside Herself (Flutter Press, 2010) and two previous full-length collections, Rust and Coming Up for Air (Word Tech Editions, 2016, 2018). She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times. Currently, she is an instructor of English at Front Range Community College and works as a writing coach and ghostwriter. In her free time, she swims miles in pools and runs and hikes in the open space of Colorado’s mountains and plains.