Documenting War’s Intergenerational Trauma

New Suffolk resident Helene Munson, whose family is of German descent, wouldn’t be comfortable living without dual citizenship. Her family’s history has shown her how quickly the world around you can become a violent quagmire.

Ms. Munson, whose academic background is in 20th Century history and non-government organization development, was raised mostly in Brazil and Liberia — her father was a German diplomat and she spent her childhood traveling, but when it came time for her high school education, her family sent her to a proper German school.

What she didn’t realize until later was that she was following in her father’s footsteps, albeit at a much safer time in history. Her father, Dr. Hans Dunker, was born to ex-patriot German parents who raised him in Chile. At the urging of his Aunti Tali in Germany, they sent him home to go to a proper German school — the Feldafing boarding school in a quaint village about 20 miles south of Munich — in 1937. What no one in his family knew at the time was that he was to later be sent to the front lines, along with hundreds of thousands of other German schoolboys, in the last desperate days of Adolph Hitler’s war against humanity.

Hans in his Feldafing uniform on vacation with his grandparents and Auntie Tali ca. 1941 (photo courtesy Helene Munson).

Like many of his generation, Dr. Dunker didn’t talk about his experiences during the war, but not long before his death in 2005, he gave his daughter his diaries from that time, hoping to share a piece of his life that he’d locked away for decades. 

Ms. Munson, who had an inking of what they contained, couldn’t find the will to open them until several years later, when she built up the courage while she was studying child soldiers as part of a program at Oxford University.

The product of her research, the memoir “Hitler’s Boy Soldiers,” was released in the United States by The Experiment press this spring, and in the United Kingdom as “Boy Soldiers” by The History Press last fall.

“For a long time, I was not ready to face this,” said Ms. Munson. “But I felt compelled to write it. I couldn’t let go of it. I needed to do this, for him and I needed to do it for myself.”

Her research took her to the town of Závada, now in the Czech Republic, where her father was sent, at the age of 17, along with his classmates, to the Eastern front to fight the Russians in the spring of 1945. 

They fought in a string of bunkers still standing today that had originally been constructed by the Czechoslovakians before World War II but were later co-opted by the Germans. Though the battle there was fierce and left the village littered with the war dead, Dr. Dunker’s account did not share details of combat, and ended when he was wounded and sent back from the front lines. 

Ms. Munson, who visited Závada in 2013, and again this spring just as her account was being published in the United States, said villagers there have told her that her father’s diary was the only known eyewitness account of the battle there, after which the bodies of 98 German soldiers and 80 Russian soldiers were found scattered all over the village. They were later buried in backyards and ditches along the street.

She said villagers told her that half the population evacuated, while the other half hid in their cellars, during the fighting. She didn’t get a chance to meet many of the elders who had lived through the battle on her first visit in 2013, and by the time she returned this year many had died, but their relatives graciously shared their second-hand recollections.

“There’s a big element of shame Germans have,” said Ms. Munson. “How can you dare say anything bad happened to you (during World War II)?”

“The adults should be held accountable, but the children had no say. The children all had the most horrible experiences,” she said. “Our parents were victims, and we could never rebel because we had to be parents to them.”

She plans, in her next book, to trace the trauma experienced by her mother, who was younger than her father but was among the 10 million children who were displaced due to the war.

This phenomenon has been well documented amongst German psychologists. Ms. Munson’s generation is known as the Kriegsenkel, or “war grandchildren,” who are just now piecing together the history that their parents were too traumatized to process.

Part of that healing, she said, was visiting Závada, where she was surprised to be taken in by the village’s elders and elected leaders, who told her as much as they knew about the battle there.

“We can learn from the resilience of these communities. It’s a community again,” she said, adding that she wished her father had been able to gather the courage to go back to Závada when he was alive, and see how welcoming the community there is.

Ms. Munson, who has spent time in Ukraine, said she sees many parallels between the war there now and her father’s experience.

She recalls a viral video in which a Ukrainian woman gives a Russian soldier a cup of tea and lets him use her cell phone to let his family know he’s ok.

“People will be writing in the next century about this war,” she said of the war in Ukraine, adding that this war could have been avoided if Ukraine had been allowed to enter the European Union decades ago.

“Ukrainian laborers rebuilt East Germany (after the Second World War),” she said. “They put them in jail if they found out they were working without papers. They could have been settled in the abandoned villages of East Germany, and they would have been integrated.”

She added that she was puzzled that Germany had taken in Afghan refugees but not taken in Ukrainians at that time.

Though Ms. Munson’s father didn’t share his experiences living under the Third Reich with his daughter, he did instill a love of different cultures in her. They made frequent trips to the North Fork when Dr. Dunker was German Consul General in New York from 1982 to 1986, and she sailed here with her father out of Greenport. 

The seniors of Závada share their memories of their post WWII childhoods with Ms. Munson on her trip there this spring.

Ms. Munson moved here in 2014, first to Shelter Island and then to New Suffolk, though she traveled often with her daughter, who now works for Doctors Without Borders.

That internationalist upbringing is also a conflict within the German psyche, she said — while it’s well known that many Jewish Germans make sure to maintain some means of escape including dual passports and bank accounts in the United States, she said that can really be said of many non-Jewish Germans, who know how quickly the world can change, as well.

Ms. Munson’s book has already given some closure to one family — she received an email through her publisher from a nephew of Gerd Vogel, one of her father’s classmates, who he documented as having died in the fighting. The nephew said his family had never known what happened to their uncle when he didn’t return from the war.

Gerd was one of the soldiers Ms. Munson had asked Závada’s priest to say a prayer for on her first visit in 2013, at a memorial to the village’s casualties.

 “When he saw my tears, he began to recite the Lord’s Prayer in German,” she wrote, in her book, of the priest’s kindness. “I realized that this small ceremony was probably the first and only act of commemoration for this group of German boy soldiers who were now only remembered in the pages of my father’s diary.” 

Ms. Munson will give a talk on her book and her recent visit to Závada on Wednesday, June 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Library, 27550 Main Road, Cutchogue.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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