I shall think this Remembrance time of that young German girl climbing over the barbed wire into the prisoners of war cemetery to lay a green fir wreath on a Frenchmans grave
A diary about the First World War, written by a girl who was 12 when it began, might sound a little difficult to read 80 years later. Could there still be anything fresh to learn about that war, anything we dont already know? The fact that the diary is written by a German teenager does make it unusual. The fact that this teenager went on to oppose war, to dance her anti-war message on the Berlin stage, to marry a Jew, and to be forced to flee Germany in 1933, gives an added poignancy to the diary. The history of its translation into English is fascinating too a pacifist and former conscientious objector, Walter Wright, found it by chance on a charity book stall when looking for something to brush up his German. He was so captivated by it that he has translated and published it at his own expense, and has followed up the story by making contact with Piete Kuhls family in Germany. It wasnt published until 1982 in Germany (as Da Gibts ein Wiedersehn), having been only just rediscovered by Piete herself.
Piete Kuhl was clearly not just an ordinary girl she thought deeply and felt passionately about the war and her writing developed as she wrote about it. Her mother, who had encouraged her to write this diary as a patriotic act, became increasingly uneasy about the tone of the diary which she could no longer proudly show to her military friends but Piete carried on with it in any case. She lived in Schneidemuhl, then about 80 miles from the German-Russian frontier, now in Poland. Though not seriously in personal danger herself, the proximity to the Eastern front, and the regular transports of soldiers, prisoners, wounded and refugees through the train station where her grandmother ran the Red Cross canteen, meant that she had an unusual insight into the war for a child. She helped from the beginning with the canteen, giving food and drink to those passing through the station. At first she is caught up with the patriotism, the days off school for each victory, the pleasure of winning but doubt creeps in. She suffers from thinking about those who are being killed, for example when she hears about the German victory that left thousands of Russian soldiers drowning in the marshes. She goes out of her way to find the local prisoner of war camp to make sure they are being properly looked after, and the Russian cemetery where the enemy are buried.
Because she is a child, she has some wonderfully clear insights from time to time: Even the Emperor Franz Joseph has called upon God to give victory to his forces. On how many nations exactly is God to bestow victory?
On 12th November 1918 she wrote I didnt like to ask whether we were now well and truly beaten. We have clearly perished from a surfeit of victories.
She comes alive through these pages this is not a long catalogue of war news but a lively vivid account interspersed with the normal activities, thoughts and dreams of a child growing up in very abnormal times. There is much to learn about the way the whole population was caught up in the war preparations, including school children, the privations of the war as they have less and less food, the way she deals with what is happening by playing fantasy soldiers games, the way anti-Semitism was rife, the spread of disease during the war, the deaths of children severely weakened by hunger (with a particularly gruesome and vivid account of babies who died in an infants home she was helping in), the horror of the phrase The flu is said to have broken out there too as the fully laden hospital trains come back from the eastern front to mid-Germany after the war is over.
Piete has captivated me too. I am grateful to Walter Wright for translating her diary, and to my father for bringing his friends work to my attention. It deserves a wider audience. I think it ought to appeal to anyone studying the First World War at school (or teaching it). I shall think this Remembrance time of that young German girl climbing over the barbed wire into the prisoners of war cemetery to lay a green fir wreath on a Frenchmans grave, after the war is over the final ending to the diary and of the courage she showed as she went on to oppose the persecution of the Jews.
There well meet again Piete Kuhr (later known as Jo Mihaly)
Available from Walter Wright, Oakdene, Fidges Lane, Eastcombe, Stroud, Gloucs. GL6 7DW, Britain. Price £9.75 plus £1 p&p. Cheques to Walter Wright.