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A Child at the Bombing of Dresden : FAREWELL, DRESDEN by Henri Coulonges; translated from the French by Lowell Bair (Summit Books: $18.95; 266 pp.; 671-61779-6)

February 26, 1989|Sabine Reichel | Reichel is the author of "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Growing Up German" (Hill and Wang) to be published in May. and

"Farewell, Dresden" is a heart-rending novel that throws history into your face in a way that it hurts. When the 12-year-old Johanna Seyfert goes to the circus with her best friend, Hella, she has not even an inkling that these will be the last hours of playful innocence before her life changes irrevocably. In typical adolescent fashion, the two girls are mostly annoyed when air raid sirens interrupt the performance and force them to seek shelter in the basement with hundreds of strangers. Besides, their mothers had always assured them that Dresden would never be bombed as severely as Hamburg because it had no munitions factories and too many priceless art treasures and, as Johanna remarks, "They know it's carnival time, and the streets are full of children." But as history has shown, the American Allies couldn't have cared less about children when they turned Dresden into a rubble-desert with fire bombs in 1943-44. The two manage to sneak out of the shelter and find themselves lost in a city of raging firestorms, debris and ashes where children and their mothers are lying on the pavement, "really flattened. I could only see their shapes," as Johanna recalls with horror.

But this is only the beginning of her long, harrowing journey that will be permeated with tragedy and losses, prematurely changing her from a smart, precocious kid into a wise, compassionate young woman. Hella is the first one who gets killed, followed by Johanna's older sister, Grete, who she finds at home in the destroyed basement together with their mother, Leni, who is in a state of shock and who will never again snap out of her protective craziness.

Not without a feeling of satisfaction, Johanna switches roles, resuming responsibility for her helpless mother and leads them out of the city, following groups of wandering people who tell her, "We're castaways. But you can also say that we're survivors." It is on this road that she hears about strange things, like raping Russians, and even more strange, concentration camps, from a feisty woman who reassures her wearily, "You'll know about them some day."

Along the way we get to know Johanna much better, and she is a wonderfully observant, sensual girl, savvy and sensitive, prickly and practical. She's rather dark with black curly hair which makes her happy, because she took after her beloved father, an archeologist who was killed earlier in the war, while sister Grete was fair and blond, just like her mother whose favorite she was. Johanna is still jealous and fights fiercely for her mother's love and approval, but she barely recognizes her. "Don't you know I could have been killed too?" she yells at the catatonic Leni at one point, "but I'm here, Mutti. You still have me."

They find refuge in a choirmaster's house full of children where Johanna falls in love with Franz, a rather amorous youngster with a wounded leg who proposes marriage to the flirtatious girl. He also tells her about Jews and that the Germans had it coming with the bombing because of the concentration camps and the Nazis and all that. Sometimes Johanna reminisces longingly about her "old life" that had ended only a short while ago, and wishes that "there should have been something . . . maybe a different smell in the air, something that would at least have given us a little warning." Later, when she learns that Franz's leg has to be amputated, she's overcome with anger and resentment and thinks: "Why did the people she loved have to be crippled, mentally or physically? What good was a mother who looked like a scarecrow and forgot her as soon as she was out of sight? How could she adore a boy with one leg?"

Johanna and Leni have to move on because Leni needs treatment, so they go to Prague where Leni is sent to a psychiatric clinic and Johanna stays with Josef Hutka, an old acquaintance of her father. Being all of a sudden a girl with the same nationality as the predatory oppressors of this magnificent city, she gets her first and unexpected bitter taste of hatred. She stops speaking German out of fear on her daylong excursions through Prague with the professor, a lyrical and lonely old man who falls in love with the tender and tantalizing Teutonic Amazon, because she looks like the reincarnation of his long lost true love.

It is in this part of the book that the story becomes magical by its stunning innovative beauty, and it becomes apparent that this is a book about love, transition and continuation. Johanna is like a mythical person, a radiant, untamed apparition who comes into everybody's life like a bewitching goddess to stir up deep emotions, to heal wounds and to replace and evoke treasured moments and beloved people that were lost or longed for.

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