"What should I do?"
That's the question a worried Eva Krutein asked herself in January, 1945.
A native of Danzig, the former "free city" seized by Germany when Hitler invaded neighboring Poland in 1939, Krutein, then 20, anxiously paced her living room: Should she remain in Danzig and "face the Russian hordes" or flee and "go into the unknown" with her 14-month-old daughter, Lili?
Danzig, a historic port city on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, marked by medieval towers and cathedrals, had so far escaped the bombing that had destroyed Dresden, Cologne and Berlin. But the battered German army was fleeing as the Russian army was advanced in the east.
It would only be a matter of time until the Russians reached Danzig, and Krutein had heard what had happened in the village of Nemmersdorf: Russian soldiers had raped every woman and girl, then murdered all 74 inhabitants.
Krutein's husband, Manfred, could not help her. He was a lieutenant in the German navy and was directing submarine repairs in St. Nazaire on the French Atlantic coast. The German submarine pens were surrounded by the Americans, and she hadn't received a letter from Manfred in six months.
Thousands of refugees, fearful of falling into Russian hands, were streaming into Danzig every day.
"What should I do?"
The answer is chronicled in "Eva's War: A True Story of Survival" (Amador Publishers; $17 hardback, $9 paperback), and it is a compelling account of the hardships and horrors of war as seen through the youthful eyes of Krutein, now 68 and a retired music teacher who lives in Irvine with Manfred.
With the roads blocked and the trains at a standstill, Krutein decided to flee Danzig by the only available means. She boarded a ship bound for the west, reasoning that at least the British and Americans "aren't beasts like the Russians."
Carrying a coveted boarding permit that her parents' housekeeper, a member of the underground, had given her, Krutein with her daughter was able to board a small freighter in the harbor. But after two days, it appeared that the refugee-packed ship would never pull anchor, so she and her daughter got off. With an extraordinary pluck born of fear, Krutein managed to get herself and Lili aboard another vessel--a 1,600-passenger ocean liner packed with 10,000 refugees.
After landing in Kiel in northwest Germany she learned that the freighter had been torpedoed at sea and sunk. Everyone aboard had perished.
With a novelist's attention to detail, Krutein provides a moving account of the next 12 months--the times she and Lili would huddle with hundreds of strangers in shelters during bombings, fleeing to the relative safety of the countryside when women and children were ordered out of Kiel, an interrogation by the Gestapo after referring to a German officer as a "shark" in a letter to her father, the shortage of food, her reunion with Manfred, the new life she started at the end of the war.
In chronicling the story, Krutein serves up a litany of the horrors of war:
* The female friend who was raped 30 times by Russian soldiers. How, after a Russian soldier shot the woman's infant daughter in the face, she strangled the baby to cut short its suffering.
* The civilians who, after the fall of Danzig, had to beg and rummage for food in garbage cans. How residents were forbidden to bury the bodies on the streets and how, after the stench became unbearable, the Russians poured vodka on the bodies and set them afire.
* The sight of buildings that had been bombed and burned out, the families "living like rats in holes" beneath the rubble of their former homes.
Through it all, "Eva's War" remains an uplifting family odyssey, one leavened by Krutein's humanity and her love of music, which provided a welcome counterpoint to the atrocities all around her.
Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, senior legal officer with the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, and a historian of Germany's expulsion from the lost territories in the east, says in his foreword: "Sad revelations, painful memories, excruciating experiences are tempered by compassion, love and a powerful, contagious optimism. . . . An indomitable love of life and of her family makes her prevail."
Krutein said she wrote the book "to let Americans know what happened" to the 14 million Germans who fled or were expelled from their homeland. More than 2 million Germans, according to historians, did not survive the experience.
For years, Krutein said, "all the news about Germany was repressed here, so nobody knew or believed (what had happened). But when the information came out and the (history) books were even in the libraries in the university, nobody checked them out."
With the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the reforms sweeping through Eastern Europe, the publication of "Eva's War" could not be more timely. A powerful anti-war statement, the book is, as Krutein says in the publisher's preface, "a war cry against the glorification of war."