BOOK REVIEW / Survival techniques in the gathering darkness: The hour of the women - Christian von Krockow: Faber pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
'AFTER a lost war,' wrote the Austrian poet Hofmannsthal, 'comedies should be performed.' In the interminable darkness of a Pomeranian wartime winter, 16 hours each day with no electricity and no candles, so black that it was often hard to find the baby's mouth to feed it, three German women caught by the Russian occupation did what they could to follow his advice. They knew few comic plays, but the rigid Prussian education of the pre-war years had drilled into their minds the classic ballads, sentimental verse and fairy tales in which middle Europe is rich. The gradual retrieval of this literature, and the sense of pleasure as, day by day, more and more lines rose through memory, provide one of the most enduring passages in an extraordinary tale of fortitude, The Hour of the Women. Its heroine is Libussa Krockow, and her story has been written down for her, in the first person, by her brother Christian.

Libussa was the only daughter of an old, prosperous, aristocratic family, living on an estate east of the Oder, near the Baltic. Her narrative opens in the summer of 1944, on the day of her marriage to a much decorated young officer called Jobst. Like the wedding party photograph taken on the day, young men in military uniforms and girls in long silk dresses, her account of the celebrations freezes one of those strange moments of happiness in the midst of horror. Two of her brothers were dead, killed in the fighting, but villagers brought cream, meat and sugar; there was lace for the wedding dress and white rhododendrons, crystal and silver for the table.

Nine months later, the Russians arrived. The family tried to flee, joining, in carts, the long column of refugees frantically making their way westwards, but they were caught. Orders directed them back to their village. The roads were lined with corpses, dangling from the trees; the manor had been burnt down, and bit by bit, marauding soldiers looted all they had left. Libussa was pregnant. When her stepfather was taken away, she - together with her redoubtable mother, their cook Marie and soon the baby Claudia - set about staying alive in two small rooms with no light, no money, and increasingly little food. Libussa, the provider, grew wily and inventive; she foraged, stole and bartered, but it was never enough.

After the Russians came the Polish soldiers, less brutal, but more threatening. With the horses and tractors gone, no seed to plant, and all available food and milk going to the occupying Poles, it became clear that none of them would live unless they reached the West. Stories of the rape and murder of those who boarded the cattle trains of refugees deterred them. Libussa's accounts of her journey to the unknown and her return to fetch her mother, baby and Marie, are told with humour and dispassion. The memories of eyewitnesses to these forgotten pockets of recent history evoke the past in ways not rivalled by more formal accounts. Libussa Krockow keeps her story simple, personal and short - 1944 to 1947 - though underpinning the book lies a disgust for the Nazi atrocities that preceded the occupation.

In her wedding photograph, Libussa stares out with a pleasant and cheerful expression. It must have concealed a powerful self-discipline and courage, which might never have surfaced had it not been for the ordeals she was soon to confront. Resolute and uncomplaining, she cajoled those around her into surviving. Her account of these four years is remarkable for its freshness and immediacy.

The past 10 years has seen a flow of impressive memoirs by survivors of the brutality of the 20th century. The Hour of the Women ranks with Molyda Szymusiak's The Stones Cry Out, Jung Chang's Wild Swans and Armando Valladares's Against All Hope as a witness to one little-known and terrifying moment of vengeance and chaos. Libussa's story, as her brother remarks in a short preface, shows how badly the pre-war German sense of order - 'masculine to a fault, Protestant, Prussian and soldierly' - stood up to defeat and despair. Survival calls on something else. It is that particular quality, endlessly elusive and mysterious, that is celebrated in The Hour of the Women.