Motherhood in Nazi Germany: Literature Paper

The Effects of World War II on Mothers in
Five Chimneys, Sophie’s Choice and Germany, Pale Mother


World War II was one of the most horrific events in European history. Across the Continent, innocent people were savagely murdered in gruesome ways, simply because it was Nazi policy to exterminate those who were not deemed “ethnically desirable.” No one was spared this wrath; mothers with young children were no exception. They were quickly separated and forced to face the atrocities individually. Since the Holocaust marks such a horrendous point in human existence, it is important that the tales of these sufferers and survivors are recorded and remembered. In Olga Lengyel’s memoir, Five Chimneys, we learn of her despair as she finds out she was partly responsible for the death of her children and mother in Auschwitz. The film Sophie’s Choice examines the tragic life of Auschwitz survivor Sophie Zawistowska and the incident that causes her to believe that she has failed horribly as a mother. In Germany, Pale Mother, we learn that not only the Nazis’ enemies suffered: Lene, a dedicated wife and mother, endures many emotional breakdowns due to the effects of the war on her family. Examining literature regarding the lives of these mothers is essential to understanding their situations and ensuring that such heinous events never occur again.

In Five Chimneys, Olga Lengyel begins by immediately telling us about the excruciating guilt she bears regarding her family; “I cannot acquit myself of the charge that I am, in part, responsible for the destruction of my own parents and of my two young sons” (Lengyel 13). She tells us that deep in her heart, she has the most awful feeling that she could have saved her loved ones, but she has failed in doing so. Immediately, a feeling of immense sympathy and sadness envelops the reader. One can hardly fathom the heartache involved when a mother loses her child, especially in such a gruesome fashion; this is a far more onerous situation, as Lengyel was personally responsible for these deaths. The reader continues to learn more about her family and the terrible events that befall them.


Before the Nazis seize the Lengyel family, they are quite happy and successful. They reside in Cluj, the capital of Translylvania; by 1944, this region is under German control, but the citizens know little of the treacheries the Nazis have in store. The author’s husband, Miklos Lengyel, is a widely respected director of his own hospital. Olga works alongside him, as she is a surgical assistant. They work diligently to raise their two young sons, Thomas and Arvad. Though the family is quite content, their situation soon takes a turn for the worse when Miklos Lengyel is summoned by the Nazi Party. He receives news that he will be deported to Germany immediately. Today, we can foresee the Nazis’ plans; however, at the time, Olga simply thinks that they need doctors in Germany, and they call her husband as he is the best in the nation. As any dedicated and loving mother would, Olga dreads the idea of her family being separated; she thinks that “by going together, we would at least be assured a common fate” (16). She informs the S.S. men that she will be accompanying Miklos to Germany, along with her children and parents. Little does she know that this decision will be one of the worst in her life; her entire family is sent to the Auschwitz and Birkenau labor and death camps.


Olga’s second mistake comes as they enter the concentration camps. Her entire family is forced to parade past Nazi officials, who are shouting directions to those exiting the cattle cars; some are told to go to the left, others to the right. Unbeknown to Olga at the time, the selection designates who will live and who will die; the guards show no mercy, as “all those who tried to resist, old or young, they beat mercilessly” (Lengyel 26). When they reach the S.S. guards for examination, they determine that Olga, Arvad, and her mother should join the adult group to the right (hard labor) and that Thomas will go with the children and elderly to the left (extermination). However, Olga is unaware of the consequences of these directions, and she immediately argues that her mother and both sons should go to the left, so that they will not have to work in the labor camp. She believes that her mother could take care of her children, and they will all be safe together. Obviously, the S.S. guard does not argue. He simply states that they will all remain in the same camp, and “in several weeks, you’ll all be reunited” (27). Though misunderstood at the time, the guard is referring to their reunion in death; Olga has just sent her two sons and her mother to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.


The main gate of Auschwitz, in a photo taken in 1945. (Source.)


Later in the story, Olga learns the truth about her unfortunate decision. While speaking to a fellow prisoner, she discovers that “they burn those they cannot use: the children and the old people. All those whom they put on the left side of the station are sent directly to the crematory” (44). Upon hearing this horrific news, Olga falls into a deep coma-like depression. However, she hears word that her husband is near; perhaps Miklos will tell her that the prisoner was lying. In a heroic attempt to find the truth about her sons and mother, she escapes her barracks, defies S.S. authority and attempts to find information about Miklos’ whereabouts; she risks being caught and murdered, but all she can think about is her family. Olga eventually finds Miklos, yet contrary to her hopes, he confirms the fact that her mother and sons have been sent to the gas chambers.


Olga Lengyel faces two different types of pain simultaneously, as she loses both her mother and her sons to the Nazis. Furthermore, she feels a great deal of guilt and regret; she is the one who decides both to join Miklos and to send the children and her mother to the left side. Olga feels personally responsible for their deaths. As a mother, this is a terrible burden to bear. While she suffers through every day in the concentration camp, she thinks about her family and how she could have saved them if she had just made the right decision. At the end of the memoir, Olga writes, in reference to her murdered family, that the “grief and remorse which had not left me for an instant tightened their fierce grips on my heart” (205). To the reader, this is an unfathomable sadness.


The film Sophie’s Choice is based on the novel of the same name, written by William Styron. It is the tale of Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish woman who immigrates to America after surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp. The film shows her interactions with her lover, Nathan, as well as with their best friend Stingo; however, she has a deeply hidden secret that explains much of her sorrow and pain. Stingo begins to realize how tormented Sophie truly is when he mentions his mother’s death when he was 12. Sophie becomes very aloof and mysteriously says, “That’s what’s so terrible about outliving those we love...the guilt.” This scene stimulates curiosity in the viewer, and one wonders what remorse Sophie is harboring.


Throughout the movie, Stingo attempts to understand Sophie’s pain. He knows of her time in Auschwitz; she lost her parents, her husband, and her two children. However, he knows that she is hiding something far more painful. The revelation comes when Stingo asks Sophie to marry him. He says that they could live happily and raise a family together. Sophie is intoxicated, and the viewer can sense her discomfort when Stingo talks about her becoming a mother again. She says, “You should have another mother to your children,” and Stingo questions this. Sophie begins to tell a story that she has never told anyone. Upon her arrival in the concentration camp, she is instructed to stand in line and wait for examination. The viewer notices that she is holding her two young children, a daughter and a son. A Nazi officer comes over and begins questioning her about her nationality and religion. With fear in her eyes, she tells him that she is a good Polish-Catholic woman and that she does not belong in a concentration camp. Announcing her love of Jesus Christ, she denies the Nazi’s accusations of being communist. The officer claims that because of her positive background, she deserves a privilege. She must choose one of her children to keep with her; the other will immediately be sent to die. Upon hearing this, Sophie screams, “I cannot choose! I cannot choose!” and the Nazi reaches to take both children from her. After a dramatic struggle, Sophie screams “Take the girl!” and she lets the officer seize her daughter. She holds her son tightly, sobbing over the decision she was just forced to make. Finally, the viewer has a full understanding about Sophie’s inner turmoil.


Sophie, played here by Meryl Streep, suffers at the Auschwitz labor camp. (Source.)


After Sophie tells Stingo this shocking tale, she says, “we will talk about marriage, but not children.” Sophie’s pain is understandable; forced to choose between life and death for her children, she feels that she has failed as a mother. Maternal figures are supposed to protect their children from all danger and help and nurture them when they are in need. In this sense, Sophie feels that she failed her children; her daughter was immediately killed, and her son later died despite her efforts to save him. As a result of this, Sophie thinks that she is unworthy of being a mother ever again. Additionally, her pain is similar to Olga Lengyel’s, in that they both must bear the burden of responsibility for their children’s demise. Both of these mothers try to protect their children from evil, but fail at the hands of the Nazis.

In Germany, Pale Mother, director Helma Sanders-Brahms tells the tragic story of a family emotionally decimated by the effects of the war. Interestingly, the movie is seen from the point of view of the daughter, Anna. Lene and Hans are a happy German couple, until Hans is summoned to fight in the war. His first days are extremely difficult; he is chastised by his comrades with taunts of “German soldiers don’t cry,” when he cannot shoot an innocent woman who looks like Lene. Upon Hans’ first return home, Lene tells him of her desire to have a child, “so a part of him can be home when he is at war.” By this point, Hans is already somewhat traumatized by his role on the battlefield. He believes Lene is cheating on him, and he has difficulty showing her love and affection. Lene is upset by this, but does not give up hope. Lene gives birth to Anna during an air raid; via voiceover, the daughter comments on the situation, saying that “as they cut me from her, I fell onto a battlefield. So much I hadn’t already seen was destroyed.” This quotation may be making two simultaneous references to what has been ruined: war-torn Germany and her mother’s damaged emotional state.


Lene cradles young Anna in her arms. (Source.)

As the movie progresses, we can see that in Hans’ absence, Lene and Anna form a close companionship. They are always together, and Anna seems to be Lene’s only source of happiness. They support each other throughout this difficult time. The narrator constantly refers to “Lene and I,” showing the bond that has developed. Hans returns again for a few days, and he meets his daughter for the first time. The audience can see, from his actions and behavior, that he is far more damaged by the war than in the previous scene. He is cold, emotionless, and pays little to no attention to Anna. Lene realizes this, and claims that motherhood is “more important than the whole war” to her. She also says that Anna “takes all my strength. She gets fat and I get thinner,” proving the self-sacrifice that all mothers endure for their beloved children. She experiences her daughter’s first steps and words and revels in them, as she spends every day and night with her; Hans cares only about the war. Slowly, the emotional divide between Lene and Hans grows more evident, and Anna must suffer the consequences of their failed relationship.


After an enemy bombing, the family’s home is destroyed; Lene and Anna take the few valuables that they possess and evacuate. A scene of particular interest comes when the mother and daughter are walking along the countryside. Lene is reciting a popular folk-tale to Anna: “the Robber Bridegroom.” This is a German story about a young maiden who is arranged to be married. Her father tells her wonderful stories about the young man, and one day she leaves to visit him. However, she hears word that her groom is, in actuality, a murderer, and the young girl must escape his house. At the wedding, the girl tells her tale and the man is held accountable for his actions. Though it is presented simply as a folk-tale, the story has a deeper metaphorical meaning within the context of the film. Lene can be compared to the young girl in the story. She has entered a life that she was not expecting. All she wanted was a husband and child, and now she is facing a great deal of turmoil. Her husband represents the robber bridegroom, as Hans’ character is deceiving and his personality changes as Lene gets to know him. At first, he is a kind and loving man. Now, after he has been traumatized by the war, he is cold and uncaring. Lene is suffering greatly and can only hope that she will be able to salvage what is left of her family after the war ends. Perhaps foreshadowing the life ahead of her, Lene is raped by two American soldiers at the end of this scene. Despite these hardships, the mother and daughter continue their journey.


Fortunately, the war ends. Hans returns, and the family is reunited: physically, but never emotionally or mentally. Lene suffers from a facial paralysis, which adds to her depression and anger. Hans is still embroiled in a different world; he still offers no emotional support to Lene or Anna. Eventually, Lene cannot take it any longer. One night, she breaks down, screaming that she needs love or she cannot live. Hans leaves, and Anna comes to her mother to help her. Later, Lene runs into the bathroom and locks Anna out; she is attempting to commit suicide. Anna is crying and screaming for her mother to come out, so they can work through things together. Here, her daughter says, “It was a long time until Lene opened the door. Sometimes, I think she is still behind it and I’m still standing outside. She’ll never come out to me. I must be grown up and alone.” Though Lene decides not to kill herself, this scene is representative of the emotional wall that she has built to protect herself from being hurt ever again. Through each of her breakdowns, the only person there to help was Anna. However, at this time, Lene is so devastated and mentally ruined that she even turns her back on her only companion: her daughter.


From these works, we can see the various effects of World War II on European mothers. Olga Lengyel, in Five Chimneys, experienced the unbearable wrath of the Nazis when they murdered her children and mother. However, she bears a great deal of guilt, as she feels that her decisions may have expedited their doom. Another mother who shares this burden is Sophie Zawistowska, who was forced to choose which one of her children would live and which would die. The film Sophie’s Choice emotionally portrays how this incident changes her life forever. In Germany, Pale Mother, Lene experiences the far-reaching consequences of war, as her husband returns traumatized; he is now cold and unloving, and she cannot bear the detachment. Their daughter, Anna, bears the brunt of her mother’s agony and serves as a lens into this disharmony for the viewer. Lengyel, Sophie and Lene are all examples of loving, self-sacrificing mothers who simply cannot cope with World War II’s heinous impact on their family and loved ones.

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