Flight of Remembrance
Marina Dutzmann Kirsch is a graphic and book designer, author, and public speaker living in Kensington, NH. She also serves as an Area Director in Toastmasters International, a worldwide non-profit that helps members build their public speaking and leadership skills. We have conducted an interview with her about her book & events—Flight of Remembrance—the true story of her family in WWII Latvia, occupied Poland, & Germany.
What was the 'existential dilemma' in this book?
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, existentialism centers "on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad." This was certainly the case for my family during WWII. In late 1939, my father, Rolf Dutzmann, a Latvian aeronautical engineering student, faced a life or death situation that would change his and his family's life forever. The Russians were coming! As Latvians of Baltic German descent, and like people of German heritage scattered all over Europe, they faced the risk of execution or deportation under a Soviet takeover. Unfortunately, the only country that would accept Baltic German refugees was Nazi Germany. At that time, the verdict on the Nazi regime was still out, whereas the Stalin regime had long ago been recognized as a brutal dictatorship with little respect for human life. It was not even an issue of right or wrong, good or evil, but only where the best chance for survival lay.
The irony of escaping to Germany was certainly not lost on Rolf's father, Ernst, who had served in the Czarist Russian army during World War I and was taken prisoner of war by Germany—the very country that would become his refuge during World War II! Between the World Wars, he was an engineer and major in the Latvian army and also an outspoken anti-communist, so it was clear that he would not survive the impending cataclysm. The family's sense of foreboding was chillingly accurate. About six months after they and 50,000 other Baltic Germans fled Latvia by ship, Latvian officers were shot on the spot and tens of thousands of other citizens were executed or deported. Once their ship left the port city of Riga, they became people without a home, people without a national identity and people with no idea about their future under the Nazi regime. For Rolf who had just begun his aeronautical engineering studies at the University of Riga shortly before the family fled, the daunting question was whether the regime would allow him to continue his studies or whether he would be immediately drafted. The family fled one brutal regime only to end up in the clutches of another.
Did you have first-hand data and information from your characters, or did you craft them based on your own imagination?
To write this book effectively, I needed to put myself into the position of my parents and other family members, but I had a wealth of first and second-hand information. My parents, Rolf and Lilo, wrote a family history in the 1990s, which included info from their early lives through the postwar years. An incredible collection of documents, letters, memorabilia, and high-quality photographs (132 included in the book) also survived the war to support their story. Even the heirloom dress that I am wearing at the right side of the photos above is a dress that my grandmother hand tailored, embroidered, and wore herself in 1930s Latvia as evidenced by the photo to the lower left of mine. Moreover, both parents were still alive during the writing of the book, so that I could tap their amazing memories for additional material.
I also conducted much research into the times and what was going on around my family during the war. For my grandfather Ernst's work with Wernher von Braun at Peenemünde and his assignment to the role of chief inspector of the V-2 at the underground installation of Mittelwerk, I obtained a lot of information from books, postwar transcripts, and websites. All of the technical portions of the book about Peenemünde, Mittelwerk, and the V-2 were also proof read by the director of the Mittelbau Dora Concentration Camp Memorial and the director of the Space History Division of the Smithsonian. The book includes footnotes, an index, a bibliography, and three appendices due to the large amount of factual material included.
Why is the viewpoint from the losing side of the war inspiring to you?
My family's story from the losing side of the war is as much about finding meaning, living a life of faith, and cherishing a dream as it is about surviving a war that incinerated the hopes, dreams, and lives of 50-70 million people worldwide. And although it narrates a family's quest for survival against the odds, it's also a love story.
My family members were forced to serve on the side of Nazi Germany, but they weren't supportive of Hitler and did not join the Nazi Party. This comes as a surprise to many American readers. The reviews for Flight of Remembrance and comments of people who have attended my presentations since publication attest to the fact that the story is helping other people reconstruct missing parts of their own families' WWII past in Latvia, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe and that there is therapeutic value in a story that gives a face and a name to "the enemy" rather than denying or burying the past. In order for understanding to dawn, it's necessary to know something of the plight of people on the other side.
What happened after the event to the German veterans who were drafted after fleeing the Soviet occupation of Latvia?
Rolf was drafted in late 1941 after receiving his aeronautical engineering degree. He had hoped that the war would be long over before that. He was assigned to technical positions and glider flight training during the first part of his military service. Later he was sent for a short time to fight partisans in Slovakia, but then signed up for navigator training hoping the war would end before his training did. That actually was the case and he wasn't forced to fly any bombing or combat missions. In March of 1945 he was sent briefly to the front along with tens of thousands of other German military personnel. His unit was soon ordered to disperse, however, and he then walked 160 miles homeward cross country in late winter hoping there was still a home to return to.
Rolf's father, Ernst, was drafted into the Wehrmacht as a major in late 1942 and assigned to train under Wernher von Braun for V-2 rocket inspection. After the bombing of Peenemünde in 1943, he was sent to the highly classified underground installation of Mittelwerk in the heart of Germany where he served as chief inspector of V-2 rocket mass production for 14 months. Via my own research, I found out there was a notorious slave labor camp set up there by the SS before my grandfather's arrival and that 200 civilian and army engineers and three inmates worked in his department. According to books and postwar transcripts from inmates, my grandfather befriended a Czech inmate by the name of Jiri Benes and shielded all three inmates in his department from intrusions of the SS as best he could under dire circumstances.
Both Rolf and Ernst were taken prisoner of war by American troops toward the end of the war. Neither was brought to the US as part of Operation Paperclip, but both were later employed in the US aerospace industry.
How long did you take to decide on the title 'Flight of Remembrance'?
The title occurred to me long before I started writing or designing the book, and I knew it was right from the start. Flight of Remembrance refers both to my own process of remembering and recording my family's story and to the fact that aeronautical engineering was the lifelong dream of my father Rolf, the main protagonist. His dream began with building model gliders in Latvia from a very young age and extended, after immigration, to heading a team of engineers that designed and built components of the Saturn V and Saturn 1B rocket that were later used successfully in all of the Apollo Moon missions. For more than 30 years after retirement, Rolf also shared his knowledge and enthusiasm for aerospace engineering with children and adults all around the state of New Hampshire. My hope is that Flight of Remembrance will help readers (and attendees at my events) gain a wider perspective on the most devastating war in history, similar to what I gained in the researching and writing process.
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