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6527212 January 30, 2009

Child of War: An Aberration Story

"We must not lose sight of the fact that we have options."

So times are sucky. People are losing jobs, stores are closing left and right, and the good ole' American staple, peanut butter, is being recalled everywhere. Or maybe you have a job but simply can't stand it half the time. Is your boss a jerk? Maybe your family is driving you batty. They just don't appreciate you, do they? Perhaps you're miserable because you can't seem to shed the twenty pounds you've been carrying around for years. And furthermore, when the hell is someone, anyone, really going to love you for who you are? Maybe you're lonely. While all of these predicaments are important, before you get too downtrodden and break out the ice cream, a board to beat your head upon, or full scale ammunition, consider this--things could be worse.

Evelyne Tannehill was born in January of 1936 in the German province of East Prussia. Unfortunately, this was not a lucky place to be born in the mid-1930s or early 40s. By the time she was nine years old, families were forced apart, people were killed, and hunger was rampant. Freedom lost its meaning, and suffering became the norm. There were no pounds to lose, or peanut butter to lick off a spoon. Love was ripped away, and jobs were like diamonds. Life--and all its beautiful predicaments--was extinguished as if it had absolutely no meaning. This was Evelyne's childhood and adolescence, which she has eloquently recounted in her book, Abandoned and Forgotten: An Orphan Girl’s Tale of Survival during World War II.

Each life is filled with unique aberrations that hold equally profound significance to its owner. Let's face it, life can suck! But could it be that human suffering exists on a bell-shaped curve? If so, I would put the suffering of children at the most extreme negative end of that arc. Childhood tragedy has a knack for tangling its way completely around who we are and who we become. It takes profound determination and courage to overcome such misfortune. Evelyne has done just that, and I'm so honored to include her in the Aberration Nation.

So do me a huge favor. Next time you're down in the dumps, take Evelyne's advice and, "Get over it." Hold your head up and away from that banging board of frustration. Put down the ice cream scooper and do something about it. You always have options. If you don't think you do, perhaps you're just not looking hard enough.

So many of us choose to focus on the negatives in our lives although there are positives all around us. As a child, you were stripped of the freedom, love, and security many of us take for granted. Can you give us an idea of what your childhood was like, and why it was unique?

My childhood ended when within a period of six months I lost all that constituted my secure world. I lost my father, mother, sister, two bothers, two dear aunts, my physical home, my cat, my dog, and my precious doll which I had just received for my 9th birthday. This occurred the beginning of 1945 when Germany was losing WWII and the Russian Red Army was fighting its way toward victory in Berlin.

Even growing up as a young girl during war time in Germany (while my family was still intact), my childhood certainly wasn't normal as compared to growing up in the US, for example. But it appeared normal to me. Watching the fathers, older brothers, and uncles of all my friends being put into uniform and sent off to the various fronts seemed normal. Even their not returning, or returning with an arm, a leg, or an eye missing, seemed normal at the time. What bothered me most was that my father, the foreigner, (as our neighbors referred to him) was an aberration. (He was a naturalized American citizen.) Upon reflection, I realize that as children we very much wanted to belong, even in the negative sense.

Very young children can’t discern what is good or bad in the world around them, certainly not within the larger picture. For instance, our parents sent out mixed signals. They taught us not to lie or cheat, yet during a time of severe rationing and shortages my mother made me go into a store for a light bulb a second time and made me say that I had not been there before--when in fact I had. I was so frightened that I thought both mother and I would end up being punished in some way. It was an extremely confusing world for a child. So I was already confused when everything suddenly collapsed around me and I found myself without the loving protection parents and a family provide.

No child should have to endure the terrors of war. How did you cope day to day? What kept you going?

Once everything that I held dear and made up my small world had been ripped away from me I escaped into a world of fantasy and fairy tales. I made up all types of pleasant scenarios in my head, scenes of rescue and liberation from my state of enslavement in a very abusive environment. For instance, I imagined the sudden reappearance of my father in the form of a brave knight in shining armor on a white horse who would appear one day, sweep me up and kiss all my fear and hurt away, or, the reappearance of my dead mother who would take me with her into her grave and hold me in her loving arms to keep me safe--sometimes it would simply be a kind stranger. My grandmother had introduced me to the world of fairy tales at a very young age. When things got too difficult to bear, I buried myself in a world of make believe to the point where life became a blur of reality and nightmare and I had trouble distinguishing between the two.

Physical pain and misfortune are terrible to bear, but pain and torture of the soul can be even longer lasting, especially when inflicted during childhood. How did having those experiences, and overcoming them, impact your adult life? Although I know it must have been difficult, were you able to find positives in your story of survival?

I had very low self esteem, was extremely shy, and trusted no one. If some one singled me out in a group of people and talked to me, I blushed and actually stuttered my answer. I eventually realized that I had to take charge of my life. The first thing I learned to do was not to take anything personal. I had lived in an angry environment where everyone was hurting, had an axe to grind, and was angry about the injustice that had been done to them. (I'm referring to our experience with the Russians and the Poles in my book.) My harsh experiences taught me a lot about human nature. I learned not to judge people but instead to wonder what has happened in their lives that made them into what they have become.

Many of us struggle as adults to forgive and forget any ills imposed upon us as children. As your life progressed into adulthood, how were you able to find a place in your heart and soul for the pain of your childhood?

I did not have much of a support system in my later teens and early twenties. I barely finished high school and had to go out into the world to work and support myself. I had no time for self pity. On the contrary, I considered myself very lucky to have survived my troubled past and I focused on self improvement, especially learning the English language so I would never find myself in dire straights and in need of help from anyone.

What are your thoughts on folks today who see themselves as victims during everyday American life simple because things aren't going their way?

Get over it. Take charge of your life and get on with it. Wallowing in the negative and the cruel fate you may feel you have been dealt is very destructive and it does not matter against whom you make your charges or accusations, even is God seems far away during those dark times, only you can find your way back. Learn from your mistakes. Make friends, and above all, learn to be a friend.

Sometimes when struck with tragedy, we realize that we can choose to either sink or swim. Sinking gets us nowhere but swimming can take us somewhere else--and so we make that choice. Do you believe that the push tragedy gives us to swim in a particular direction can ultimately lead us to a better place?

Without a doubt. Over a life time tragedy occurs in almost everyone’s life in one form or another. The quicker you find or recognize the lesson to be learned from it the sooner you will find happiness, or at least peace. We must not lose sight of the fact that we have options. So often when one door closes another one opens. The philosopher Kant put it very wisely by saying, “Adversity makes you strong.” People with a strong belief system fare better than those who do not have one. But either way, ultimately only you can pull yourself up and stay up. Family and friends can help, but you have to do the work.

As you've made your way through life here in America, how have you been able to incorporate the experiences of your childhood into our materialistic culture of instant gratification? Has it been challenging to connect with others who perhaps don't have the depth of experience that you brought with you?

When I first came to the US, I felt very disconnected from my peers because I had no shared cultural experiences. I came from opposite ends of the growing up experience. In Germany my living space was very small. School was extremely strict. We did not play the same games--even sports. We did not have the same toys (better said--no toys) and we were held responsible for our actions. The one thing that bothers and surprises me even today in this country, is the fact that no one takes responsibility for foolish actions or anything negative that happens to them. It is always somebody else’s fault.

What has your life taught you about the human spirit?

With the right positive attitude you can overcome anything.

If you could say one thing to folks who may be feeling as if there is no hope for a better tomorrow, what would that be?

Look around you--there is beauty everywhere. Learn to distinguish the difference between your desires/wants and your actual needs and then focus on what your real needs are.

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