Good-Bye to the Mermaids: A Childhood Lost in Hitler's Berlin

Good-Bye to the Mermaids: A Childhood Lost in Hitler's Berlin

Good-Bye to the Mermaids: A Childhood Lost in Hitler's Berlin

Good-Bye to the Mermaids: A Childhood Lost in Hitler's Berlin


Good-bye to the Mermaids conveys the horrors of war as seen through the innocent eyes of a child. It is the story of World War II as it affected three generations of middle-class German women: Karin, six years old when the war began, who was taken in by Hitler's lies; her mother, Astrid, a rebellious artist who occasionally spoke out against the Nazis; and her grandmother Oma, a generous and strong-willed woman who, having spent her own childhood in America, brought a different perspective to the events of the time. It tells of a convoluted world where children were torn between fear and hope, between total incomprehension of events and the need to simply deal with reality.

In one of the relatively few recollections of the war from a German woman's perspective, Finell relates what was for her a normal part of growing up: participating in activities of the Hitler Youth, observing Nazi customs at Christmas, and once being close enough to the Führer at a rally to make eye contact with him. She tells of how she first became aware of the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear, and of being asked to identify corpses from a bombed apartment house. She also depicts the lives of people tainted by Hitler's influence: her half-Jewish relatives who gave in to the strain of trying to remain unnoticed; a favorite aunt who was gassed because she was old and had broken her hip; and a friend of the family who was involved in the abortive putsch against Hitler and hanged as a traitor.

When American and British forces intensified air raids on Berlin in 1943, Finell observed the stoical valor of women during the bombings, firestorms, and mass evacuations. Not yet a teenager, she witnessed the battle for Berlin and the mass rapes perpetrated by conquering Russian and Mongolian troops. Order was restored after the American and British troops arrived. The Marshall Plan jump-started an economic recovery for West Germany, provoking the Russians to blockade Berlin. From 1948 to 1949 the Americans and British kept Berlin's residents alive with the airlift. But even though food was flown in, the people of Berlin continued to go hungry. Deprivation forced Berliners to look inward and face their collective guilt as they withstood the threat of Soviet occupation during these postwar years.

This eloquent and touching story tells how a decent people were perverted by Hitler and how a young girl ultimately came to recognize the father figure Hitler for the monster he was. From a time of innocence, Karin Finell takes readers along a nightmarish journey in which fantasies are clung to, set aside, and at last set free. Good-bye to the Mermaids presents us with the revelation that human beings can survive such times with their souls intact.


In the early years after World War II only historians wrote about the fall of Berlin. Now, sixty years later, literature documenting the suffering of German civilians is emerging from the tombs of silence. Susan Sontag noted the lack of contemporary accounts of the torment German women and children endured when their cities burned. She wrote, “We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is” and “Remembering is an ethical act.” W. S. Sebald called this, “A conspiracy of silence in every German household,” which he attributed to “a numbness of spirit and the guilt of a Nazi past still bearing down on the German psyche.” Years have passed and most of the eyewitnesses are now dead. It is too late for me to ask my mother what she remembered. It is up to people whose memories are still clear and who lived through the bombings, the artillery fire, and the rapes to bear witness to the many who suffered and died.

During my early years in America, I too tried to forget the terror of my youth. There were occasions when an airplane flying low overhead would make me duck for cover. Memories were mere reflexes then, not to be brought back into consciousness. I never talked to my mother about those times. I, like many others who had lived through the war years in Berlin, tried to erase those memories.

But memory is not a slate that can be erased with ease. Memories are like fleeting shades or like dreams, which can be recalled in great detail upon awakening, but then retreat into the shadows and are soon forgotten. Mine had only retreated; they had never been forgotten. Little by little my memories and the stories emerged. In the early 1990s, I watched the BBC movie Christabel and found myself in tears as “my” Berlin was bombed. Afterward I went to the computer to write down what I remembered. I was working on a novel at the time, but these war memories kept intruding, demanding to be written down. Gradually, on warm, moonlit California nights—an atmosphere so opposite to war-torn Berlin—I began to tell my war stories to friends. Lingering over coffee or wine, my guests prodded me to tell one more tale. Story after story emerged, as if sprouting from a root cellar of memory. Scenes formed in my mind, and remembering my grandmother led me to think of her sister, my beloved aunt Margaret. She seemed to be in the same room with me, and I could almost smell her scent of camphor and . . .

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