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The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt: War Through a Woman's Eyes, 1939-1940 Hardcover – 15 Dec 2009
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'This book is one of the best pictures of war as civilians know war that has yet to come out of the maelstrom.' --Lewis Gannett, NY Herald Tribune (for the first edition 1942)
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She describes the minutiae of domestic life in an extreme situation which gives the human dimension to an important historical document. She is responsible for 2 small children and her mother in the absence of her husband in America, and, in the face of hunger and deprivation never seems to succomb to despair or despondency. In the face of fear and horror, family ties are strengthened and new social links established to enable the possibility for survival and she communicates the satifaction that this level of intensity can generate.
This book was an absorbing read and, although about war, offers many lessons for peace.
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At the time, Rulka Langer was in her mid-thirties, with two young children and living with her mother, as her husband was in the United States with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With admirable pluck and phenomenal energy, she (and her family) survived the siege, though their apartment was heavily damaged. She and her children were fortunate to obtain visas to the United States, and she left Poland in February 1940.
The book begins in August 1939 with the escalating rumors of Nazi attack and the mobilization of the Polish Army (including requisition of farmers' horses). It ends when Langer and her children leave German territory and enter Italy on their way to the U.S. Langer wrote the book in 1942 to "explain to Americans the devastation of this war for the average, ordinary human beings caught in it." She tells the story with grace and intelligence and, despite the devastation and death, with relative good humor.
In a world in which millions of average, ordinary human beings still must endure bombings, artillery fire, and war-created shortages of food, water, and housing, THE MERMAID AND THE MESSERSCHMITT unfortunately retains much contemporary relevance. It also is a valuable historical document and a tribute (one of many) to the valor and determination of the Poles in the face of an overwhelmingly superior enemy.
Langer came from a family of status and relative wealth. In the 1920's she attended Vassar for two years on a scholarship. Hence, she herself was not an "average, ordinary" Pole, and I have seen several mild criticisms of the book on that ground. But the bombs and shells that the Germans launched during the Siege of Warsaw did not discriminate according to status, wealth, and education, and certainly, by virtue of her background, Langer brought to the book both literary abilities and a broader perspective that most of her compatriots did not have.
Langer wrote the book in English. The prose style is of its time (1942), and now seems a tad clichéd and old-fashioned. Yet it reads effortlessly. This is a very recent second edition. It includes a large number of historical photographs of the Siege of Warsaw that add considerably to the reading experience. I bought the book in hard-cover, and it is a handsome volume indeed (excepting the rather lurid dust cover).
The author, Rulka Langer, recounts what it was like for her as a young mother of two children, as a daughter, as a sister, and as a friend to survive the Siege of Warsaw in September 1939. Not only are the details of Langer's day-to-day existence incredible, but the narrative is very engaging thanks to her writing style which is personal and honest yet reflective without over-dramatization - although if anything qualifies as true drama, this certainly does. This memoir has a way of conveying the emotional truth of war that few books do. An example: "To the average person, I think, war horrors come pretty much like the pangs of childbirth. At first, inspite of apprehensions, life still goes on, almost normal, with all of its little trivialities. Then comes the pang: wild, screaming, inhuman."
With the holidays around the corner, THE MERMAID AND THE MESSERSCHMITT would make the perfect gift for the history buff in your family or really for anyone who enjoys a thought-provoking and engaging read. Highly recommend. You will not be disappointed.