We Are Wolves – written by Katrina Nannestad, art by Martina Heiduczek
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2022
The author’s note preceding this novel for middle-grade readers and older reveals its basic premise: “The wolf children were German children left alone in East Prussia at the end of the Second World War…The wolf children were victims of war.” I have no argument against that statement. Children are always victims of war. It does not matter if the adults who started the war were brutal dictators, those who supported these men, or those who failed to stand up to them. Therefore, German, Japanese, and Italian children were victimized by the terrible conditions during and after World War II. Since We Are Wolves is told from the perspective of Liesel, a German child, we cannot expect the novel to balance her feelings of victimhood against the historical reality of Germany’s deeds, which led to worldwide suffering, but also specifically to the annihilation of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews.
However, Liesel’s story is not completely unmediated. It is a work of historical fiction, not the transcript of a child witness. The main problem with the book is that Katrina Nannestad fails completely to acknowledge, or even to imply, that Liesel’s perception is limited. This leads to the unfortunate erasure of the book’s missing Jews, and the presentation of all the German characters as innocent of wrongdoing.
Liesel, her brother Otto, and their baby sister Mia, are separated from their mother at the end of the war, left hungry and without shelter. Their father has been drafted into the German army and they eventually leave their beloved grandparents behind in their attempt to escape the Russian army, whom they view as invaders, not liberators. It is certainly true that the Soviets inflicted terror on the defeated Germans, and on other peoples of Europe, as well. There is no reason for a novelist to minimize that fact, and Nannestad even portrays some Russian soldiers as humane exceptions. But the Russians are the only villains in the story. At a few points in the narrative, Liesel briefly questions whether Germans had also perpetrated evil, yet she never follows through with her thoughts. It seems evident that these relatively implausible digressions are the author speaking, attempting to introduce some degree of realism to this historical novel.
Liesel’s father has been drafted. Nannestad refers to anti-Nazi sentiment in the family, but she never elaborates on it. Otto makes numerous jokes and scatological references to Hitler, but there is no context, aside from his understandable frustration at the loss of his father. On the other hand, there are many warm descriptions of German culture, which has ostensibly been destroyed by the Russians as they defeat the Nazis. Liesel and her siblings long for German food, folktales, language, and Christmas celebrations. Why wouldn’t they? In contrast to the absent Jews, these parts of a stolen past are lovingly detailed, constantly giving the impression of their beauty and value. There is no distance, no irony, no implied tragedy of the way in which children like Liesel simply cannot understand what the adults in their lives have done, to their own country and to its victims. Here is just one example, a description of a German home which has been raided by Russian soldiers:
This is a house frozen in time.
Knives and forks lie crookedly across plates that contain a half-eaten supper – casserole,
mashed potato, sauerkraut. The end of a loaf of bread sits in the middle of the table,
surrounded by crumbs…
A prayer book lies open beside the plate at the head of the table, a pair of spectacles
resting on top. I wonder if they got to “Amen.”…
“Perhaps the Russian Army took them by surprise,” I suggest. One moment they were
safe and warm, enjoying their supper. The next they heard cannons and guns and
rockets, so they ran.”
It is simply not sufficient to claim that this passage reflects the perspective of a child. The language is clearly that of an adult creating an elegy for the past: the disembodied spectacles, the delicious ethnic food, the prayer book. There is not even a glimpse of the Jews who were dragged from their homes, imprisoned, and murdered.
Maybe Liesel never knew anything about Jews. First, this cannot be true. German children were forced to participate in Hitler Youth, the League of German Girls, and other preparatory clubs for the youngest among them. A large part of their indoctrination involved violent antisemitism. In fact, Nannestad introduces a character, Karl, who meets up with Liesel and her siblings on their search for safety. He tearfully admits that the SS forced his Hitler Youth group to kill Jews. Liesel reassures him that it was not his fault because he is only a boy, but, conveniently, he somehow escaped by throwing a gun at the SS officer, without having participated in the murder. By offering this improbable outcome, the author evades the problem of how to incorporate a character who had actually killed Jews into her story of German victimhood. (Even if it were possible that he escaped in this way, a novel, unlike life itself, needs to be plausible, not only possible) There are a couple of other references to Jews, specifically to schoolteachers who disappeared, interrupting the education of Christian German children. There is no reference to the many Jewish students, \ former classmates and instructors of children like Liesel, who were expelled from schools all over Germany.
Finally, the book concludes when the children find shelter in Lithuania. Liesel would not have known that 90% of the Jews in that country were murdered by the Nazis, often with the collaboration of the local population. But those incontrovertible facts cannot be simply ignored. Liesel, Otto, and Mia are welcomed in the Baltic country. The worst treatment they encounter is from some families who demand payment for food, but their lives are saved by a compassionate and loving couple who have been devastated by the Russian occupiers. Even if German children could not be expected to understand the acute irony of the situation, the author is not absolved of the responsibility for elaborating her characters’ story within historical reality. The fact that she occasionally alludes to the terrible truths of the era, only to turn away from them, is not enough. Yes, German children displaced by war were victims. Using that fact as the center of the novel requires care for the truth, which would not have diminished the intensity of the children’s experience, but would rather have drawn a fuller picture of what actually caused their tragedy.