My Innocent Absence by Miriam Frank and Between Hitler & a Hard Place by Rolf Panny review

by Fiona Rae / 28 January, 2012
Two New Zealanders of German origin relate their stories.
Wrenched from their home in France in 1941 by her unconventional German Jewish solo mother to escape Nazi roundups, Miriam Frank began a restless life. From childhood days in Majorca and Mexico, schooling and medical training in New Zealand, hospital work in Israel, then as an anaesthetics specialist in London, she recreates her story vividly in MY INNOCENT ABSENCE: TALES FROM A NOMADIC LIFE (Arcadia, $39.95).

They thought New Zealand would be their promised land, but Frank found its climate cold and the people repressed. Yearning for a life of high emotions, colour and excitement, and with her relationship with her equally passionate mother under strain, she begins to wander once more in search of a career and an identity. Instead, she repeats the worst of her mother’s mistakes, falling for an impossible man. She marries a volatile German artist whose alcoholism, fecklessness and infidelity eventually provide her with more drama than even she can cope with, and two daughters to support.

Today retired, Frank lives in London, Greece and Italy, turning out Spanish literary translations. At home both nowhere and everywhere, she discovers, as so many have before, that wherever you go, there you are.

A very different life story by another New Zealander of German origin is BETWEEN HITLER & A HARD PLACE: A MEMOIR 1924-1948 (Steele Roberts, $34.99) by retired Massey University lecturer Rolf Panny. Growing up in Hamburg as the Nazis rose to dominance, Panny learnt early the virtues of keeping his head down and his sense of irony intact. A philosophy student, he manages by adroit footwork to avoid joining the Hitler Youth, but eventually the army catches up with him and he serves in the trenches on the Russian front.

The fascination of Panny’s candidly told story lies in the spirited detail of his daily work and family life as war raged, and his good-humoured, conversational, warts-and-all style. A competent English speaker, he spent time in an Allied POW camp in Brussels as a translator and then German teacher to English troops.

Life in England at war’s end gave him an appreciation of the British approach to philosophy. The prospect of clearing rubble for the prolonged rebuilding of a shattered Germany held no joy for him, and he opted for an academic career in France and the US. Panny plans a second volume; I’ll certainly be looking out for it.

Dale Williams is a writer and editor.

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