Großvater used to say: “Don’t look back”
Jens Orback talks about the need
to unlock the doors of unpleasant memories
Interview and Portrait photos of Jens Orback and his mother Katja Orback by Annika Kiehn, May 2020
As a nostalgic person, I cherish hearing stories about my ancestors. It makes me feel connected when I listen to anecdotes of how my kinfolk managed their lives. The more I research the history of the Kashubian region, the more I am confronted with my own history. My father’s family once lived in Danzig and Gryfino in Poland. When they were children, they had to escape from the Soviet army. I often ponder the impact of this tragedy—to suddenly lose their home, their friends, and their innocence at such a tender age, being mocked as refugees by local residents in the villages of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. While traveling to Danzig by train and staring into the countryside, I wondered if this trauma somehow left its marks on us as well as the following generations.
When I visited Palast Jackowo Folwark last year, which once belonged to the noble Fließbach family, it was the Polish owner, Anna Mazuś, who brought my attention to the story of Jens Orback, a Swedish journalist and former Minister of Integration and Equality. In his book, he uncovers the traumatizing episode of his mother’s escape when she was a young girl. I begin to wonder, “Can you inherit the trauma of war even if you were brought up in a country like Sweden, which has not been inclined to war for more than 300 years?”
In July of last year, I met Jens and Katja Orback in Stockholm. We talked about the need to remember collective guilt as well as how they managed this rather unpleasant walk together.
Jens, the title of your book is called “Schatten auf meiner Seele” (“Shadow on my Soul”)
JO: I wasn’t too happy with that title. In Swedish, the title Medan segern firades means something like “Meanwhile, victory was celebrated.” It captured a little more of what I wanted to say—that while some were celebrating victory, others were experiencing something different, rather horrifying. I wanted to tell that story.
In your book, you talked about how you questioned your mother about her escape from the Soviet army at the end of World War Two. How did this need for digging in the past emerge?
JO: There was an unpleasant feeling; something had been transmitted from my mother. But for many different reasons, it remained untold. Reality is best told if it is seen from different angles. Nowadays, there are a lot of people writing about their escape. When I started this journey with my mother at the end of the last century, I could not find much on that topic. I went to the National Library of Sweden and looked at articles about the end of World War Two in Germany, but there was only one article titled “We don’t know if we should cry or laugh.” So I thought something was missing, and I wanted to contribute a little bit.
Do you remember the beginning of that journey?
JO: My mother’s family, the Fließbachs, owned many manors in the northern area of the Danzig Region in Poland. Hinter Pommern was the name they used. Even when I was still young, we often visited the places. When I was seven years old, in 1966, we were in Poland, and there were a lot of armed people, so we were sneaking around the manor houses, not saying who we were. I had a feeling my mother should not have mentioned her German heritage, but I ignored it. Later on, I often heard my mother talking more about her childhood with my kids, but then it sounded more like an adventure story. It did not pass the events of March 13th, 1945. And I realized that I was lacking that knowledge as well. When my grandparents visited us in Sweden, we never spoke a word about the past. My grandfather always said, “Guck nach vorne”— don’t look back.
In the first chapter, “transmission,” you said, “You can hide something deliberately, but you cannot deliberately forget.”
JO: I‘ve always had a very close relationship with my mother. And suddenly, there was a story within her that I could feel myself. It infected me, but I didn’t know the story properly, and I could not handle it—in an adult way. I think my mother was afraid of what effect it might have had on her. We spent a lot of energy and time walking around this hole that had come between us. So, I thought if we could see the bottom of that hole, we might be less afraid. Also, I didn‘t know if we would just fall in and there would be no bottom, and that brought up a sort of panic, which was very unpleasant.
However, I wanted to have it taken out of my body and to view it on a piece of paper outside of my body—so I could handle it with some sort of distance. In the end, I forced myself. I brought a tape recorder to our family gatherings and interviewed the oldest ones. In a way, I actually forced my mother to open up as well when I started talking to people around her sisters, brothers, neighbors, friends, and acquaintances.
Katja, how did you feel when Jens requested to travel back in time?
KO: I am sure I would never have mentioned the war if it hadn’t been for Jens.
JO: My theory is that you gave me hints now and then. As with your comment on the women of the Balkan story, when they reported on their terrible situation of being raped by the soldiers, you mumbled, “Oh, I know exactly how they feel!”
KO: Maybe I said something like that, but it was rather unintentional. Even with my parents, we never spoke about what had happened in the past. We all thought, “Why should we complain?”
It was our people, well the Germans, who started World War Two, so how could we as Germans complain while there had been so many people, especially Jews, suffering? That burden still lingers inside me. I know that as a child, there was little I could have done back then; perhaps someone else in my family could have. I do not like speaking of collective guilt. However, although I didn’t do any harm to a Jew myself, I feel guilty. And I am sure that many Germans feel the same way.
JO: Perhaps, to some extent, there is an “us” or a “we.” It is kind of a paradox: I oppose collective guilt in a rational way. But as an individual, I can still feel that guilt. Since I am the child of a German, I have to take some special responsibility here. Although I am happy to be half German, some irrational collective guilt has found its way to me (laughs).
KO: This is a good way of explaining it. I always say to Jens, “I am still a German, I am afraid!”
JO: But you have been more of a Swede in your life than you have been a German. You have a passport that says that you are Swedish. As a half-German, I might understand because I slightly feel guilt, too. At the beginning of our talks, mother used to say, “I don’t remember anything.” But the deeper I dug, the more I realized she had locked her memories up when she came to Sweden. I think it was possible for me to deal with this topic for so long because my father was dead and, to some extent, because we lived in Sweden.
Did this journey with your mother change your attitude towards the EU or Europe?
JO: I guess it made me even stronger. She grew up in this school—it was a school where they talked about Kaiser Wilhelm, the Weimarer Republic, AH, then Polish liberals for a while, and then communists—so it changed all the time. Then the children moved to an EU school in the nearby village.
I was the most positive EU advocate when I was Minister of Integration. It is my belief that there is something good to gain from this Union, although there is a lot of struggle, of course. I think Swedish people, who do not have a history of war, see it slightly differently. We were not very positive about the EU at the start; it took a long time before we went there. We are very hesitant about any form of federation. I am the opposite, and I think it could have a little to do with how I would like to incorporate both Germany and Sweden into my world.
If I could live many lives, I would like to live one life here in Kashubia.
What sort of energy did you feel while you had this time travel with your mother?
JO: It was a lot of work, and it was hard because I had to approach my mother about things that I wanted to know and, at the same time, did not want to know—it was a bit of a paradox. I had to get so close that I had the feeling that one day she would tell me everything, and I wouldn’t need to know more. I just needed to know nothing was hiding, and I thought, “Am I getting sick or something? What is driving me?” But I really wanted to go into all the rooms where she had been taken or have access to them.
KO: It was a relief for me to talk about it. First, I was a bit anxious because talking about it meant that I could be considered an egoist. I was brought up to always think first of others and put myself second. It is also possible that other members of our family begin to wonder, “Is she becoming weird?” But Jens did ask the questions in a good way, I must say.
JO: I still do not recommend sons being therapists for their mothers. (laughs) They are not supposed to ask her about any kind of abuse. And I hold on to the principle that I respect people who don’t talk, I respect people who talk, and I respect people who change their minds on that. Once you step in there, something might change, and you do not know its effect, so it is a rather big step.
For my siblings, it was a little troublesome. At that point when I told my mother’s story, I would also say something that would change their relationship with her because now they would know. I did not feel that they were very enthusiastic about my project. And if my father had still been alive, I don’t think I would have written the book. He and mother had their own relationship, and they have had their “contract”; a part of it was not to talk about mother’s past at war.
KO: But you did a good job, Jens. It matters a lot how a person approaches others. I certainly do not have the right way to approach my younger sister. She also experienced horrifying episodes, but when I want to talk to her about that time, she always says, “Stop it! Please leave me alone.”
JO: Mother, she just doesn’t want to talk. As I said, it’s totally fine.
KO: But I find it rather sad. It had a good effect on me to talk, and I wish it were the same for her.
Was there a moment for you when you thought you could not go any further?
JO: Many times, I thought of giving up. Even when it came to my connection with my mother, I noticed it was hard for her to talk. It felt like I was digging up stones, and it is hard to get stones out of your body. It was an unpleasant feeling, but I had to sort it out. Take it out of her body, take out what came into my body, and then put it in front of us as a map so we can look at it and say, “Okay, here are the Russians, here are you, here are your neighbors, sisters, and brothers, and what happened here?”
Then we looked at it from some distance from the outside and could talk about it in an adult conscious way, which was much nicer. It was not a hole with no bottom any longer. We had a flash, and we could walk down the latter until the bottom was solid enough to stand on. And then we could walk up without having to expend so much energy constantly passing around this hole.
KO: Talking to this female journalist from Lativa about the parts when I was taken as a prisoner was a great relief. I never talked to my husband about what had happened to me as a young girl. As a woman, you feel ashamed when you are raped. You blame yourself to some extent, at least. Back in those days, sexuality was a rather hidden and shameful topic. When people knew what had happened to you, they were very likely to blame you for it. So, even when you know you could not have avoided it, you think, “Shame on you; don’t ever talk about it! It was even worse when you got sick afterward.”
So, talking about the unspoken with Jens had a very positive effect on me. Since then, I have also talked to students in schools about what it meant to grow up under the Hitler regime. A Swedish Jewish woman does the same, and I think she is also glad to be able to talk. I think everybody who has gone through traumatic times should be able to talk about it.
JO: I had the tapes, and I had to put a lot of effort just to press the play button down—but I listened to it at home, and suddenly I felt that I had to listen to it with my mother. So, I brought this recorder to my mother’s kitchen and pressed the button, and that was… ah… very… we cried a lot … but I had my finger on the bottom. There were other times when I actually thought that I was not going to write this book, but where should I start? It was so hard to write about it, too, so I gave up on that project several times.
But in the end, you published a book—in Swedish and German.
JO: There is this saying, “If you put yourself in the boat, you should row it to land.” When I started to ask questions, I knew I should be there and wait for the answer—and it could take a long time. It took twelve years or something to get the story.
When I had a lot of material and talked to my mother, we thought that perhaps this could also be of some use to someone else. And one thing I have heard her say is, “I was part of the war, but I am not the victim for all my life.”
When the book was finished, and we had this relief, my mother talked to adults about her experiences for the first time in 60 years—it was like a relief to her. For me, that storytelling gave me access to the stories of my German grandparents and the Fließbach-ancestors. That is the pillar, which I can now lean on in a way, something I can hold on to.
How do you cope with the Manor topic?
JO: We lost the houses and the land, but we were part of a society that damaged the place. Of course, the Fließbach-family; they had half a dozen of these houses. I remember receiving a call from the Krockow family; they had a big house, almost a castle. We were asked if we were interested in buying back one of our estates that had been put up for sale. We talked a little bit about it, but we did not see our future there, and I think the collective guilt had its effect.
I had a strange feeling that I wanted to go by bike on these small roads; I think it was a longing that I inherited from my grandfather Fritz; well, this is my fantasy at least. But I also have a strong longing to be on the ground, which could also be a dangerous feeling if it turns into a thought like “this is somehow mine.”
For our family gatherings in September, we take a bus, hire a guide, and go around with mixed feelings. Besides, what should we say to the new owners? It feels a little tense, but often they are friendly, and we can take a look inside and say, “Good luck to you.” We just wanted to see it. We were very fond of the Polish people in Prusewo and Jackowo, for instance. They are very nice, and they are nicely reconstructing the place. Also, they are so eager to talk to mother about how the house was before, which makes her very happy. If I could live many lives, I would like to live one of them there.