Elfriede

Elfriede, aged 12, Schneidemühl, Germany

‘My mother advised me to keep a diary. When I am fifty or sixty years old, I’ll find it strange to see what I have written as a child. But it will still be a good thing to do, because in a diary you’re not allowed to lie.’

Elfriede Kuhr lives with one of her older brothers at her grandmother’s house in Schneidemühl, on the eastern edge of Germany. Her mother runs a music school in far-off Berlin, and her father lives in Danzig and takes little interest in his family. The war has made this small town into the most important traffic intersections for the German troops in the east.

The girl’s first contact with the war comes one summer’s evening, when she witnesses the departure of the 149th infantry regiment – the unit from her city. They are going to the Western Front, a term that Elfriede had not previously heard. The square in front of the station building is packed with people. Elfriede is an anxious, intelligent girl with reddish plaits and green eyes. She is struck by the serious expression on the soldiers’ faces. She had expected them to be laughing and cheering.

These are strange times. A few days later, they learn about Serbia in their geography lesson. No one knows exactly where this small country is, but it is universally hated. Elfriede thinks that the murderer of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand is handsome and feels sorry for him. But she struggles with the fact that she even dares to think something like that.

In the first weeks of the war, the loud, happy singing of the soldiers driving through the town can be heard day and night. From the beginning of August, trains also arrive carrying refugees from East Prussia. They tell terrible horror stories that Elfriede can scarcely believe. She finds them almost comical. At the end of August, the Russian advance is halted. When she is helping her grandmother, who runs the Red Cross post by the station, to carry coffee pots and baskets of food, Elfriede also sees Russian prisoners of war on the platform.

In addition, the war soon starts to permeate life at school. Foreign words are banned and every key German victory results in an extra day’s holiday. Hanging in the classroom is a map on which all the German army’s victories are carefully logged using miniature black, white and red flags on pins. The mood at school in Germany is aggressive, overconfident, chauvinistic and triumphant. There are constant collections for the soldiers and the refugees. Initially, people are extremely willing to donate, but as foodstuffs become scarcer, they barely have anything to spare.

At the end of the war, Elfriede is no longer at school. She wants to become a maternity nurse and works in a children’s home. Almost all children are underfed or suffering from an illness that, one way or another, is the result of malnutrition. Everyone longs for peace, but what kind of peace will this be? Is it possible that all that blood has been shed in vain?

Elfriede Kuhr ultimately pursues a career as a dancer. Under her stage name Jo Mihaly she performs her expressionist anti-war dance all over Germany, with soldier’s boots, a sword and a First World War helmet. She marries a Jewish man, Leonard Steckel, and together they have a daughter, Anja. In 1933, Elfriede flees with her family to Switzerland, where they remain until 1949. She dies in 1989 in Seeshaupt, Bavaria.

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