Patterns of Childhood is a fictional autobiography. When the narrator of Patterns of Childhood relates her childhood in the third person rather than the traditional first-person voice of an autobiography, she reproduces Wolf’s own gesture of displacing her childhood memories into fiction. The novel therefore reflects not only Wolf’s life but also the process of her writing.
The narrator has difficulty confronting her childhood participation in the Nazi era. She was not directly involved in military combat or in operating the death camps; however, she led a typically ill-informed, middle-class life in which she believed in her country and tried to fit into Nazi society. She understands the speed with which East Germany forgot World War II after it was over since, according to East German propaganda, the war was the fault of the capitalist, imperialist West. The narrator knows that the mentality that produced the Holocaust is not limited to West Germany or to the period of World War II. Her reflections recall the past of an entire generation of Germans, East and West, who grew up during the war years. Not old enough to be directly responsible for the war, those born in the mid-to-late 1920’s nevertheless shoulder the burden of memory and self-examination after Adolf Hitler’s fall.
One of the first writers from the GDR to confront personal involvement in World War II, Wolf breaks the taboo against acknowledging the...
Patterns of Childhood is an intricate interweaving of three narratives: Nelly Jordan’s childhood under National Socialism; her trip with her husband, daughter, and brother to her former hometown (now in Poland); and the difficult process of recollecting and recording her unsettling memories. In July, 1971, a two-day trip to L., which the narrator has not seen since fleeing with her family in late January, 1945, sets off a string of associations, dreams, and memories about her childhood. She is unsuccessful in organizing these recollections until November, 1972, when she begins to write about her childhood self in the third person, namely as Nelly Jordan, and about her remembering and writing selves in the second person. Only in the last pages of the novel do these selves coalesce.
Nelly’s earliest memory is of herself as a three-year-old in 1932 sitting on the steps in front of her father’s grocery story and repeating the word “I” over and over. The momentous political events of the following year hardly affected her happy childhood. Despite the economic crisis, her father successfully opened a second store, and her parents were probably too busy with business to take notice in the newspaper of the curtailment of personal freedoms or the opening of the Dachau concentration camp in March, 1933. In the summer, the Nazi Standard Bearer Rudi Arndt accused Nelly’s father, Bruno Jordan, of having connections with the outlawed Communists, but Bruno was able to appease him with the promise of a sack of flour and sugar for the next Party meeting. One day in the fall of 1933, Bruno appeared in Nelly’s room proudly wearing his new peaked, blue naval storm trooper cap. “See! Now your father is one of them, too,” exclaimed her mother in a “happy voice.” Although they had previously voted for the Social Democrats, Nelly’s parents voted for the Nazis in the November elections, along with most of the other citizens of L.
In 1937, Elvira, the family’s maid, revealed to Nelly that four years earlier Elvira and her family had stayed home and wept when the Communist flags were burned in the town, for her family were Communists. Only thirty-five years later, in the State Library, which had old copies of the newspaper from L. on file, did the narrator learn the background information on what had really happened in the town. Now, the narrator can only speculate on Nelly’s family’s reactions to the day of the flag burning, March 17, 1933. Neither can she be sure of why Nelly realized that she had to keep Elvira’s secret to herself. She does know that Nelly started asking fewer questions, that somewhere around this time Nelly dreamed or thought for the first time that “it’s all wrong,” that Nelly’s sense of guilt increased as the realm of her secrets grew, and that the family did not talk openly about certain “glitter words” (“alien blood,” “sterilization,” “hereditary diseases,” “a eugenic way of life”). The narrator now wonders whether one solution to the problem of living under a dictatorship is to restrict one’s curiosity to areas that are not dangerous.
During Nelly’s first year in the girls’ school on Adolf-Hitlerstrasse, she tried assiduously to live up to the expectation of Herr Warsinski, her religion and German teacher. Remembering it now, the narrator finds it difficult to explain to her daughter, Lenka, how Nelly could so eagerly submit to her teacher’s demands for unflinching obedience and faithfulness to the Fuhrer. During this period, Nelly’s family was building a new house and store on the outskirts of town near two barracks, one of which was just being...