Book review: Back to Bremen by Cecelia Wilson

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The following week our orders arrived at the house. Our family had been directed to leave Bremen for reassignment to Saxony in eastern Germany, which had been spared the bombing the majority of the country had sustained. The larger the family, the more likely permission was given to evacuate, so we would be one of the first families leaving our neighborhood. … I remember being sad and excited at the same time. None of us wanted to leave, but we were also more than eager to escape bombs, death, and fear.

– Excerpt from Back to Bremen

By the time Edith Ropke was 3 years old, she was well acquainted with the horrors of war.

In 1939, Edith, seven of her eight siblings and their mother, Marta, could not have foreseen the devastation they would experience as they endured evacuation, separation, hunger, illness and loss before making the weeks-long journey back to their hometown of Bremen, Germany.

With Father conscripted to service — whisked off in the middle of a family meal — the rest of the Ropke family had to carry on with Mutti (Mother) and eldest brother Gunter, not yet 10 years old, in charge.

(That is, until just before Gunter turned 14 and was, himself, ordered to report for duty.)

Throughout the six-year journey that unfolds for us in Cecelia Wilson’s Back to Bremen, Marta Ropke’s mission was to keep her remaining family together, and safe.

Each child knew by heart Mutti’s mantra: Always stay together.

That mindset, Marta’s humor amid challenging situations, and her fierce love and determination to see every family member safe, is at the heart of Back to Bremen, the true story told with heart and skill by Cecelia Wilson.

Most of the World War II books I’ve read are told from the perspective of the soldiers or the Jews or — in my favorite book of all time, The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom — the families trying to save Jews from Hitler’s brutal Nazis.

In the case of Back to Bremen, the story is told from the perspective of a German girl whose family was thrust into the thick of it and remained …

Well, if I went any further I’d be giving away too much. (I hate spoilers. Don’t you?)

You’ll have to buy the book, read Edith and Marta’s story, then come back here (or, even better, visit the author’s website) and tell us what you thought of it.

I’m serious. Buy it. Read it. Share it.

OLD MEMORIES

My family and Cecelia’s family have been friends for 45 years — since the Taylors moved to Batesville, Ark., in 1972. We met at church, and church (a different one in a different town) is exactly where Cecelia met Edith Ropke Harris, whose story is told in Back to Bremen.

Edith and Cecelia sat for many hours over servings of popcorn and Dr Pepper, Cecelia marveling at Edith’s stories and taking copious notes, grateful that she and her friend had finally found the time and the circumstances to make good on Cecelia’s promise to tell the tale of Marta Ropke and the journey back to Bremen with her children.

I had the privilege of meeting Edith and one of her daughters, Barbara, at a book signing a few months ago. That’s how long ago I promised Cecelia I’d read and review her book.

SIGH OF RELIEF!

You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when a friend says, “Do you like my new haircut” (and you don’t) or, “Do these pants make my butt look big” (and they do)?

I had a twinge of that feeling when I found out that Cecelia had published Back to Bremen.

I knew she was a part-time writer — I’d read one or two of her pieces in Searcy Living magazine — but when I heard that she had published her first major book, I was a bit nervous to read it.

I was afraid it wouldn’t be good.

And because I have an extreme aversion to false flattery, I would have to find some way of being a good friend without lying. Or I’d have to avoid Cecelia and her family for the rest of my life.

To join the Witness Protection Program or something.

Imagine my relief when I turned the last page and knew beyond a doubt that I could give the book a good review.

In the span of 36 hours (interrupted by church, sleep and feeding the dogs and people in mein Haus), I read the book, phoned Mom and gushed about it (she then read it and phoned Cecelia’s mom to gush about it), and fell asleep. The next morning at work, I gushed about it to my co-worker, who was also at the book signing, but I didn’t know this because I was too busy listening to Cecelia’s fascinating stories of the book, her writing career and the publishing process. (I’m a geek that way.)

LIVING HISTORY

It was such a joy to meet Edith and Barbara at the book signing. I asked Edith a couple of questions, had her and Cecelia sign my copy of Back to Bremen, introduced myself to Barbara, and marveled that I had the privilege of meeting someone who lived through such a time in our history.

If you’re on Facebook, take a look at Cecelia’s video of Edith talking to Fred Hilsenrath, a fellow survivor of WWII, as they converse for a few minutes in their native German.

And here’s where you can buy the book.

Go on. Buy a copy now! Then let us know how you like it. Comment here or on Cecelia’s page, wherever you’re the most comfortable. Be sure to like her Facebook page while you’re there.

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