The Pennsylvania State University
Cover for the book The Shame of Survival

The Shame of Survival

Working Through a Nazi Childhood Ursula Mahlendorf
  • Copyright: 2009
  • Dimensions: 6.125 x 8.625
  • Page Count: 376 pages
  • Illustrations: 8 b&w illustrations/
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-03447-8
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-03448-5
The Shame of Survival is a compelling memoir of a girl’s experiences growing up in Nazi Germany that analyzes the lifelong implications of Nazi indoctrination on a sensitive, thoughtful young woman. It shows how a reluctant, shy, frightened, and naïve BDM member becomes swept up in Nazi ideology and documents the lifelong psychic ramifications of living with that legacy: feelings of guilt and shame, a need to work through these experiences and to take responsibility for and mourn the past. Focusing on both class and gender, Mahlendorf’s memoir offers a unique and valuable perspective on a growing body of emergent belated narratives on Nazi Germany by German émigré academics.”
“Ursula Mahlendorf’s The Shame of Survival is a beautifully written autobiographical account of a former BDM (League of German Girls) leader who was a loyal supporter of the Nazi regime until its demise, when she suffered a major crisis in her entire belief system. Such eloquent, thoughtful accounts of a German girl’s experience during World War II have been rare, and Mahlendorf’s incisive gender analysis provides a firsthand look at how women and girls were cynically co-opted by the Nazis. Mahlendorf contextualizes her experiences within the larger frame of German military aggression and the Holocaust, focusing not only on the brutal consequences of unquestioningly following the Nazis, but also on how her traumatic postwar expulsion from the East caused her to reevaluate everything she had been taught during the Third Reich.”
“As a young teen, she was a bystander; if she had been old enough, would she have been a perpetrator? It is that dual perspective that gives this memoir its power: the immediacy of her memoirs; the shame, remorse, and uncertainty of remembering. . . . The personal experience is haunting about then and now: how you can develop a shell of toughness and numbness and not know what is happening at Bergen-Belsen, only fifty miles away from where you live.”
“This is a brave, honest account of a young girl’s experience in Nazi Germany, and especially of how women and girls were exploited. There are many layers of story and meaning in this courageous and painful memoir.”
“[Ursula Mahlendorf’s] autobiography is a journey of emotional loss and recovery, a model of critical introspection, and a rich exploration of place and memory.”
“Mahlendorf’s book is an exacting self-examination, a sharply focused account of Nazi indoctrination and a scathing criticism of the failure of adults during the Third Reich to protect their children from the poison of this indoctrination. I can only recommend it.”

While we now have a great number of testimonials to the horrors of the Holocaust from survivors of that dark episode of twentieth-century history, rare are the accounts of what growing up in Nazi Germany was like for people who were reared to think of Adolf Hitler as the savior of his country, and rarer still are accounts written from a female perspective. Ursula Mahlendorf, born to a middle-class family in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression, was the daughter of a man who was a member of the SS at the time of his early death in 1935. For a long while during her childhood she was a true believer in Nazism—and a leader in the Hitler Youth herself.

This is her vivid and unflinchingly honest account of her indoctrination into Nazism and of her gradual awakening to all the damage that Nazism had done to her country. It reveals why Nazism initially appealed to people from her station in life and how Nazi ideology was inculcated into young people. The book recounts the increasing hardships of life under Nazism as the war progressed and the chaos and turmoil that followed Germany’s defeat.

In the first part of this absorbing narrative, we see the young Ursula as she becomes an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth and then goes on to a Nazi teacher-training school at fifteen. In the second part, which traces her growing disillusionment with and anger at the Nazi leadership, we follow her story as she flees from the Russian army’s advance in the spring of 1945, works for a time in a hospital caring for the wounded, returns to Silesia when it is under Polish administration, and finally is evacuated to the West, where she begins a new life and pursues her dream of becoming a teacher.

In a moving Epilogue, Mahlendorf discloses how she learned to accept and cope emotionally with the shame that haunted her from her childhood allegiance to Nazism and the self-doubts it generated.

Ursula Mahlendorf earned her PhD in German Literature from Brown University in 1958 and spent the rest of her professional life teaching in the German Department and Women’s Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


List of Illustrations



1. My Family and the Nazis, 1929–1936

2. A Small Quarry Town, 1936–1938

3. Kristallnacht and the Beginning of World War II, 1938–1940

4. Today Germany Belongs to Us—Tomorrow, the Whole World, 1940–1941

5. You Are the Future Leadership of the Hitler Youth, 1941–1942

6. Between Conformity and Rebellion, 1942–1944

7. In the Belly of the Beast: The Teacher Seminary, 1944–1945

8. The Big Wheels Are Leaving for the West, January–March 1945

9. We Don’t Kill, We Heal: The Russian Invasion, 1945

10. My Hometown Becomes Polish, 1945–1946

11. Refugee in the Promised Land of the West: Return to School, 1946–1948

12. Finding an Intellectual Home: University, 1949–1954


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