The Day My Grandfather Was a Hero

Written by Paulus Hochgatterer
Review by Douglas Kemp

March 1945, Lower Austria.  Cornelia (Nelli) Deinhardt is a thirteen-year-old girl, whose family, it seems, had been killed in an Allied air raid in October 1944. Nelli, who narrates the story in the first person, has seemingly lost much of her memory of her former family in the trauma of the bombing raid. She has been adopted by a farming family, and this brief novel consists of Nelli’s quirky observations on life around her and the daughters of the farm.  The dominant theme, of course, is the approaching end of the war, as the Soviet Red Army advances eastwards, and aircraft bombing raids continue with all the potential existential horrors that this brings to life. A deserter appears who the family look after and then matters become even more difficult for the farm’s occupants when a retreating Wehrmacht unit arrives and commandeers the farm.

The tenor of the story is quite like a fairy-tale – it has a Grimm-like quality to the narrative, with an element of Aesop’s fables too. Nelli and the farm’s residents realise that with the war going badly, no-one can be sure what lies ahead for them, and the reader as well, knows that advancing Soviet forces laid waste to everything in their path and the fate of Nelli and the farmer’s daughters would in all likelihood not be one to be envied. It is a brief story, but powerful, with Nelli the traumatised, damaged narrator but who can still take a delight in nature as spring comes to the countryside and observe the quirks of human behaviour acting under intolerable pressures.