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Janko Lauenberger, Juliane von Wedemeyer
No bitterness, regardless

Unku is a young girl who becomes the eponymous hero of a children’s book and ends up being murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Musician Janko Lauenberger, one of her descendants, has connected the past and the present, weaving her biography and the story of his own life into an extraordinary portrait of his Sinti-German family.

By Swantje Schütz

Ede und Unku © Gütersloher Verlagshaus Written with journalist Juliane von Wedemeyer, Lauenberger called his book Ede und Unku – die wahre Geschichte (Ede and Unku – the true story). Unku is the girl from the children’s book classic Ede und Unku (Ede and Unku), Ede a childhood friend whose traces disappear. In the late 1920s, the girl meets a Jewish communist writer: Grete Weiskopf a.k.a. Alex Wedding, who models the hero of her first socialist children’s book on Unku. Published in 1931, the non-fiction novel is banned and burnt by the Nazis in 1933; after World War II, the GDR makes it mandatory school reading. Lauenberger, born in 1976, has read it as well, but for him it was much more than just part of the curriculum: Apart from Unku, his first cousin twice removed, the book also features his grandmother Kaula.

Looking for traces all the way to Auschwitz

Back then, in school, Lauenberger didn’t talk to anyone about it – something he wants to change now that he is an adult. Together with von Wedemeyer, he started to look for clues and traced Unku’s short life with the help of photos, documents, statements from contemporary witnesses and old family stories.
The book alternates between two storylines. One of them follows Unku through everyday life in the Weimar Republic, and later to Auschwitz. In the other, Lauenberger talks about his own childhood as a Sinto in the GDR, about growing up in a family of Holocaust survivors, about his teenage years during German reunification and his life as a musician in Berlin.

A brutal note in the margins

Unku’s story begins cheerfully enough yet inexorably moves towards hell. As she approaches the end, the authors’ language becomes increasingly reserved. At certain points, they simply quote from the files, and it’s often these passages that are the most shocking – for example, when Unku’s mother-in-law writes a letter to the authorities asking for her husband and son to be released: “I do hope that my husband and son have learnt to work in the camp by now...”, resulting in the responsible official being asked to check whether the letter’s author shouldn’t be in Auschwitz as well. He scribbles a laconic side note in the margins: “No longer necessary.” By then, Unku’s mother-in-law had been deported to Auschwitz, along with Unku and the rest of the family. We know the ending and don’t feel like reading on, but the story sweeps us along. And hits us right in the heart.

Focusing on the present

Lauenberger’s book is a memorial to his family. He describes the survivors’ fresh start in the GDR: once again nothing but exclusion. In talking about his own experiences, he never becomes reproachful, never loses his light-hearted tone. Some of his stories are full of humour, all of them are full of his love for his family and his people who have lived in Germany for over 600 years. And almost in passing, we learn all sorts of things – for example that German is indebted to the Sinti language for terms like Kaschemme (doss house), Kaff (hick town) and keinen Bock haben (can’t be bothered). Lauenberger also explains why many Sinti reject the term Zigeuner (gypsy): “To me, it sounds like the ‘Z’ that was tattooed in front of my grandfather’s concentration camp number.”

Against the background of the current political situation, with the right rising across Europe, this enlightening book comes at exactly the right time: Counting and registering Sinti and Roma, like the Italian interior minister recently suggested, was once the first step towards genocide.
Cherry Picker

Lauenberger, Janko/Wedemeyer, Juliane von:
Ede und Unku – die wahre Geschichte:
das Schicksal einer Sinti-Familie von der
Weimarer Republik bis heute (Ede and Unku –
the true story: the fate of a Sinti Family from the
Weimar Republic to the present day)
Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2018. 237 pages.
ISBN: 978-3-579-08694-1

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