AUBURN – Now, worlds and years apart, the starving young woman in bomb-torn Germany has traveled a remarkable life to her retirement home in Auburn and to the publication of a book about her experiences.
“Fire Burn” is the title of Irene Zarina White’s autobiographical account. Based on diaries she kept since 1939, it gives readers a look at the horrors of war endured by the innocent civilians of Nazi Germany. In addition to the descriptions of daily and nightly air raids, life-threatening challenges from authoritarian regimes and a constant battle with hunger, “Fire Burn” tells of White’s resourcefulness in using her linguistic talents to find work in the early days of Allied occupation in Germany.
At 3 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, White will hold a book signing at the Tenants Harbor Room of Schooner Estates, Stetson Road, Auburn, where she resides.
The 90-year-old author walks briskly, stands straight and speaks with enthusiasm and authority. Her only concession to the years is a fight to keep macular degeneration at bay. She talked about her new life as an author at her Schooner Estates apartment Monday morning.
“I wish there was some way to live longer,” she said. “I’m just starting to enjoy this talent I’ve found for writing.”
Both the hardcover and paperback editions of “Fire Burn” feature a jacket photograph of the flaming steeple of her church, 700-year-old St. Peter’s in Riga, Latvia. It was 1940 and tanks of the Soviet Union had rolled into her native city.
“I had a very dramatic encounter with a Soviet guard,” she recalled. “I decided I had to get out. I was lucky, because two weeks after I left they came to arrest me and take me to Siberia.”
In hours, a way of life was gone and just two days after graduating from the University of Latvia, the young professional woman’s bravery and resilience were to be tested over six horrific years.
White said, “I saved my life by going to Germany, but Germany was not a good place to go. It was like from the frying pan into the fire. You had no free will. They took you and put you wherever they wanted.”
Because of her education, White was valuable to the Germans for research in synthetic rubber. She had been the only woman among her class of 150 students in chemical engineering.
White lived through constant air raids, and she recalls bombs landing as close as 400 feet from her apartment house. The concussion blew out windows and shifted furniture and a piano to the other side of the room.
“I remember picking slivers of glass out of all the furniture,” she said.
In time, food became very scarce. She said she had become “skin and bones.”
White told how she rode her bike near a stalled German supply train. People were looting it and “a small German man came up to me with a sack of flour and asked me to guard it for him while he went back for more.”
She hesitated. He said he would get a sack for her, so she agreed, and she was soon wheeling the 50-pound bag of dark flour home on her bicycle.
“That bag of flour was all the food we had for the next two months,” she said.
She remembers the day when American Jeeps rolled down the main street with two American soldiers in each, rifles across their knees.
“From then on, we could undress and wear a nightgown to bed,” she said. “We didn’t have to stay dressed all night and carry a blanket to the air raid shelter.”