WHO IS KARLA POEWE

August 2010

Born in Königsberg, East Prussia , Karla's earliest memory is of the massive bombing raid that destroyed the inner city on the night of 26/27 August 1944. For the next six years she was a refugee who experienced the food and shelter deprivations that came with defeat and flight. Four grim years were spent in Werdau, Saxony, where her mother and older sisters lived in fear of rape by Russian soldiers. Several months in 1947 were spent in an orphanage near Berlin because it had food. During this time the Red Army separated her from her older sisters. They did not meet again until 1995. In 1948, her father returned from Russian imprisonment and died of gangrenous lungs. Following his death, her mother and Karla walked about 250 km, usually at night, until they reached the British Zone near Göttingen. From there they were channeled to Buxtehude where she began school for the first time. These experiences no doubt played into her interest in survival under extreme conditions.

In 1955 Karla's mother remarried and the family immigrated to Canada where Karla completed her high school in Toronto. After this she took several jobs, became an air hostess with Trans-Canada Airlines, and saved money for university. At the University of Toronto she was recognized as a top student who obtained good scholarships. Invited to study medicine, she thought that the puzzles of human life might be better explored in Anthropology. Following the completion of her B.A. she became a graduate student at the University of New Mexico and New York University where she worked with Harry Basehart, Lewis Binford, and John Middleton. For her fieldwork, she became a research affiliate with the Zambian Institute for African Studies. She conducted research in the Luapula Valley, Zambia for close to two years. Participating in the life of local people and observing the stark conditions of that valley brought back her childhood memories.

She taught her first year at the University of Toronto before moving to the University of Lethbridge and later the University of Calgary. Further fieldwork, funded by SSHRC and the Pew Foundation, was carried out in Namibia and among charismatic Christians in South Africa and Canada at times of political and economic crises, respectively. During this time she published her first theoretical book Matrilineal Ideology (1981). It was followed by the groundbreaking Reflections of a Woman Anthropologist (1982). This book, which was written with David Schneider's encouragement, helped pioneer a new genre of anthropological writing. At the publisher's insistence, it appeared under the pseudonym Manda Cesara.

Subsequently, she published The Namibian Herero: A History of Their Psychosocial Disintegration and Survival (1985); Understanding Cults and New Religions (1986), Childhood in Germany during World War II: The Story of a Little Girl (1988); Religion, Kinship, and Economy in Luapula (1989); Charismatic Christianity as a Global Culture (1994), New Religions as Global Cultures (1997) and, most recently New Religions and the Nazis (2006). Her scholarly output slowed after 1990 due to a serious car accident and the fact that she retooled as a historian who mastered the complexities of German archives. In addition to her books she has published a number of highly acclaimed academic articles.

The theme of surviving extreme conditions continues in her present work that looks at the plight of German refugees following World War II and their integration into the new societies of the two Germanys. Given the horrors of the Holocaust this is a morally taxing assignment. But wars produce refugees and we need to understand how such people are integrated into societies, including Canada.