Monday, 6 April 2020

Going back to basics and picking up some extra threads




If you’ve read The House on Schellberg Street you may remember a scene where the teacher Hanna Braun invites her girls for coffee and cake.  The war has ended and life is slowly getting back to normal but there are some things that she feels she must tell the girls about. What about Renate? And Sister Kuna, about Father Maxfeld and about Elfriede Kaiser? 

Elfriede Kaiser I have made up. Sister Kuna, Father Maxfeld, and of course Renate really existed.  
Elfreide, like Renate, does not know she is Jewish until just before she has to travel. However, unlike Renate she doesn’t travel to the relative safety of England. Her parents hesitate about sending her too on the Kindertransport. Then it is too late. They flee to Holland instead but in the end that does not help. 

I’ve had to go back to Renate’s original letter to her classmates in 1980.  And yes there is enough there for me to build up the stories about Sister Kuna and Father Maxfeld. 

I need to include these stories in my novel about the round robin letter. They offer a sharp contrast to the innocent bubble that the girls live in. I hope the novel will show that they can’t help being naïve.
So, I’ve had to delve back into my original documents and of course, as well as finding what I needed in order to be able to continue my story I’ve been side-tracked into reading much more. In particular was the whole Renate’s letter to her friends – four sides of closely typed A4, her original attempt of telling her own story – in fact, I’ve based part of the opening scene of my first book on this- ,  and her friend Hanno Schäfer’s reply to her letter. 

It’s good to go back to the primary resources occasionally and remind yourself of where all the ideas came from in the first place.                

Monday, 30 March 2020

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe



Dita Kraus survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She and her mother were  moved to Belsen just before it was  liberated. Her mother died just before the liberators would have repatriated them. Whilst in Auschwitz Dita was part of the school that is organised in Block 31. It wasn’t supposed to be a school – just a place where children could be entertained. Dita was responsible for looking after the eight books they had acquired.  

Antonio Irurbe gives us much interesting detail about how the camp worked with particular reference for Block 31. As well as the physical books, there were living books; these were adults who would relate stories to the children. Pencils were created by shaving splinters of wood to a point and then charring the ends of them.  The children could only write a few words with these makeshift pencils. They were sharpened by the handle of a spoon that had been filed to make a point. 

It is probable that Block 31 was kept as a show case as a visit from the Red Cross was expected, Once it became clear that the Red Cross was no longer coming the children’s room was dismantled.  

We also have graphic details about Belsen in the last days. Many of the inmates of this part of Auschwitz were moved to Belsen in the panic that ensued as the Germans realised that they were losing the war. This camp was largely abandoned and the inmates more or less left to rot. Iturbe takes the liberty of allowing Dita to come across Anne and Margot Frank. Is that really likely? 

This is a fictional account but Irurbe worked closely with the real Dita. She herself tells us that “he also collected facts from other sources” (Dita’s forward to the English translation). 

He also includes accounts of other characters who lived in the camp. This may detract for the reader who just wants a story, as we don’t get quite so close to these characters as we do to Dita, but could be important for the scholar.               

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Theatres closing, shortages and desolate cities




I’m getting towards the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944 in the fourth book of the Schellberg Cycle. There are now several deaths. The theatres have been closed in Germany but an underground movement is putting on satirical plays. I’m about to get to the bit where some of the girls are forced to eat rotten potatoes. The twins are managing their father’s factory and have lost a supply chain – another factory is bombed out and its owner is killed. The cities are desolate and deserted. 

A kind of Dunkirk spirit reigns. Those with homes intact have taken in those who have been made homeless by the war. Perhaps we need to remember that we don’t have the monopoly on that spirit. Have you seen the Italian guy conducting a sing-song from his balcony? Or the Spanish fitness instructor leading a class form the roof of his apartment block? Or the Spanish applauding the medical staff? 

There is a dark side of course and there was then. Some profited from the distress of others then and some will be doing that right now. 

Ironically I’ve been invited to Stuttgart by the Stolperstein people. They would like me to read from The House on Schellberg Street and / or Clara’s Story. They have (or had) an event running from 18 March until 24 June. Fat chance, I think. But we may be able to run some sort of online event. 

Image by RD LH from Pixabay                 

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Ambulance Girls by Deborah Burrows


Maisie Halliday works as an ambulance driver. She had been a Tiller girl and in fact her ability to perform thirty-two high kicks in one minute enables her to fight her way out of a tricky situation.
 She meets and falls in love with American Michael Harker who is involved in ousting hostile spies.    
Deborah Burrows offers us a taste of what it must have been like working with ambulances during the Blitz and the continuing war.

Her characters are well drawn and we can empathise with them easily.

There is some good story-telling here as well. There is a lot of intrigue and we are kept guessing about exactly who is giving away secrets.

Burrows’ has clearly researched her era well.  I know a lot about this epoch but I’ve learnt even more by reading this novel.

This is also very well written and veers a little more towards the literary than much other fiction in this genre.

The author also provides a short but useful bibliography at the end of the novel.      

Thursday, 20 February 2020

That sense of duty




I noticed when I was studying the letters from the Wilhelm Lőhe School that two words occurred quite often: camaraderie and duty.  Now, I’ve made one of the girls also notice the word “duty”.

All of these girls will have attended the meetings and training sessions of the BDM, the girls’ equivalent of the Hitler Youth. They would have thereby been indoctrinated.  This organisation at first glance seems much like our scouting and guiding movement. Young people are taught many useful life-skills, wear a smart uniform and get involved in a lot of outdoor activities. 

However it becomes a little more sinister, especially for the girls. They are to grow up to become useful women. Women were expected to be content with the bringing up children, working in the kitchen and going to church.  The latter may seem odd as the girls’ school was closed because it was a church school and did not teach Nazi values. Perhaps church was just a way of keeping the women occupied. 

Big families were encouraged, so that more Aryans may be born.  

The Lebensborn initiative was sinister. Women were encouraged to have good Aryan babies.  Single mothers were more than tolerated- as long as the father was a respected Nazi officer. Fantastic maternity homes and homes for young mothers were built. These became breeding centres. 

The BDM magazine again looks just like a scouting magazine – until you start looking at the book reviews. As the years went by, they changed from recommending outdoor activities to providing more and more articles about home-making. 

BDM girls were encouraged to think for themselves and not just think as their parents had thought. However, that thinking was encouraged to be anti-Semitic and over patriotic. Young girls aged 14-17 were encouraged to alert the authorities about anyone in their family who was thinking “wrongly”.  

The girls I am studying don’t seem that different from the young British women who lived through World War II. Our women worked in munitions factories, became land girls and took on many of the jobs that the men who had gone to war had left behind, including ones in middle management. The German girls had to do their RAD (compulsory work experience) and then war work. They had lived through hyperinflation and the depression which was worse in Germany than here because of the constraints put on the nation after the Great War. They were very young at the time of the hyperinflation but it would still have affected them and they lived with parents damaged by it.
Of course they wanted their country to be great. Why wouldn’t anyone want their own country to shine? 

In my latest novel, Erika, one of twins who have to run their father’s factory after he dies suddenly, and Frau Schmitz the secretary there, come up with their own version of what doing duty means. It is about being aware of the needs of others. And if that leads to Germany becoming great again, so be it.              

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay