It all began because back in 1979 my mother-in-law, Renate James (née Edler), suddenly received a fat package in the post. It contained photocopies of letters written in German, mainly in the old script that is difficult to read. The names on the letters sounded familiar. Gradually she realised that they were from the girls with whom she attended primary / middle school in the late 1930s.
The school had to close because it didn’t teach Nazi ideology. She was in for a shock, however, after the school closed. She found out that she was Jewish by race. She really had no idea. Absolutely none – until just a few short weeks before she came to England on the Kindertransport. Her story is contained in The House on Schellberg Street. Several publishers found it hard to believe that she had no idea. And so it was rejected several times. Happily, I’ve found a publisher who does believe it.
The letters were written in exercise books and posted on to the next girl on the list. There were three volumes and they lasted from just before World War II started until just after it ended. One of the girls found the middle volume in the attic. She made it her business to get all of the women together for a reunion.
The letters are difficult to read, boring in places, but fascinating in others as they give an insight into what it was like for ordinary young German women in the 1940s. I’ve also read several copies of Das Deutsche Mädchen, the magazine produced for the BDM, the girls’ equivalent of the Hitler Youth and accounts written by other German women from that time.
Meeting Clara Lehrs
She figures in Renate’s story and soon became a real interest. She would never concede that she was Jewish. She and her husband had converted to the German Evangelical Church when the children were small. According to the Nuremberg race law, however, she was Jewish through and through. Ironically she did not escape the Holocaust because she insisted on protecting another vulnerable group- some disabled children. They survived and their class carried on meeting in her house for many years after the war.
I have written her biography. It is largely fictionalised. I’ve used fiction, in fact, as a tool for trying to find out what happened. We really have only a very little information about her. I’ve explored why she didn’t save herself when she could. I hope I’ve come up with a reasonable answer.
Now I need a publisher. Well, we’ll see. Something I’ll mention in my next post may help.
I first started writing The House on Schellberg Street as part of my MA in Writing for Children (Winchester 1998-2000). I was advised against continuing. “It might get too grizzly.” Nevertheless, I took it up again when I started my post at the University of Salford as a lecturer in English and Creative Writing.
I was awarded a sabbatical from September 2011 to January 2012 where I continued to work and research. Whilst working on that it became clear that Clara’s biography must come next.
As I worked on Clara, it became apparent that there were three other books to be written. They are listed below.
Five books from one sabbatical. Not bad.
The full cycle
All of the books are readable by anyone 13+ and all are to some extent crossover young adult / adult.
The House on Schellberg Street
This is Renate’s story of her conflict about being English, German and Jewish at the same time. It also tells the story of those she left behind – her school friends, her best friend and her grandmother. Naturally, also, here we have the story of what happens in the house on Schellberg Street.
This is fictionalised biography using fiction techniques. It is mainly the story of the third part of Clara’s life, aged 48 and above, though there are several scenes of when she is younger.
Girl in a Smart Uniform
This is a completely fictional account but seeks to give some explanation about how the school was threatened yet managed to survive. It’s also exploring Nazi attitudes. Why was the young protagonist inclined to be cruel to start with? Why did she rate the smart uniform so much? Is it linked to the problems cause by the hyperinflation in the 1920s? The terrible 1930s depression? Indoctrination? An unhappy home life?
I’ve finished the first draft but it needs a lot of work. It’s possibly the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. I have to take care that I don’t give my protagonist too many excuses for what she does. Also, she needs to remain likeable.
The Woman Who Almost Shot HitlerOh yes. She features in The House on Schellberg Street. She has also raised the eyebrows of a publisher or two. Again, yes, it really happened. Käthe Lehrs / Edler was another remarkable woman.
The Round Robin
This revisits the girls who wrote the letters. Some of the letters, fictionalised, are in The House on Schellberg Street. This explores four of the characters in more detail and grapples further with what it must have been like for ordinary German women.