Much of what is told in this story actually happened. Some more of it probably did. Some parts are complete guesswork but they do offer a plausible explanation for some things that really did happen.
20 Schellberg Street / Haus Lehrs
This house does exist. It has a Stolperstein laid in front of it. Stolpersteine commemorate victims of the Holocaust.
Not only was Clara Lehrs a victim of the Holocaust but she can also be described as a resister. When the Waldorf School was closed in 1938 she allowed her home to be used to house the “Hilfsklasse” that had operated at the school. Before that, anyway, the house, which she built with her son, Ernst Lehrs, had been used for Waldorf School boarders.
Today we would say the children of the “Hilfsklasse” had severe learning difficulties. Such children were normally exterminated by the Nazi regime. There is quite an irony here: a Jewess, herself persecuted, was hiding other persecuted people.
Clara Lehrs was Christian, Lutheran and anthroposophist. According to the 1935 Nuremberg race laws however she was a Jew through and through. This meant that she eventually had to sell her house at a low price in 1939. She sold it to Emil Kühn, a family friend and chairman of the Waldorf School organisation. She rented a room from him for a while. Eventually she was forced to move on.
No one is quite sure how but the “Hilfsklasse” did survive the Holocaust and managed to carry on almost uninterrupted throughout and after World War II.
Käthe Edler and Adolf Hitler
It is true that Käthe Edler was once shown into an ante-room next door to one where Adolf Hitler had a meeting. It is also true that she had a small gun in her bag. It never occurred to her to shoot him.
There were several serendipitous occurrences that helped Käthe and Renate Edler to escape Nazi Germany. One was that Hans Edler, Renate’s father, had connections who worked for the government. Käthe Edler was forewarned and did get some help in obtaining an exit visa.
Getting a child on to the Kindertransport was not automatic or easy and not all that many people knew about it. The Edler women were shrewd enough and feisty enough to get themselves organised. Käthe Edler was also fortunate enough to obtain a job in England.
This is the type of detail that editors and publishing houses often frown at. “Never!” they cry. “That just doesn’t happen in real life.” This is, however, a case of where truth is stranger than fiction. What perhaps is most surprising about this story, given the nature of the Lehrs / Edler women, is that Käthe didn’t think to use the gun.
Renate came to England on the 28 January 1938. We are now fairly certain that this was with the Kindertranpsort. Various pieces of information we have form Renate herself and form Käthe Edler now point to this, though her son, Martin James, thought that some sort of private arrangement had been made. It is true that her uncles found her foster parents and they really were the Smiths and they did live in Ealing. It is likely that her own family paid the £50.00 bond required. So, probably she came on the Kindertransport but paid her own way and found her own accommodation.
She really was born in thunderstorm and christened “Klara Renate” instead of “Renate Clara”.
Her father really used to say “Heil Edler” and she really used to hide spinach in her cheeks.
This led to an argument between her father and a passport official that led her to having an adult passport that later made her passage to England easier. Children up to 17 were allowed anyway to come to England on an identity card but it was easier to get through officialdom if they had a full passport.
She did not speak any English when she came to England but she did pick it up very quickly.
She attended the Michael Hall School, a Steiner School, and was evacuated to Minehead with them. The Smith family moved to Gloucester instead. She and her mother spent Christmas 1941 with them.
Once she was sixteen she was classed as an enemy alien, class B. She had to report to the police station every day, the police station was more than ten miles from where she was staying and she had a curfew. On one occasion she was late because she had a puncture. A passing policeman helped her to mend the puncture and made no issue of the fact that she was out beyond her curfew.
She did well in school, particularly in Higher Certificate and she did like biology. She later worked in a laboratory. She didn’t get to university but this may just have been because life was difficult.
She lived with her mother Käthe Edler and her friend Eva Kaiser in West Hampstead after the war. They bickered constantly but were really the best of friends.
She had a nervous breakdown because of worry about both her mother and her father. We are not sure of the exact nature or of the exact time of this breakdown.
Her parents divorced in 1942 and it looks very likely that this was forced upon them.
Both Käthe and Renate took on British citizenship in 1947.
Käthe and Renate had a few belongings stored in London and these were destroyed by an incendiary bomb. What exactly they were, where they were held and when exactly this happened or even how they were brought into England we are not sure. A few pieces of cutlery and table linen survived.
Renate encountered much love and kindness and was more fortunate than many other Kindertransport children.
Dates, weather and war news
All of this has been thoroughly researched.
The German girls’ letters
A group of German girls did write a class “Rundbrief” (“round robin” or class letter) and did include their class teacher Hanna Braun. They were the girls form the Wilhelm Löhe School, class Vb. The letters filled three volumes in exercise books and started when the girls left the school which changed at that time also. It stopped being a church school and was taken over by the state – with all that that meant.
Renate was not actually included in the “Rundbrief”. She had already left the school in December 1938.
There were too many girls to include them all as characters in the novel. I have limited it to six, though do include a set of identical twins. Many of the little incidents mentioned did happen to one girl or other. Other incidents have been attributed to various people to help the interweaving stories along. Some of the incidents come from the invented characters of the girls and others from other research, and refer to material happenings at specific times and in specific places.
The “Rundbrief” ran to three volumes. We have Volume 2 available – May 1942 to November 1944. The girls would be aged 16 to 19 then. We learn much about their Reichsarbeitsdeinst and Kriegshilfsdienst. There is some romance, too. In the course of this one volume they grow up a lot.
I’ve had to guess what might have been in the other two volumes. I’ve stretched the growing up process quite a lot. They go through various stages throughout the novel:
· Not understanding the war or even noticing it.
· Beginning to acknowledge some of the physical realities of the war and of the general poverty in the late 1930s and 1940s.
· Feeling slightly uncomfortable about the morality of the war.
· Dawning realisation.
In actual fact, the girls did not find out the details about Sister Kuna, Renate or the priest from Maxfeld until they met up in 1980. Whether they do or not in the novel is left open, though we may well suspect that they find out why Hanna Braun had to give up teaching. Even we are not absolutely certain of why she did that. We can only read between the lines in her letters. But it is likely she could not bring herself to teach Nazi idealism.
The essence of what is in the real letters does, however, influence the text in the novel. Even the style of the letters is imitated.
Hani and her parents are completely made up, as are all the characters with whom she interacts, except Clara Lehrs, Karl Schubert and Emil Kühn. These three characters are also fictionalised.
Renate Edler did have a very good friend in Stuttgart whose mother visited Clara Lehrs “in the ghetto.” (Letter to Hanne 1 November 1980.) We presume by “ghetto” Renate meant when Clara was living in Rexingen amongst the Jewish community there.
Renate often told us a story about a school in Stuttgart that was not approved of by the government. The German equivalent of the Home Guard was asked to destroy it. They refused. Then the Hitler Youth were told to do this. They refused also. So, they asked the Bund Deutscher Mädel, with the threat of dire consequences if they refused. The girls set the school alight, but not before they had got the children out and rescued all of the teaching materials. Could this have been the Hilfsklasse held in Clara Lehrs’ house? Does the version of this story in The House on Schellberg Street offer an explanation of how it might have been possible for the “Hilfsklasse” to survive and carry on after the end of World War II?
The other school children, the children she meets on the Kindertransport, the teachers at the school and the families she stayed with are all made up.
The details about when exactly she left the school and when and where she started work are a little hazy. However, it seemed sensible to hold her back a year to give her a chance to learn English. We know from one of her letters that she stayed on at school for an extra year. She may then have benefitted from the 1944 Education Act.
We are not sure either of exactly when and where she went on holiday but we do know that she was invited she spent the summer holiday of 1939 with her mother and that she went camping with her girlfriends.
We don’t know exactly where she was on VE day, but she may well have still been on a farm in Somerset and holding a barn dance would have been a good option for a farming family.
She didn’t meet up with the rest of the girls from her class in 1947. She certainly went to Germany that year, to attend a conference, was reconciled with her father and met her stepmother. As there was no real Hani or Frau Gödde she did not meet up with them, but she probably did visit her best friend in Stuttgart because in one of her letters she mentions a conversation with that friend’s mother, a certain Frau Fink. Frau Fink apologised for what the Nazis had done to Renate’s grandmother.