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

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Inventing inventions

Twin girls in my fifth book in the cycle have had to take over the running of their father’s factory when he died suddenly of a heart attack.  Was his heart perhaps broken because of the war? 

In the original documents I’ve read that inspired this cycle of books there were twins girls who lost their father.  They did have to take over the running of the factory. But there was no more information about that. 

So, I’ve had to use that third tool that historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers often have to use: the imagination.  But it is used in a very specific way.  What happens to these characters given that they live in these very specific conditions? 

What did this factory make, in fact? The father did not have to go away to fight so what he manufactured must have been important to the war effort. I decided it was spectacle frames and cases. My mother’s war work was at such a factory.  

I also have my girls attend a reunion with the students from their last school. I created a girl with a broken arm. She’d slipped awkwardly in a cow pat whilst working on a farm. One year I broke my arm badly in June only to break the other own but a little less severely in November. A bum bag and a little cross-body handbag became the norm so I could carry all of the personal essentials around.  
Well, bum bags didn’t exist then. But the enterprising young lady had fixed a small bag to her belt. This gives my twins the idea that they could make something similar to offer to the troops.  In fact, as small metal pouch that can be attached securely to a belt would be just right for those soldiers fighting at the front. They could keep personal effects in there. 

I then even have a soldier writing home to another family singing the praises of what the girls call the snappy pouch. 

Fortunately as they’re largely built on the design of the spectacle case they only have to retool a little.
Does such an object exist? I’ve not found it yet but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did. This third way often uncovers something we have met before but have long forgotten.  Or it helps us to think the way that the people were writing about may have thought. 

In the case of the twins I’ve used this to third way to uncover what it’s like for them working in a man’s world, or having to give orders to people older and more experienced than them how they’ve been able to dress for business and shorty I’ll be using it to find out what it would have been like learning to drive back then.    

Image by PixArc from Pixabay           

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Conner Street’s War by Harry Bowling

This is really more a series of vignettes rather than a conventional novel.  It is a little like Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in that it looks at the lives of inhabitants in a certain time and place. However, it lacks the irony though there is pathos and humour.  

We can learn much about life in London during World War II: air raid shelters, the bombing of the docks, evacuation, bringing children home from evacuation, the ARP, food shortages, the Black Market. The novel is full of characters fighting their own battles with their circumstances.       
There is an authenticity in the text that make these scenarios real for the reader.  

A useful read.  

Monday, 20 January 2020

Does social media help?

Some curious things happened in the early 1930s in Germany. The Enabling Act gave Hitler more power than he deserved. He could enforce laws without the approval of the Reichstag. The German people, powerless after losing the Great War, had also suffered hyperinflation and a depression more severe than it was in the rest of the world, welcomed a dictator who promised to make Germany great again.   

Some curious things happened in the UK in the late twenty teens.  The UK government tried to enact an article without presenting it to Parliament, prorogued Parliament at a time when crucial discussions were needed and ignored the fact that over 50% of people voted in an election for parties who wanted to give them a final say on one other most important political decisions ever taken. Years of austerity, ironically imposed by the very party for whom a majority voted in that curious general election, enticed the people to look for a golden ticket which was interpreted as breaking down an alliance that had worked successfully for over forty years.    

I saw parallels immediately between the two situations. I thought that was because I was in the world of the 1940s as I was working intensely on this project. 

Oh, and by the way, here’s another one. Both leaders were seen as charismatic buffoons at first.  
Gradually though, other people were making the same comparisons. 

And how do I know this? Social media!

Of course one is still hesitant to say what one thinks in public. You can never be sure who you’re talking to. But the chances are if you put an opinion out there on social media you will find like-minded people. We still have freedom of speech.  Okay, you also find a heap of fake news and a few trolls. But at least you can assure yourself that you are not alone. 

Compare that with the experience of the people I’m writing about in my Schellberg Cycle. They had newspapers, post cards, letters, telegrams and the wireless. On the whole only the men read the newspapers. The wireless tended to toe the party line - unless you picked up a foreign broadcast and risked severe punishment, or even death. You had to be careful what you put in postcards and letters.  Hanna Braun reminds the girls of this quite subtly in the class letter.  “do go into the details of what happens in your daily lives (p232) . She later suggests that when an exercise book was full and every girl had seen it they should burn it (261).

It is so easy these days with social media to sign a petition or set up an action group. That would have been pretty impossible in Nazi Germany. With the help of social media it’s happened before the powers that be realise it and without the need for civil disobedience.  

I’ve found my tribe. It was really difficult to find your tribe in 1930s / 1940s Germany.      

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, 2015

First published 1956
This is the story of what happened to a Polish family during World War II. Note that this wasn’t written until 1956, so some time has elapsed before the end to the war and people have had time to rationalise what happened to them. Right at the beginning the reader is warned that this may be a grim tale: “the Balickis had a grim time of it. But worse was in store for them” (Loc 42).
We are given a quite graphic description of the concentration camp where father Joseph is interned (loc 52). Joseph, does manage to escape and has to make some tough decisions. He threatens some of his compatriots. He finds his home-town changed when he gets back(loc 212). Worst of all he discovers that his children have probably died (loc 239).
The children escape the Nazis but only by taking a great risk - escaping via the roof tops (loc 357). Then they live in a cellar. In the summer they camp out in a field. They become very resourceful. However, Edek, the oldest, gets captured (loc 448).
There are some gleams of hope: not only do they find the silver sword in street-urchin Jan’s box but they are helped by some of the Russian soldiers after the war has ended. There are helpful coincidences: Jan found the silver sword in the rubble of what was Joseph’s home. It was a present he gave to his wife. He tells Jan to keep it and if it is recognised Jan can tell his children that he has gone to Switzerland. The children meet Jan. But there are also near misses: they find out what had happened to Edek. They arrive at the camp where he had been held - now liberated by the Russians - only to find that they have just missed him. He ran away the day before. Yet their meeting is also a great coincidence: a fight breaks out in the displaced persons camp. Ruth comes to holding a hand; it is Edek’s.
The story is fast-paced. Good fortune and problems alternate for the children.
As they make their way to Switzerland they stay for a while with a German farmer and his wife. They learn about their two sons who were killed in the war. They realise that the young men were actually really just like them (Loc 1275).
Throughout the story the children take risks - not least of all when they escape by canoe along white water (loc 1399) and in Chapter 23 ‘Dangerous Waters’. At this point too, the Americans become the enemy even though the family was originally persecuted by the Germans. Edek’s coughing is also a constant worry.
They arrive in a camp just outside Switzerland. They have been helped by an American of Polish descent. They are so near and yet so far. The Swiss will take no more refugees.
This is a story about displaced persons and it looks just before the end as if it is going to have a happy ending. But Serrailier warns us: “They did not know that what was in some ways their most dangerous ordeal still lay ahead” (loc 1691). He uses here the story-telling skills that produce Hollywood blockbusters; the children are almost completely scuppered by the famous freak storm of 1945 on Lake Constance.
The story ends happily. The whole Balicki family is reunited and they adopt Jan. But Serralier warns his young readers: “The war produced countless tragic stories, few of which ended as happily as that of the Balicki family” (loc 1846). Jan anyway remains damaged.
The story is fictional but based on some real people who did not form part of the same family. The final chapter tells us what happened after the war to the fictional characters.
This edition of the book contains many useful activities for the young reader.