How the project came about
In 1979, Renate James (nee Edler) received a mysterious package in the post. It had come from Germany. She didn’t recognise the name on the package nor on the letter that came with it. Then, as she began to read she started to recognise some names mentioned in the letter. Slowly she remembered the school she attended until the age of 13. She left that school to come to England on the Kindertransport on 28 January 1939. The school was closed anyway, shortly afterwards, as it was a Church school that did not promote Nazi idealism. Some of the girls in Renate’s class decided to write letters in an exercise book. They included their class teacher, Hanna Braun, in the “Rundbrief” (literally “round letter”.) Each girl wrote her letter in the book and then posted it to the next on the list. Three volumes were written in total and one volume with letters dating from May 1942 to November 1944 had been found in the loft by one of the “girls”. That girl made it her duty to track down every single member of the class and invite them to a school reunion in June 1980.
Renate Edler did not know she was Jewish until 22 December 1938. She was 13 years old. She was only Jewish according to the 1935 Nuremberg “Reichsbürgergesetz” and the “Blutschutzgesetz”. She had been christened as a catholic and her mother had been brought up as Lutheran Christian. The blood was tainted, however, and as she had two Jewish grandparents, she was a “Mischling” of the first degree. A further irony is that the only living grandparent, whose blood had tainted her, was Christian and had also become an anthroposophist. Her teachers all knew about this and protected her. Neither she nor her mother ever wore the Star of David, though they were being quite illegal in not doing so. It was not easy for Renate Edler. She had little solidarity with other Jewish children as she did not share their faith. On the other hand, she was luckier than many. Her uncles were already in England and found a very kind and generous foster family for her. Her mother was able to find work with the same family and joined her later. After the war ended, she was able to resume contact with her father and meet his new wife with whom she had an immediate empathy. There is further irony here: her father was not allowed to leave Germany as he was already working on the war effort. He was eventually involved with the design of the V2 bomb.
Clara Lehrs, Renate’s grandmother, could not get out of Germany in time. She was eventually murdered at Treblinka on 27 September 1942, after spending some time in a ghetto in Rexingen and then being transported to Theriesenstadt on 22 August 1942. In 1939, she was forced to sell the house that she and her son had built in Stuttgart. She managed to sell it to a family friend who was also a colleague of her son. Prior to this, she and a teacher from the nearby Waldorf School, had opened this house to the “Hilfsklasse” (children with severe learning difficulties) from the Waldorf School. The class kept going there secretly until the end of the war and carried on openly almost as soon as the peace was declared. No one is quite sure how that could happen, especially as it was a Jewess who was protecting them for much of the time. The novel Potatoes in Spring offers a possible explanation.
The novel brings these three strands together. Though it does not replicate the letters form the German girls entirely it retains their spirit and their story is told in letter form. Renate Edler had started writing her autobiography prompted by the reunion in 1980. Sadly, she was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards and died in 1986. Just over twenty years later, it seemed appropriate to finish off what she had started. However, there were many questions and the research conducted in order to answer those questions led to further questions and further content for the novel and beyond.
This site unpicks the issues that the novel raises further and gives more insight to them and much of their background.
I have been fortunate in acquiring the papers of my late mother-in-law, Renate James (nee Edler). These include the opening chapters of her autobiography, a copy of the class letter 1942-1944 (Volume 2) and some personal papers including her parents’ divorce papers, death certificates from other Jewish members of her wider family and a newspaper cutting about the reunion of the “girls” from class Vb of the Wilhelm Löhe School.
Research has provided much information about Clara Lehrs and it is my intention also to write her biography. My husband is next of kin. She was an extraordinary woman, which I hope is clear also in this novel.
To date this has taken several forms.
Much of it has, in fact, been simply writing. Using a few known facts one writes and the imagination fills the gaps. Experienced writers are good observers of life and are often able to work out how something might have happened or how someone might behave in given circumstances. Sometimes the writing itself asks other questions. For example, just which cut flowers might be available in September in 1939?
There has also been some more traditional research.
An important step was to interpret the letters of the German girls. My mother-in-law had both transcribed and translated about half of them. I’ve had to do the rest. The handwriting is extremely hard to read and this was quite a slow process. However, being forced to take this slowly made me get to know each individual girl well.
These letters, just like the writing of the story, have also raised several questions. In order to answer these questions, it has been a matter of finding gerenally available resources, which point to good secondary resources and reliable primary resources. The Holocaust is now generally well-documented though the German girls’ letters add greatly to the information about civilian German attitudes at the time. In order to understand what they were saying it was important to find out much about the background – what were food shortage like, what was the BDM all about and what was expected of girls that age. All of this information is shared on this site but contextualised to the story.
There are many accounts of Holocaust survivors and from the Kinder who came over on the Kindertransport. However, many of these are told through a veil of memory and though useful and certainly interesting, they do not give as much clear information as diaries, letters, newspapers available at the time and photographs.
Newspapers have to be read carefully however. The critical reader has to cut through the propaganda to uncover facts. Often it is the small ads and the letters to the editor that give the best information.
There are also some excellent tertiary resources available: other interpretations in fiction of related events. These are also listed in the bibliography.
What has also been extremely useful is what I call secondary writer’s research – creating an experience similar to what the players in the novel might have had. This includes taking a train journey from London to Minehead, attending a 1940s steam train day, sleeping on a camp-bed and following war-time recipes – both English and German. More detail about this can be found on the blog.
A worthwhile sabbatical
I was very fortunate in 2011 – 2012 being awarded a sabbatical of one semester i.e. five months to research for and start writing The House on Schellberg Street. This is the story of a Holocaust survivor and the world she left behind. I am a senior lecturer at the University of Salford and like all academics struggle to find time for research, though we aim to base our teaching on it.
My access to a primary resource, letters from school girls who carried on writing to each other until they were young women, stood in my favour. As I’m a creative practitioner also, the actually writing of a piece of fiction is sanctioned as part of the sabbatical. I did get a first draft completed in that time.
My first task was to transcribe the letters. I simply typed them out in German and then translated them. Fortunately I speak German fluently. The handwriting was often difficult to read though the clearest was that of the class teacher, Hanna Braun. This was a really useful exercise as it really got me into their heads and helped me understand what it was like being an eighteen-year-old German girl then. I began to understand the personality of each girl. Some of these texts were quite boring though there were some interesting snippets. Two themes emerged: camaraderie and duty. I can understand how these would appeal to young women.
I did completely fictionalize the women for both ethical and artistic reasons. However, there is the essence of the truth in the story.
It was most certainly a worthwhile sabbatical. Four further stories have presented themselves:
· Clara’s biography (partly true) – completed
· The story of a couple of girls (completely fictional – apart from some mention of the school on Schellberg Street) –completed
· The women who almost shot Hitler (I’m about to start this and I’m anticipating some disbelief – but it really happened)
· The Round Robin – more stories about the young German women.
In addition, I’ve carried out several school visits and also looked with the eyes of an academic at the balance between fact and fiction involved in historical fiction and the writers’ process involved.
So, on the whole, a worthwhile sabbatical. The output continues.
I would like to thank the following organisations:
The Wiener Library – for enabling me to view some very useful primary resources
Yad Vashem – for confirming the details of Clara Lehrs’ transportations