Friday 12 August 2011

The Future of Testimony Conference, University of Salford 11-12 August 2011

I found this really beneficial though I won’t say it was exactly enjoyable. For one thing, it was hard work. I was a little out of my usual comfort zone. The conference was just the other side of literary from what I’m used to, so I had to concentrate. Nevertheless, I do have half a note book of notes and several titles that I need to add to my reading list. And it was relaxing because I wasn’t presenting or even chairing a session. Being on home ground was also useful.
Obviously, the conference is very relevant to this project, which contains a form of testimony.
I was introduced to some new ideas that I think will need to think about with the possibility that my conclusions about those may lead to further conference and journal papers for myself.
First there was the idea of premeditation, mediation and remediation. All three come into my project: the letters themselves belong to premediation, I bring them into mediation and I am remediating other aspects of the story.
We were introduced also to the concept of the public secret. I guess that includes all those things that we know are happening but don’t admit to knowing about. Over lunch we decided that would include the power of language.
We discussed hybrid texts: texts which use authentic testimony but also use aesthetic devices. P in S. will certainly use that. The comment was made that this isn’t reserved just for looking at history where some testimony may be lost or so meditated that it has lost its authenticity but is also being used to explore present trauma. The obvious explanations are it makes the texts more accessible, brings a closer emotional engagement and makes the texts more palatable. I actually think that whilst all of that is true, it goes much deeper. For instance, writing with the senses interfaces with memory rather than reminiscence and although it is almost impossible to write memory for this is such a fleeting thing, at least writing with the senses just describes a scene and does not give any authorial opinion about it other than that the author chooses certain details rather than certain others. Even when writing about modern day situations, unless one is actually writing as one is experiencing the situation, one revisits with memory and fills the gaps with imagination. Yes, there comes some artistry, too, and then we are within the bounds of reminiscence if not manipulation. These really are major issues for P in S.
Hybrid texts are popular, and I can think of several such as the works of Elizabeth Laird, Beverly Naidoo and Alan Gibbons and particularly Le Photographe by Guibert, Lefèvre and Didier. Works cited in the sessions were Dave Egger’s What is the What? and Mende Nazer’s Slave. The latter reminds me very much of Trotzdem habe ich meine Träume by Anatol Feid and Natascha Wegener.
There was much other food for thought as well, so I’m really glad I attended. But oh my, am I tired now!

Friday 5 August 2011

Revisiting the death camps

Of course, they will not actually feature in the novel. They are, however, an important background. The Hanni character will realise in that thread of the story. The girls will get some inkling when they learn about their teacher being interned. I shall put in the details about Clara Lehrs, but only as an appendix at the end of the book.
There is plenty of witness statements about the death camps. The BBC provides a lot, as does the University of Sussex.
Useful links include:
I’ll now only be doing a little research over the coming week, returning to completing more in detail mid-September.

The last of the readable letters

Despite what I thought yesterday, I still have one more of the real letters I can include before I have to decipher the remainder. There are about twelve more letters left but about 48 pages of A4, rather suggesting that as the girls get older – perhaps as the war gets more serious – they writer more.
My fictional ones are certainly all growing up rapidly – one is at drama school, one works with nursery children and had some medical knowledge, one works for the church, one helps run her father’s farm and twin girls have taken over their father’s spectacle frame making business. They are all 17-18 now. The real girls are very similar.
I’ll be doing less writing on this now until after 24 August and after today a lot less research until 14 September.

Thursday 4 August 2011

More BBC archives – it’s so bad it can’t be true

More BBC archives – it’s so bad it can’t be true
This is proving to be a rich source indeed. Amazing that Edward Schulte and Gerhardt Riegner, both of whom had informed the allies of the genocide taking place in the early 1940s were largely ignored. Even when they were eventually believed, it was difficult for the allies to act. What should they do? Bomb the railways and stop the transports? The Nazis would only rebuild them. Bomb the gas chambers? Yes, that would have been possible. But no matter how accurate our bombers were, there would be some civilian deaths. It would give the Nazis the excuse to say the allies had killed the inmates and not them.
Perhaps, after all, the best was simply to win the war as quickly as possible and then put all of that right.
Even allied Jews in the know were keeping the bad news from other Jews. For the sake of morale?
Yet there was till shock when the allies liberated the death camps. Belsen was particularly shocking because the Germans had abandoned it. It wasn’t in fact the cruellest of the death camps. My father was involved in the liberation of Belsen, so I always get side-tracked whenever that comes up.
Yes, perhaps it seemed so bad that it couldn’t possibly be true. Is it happening again now?

Changing handwriting

One of the girls in the real letters has noticed that their handwriting is changing over the four years of writing. I’ve checked back. She is absolutely correct. Is this a sign of maturing – girls who were 13-14 are now 17-18- ? Their handwriting is considerably different now from the way it was at the beginning. Or were they expected to change their handwriting to conform with a national strategy?
Well, I have just two of the transcribed letters left now. There are 48 pages of writing now that I am finding difficult to read in some cases and in others impossible. I’m getting some help from some acquaintances in Germany.
I guess at least some of tomorrow’s writing may go off on another tack.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

When fiction is better than cloning

Much non-fiction tends to be cloned or borrowed. Internet searches prove this time and time again. Do a search on any theme and you keep coming across the same words as well as the same topics. There has been a fair amount of cutting and pasting.
It’s great of course, when you come across some genuine archive material. I’ve been looking though the BBC People’s War archive and some survivor interviews from the Auschwitz to Ambleside exhibition from the Holocaust Educational Trust. The interviews tell stories that run deep, though they’re not quite exactly in the realms I’m dealing with. The BBC archive contains material that comes from people’s memory although a diary of a Custom’s Officers – I was looking at reserved occupations at the time – gives a fascinating account of what daily life was like. Work and sleep were both interrupted so much from the air raids.
But where one hasn’t got this wealth of first hand material, I find it better to explore it through fiction, rather than taking someone else’s word for it. That is very much a key feature of this project.
I’ll also of course, funds permitting, try to experience some journeys and places – Minehead, the journey from London to Minehead, some of the German places in Bavaria and maybe the death camps. .

They tell me their stories

I’m really letting these girls tell me their stories. Of course, there are two sets of girls – the ones in the real letters and the ones I’m inventing. I’ve only carved out a very thin story arc for this part of the novel. There is one actually there, anyway, in the real letters. I’m not planning in too much detail as I go along. I’m using the real letters as prompts and they determine how the girls I’ve invented develop. They constantly take me by surprise. There is a whole new type of creative process going on here for me.
Hanna Braun, the teacher, remains in her Greek chorus role. She comments on all that happens. However, she too has a story and her story will become quite dramatic in the third part of the book.
Again, I’ve managed over 2,000 words since breakfast. I’m pleased with how this is progressing. I’m up to November 1942 now.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Bund der Deutschen Mädel (BDM)

I’ve done quite a bit of research on the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth today. As with the Hitler Youth, there are a lot of compilation videos on You Tube and one sees the same pictures over and over again.
Their uniform was very smart – a basic uniform of a long blue skirt, white shirt, black tie, a sort of short flying jacket for the summer and a long overcoat for the winter. There were also sports outfits and more casual wear for camps. They must have cost quite a bit to put together.
Of course, most of the photos and films will have been staged to some extent. Occasionally you come across a photo that is more casual and genuinely seems to show young people enjoying themselves.
In the photos and films the girls look healthy and athletic. Some of the comments on You Tube are a little worrying, though. Genuine family photos might be more revealing.
As with the boys, from 1939 membership and attendance was compulsory. Oddly the girls’ letters don’t mention it a lot. It must have been going on in the background, though. When they first started writing the letters they were 13 / 14 and only 19 /20 by the end of the war. They must have been members.

Still in the 1940s

I’m now working with the real letters but still presenting them fictionalised within the novel. It is the type of thing that is happening that I’m recording. Interestingly, the real letters are, on the whole, are just about 350 words long each, so not that different form what I’ve been producing. They do, however, tend to have long introductions. I suspect it’s just as when we write stories or novels- we need to write ourselves into them first. Of course in those days without computers that word process, the first draft was usually the only draft. The stories tend to appear from the second paragraph onwards.
The girls are growing up now and are 15-16, in one case 17 and their older brothers are being called up. The girls are completing their education and starting on their duty years. All of them are growing vegetables in the garden and foraging. We are beginning to notice that the men and boys are leaving and the women are doing men’s work.
I have completed over 2000 words again today since breakfast.

Monday 1 August 2011

Daily lives

Much of what I’ve looked at today has been to do with daily lives. I’ve been trying to find out about the weather. I’ve found some reports of extremes but what I could really do with is a day by day report. I suppose though one can assume that weather was normal for the time of year unless it has been reported as being spectacularly different. I just hope there was a thunderstorm when my girls’ tent got blown away and they got soaked.
I’ve been looking at what food was like. I have a double impression here: rationing was introduced end of 1939, beginning of 1940. Yet the germens didn’t seem to be as perturbed by it as we were. Rumour has it that our blockades were not all that effective. It’s likely, too, that when a nation was already starving, a little less food, even, did not make all that much difference.
I’m gradually uncovering more about the daily lives of women under the Nazi regime. That is fascinating.
There’s a lot to be done yet on the history of the Steiner schools. However, all that I’m reading is giving me much information about how their work revolves around Main lesson. There is an argument there that children understand more when they are immersed in a topic for a while. The latest Ofsted reports of the Michael Hall school have been very good.

The girls’ voices

Well, I’ve now finished the fictional letters 1938-1941. I have included the first one based on the volume of letters from 1941-1944. This happens to be one written by the class teacher Hanna Braun. She is the only one where I’ve kept the name, though this may change.
In artistic terms, she’s useful as she comments on all of the girls’ letters and helps to remind the reader what has happened in the last round. And as she’s a teacher, she does make some astute observations. Is she some sort of Greek chorus? Is she the mentor? Should I take poetic license and make her the one who is imprisoned for a year? That would be a handy way of getting her out the way, I suppose. I’ll think about that one.
And in this one the potatoes in spring come up again! Maybe the title will work after all.
I notice I have the same tone in this letter as I do in the others. Of course I had read all of the letters before I started the fictional ones. I’m using my mother-in-law’s translation at the moment. I’d have no problem with the German though I do have some problems with the handwriting. Though the letters were translated in the 1980s I think they retain something of a 1940s’ young German voice with the teacher sounding a little more adult, though I perceive her to be a quite young teacher. It seems to work and I’m pretty sure I’m not making it too old-fashioned for the 21st century readership. The longest letter extract is 700 words, but that is exceptional. They average at 350 – in other words only a little longer than an average blog post.