Tuesday 27 January 2015

Kick-starting My Project


I’m due to retire soon. Except I’ll not really be retiring. I’ll be undergoing another career change. At last, I shall become a full time writer. I’ll spend about a month getting into my new writing routine. Then, I want to make a big journey by train.
I’ll leave the house here in north Manchester and take the Metrolink to Piccadilly, then on to London, then perhaps Lille or Paris. Thereafter, I’ll be tracing Clara Lehrs and using a senior Europass. 

The Journey 

Mecklenburg, where she was born
Berlin, where she lived most of her married life
Jena, where she worked at the Lauenstein institute
Stuttgart and naturally the house on Schellberg Street
Rexingen where she lived in the ghetto
Then, I’d like to add on some of Renate’s journey:
Nuremberg to London
London to Minehead
The latter two chunks will be part of the return journey



I’ll travel in considerable luxury compared with what Clara and even Renate faced. However, it’s the wheels rolling under the carriage all of the time here that’s important.


I imagine I’m going to be away for about three weeks. I’ll stay in each place as long I need to. Again, I’ll probably be living better than Clara did although in both Mecklenburg and Berlin she was quite well off, and certainly not poor in the years in in Jena and Stuttgart. I’ll use middle of the range hotels but am also open to staying with people who offer to put me up.

The non-fiction project

As I travel, I’ll update the blog daily. I’ll also keep a private journal as well as making copious notes. I intend to write a short book also about this journey and the project. This will include some discussion of the challenges of this sort of research and the writing of this sort of biography. This will also create more content for the web site.

The wider project

The Holocaust generation is dying out. So it’s important to go back to the primary resources and to recreate what might have happened with the imagination as these stories do. I’m already offering school visits based on this material and I’m intending to work that up over the next few years, even producing packs that others can use.  
Currently, I’m offering visits for a donation that the schools can afford plus travel. I’d like to have some funding in place so that this can carry on.


Funding this project

I’m partly funding my journey myself but I also want to start setting up my fund for the wider project.   
I’m going to set up a crowd-funding project as soon as I’ve a more concrete date. You can register an interest now just by contacting me via this web site. Fill in the contact form. You can also make a small donation. Again, there is a button.
Eventually I’ll offer to crowd-funders depending on level of donation:   
  • VIP invite to the launch of one of the books
  • Name as sponsor on web-site  
  • Tailor-made talk  
  • Signed copy of one the books / all of the books  

Other help

You might consider arranging a talk. I could be anything form a simple gathering in your  house to hiring a local venue and filing it with people. I’d then give the talk for free but accept donations on the day and perhaps sell some books.
This might be particularly interesting if it happens as I complete the journey.  
If you’re on my route, you could offer me accommodation.
Simply tell everyone who might be interested. School visits I’ll do just for expenses plus a donation and / or a chance to sell books. I’m also happy to offer school visits at my normal fee of £350 per day plus expenses for those who like to keep things simple.     

All about the Schellberg Cycle

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.

University projects

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.   


Clara’s Story

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 Hitler

Oh 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.    

Then there is a non-fiction project to follow.  But more about that in my next post.       

Monday 19 January 2015

A second extract:

I've included this extract because its gives us some idea of Clara's personality and what she was like as a mother.  This and the previous extract are the only ones I want to include this time. In subsequent posts today I'll be talking more about the whole project.         

14 March 1900, Berlin: trams

“We’ve been learning about Berlin today at school,” said Leo. “Our teacher said there are lots of interesting buildings in Berlin.”
“She did, did she?” said Clara. “And do you think she’s right?”
Leo shrugged his shoulders. “Berlin is Berlin,” he said. 
“Oh it is, is it?” Clara could not believe that her son was so blinkered. This big vibrant city still fascinated her. Mecklenburg was big by some standards but Berlin. Berlin was Berlin. Leo was right there. But Berlin was a miracle and he couldn’t see that?
Clara looked at the clock. It was not quite four. It would be light for a little while yet. Imelda was busy in the kitchen. Käthe was still asleep. She could ask the maid to keep an eye on the child. They could be back in time for supper.
“Go to the lavatory and don’t forget to wash your hands,” she said to her son. “I’m just going to have a word with Imelda. Get your coat on. We’re going out. ”
“Go on. Do as I say,” said Clara.

“Frau Lehrs, I’m very busy today,” said Imelda. “I don’t know that I’ll have time.”
“Look, we won’t be long. Fräulein Lehrs is still asleep. Rudi’s out with Nanny. Just look on her now and then. And if she wakes up, she’ll probably come and find you anyway.”  
“Yes, ma’am.  It’s just that…”
“Yes. I know. She can be difficult. Look, we’ll give you a bonus this week. And you can have an extra hour off on Sunday. Will that do?”
“Yes, ma’am. Very well, ma’am.”
It was clear that the young woman would do anything for a little more cash. Well, good. Käthe would be fine. She liked Imelda. And so what if supper was a bit late. Ernst wouldn’t mind. Not if his son was being educated properly.

“Why are we going out?” asked Leo.
“We’re going on an adventure,” said Clara. “And how would you like to go on one of the new electric trams? We’re going to ride the tram. We are from another planet and we’ve just arrived on Earth. And we’re going to see this beautiful city called Berlin.”
Leo clapped his hands. He had never been on a tram before. He walked to school. They walked to most places in fact but if they ever needed to go further afield Ernst would hire a carriage. Clara felt as excited as their little boy looked. She pulled her cloak over her shoulders and they were off.
It was just a short walk to the Kurfürstendamm and there was already a tram at the nearest stop.
“Here we go then,” said Clara, holding Leo’s hand as they both climbed on.
“We want to go to the terminus,” said Clara as the conductor came for the fare. “Return, please.”
The young man nodded and gave Clara two tickets. A middle-aged man gave her his seat and Clara sat down, pulling Leo on to her lap.
The first thing she noticed was the smell. Unwashed bodies, she suspected.
“Mutti, what’s that funny sm…?” Leo began to say.
“Look,” said Clara, distracting him. She pointed to a tram going the other way. “Isn’t it amazing that these carriages go on their own with no horse to pull them? And do you know what makes them work?”
“Lectricy,” said Leo.
“And what is that, young man?” asked Clara.
Leo shrugged.
She wasn’t sure either. They’d just have to ask Ernst that evening. 
“Oh and look,” said Clara. She pointed up at the building they were passing. “Aren’t they tall? And look at how the glass shines in the windows. Oh, and all those elegant ladies and gentlemen walking along the streets. Look we’re going faster than the carriages pulled by horses.”
“How old is he?” said a young woman who had just sat down next to them.
“Six. He’s just six.”
“Well he does seem interested in everything, bless him. I wish my young’uns would appreciate half as much in the world. You’ve got a good’un there missus. What’s your name, young man?”
Leo shied away from the woman.
“Leo. His name’s Leo,” said Clara.
“Well, Master Leo,” said the woman. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your tram ride. I’ll have to love you and leave you. This is my stop coming up. Good evening to you.”
“Say goodbye to the lady,” whispered Clara, kissing Leo’s head.
Leo half smiled and waved shyly at the woman. She winked back.
Gradually more and more people left the tram. Finally they were the only passengers. The tram made a last stop.
“We have to get off here,” said Clara.
“Why?” said Leo.
“It’s the terminus.”
“What’s that?”
“Where the rails end. Look. Watch what happens.”
The driver got out of the tram and moved to the other end. The conductor made his way along tilting the backs of the seats so that they faced the other way. 
“Oh,” said Leo. “He’s changed them round.”
“Yes. So that people can see where they’re going. We’ll get back on in a minute and go all the way back home.”
Ten minutes later the tram was taking them back towards their home. There weren’t so many people on now and Leo had a seat all to himself. He pressed his nose up against the window. It was beginning to get dark and the windows in the buildings that lined the wide street were lit up but the shutters had not yet been put into place. They could see right into the apartments and offices.
“Can’t you see what a beautiful city we live in?” said Clara.
Leo nodded.
“Good,” said Clara. “You can tell your teacher all about that tomorrow.”

Ernst had already arrived home when they got back.
“Vati, we’ve been on a tram,” said Leo. “All along the Ku’damm.”
“A tram?” said Ernst. “All along the Ku’damm. My goodness we do have some style these days.”  He raised his eyebrows and looked at Clara. But there was a twinkle in his eyes.
Clara shrugged. “He needed to get to know the city. It was the quickest way.”
“I should think so too. A truly splendid idea. You should make a habit of it.”
“Why can’t I go on a tram?” Käthe was scowling at them.
Clara laughed and bent down to kiss her little daughter on the head. “You shall, my love. Once you are six as well and you don’t need your afternoon nap.”
“It’s not fair. Leo gets all the fun.” 
“Oh Käthe, you must be patient,” said Ernst.  He bent down and picked her up. “You’ll grow up soon enough.”

Sunday 18 January 2015

A First Extract from Clara's Story. Meet Clara!

Mild spoiler alert: this won't actually give the story away - and anyway chances are if you've read The House on Schellberg Street you may have figured out what's happened to Clara. it's no worse, anyway, that that little blurby synopses we see on recorded TV programmes.   

The story attempts to tell the how and the why, not the what.

Clara's Story is not presented entirely chronologically. This is therefore not the first chapter. It is, however, the earliest glimpse we have of her.    

15 July 1883, Mecklenburg: Sunday best  

Clara looked out of the drawing-room window to the street below. They were there again, the same as every Sunday. The three little girls looked so pretty in their summer dresses. The older girl – Clara guessed she must be the same age as herself – and the two boys who looked just like her own older brothers, Wilhelm and Rupert, were walking behind them, making sure that the little ones kept up with the rest. There were three younger boys who walked just behind the parents.
“They’re just like us,” said Clara.
“Except that they’re not,” said Wilhelm. “They’re Christians and we’re Jews.”
“What difference does that make?” asked Clara.
Rupert sighed. “A lot, Clarachen.”
“Don’t call me that. I’m nearly twelve and then I shall be a grown-up.”
Rupert tutted. “Well grow up then. They’re on their way home from church. They go to church on Sunday and we go to the synagogue on Saturday. They have a day of rest on Sunday and we have ours on Saturday.”
“But they dress like us and I expect they eat the same food. I expect their Mama is just as nice as ours. And there are nine of them, just like there are nine of us. We could each have a friend.”
Mama put down her sewing. “They might not want to be friends with us.”
“Why ever not?”
Mama and Papa exchanged a glance. Papa nodded. “She’s right. She will be grown up soon.”
“All right. Come with me, you big girl, you.” Mama stood up and slipped her arm around Clara’s waist. “You can help me make some tea and I’ll explain it all to you.”
As they set off down the stairs Mama whispered “I didn’t want the little ones to hear this yet.”
They heard a scream from outside and then a child howling. Clara just knew it was one of the little girls. She ran down the stairs and opened the front door.
Yes, there was one of them lying on the ground, screaming. Blood was streaming from cuts on her head and her leg. The mother and an older girl, about the same age as Clara, were bending down trying to comfort her. The others were looking on helplessly.
“Oh, Mama, we must help her,” said Clara. She rushed over to the family. “Will you come inside? We can bathe her leg and her head.”
The two mamas exchanged a look.
“Please,” said Clara. “She can’t walk home like that.”
The Christian lady looked at her husband.
“It’s true,” he said. “Perhaps you should stay here with her. I’ll take the others home and come back with the carriage.” He turned to Mama and Clara. “This is so very kind of you,” he said. 
“I am Frau Hellerman,” said the lady, “and this is my daughter Lotte and her sister, Melissa.”
“Frau Loewenthal. Clara.” Mama was already helping Frau Hellerman to get Lotte on to her feet. “Come on young lady. We’ll soon get you sorted out.”
Lotte managed to limp into the kitchen and Mama lifted her up on to a stool. She filled a bowl with warm water. She gently dabbed the wounds on the little girl’s knee and forehead. “I hope it’s not stinging too much.”
Lotte shook her head. “I’ve spoiled my dress, though.”
“She should put some salt on it, shouldn’t she?” said Clara. “Won’t it stop it staining?”  
Mama nodded. Clara fetched the krug and sprinkled salt on the stains.  
“You see,” whispered Frau Hellerman. “Frau  Loewenthal and Clara are taking good care of you.”
A few moments later Lotte was completely cleaned up.
“Would you like some tea?” said Mama. “Clara and I were just about to make some. And Lotte, I think we might find some lemonade for you.”
Lotte smiled.
The door opened. Papa walked in. “There you are. And I see we have some visitors.”
Mama did the introductions.
“You have all been so kind,” said Frau Hellerman.
Clara helped Lotte hobble up into the lounge. Käthe brought one of her dolls for her to play with while they waited for Herr Hellerman.
“This really is kind of you,” said Frau Hellerman. “I’m sure my husband won’t be long. I’m so glad - well I’m so glad the law is on your side now.”
“Yes, it is easier now,” said Mama.
Clara wished she understood. Lotte and Käthe looked so similar and were obviously enjoying playing together.
“Ah. It looks as if your husband has arrived,” said Papa. “I’ll go and greet him.”
“Can Käthe and I be friends?” Lotte kissed the doll and handed it back to Käthe.
Mama and Frau Herllerman exchanged a glance. Mama nodded. “You are welcome in our home any time, my dear.”
“Come, let us find Papa,” said Frau Hellerman. She smiled at Clara and Mama. “I’m so glad you’ve found a new friend.”

“What did Frau Hellerman mean about the law being on our side now?”  Clara asked Wilhelm later.
“It’s not always been easy for Jews,” her brother replied. “A lot of people don’t like us. But now the law says we have to be treated like any other citizen.”
This was so difficult to understand. They were just like everybody else, weren’t they? So why did they need a law to make them the same as everyone else? 
“Is it just because we don’t believe Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah? Is that why people don’t like us?
Wilhelm laughed. “It’s not that simple, actually. You’ll understand one day. Listen. You’re just in the first stage of your life. Just enjoy it and don’t worry so much.” He turned and left the room.   
It was so annoying. Why did they all treat her like a child? She was almost twelve and would have to pin her hair up soon.          

Thursday 1 January 2015

The White Rose

The White Rose organization -  the Weiße Rose Stiftung  - was formed by a group of young people who wanted to put a stop to the second world war. They realised that many of their peers were being killed needlessly on all sides.  They wanted to bring the fighting to an end sooner rather than alter.
The two most well-known members of this organisation were Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans. Hans had joined the Hitler Youth and Sophie the BDM. Sophie had even become a leader but gave this up in 1939 when she realised that she could not go along with the Nazi  principles. They had their parents’ support in this: their parents had not been happy about the Hitler Youth or the BDM form the outset.    
Sophie and Hans, with some other young people, printed and distributed leaflets urging an end to the war.
Sophie was born in 1921. In 1941, she completed half a year of Reichsarbeitsdeinst and half a year of Kreigshiflsdienst. The military style living made her realise how young people were giving away much of their freedom and liberty.
She and her brother were arrested on 18 February 1943 for giving out leaflets at Munich University. On 22 February they were condemned to death by beheading.
The White Rose organisation carries on doing the work that Sophie, Hans and their friends started. A film has been made about their story. Schools have been name “Geschwister Scholl” (Scholl siblings).
They had to be very brave to break the law. It was illegal to say anything that criticised the Nazi government in any way.

What worries you in today’s society? Is there anything that you object to that your government is doing?
Do current laws in your country allow you to an express an opinion about that?
We see Sophie and Hans as heroes. No doubt the government at the time saw them as trouble-makers. What is the difference?