Sunday 24 January 2021

Hush Hush


I didn’t know anything about the Holocaust until I was seventeen.  I only found out when a Holocaust survivor came to speak to us at school.  I was at a grammar school and when we were in the sixth form our General Studies master arranged a formal lecture once a fortnight to get us used to university life. So, we would have talks an hour long followed by half an hour of questions.

We’d never been taught anything about the Holocaust. It was too recent and raw to appear on the school curriculum. There wasn’t a National Curriculum then and it hadn’t yet made its way on to O-level or A-level syllabuses.

The speaker was slightly unbelievable.  He was short, had a long beard and was a little doddery.  He talked about concentration and death camps. Some students even began to titter.  But it was more of a nervous laugh than mockery. This was so bad it couldn’t be true.

A couple of years later I found out that my father had been involved in clearing out Bergen Belsen. Only a few people in the family knew about this and he never talked about it.  He did get very upset when we visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. She had such a near miss – she died just a short while before the camp was liberated. Now I avidly watch documentaries about the liberation of Belsen hoping to see or hear of my father.  

As a teacher of German between 1975 and 2003 I got to know a lot of Germans. They would hardly talk about it and their parents certainly wouldn’t. Might this be because it seems so unbelievable? In Clara’s Story I have Clara repeatedly hesitating and refusing to leave. She could not believe that things wouldn’t improve. At that very school where we listened to the survivor there were rumours that one of the girls was having an affair with one of the teachers and that another teacher was a paedophile. I thought it couldn’t possibly be true. At a school reunion thirty-one years later I found out that these weren’t rumours. We choose not to believe what is unpalatable.  

It seems perhaps a little odd, then, that I have the young German women confronting the Holocaust, feeling guilty and trying to make up for it. Is this perhaps a liberty I have taken to make the story more interesting?

I was not alone in being ignorant about the Holocaust. Most of us in that year group met it for the first time at that lecture.  Not so however my husband: great-grandson of Clara, grandson of Käthe and son of Renate. He knew plenty.  His mother and grandmother used to speak German together when he was younger. They had no idea he understood. He found out all sorts of useful information by listening and not speaking. And he heard about some of the horrors. To this day he has an excellent understanding of German but can barely string two words together in the language.    

Image by Henryk Niestrój from Pixabay

Tuesday 5 January 2021

An alternative point of view

And this is probably one of the whole points of this project. Those letters that the German girls sent to each other gave a real insight into how the young German woman was thinking during the Nazi era.

“I’ve never really thought about what it must have been from the Germans’ point of view,” said one recent reader of Clara’s Story.

“The novel shows an unusual perpetrator point of view,” said an early reader of The House on Schellerg Street.

Now actually I don’t really think of the young German women in these books as perpetrators. Bystanders, perhaps. They didn’t know the full extent of the persecution but in part bought into the myth that the Jew was the enemy.  

It’s obvious to me that these women had the same concerns as my mother’s generation had in England: what was happening to their brothers fiancés and fathers? How were they going to manage on rations? Would they ever get normal life back?

Naturally as well it was difficult for the men who were fighting. Would they survive? Would their training enable them to fulfil their duty? Would they ever see their loved ones again?

War is complex: it’s often young men fighting for the sake of some ideology. Yet clearly some things should not be tolerated. One nation cannot be allowed to just march in and take over another.  On the other hand, why should any nation be kept in perpetual poverty and have its right to fight for itself taken away?

Many of us would like to think of ourselves as pacifist but what would we do if our family or our property was threatened?

I have a lot of very good German friends. They are not monsters, and neither were their parents, yet that war generation behaved abominably. Taking the evidence from the letters and using my imagination for the rest I’ve built up a picture of what might have happened.  I’m not sure I have it right in Girl in a Smart Uniform. I’ve put very high stakes in there. Hopefully I’m nearer the mark with The Class Letter which takes a gentler approach.             


Image by MichaelGaida from Pixabay   

Friday 1 January 2021

The Unwelcome Angel by Chrissie Bradshaw


 This is a story about a diphtheria outbreak in a mining village in 1945.  War wasn’t the only problem in the 1940s. Coping with sick children financially would have been difficult then era. We did not yet have the NHS. There was some hope however for the working class – the 1944 Education Act had come into being and this offered some children a route out of a life of poorly paid manual labour.

This is a very easy read and it is a novella so it doesn’t take long to read. It has two war time recipes at the end of the book. It is nevertheless a very well researched novel and Chrissie Bradshaw gives us some insights into what it was like living in a mining village in the north east.  We also meet some Bevin Boys.