It is my privilege to introduce Gill James this week, renowned author and accomplished historical novelist, who will tell you about the backdrop to her historical novels. We’re in for a treat.
The stories told in this cycle of six interconnected novels are set in 1940s Europe and in particular Nazi Germany. In some ways this era is not so well remembered as that time within the United Kingdom. Our parents and grandparents frequently talked about it. The parents and grandparents of my German friends didn’t so much. There are of course some rich archives, maintained and used by true historians. And then an absolute gem fell into my lap: letters written by young German women aged thirteen to twenty-two between 1938 and 1947.
One of the letters.
I found about how the women did work experience and war work , how they were frightened and deprived by World War II, how they fell in love, how they lost loved ones and how they eventually learnt about the Holocaust. Over the years they developed a taste for camaraderie and a sense of duty. Many of the letters are somewhat mundane. They were a little careful in what they said. Perhaps they feared the censor. More likely however they were very aware that their former class teacher would be reading their letters.
Nevertheless there were some vivid scenes. One girl described having to leave the
barracks vi the window when she was on work experience; they couldn’t get out through the door as the snow was too deep. One girl became an actor and managed to be quite controversial. Another worked with children and towards the end of this period was involved in measuring noses and the blueness of eyes. There were also some very colourful stories of life on a farm after all the men had gone to fight.
The hardest was trying to imagine a world without mobile phones, emails and the Internet. They had the wireless, postcards and telegrams. A few families had phones. The girls would certainly not have known as much as modern young people do about the what was happening in the world but at least they were not plagued by fake news and trolls. Would Hitler have stayed in power or could the Holocaust have happened if Facebook and Twitter had existed then?
My girls lived in Nuremberg and were used to skiing holidays in winter with the summers being spent in the mountains or by the lakes. Yet everybody even the rich were poor in 1930s Germany. These girls were born as the 1920s’ hyperinflation was coming to an end. The 1930s’ depression and the 1929 Wall Street crash hit Germany very badly. She struggled to become great again with all the restrictions imposed on her by the Treaty of Versailles. Yet the BDM uniform was a real treat. It comprised an elegant calf length navy blue skirt, a smart white shirt, a little bomber jacket that would still seem trendy today and a black neckerchief. The BDM – Bund Deutsche Mädel – was compulsory from fourteen. It was the equivalent of the Hitler Youth. The girls learnt many practical skills. They camped and marched as the boys did. There were also plenty of opportunities for sport. Yet the main emphasis for the girls particularly as the war went on was on becoming good mothers and homemakers. No doubt it was at these meetings that they first met the notions of camaraderie and duty.
Only in novel one do we see what is happening in England. We can compare and contrast. War work is similar for the girls as are their hopes and fears. Yet evacuation is handled differently. There are no land girls as such. Our girls take over running the households so that the farmers’ wives can run the farm.
The second novel in the cycle is the story of the grandmother of one of the main characters in the first novel. Clara Lehrs travels quite a bit. She is born in Mecklenberg and later lives in Berlin, Jena, Stuttgart and Rexingen in the Black Forest. I’ve had to think about what it was like for an elegant Jewish family in a newly emancipated town in north Germany.
What were the first trams in Berlin like? There is a sharp contrast between the Berlin of the Belle Epoch and the Berlin that suffers the hyperinflation. Then comes some serious work with disabled children in Jena and in Stuttgart. Clara later becomes the helper of a disenfranchised group of people and in the relatively benign private ghetto in Rexingen again finds herself as “Mutti Lehrs” this time to Jewish children instead of those at the Waldorf School in Stuttgart. Photos, eyewitness accounts, amateur film footage, memoirs about the Waldorf School and correspondence with those who knew the Rexingen Jews informed me of what I needed to create here.
Book three traces the growing naziism and book four the rapidly developing antisemitism in Germany. Book five studies in greater depth the everyday lives of young German women. Book six will explore the life of one Jewish woman as she and her son move on from the 1940s.
The letters have obviously been a fantastic source. Realia from the time is really useful: so, ration books, diaries, The War Papers (the adverts are superb), film snippets such as those from the Steven Spielberg archive and even a transport slip that tells its own story. The magazines of the BDM that initially look like scouting magazines but are a little more sinister are extremely informative. Less useful are eye witness accounts made today. These people are too far away from the events and may have over analysed what has happened.
When I can’t find such realia from that time I have tried to repeat experience: travelled long distances on a train, feeling the rumble beneath my feet, kept myself in a confined space, eaten war time food.
When even those two strategies fail, there is always the writer’s imagination, very similar to what actors use. What if and how questions pop up. How did that school for disabled children survive? How could Hans Edler work on th V2 bomb knowing it could harm his wife and child? What if Käthe Edler had remembered what she had in her bag when she saw that funny little man?
Setting almost becomes another character and should be developed as carefully as the personae of our stories. The questions go on and on.
Which cut flowers would be available in London in September 1939?
What would your first day at a new school be like if you didn’t speak a word of the language?
What type of pigs did they have on a Barvarian farm in 1940?