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SPOTLIGHT: Best Memoirs of Life in Nazi Germany

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

My novel THE BEAST'S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm brothers' version of 'Beauty & the Beast', set in the underground German Resistance in Nazi Berlin. 

The story takes place between Kristallnacht in November 1938, and the fall of Berlin in April 1948. 

I did an enormous amount of research while writing THE BEAST'S GARDEN, and I have had numerous letters and messages asking me about how I went about my research and what books were most useful for me. 

So I've decided to do a series of blog posts about my research books, in the hope it will help those interested in reading more deeply.

Today, I'm going to share some of the heart-wrenching memoirs that I read, in order of their importance to me and the story I was writing.

NIGHT - Elie Wiesel

One of the most famous memoirs of the Holocaust ever written. I first read it when I was in my early 20s and it haunted my imagination ever since. It was one of the books that helped ignite my fascination with the Second World War, and made me want to write a book set during those bloody and turbulent years. 

In prose so terse and compressed it reads like poetry, Elie Wiesel describes his deportation to Auschwitz, the death of his mother and little sister in the gas chambers, his struggle to survive and keep his soul intact. He wrote:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed....Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

This is an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to try and understand the horror of the Holocaust. 

You can read my longer review here 


"You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis all at once. One’s first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence.'

This extraordinary memoir tell the story of a Polish girl whose life is torn apart by the invasion of her homeland by German troops. She loses everything - her home, her family, her innocence - but slowly she begins to fight back. She begins with small acts of courage and kindness, until she risks everything to save the lives of some Jews by hiding them in her employer's basement. Her employer is a Nazi officer. 

My novel THE BEAST'S GARDEN is the story of a young woman who - step by small step - finds herself risking everything to help those in trouble. So this beautifully written memoir helped me understand what it was like to live under a reign of such brutality and terror, and how much courage it took to stand up to it. The book moved me so much that I sobbed helplessly at the end of it - so openly that the flight attendant on my plane brought me tissues and a glass of wine. I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone interested in stories of resistance and courage.     

AN UNDERGROUND LIFE: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin - Gad Beck

This slim memoir is exactly what its title promises - the story of a young Jewish gay man who manages to survive all the deportations and bombings in Berlin during the horrendous years of the Second World War. Gad was what was called a 'u-boater', or submarine. It means that he managed to survive life in Nazi Berlin by going 'underground' - living hand-to-mouth in cellars, attics, bombed-out houses and abandoned factories.  Gad's story was incredibly helpful to me (one of my characters is a gay Jew, and his sister goes underground in Berlin, just  as Gad did). It's also a real joy to read. Gad Beck has such a mischievous sense of humour, and such a luminous love of life, that he arises above all the suffering and horror with his humanity wholly intact. 

I HAVE LIVED A THOUSAND YEARS: Growing Up in the Holocaust - Livia Bitton-Jacques 

An astonishing account of survival from a Jewish Hungarian woman who was deported to the camps with her family when she was just thirteen. Told clearly and simply, with a child's keen eye for small details, this is one of the best accounts of life in the camps that I have read. 

LETTERS FROM BERLIN: A Story of War, Survival and the Redeeming Power of Love and Friendship - Margarete Dos and Kerstin Lieff 

Kirsten Lieff had always been curious about her German mother's experiences during the war, and so she began to interview her mother, recording her words on a tape. Her mother was often reluctant to speak, or shaken by the horror of her memories. Over time, however - pressed by her daughter - she told more and more about her life in Berlin during the Third Reich, and her experiences as Germany raced headlong into horror. After her mother's death, Kirsten Lieff typed up the recordings, fact-checking and annotating whenever she could, but leaving in all the inconsistencies and evasions and memory lapses so that her mother's voice could speak out clearly. The result is a fascinating memoir, full of small details of life in Berlin during the 1930s and 1940s that were invaluable to em when re-creating the life of my fictional heroine, Ava, during the same period.      

BERLIN DIARIES 1940-1945 - Marie Vassiltchikov

The blurb reads: "The secret diaries of a twenty-three-year-old White Russian princess who worked in the German Foreign Office from 1940 to 1944 ... ' The book itself is as fascinating as it sounds. Marie Vassiltchikov came from a privileged background but her family had lost everything, and so she and her sister were forced to work for their living in Berlin during the most dangerous years of Hitler's rule. She writes about the difficulty of finding food as rations grow ever scarcer,  about the terror of the Allied bombing, and the never-ending fear as loved ones and work colleagues were arrested and deported. 

MRS MAHONEY'S SECRET WAR: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Woman's Resistance against Hitler - Gretel Mahoney and Claudia Strachan

Another enthralling story of a young German woman who did all she could to defy the Nazis, Mrs Mahoney's Secret War is a riveting read. The character of Gretel Wachtel (who married a British army officer after the war and so became Mrs Mahoney) was beautiful, clever,  and determined. She hid her Jewish doctor in her cellar, passed food to political prisoners, and slipped secrets she had learnt from her work on the Enigma encryption machine to the German Resistance. Her life would make an amazing movie, all the more intriguing because it was true.   

THE NAZI OFFICER'S WIFE: How One Jewish woman Survived the Holocaust - Edith Hahn Berr (with Susan Dworkin) 

Edith Hahn was a young Viennese Jew who was forced into a ghetto by the Nazis, and then sent to a labour camp were she was worked as a slave. She managed to escape, then destroyed her identity papers, and went underground. Living in Germany without papers was almost impossible, however, and so she married a Nazi officer for protective camouflage. Her life was one of constant fear of being discovered. She even refused any painkillers whilst giving birth in case she should blurt out something that would betray her secret. A really intriguing memoir that shows just how difficult it was to survive the Third Reich.

SURVIVOR OF BUCHENWALD: My Personal Odyssey Through Hell - Louis Gros (with Flint Whitlock) 

A harrowing account of life in Buchenwald, one of the most notorious of Germany's concentration camps. 

In THE BEAST'S GARDEN, one of my characters - a young gay Jewish man called Rupert - ends up in Buchenwald and this was one of the books that really helped me imagine the utter despair and horror of life within its walls.


MEMORIES - Irmgard Ruppel

Irmgard Ruppel grew up in Berlin, her father a key figure in the German government. Once Hitler came to power, however, Irmgard's life was shaken to pieces. Her father was Jewish, and both of them would be arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo for their involvement in an underground resistance group called the Solf Circle. THE BEAST'S GARDEN is concerned with those intersecting circle of resistance in Berlin at the time, and Irmgard herself is a minor character in the novel. Her memoirs are very slight indeed, but interesting reading. 



The Kreisau Circle was another group pf resisters that met secretly to discuss ways to overthrow Hitler and rebuild Germany after the war.  Helmuth Graf von Moltke was a key figure in the German resistance, and he was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and executed. This memoir was written by his wife Freya many years later. (Von Moltke also makes a cameo appearance in THE BEAST'S GARDEN).

Freya and Helmuth von Moltke 

RESISTANCE - Agnes Humbert

A heart-wrenching memoir from one of France's first resistance fighters. Betrayed, she spent years in German prisons and camps, but somehow managed to survive. One of the best memoirs of the French resistance that I've read.  

CODE-NAME MARIANNE - Edita Katona (with Patrick Macnaghten)

This is the autobiography of a young woman who became a highly successful spy in French naval Intelligence during the Second World war. Edita Katona risked her life and her loved ones in order to spy on the Germans, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre  for her efforts. A really fascinating insider's look at what a spy in the French Resistance actually did. 

DANCE ON THE VOLCANO: A Teenage Girl in Nazi Germany -  Renata Zerner

A memoir of a young teenager growing up during the Hitler years, and trying to make sense of all she sees around her. 

CHILDREN OF TERROR - Inge Auerbacher and  Bozenna Urbanowicz Gilbride

Two heart-wrenching Holocaust memoirs in one volume from survivors who were only young children when they were sent to the camps. Harrowing reading.

I, PIERRE: DEPORTED HOMOSEXUAL: A Memoir of Nazi Terror - Pierre Seel

This is the truly terrible story of a young gay man who was arrested, tortured and imprisoned by the Nazis for his sexuality, and then spent years trying to hide the horror and shame of his experiences.    


A memoir written by a woman whose father supported Hitler. Esther Bealer was only twelve when Hitler invaded Poland, and she was brought up in an atmosphere of adulation and awe towards Hitler. Slowly, over time, she began to question the Fuhrer's action and in time found herself hating all he stood for. A really interesting psychological insight into what it was like to be a good German girl in the 1930s and early 1940s. 

BUCHENWALD: A Survivor's Memories

The Buchenwald concentration camp was one of the settings for THE BEAST'S GARDEN, and so I was determined to read anything I could find that would help me bring the horrible place to life on the page. Paul Victor was a young man who was imprisoned there because of his refusal to serve in Hitler's army.  His punishment was hellish, and the shadow of it followed him wherever her went after the war. A slim but evocative memoir of life in one of the most notorious of Germany's camps.  


A memoir from a Viennese Jew, her flight from Nazi-occupied Austria, and her struggle to survive in blitzed London.  Trudi Kanter writes with such verve and charm, she really brings her struggles to life. You can read a longer review by me here

HITLER'S LAST WITNESS: The memoirs of Hitler's Bodyguard - Rochus Misch

One of the most fascinating and troubling aspects of Adolf Hitler is the unswerving loyalty and admiration he could arouse in his followers. this memoir is written by one of his bodyguards, who stayed with him to the end, and suffered terribly for his loyalty. You can read my full review here or read about my list of Best Books on Hitler


BOOK LIST: Books Read in January 2014

Thursday, February 13, 2014

I read 15 books in January, with my number bolstered by the back-to-back reading of six old books by the 1930s Irish novelist, Maurice Walsh, while I was sick in bed with bronchitis. Do you like reading old beloved books when you are sick too? Usually I go for Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie or Mary Stewart - it was interesting reading six books by the same author, one after the other. You do begin to see a plot pattern emerge ...

But I read lots of other great books this month as well. I hope you find some new ones to discover here:

1. Touchstone – Laurie R. King
Laurie R. King is best known for her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes historical mystery series in which a brilliant young woman becomes first a student – and then the lover – of the brilliant and enigmatic detective. I’ve read quite a few of this series and really enjoyed them. Laurie R. King is as interested in the internal lives of her characters as much as in the actual solving of a crime, and so her books are rich, complex, psychologically acute, and slow. Touchstone is the first in a new series set in the 1920s in England, featuring the unlikely friendship between an American agent and a war-damaged British gentleman. The first is Harris Stuyvesant and he is on the hunt for a terrorist whose bombs have left a raw scar on his own life.  The trail leads him to England, where he meets Bennett Grey, whose acute sensitivity to the world following a shell attack makes him a kind of human lie detector. The two men find themselves tracking down the terrorist together … with tragic results.
This book took a while to cast its spell on me, but slowly and gradually the dramatic tension escalates until the book was unputdownable. And by that time I knew the characters so intimately I really feared for them. This is not the kind of thriller that will get your blood pumping and your heart racing; it will, however, make you think about it for a long time after you close the final, brilliant page. 

2. Mrs Mahoney’s Secret War – Gretel Mahoney & Claudia Strahan
Claudia Strahan was at a friend’s house in London, listening to music one day, when a cross neighbour knocked on the door to complain about the noise. She was 78 years old, and spoke with a German accent. Claudia had been born in Germany and so asked her a little of where she came from. The cross old lady proved to be so interesting, Claudia went to have coffee with her. The more she discovered about Mrs Mahoney’s life, the more fascinated she became. Nine years later, the two published this extraordinary memoir of Mrs Mahoney’s life in Hamburg during the Second World War. 
Gretel Wachtel, as she was then, helped to protect fugitives hunted by the Gestapo, hid her Jewish doctor in her cellar, and passed secrets she learned from her work on the Enigma encryption machine to the German Resistance, and was finally arrested by the Gestapo. 

She was just an ordinary German girl who did extraordinary things to try and fight the cruel Nazi regime under which she lived. Her verve, courage, and humour shine through in every word … one can just imagine her as a feisty old lady, telling her stories to Claudia over kaffeeklatsch, remembering one story after another through her young visitor’s eager questioning. A great memoir of one woman’s extraordinary life.  

3. Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler - by Anne Nelson 

When we think of Germany under Hitler, we often think of Germans as being either enthusiastic supporters of Nazism, or passive bystanders who did nothing to stop him. This fascinating non-fiction account of the Berlin Underground shows that there were, in fact, many Germans who risked everything to fight against the Nazi regime. 
The Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra) was the Gestapo’s name for a group of German artists, actors, filmmakers, writers, journalists and intellectuals who worked indefatigably to undermine the Nazis in Berlin, the heart of Hitler’s war machine. Almost half of them were women.
Based on years of research, including exclusive interviews with the few that survived the war, Red Orchestra brings to life the different characters of the key people involved in the resistance ring.
These include Adam Kuckhoff, a playwright who found employment in Goebbels’s propaganda unit in order to undermine the regime, and his wife, Greta, who risked her own family to help smuggle Jews and homosexuals out from Berlin; Arvid Harnack, who collected anti-Nazi intelligence while working for the Economic Ministry, and his wife, Mildred, the only American woman executed by Hitler; Harro Schulze-Boysen, the glamorous Luftwaffe intelligence officer who leaked anti-Nazi information to allies abroad, and his wife, Libertas, a social butterfly who coaxed favours from an unsuspecting Göring; and many more. 
The Berlin Underground was betrayed in 1942, and many of its members were tortured and executed, including young women in their teens. I ended the book with tears in my eyes – it is impossible not to imagine yourself living under such terrifying circumstances and wondering what choices you would make. 

4. Storming the Eagle’s Nest: Hitler’s War in the Alps  - Jim Ring
Another World War II book! I’m researching a novel to be set during that period and so you’ll need to expect a lot of books set during that time in my reading lists. This one is another non-fiction book, focusing on the role of the Alps in the Second World War. 

Hitler declared: ‘Yes, I have a close link to this mountain. Much was done there, came about and ended there; those were the best times of my life . . . My great plans were forged there.’

The book examines the war in the Alps from all angles, including battles from resistance fighters in Italy, France and Yugoslavia, concentration camps in Bavaria,  Hitler’s enormous caches of art and wine hidden in caves, and Switzerland’s role as a centre for Allied spies – Storming the Eagle’s Nest is an interesting, unusual and very readable addition to WWII non-fiction.

Note: I received an ARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.

5. The Marsh King’s Daughter – Elizabeth Chadwick
I’ve wanted to read a book by Elizabeth Chadwick for a while – a lot of my Goodreads friends rave about her work – and so I finally bought one to read. I chose this book because of the title – it’s the name of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale that I am actually thinking of rewriting one day. The title has little to do with the book, however, except that the heroine, Miriel, is the granddaughter of a rich weaver who lives near the marshes. 

The book is set in 1216, one of my favourite periods of history (nasty King John ruled the land back then). Miriel is intelligent, high-spirited, and rebellious, and so is locked up in a convent by her violent and lustful step-father. She plans to escape but then helps rescue a half-drowned young man and stays so she can help nurse him back to health. The young man is Nicholas de Caen and he has a secret. He was present when King John’s treasure sank beneath the marshes (a true historical event), and he has hidden some of the treasure …

The two help each other escape, but their road of romance is rocky indeed. They have to deal with all sorts of misfortunes – including their own pigheadedness – before at last finding refuge in each other’s arms. 

A big, brightly coloured romance, with lots of twists and turns, The Marsh King’s Daughter was a most enjoyable read and I’ll be picking up more books by Elizabeth Chadwick.

6. The Tulip Eaters – Antoinette van Huegten 
The premise of this book sounded so engaging that I was really keen to read it – a contemporary woman comes home to find her mother murdered and her baby stolen, and comes to realise these shocking crimes are somehow related to her mother’s past in Nazi-occupied Holland. She sets off for Amsterdam, determined to find her baby and uncover the truth of her family’s history. The title refers to the Dutch having to go out into the fields to dig up tulip bulbs to stave off starvation during the Occupation. It sounded just the kind of book I love to read. I have to admit, though, that I found the book disappointing. The most interesting parts were the ones that referred to the past, and they were all told, not shown. There were also a few inconsistencies which marred the reading for me. However, if you’re looking for a light and easy suspenseful read, then this may appeal to you. 
Note: I received an ARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.

7. The Small Dark Man – Maurice Walsh
8. Castle Gillian - Maurice Walsh
9. The Man in Brown - Maurice Walsh
10. Danger Under the Moon - Maurice Walsh
11. Trouble in the Glen - Maurice Walsh
12. The Hill is Mine - Maurice Walsh

I first read Castle Gillian by Maurice Walsh as a teenager, and was enchanted. It’s a romance set in Ireland in the 1930s, and tells the story of a young man, broken by the war, and his family’s struggle to keep the ancestral home. Whenever I go into an old, cobwebby  second-hand bookstore, I look to see if they have any of his books and over the years I’ve amassed half-a-dozen of them. Fighting off a nasty bout of bronchitis over the summer holidays, I stayed in bed and read my way through the whole lot of them again. Nearly all follow the same plot sequence as Castle Gillian (which is still my favourite) – a small quiet man comes to the glen, usually to visit a friend; there’s a beautiful girl (sometimes there are two, giving the friend a romance too); he has to outface a big tough cocksure man; at the end of the book, they fight; the small, quiet man wins against all odds and gets the girl. Sometimes there’s a murder involved as well. Most of them are set in Scotland and celebrate the wild and beautiful landscape (Castle Gillian is the exception, being set in Ireland); all of them are whimsical and a little wry.

Maurice Walsh was Irish himself (born in County Kerry in 1879), but spent a lot of time in Scotland and married his wife there in 1908. He is best known for the short story ‘The Quiet Man’ which was made into an Oscar-winning film directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. He was one of Ireland’s best-selling authors in the 1930s, but no-one I know has heard of him. It’s a shame, I think. The best of his books (Castle Gillian, Trouble in the Glen, Danger Under the Moon & The Small, Dark Man are all well worth reading. 

13. Fairest of Them All - Carolyn Turgeon

I’m in the final stages of a doctorate on Rapunzel, which means I simply must read every book ever inspired by the old fairy tale. 

Fairest of Them All is an interesting take on the well-known story, imagining: What if Rapunzel was Snow White’s evil stepmother?  

The story begins with a young Rapunzel living in a forest with her foster mother, Mathena, a witch who had been banished from court because of her magical powers. They live an idyllic life, tending the herb garden and helping the women of the village. 

One day Rapunzel’s singing attracts a young prince who was out hunting in the forest. He climbs up her hair into her tower bedroom and they have a brief afternoon of passion before the prince must return to his kingdom and his betrothed. 

Rapunzel loses the baby she carries, and is grieved to discover the king and his wife have a living daughter soon after hers has died. The girl is so beautiful she is named Snow White.

The tale then follows the familiar sequence of events known to us from the original Grimm tale – the mother dies, the king remarries, his queen has a magical mirror that tells her she is the fairest of all …
Written simply yet lyrically, this is a dark and powerful reimagining of two well-known fairy-tales and should appeal to the millions of fans of writers such as Donna Jo Napoli, Shannon Hale, Jessica Day George and Gail Carson Levine.

14. Rose Under Fire -  Elizabeth Wein
Elizabeth Wein’s novel Code Name Verity was one of the best books I read last year, and I was very eager to read her latest book, Rose Under Fire.

Both books are set during World War II, and both pack a hefty emotional wallop. In Rose Under Fire, the heroine is a young American woman who is caught by the Germans while flying an Allied fighter plane back from Paris.  She is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women's concentration camp. Trapped there in horrific circumstances, she has to try and survive, even while the German war machine grinds ever closer to genocide. Rose makes friends among the Rabbits (young Polish women who were experimented upon by doctors) and recites poetry to keep herself to stay sane. This book is so intense and powerful that I had trouble breathing by the end – like Code Name Verity, is one of the best WWII books for teenagers that I’ve ever read. Expect to be emotionally wrung out whilst reading it. 

15. Poison – Sara Poole
‘The Spaniard died in agony. That much was evident from the contortions of his once handsome face and limbs and the black foam caking his lips. A horrible death to be sure, one only possible from that most feared of weapons.

What a great opening to what proved to be a real page-turner of a novel. The book’s heroine, a young woman named Francesca Giordano, kills a man to prove that she is the better poisoner. Her reward is to become the official poisoner of Rodrigo Borgia, during his dangerous quest to become the next Pope. Francesca wants the job so she can find out who murdered her father, who had been poisoner before her. She finds herself caught up in an action-packed roller-coaster ride of an adventure, with intrigue, treachery, romance and murder a-plenty. A fabulous read!


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