Join Kate’s VIP Club Now!

Follow Me

FacebookPinterestTwitter

Kate's Blog

Subscribe RSS

SPOTLIGHT: Women of the German underground resistance

Wednesday, March 08, 2017


To celebrate International Women's Day, I thought I would spotlight the real (and unjustly forgotten) historical women whose lives I have drawn upon in my fiction.

Today I am focusing on the heroines of the German underground resistance, whose stories I told in my novel The Beast's Garden . 




My novel THE BEAST'S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm brothers' version of 'Beauty & the Beast' set in the Berlin underground resistance to Hitler in Nazi Germany. 

Many of my characters in the novel are based on real people who showed extraordinary courage, compassion and strength of spirit - ordinary people who did their best to fight against the evil of the Third Reich. 

I was particularly interested in the women of the German underground resistance - perhaps because when we think of Adolf Hitler and the women of Germany, we are used to is all those images of star-struck blonde Frauleins with their hands stretched high in the Nazi salute. 


Some German women were even said to eat the gravel upon which Hitler trod.

There were some German women who feared and hated the Nazi leader, however, and who risked their lives to resist his brutal dictatorship.

Sophie Scholl is probably the most famous. A university student in Munich, she and her brother and some friends set up the White Rose group in the summer of 1942. Together Hans Scholl and his friends Willi Graf and Christoph Probst spread anti-Nazi graffiti and wrote six political leaflets, which Sophie helped distribute in letter-boxes and through the mail. 

On 18 February 1943, Sophie and her brother took the sixth leaflet to the university to spread around the campus. A janitor grew suspicious and followed them, and so Sophie threw all the leaflets over a balcony. The siblings were caught and turned over to the Gestapo. Christoph was soon arrested too. After a mock-trial, they were all beheaded. Hans was 24, Christoph was 22, and Sophie was only 21. 


Hans & Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst

In Berlin, another resistance group was secretly meeting to make plans to overthrow Hitler. Like the White Rose, they tried to express their horror and outrage at the Nazi regime through graffiti and leaflets. They also smuggled Jews and other political prisoners out of the country, gave food and clothing to those who were suffering, and collected evidence of atrocities. 

This group was called The Red Orchestra by the Gestapo, who suspected them of selling State secrets to the Soviets and harbouring Russian spies. The group – who simply called themselves the Zirkel (meaning circle) – certainly did try to warn Stalin about Germany’s imminent invasion, though they received no payment for the risks they took. 

They also warned the US and Great Britain, only to have their approaches mistrusted and ignored.

The Zirkel was led by two couples - Harro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen and Arvid and Mildred Harnack - and so contemporary scholars often now call them the Schulze-Boysen/Harnack Group. 


Harro & Libertas Schulze-Boysen 

Harro was an officer in the Luftwaffe, and – after the war broke out - worked for Goring’s Reich Aviation Ministry in Berlin. Libertas was the daughter of one of Berlin’s most famous couturiers, Otto Ludwig Haas-Heye, and the granddaughter of Prince Philip of Eulenburg and Hertefeld, once an influential courtier at the imperial court of Kaiser Wilhelm II. She had worked for the MGM office in Berlin, but quit her job and went to work for Goebbels’ propaganda office in the hope of getting access to confidential information.  

Arvid was a lawyer and economist who took up a position in the Reich Economic Ministry, while his American-born wife Mildred – previously a university lecturer and author – did translation work for various German publishers and newspapers.

The group’s primary aim was to gather and pass on military intelligence to the Allies, and so they lived double lives, working inside the Nazi death machine whilst trying to sabotage it from within.

Mildred Fish Harnack, the only American woman executed by the Nazis


Eventually the Gestapo broke the covert operation, and Harro, Libertas, Arvid, Mildred and many more were arrested and executed. Mildred holds the unhappy distinction of being the only American woman executed by the Third Reich.

There were many other women in the Zirkel, such as the half-Jewish artist and photographer Elizabeth Schumacher, and Greta Kuckhoff, who was married to the playwright and dramaturge Adam Kuchoff. Cato Bontjes van Beek (aged 22) and Liane Berkowitz (aged 19) were the youngest of the group, both being executed by guillotine in 1943. (All these women feature as characters in my novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN.)

Also working in Berlin at the same time was a Jewish circle of friends generally known as the Baum Group, named for its leaders, Herbert and Marianne Baum. Most people in the group were young – aged in their twenties – and working as forced labour in Berlin’s armament factories. 

Other members included Sala and Martin Kochmann, Heinz Birnbaum, Heinz and Marianne Joachim, Edith and Harry Cohan, Gerd and Hanni Meyer, and the sisters Hella and Alice Hirsch.


 

Hella Hirsch


The group worked to help the plight of the Berlin Jews, and sabotaged the weapons they were helping to build. They undertook bold graffiti campaigns, and then – in September 1942 - they attempted to blow up Goebbels’ anti-Soviet propaganda exhibit in Berlin, using materials stolen from the factories in which they worked. Only a small fire resulted, but the event was an embarrassment to the Propaganda Minister. 

The defiant saboteurs were soon rounded up, tried and executed. Herbert Baum died in prison, with an official report of suicide. Sala Kochmann tried to fling herself from the windows of the Gestapo headquarters and broke her back. She was carried to her execution on a stretcher. Three of the young women – including Alice Hirsch who was only 19 – were spared the guillotine but were then sent to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. (The Baum Group also features in THE BEAST’S GARDEN). 

Another interesting woman who did her best to resist Hitler was the Countess So'oa'emalelagi von Ballestrem-Solf, known as ‘Lagi’ to her friends. Her name is Samoan, given to her when she was born by her father, who was the Governor of Samoa from 1900-1911. Lagi and her mother Johanna Solf hid fugitive Jews in their house and helped them escape across the border into Switzerland. They also helped prisoners-of-war and smuggled letters and information out of Germany. A Gestapo spy infiltrated their circle and betrayed them. 


Most of their friends were executed, but Lagi and her mother remained in prison. After a bombing raid destroyed all the evidence, they were both released, but were so damaged in their health from their time in prison that both died a few years after the war.

Johanna Solf


Finally, no discussion of the resistance of German women would be complete without including the famous Rosenstrasse protest, one of the largest public displays against Hitler. 

The event happened in early 1943. The Nazis were quickening their round-ups of Berlin Jews, with thousands being deported in horrific conditions to concentration camps.  

Up until this point, Jewish men who had married a non-Jewish woman before the passing of the Nuremburg laws had been protected from the worst of the atrocities. However, Nazi authorities had decided to ignore earlier protestations of protection, and had arrested a large number of these men. They were locked inside a Jewish welfare office on Rosenstrasse. 

Their wives went to protest their arrests, surrounding the building and refusing to leave even when soldiers threatened to fire into the crowd. For over a week, the women picketed the building, making it impossible to transfer the prisoners to the train station. Many threats were made, but the women did not back down and eventually the prisoners were released, including those that had already been sent to Auschwitz. 

A moving set of sculptures in rose-coloured stone now marks the spot where German women faced up to machine-guns to try and save their loved ones. 

You may also be interested in my blogs:

THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How liminal dreaming brought me a story of love, war and resistance 

BEST BOOKS ON THE GERMAN RESISTANCE 

BEST BOOKS ON BERLIN AT WAR

Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think!

INTERVIEW: Kim Wilkins interviews Kate Forsyth about THE BEAST'S GARDEN

Sunday, June 05, 2016

KIM WILKINS INTERVIEWS KATE FORSYTH 

On the Writing of The Beast's Garden





Historical fiction is usually defined as fiction that takes place before the author's birth. Usually you write about pre-20th century history, but this book is very much within our parents' lifetimes. Were there extra challenges in writing "modern history"?


Although THE BEAST’S GARDEN was a very challenging book to write, it was not because it was set in the ‘modern history’ period of the 20th century. Apart, of course, from having to write about Hitler and the Gestapo and concentration camps!

All historical fiction – regardless of the time period – has a certain set of challenges. I feel that my job as an author is to bring the world of my story vividly to life upon the page, allowing the reader to experience that world with all of their senses and all of their understanding. To do so, I have to slip inside the skins of all my characters, trying to understand at a deep cellular level how a person of that time thought and felt and perceived the world. To achieve this level of understanding, I spend a long time reading and researching and thinking and imagining. I don’t start writing my story until I feel I understand the inner and outer worlds of my characters.

Much of the challenge of writing historical fiction, therefore, has to do with the reading and research involved, and the absorbing and internalising of all that I read. 

So - in a way - the life of a young woman in Berlin during World War II was much easier than other places and times I’ve worked with, simply because life at that time has been so widely recorded and scrutinised. 

However, each book throws up new problems and new challenges, each unique to that story. I think the great challenge for me was trying my best to do justice to the amazing true stories of courage, strength of spirit, and compassion that I discovered. And – I must say – not allowing my own spirit to be darkened by all the horror and cruelty of the times.




You've made a name as a fantasy writer, the book relies very heavily on fairytale structure and ideas, and there is a strong element of romance in it. Given the way that all these things are often seen as trivial or "light", did you have misgivings about writing about a topic that is so relentlessly associated with the serious and weighty?

Well, I was constantly plagued by misgivings and doubts and fears. I always am. It's the cost of creativity.

However, I never doubted my story, or the importance of writing it, or the rightness of creating a story of love and steadfast courage and salvation in the midst of such darkness and terror. What I doubted was my own ability to tell the story as well as I wished to tell it. But I simply trusted in my story, trusted that it was a story that needed to be told, and trusted that I would find the way to do it. It was not easy. THE BEAST’S GARDEN was by far the most difficult book I have ever written. It took me a while to find the right form and structure for the story, and I am someone who needs to see the narrative shape clearly in my mind’s eye. I also struggled with the research that I had to do. Spending months and months reading about Hitler and the horror of the Holocaust was just soul-harrowing, and I needed to be careful not to allow that to overwhelm me, or my novel. 

I was aware, at all times, that THE BEAST’S GARDEN was a love story, and a story of courage and resistance and redemption, and so – rather than being a source of anxiety and misgivings – knowing what my story was actually gave me a light to steer by. I never forgot what I was truly doing in my heart, and that helped me overcome any apprehensions. 



There are many beasts in this story. There were people in it that I simply and absolutely despised. Who do you think was the beastliest beast (and let's remove Hilter from the pool so you don't have to consider him)?

Adolf Hitler is, of course, the most obvious manifestation of beastliness in the book, and I found it fascinating that he identified so strongly with wolves, one of the traditional beasts of terror in fairy tales (he liked to be called Herr Wolf, for example, and many of his headquarters were given names such as the Wolf’s Lair).



Then, of course, we have Heydrich Reinhard, who was head of the Gestapo for a good many years. He was nicknamed The Butcher of Prague and The Blond Beast. Of all the Nazi monsters, he was the one I always found the most chilling, perhaps because he was known to play the violin exquisitely. The violin is the instrument that plays my soul’s music. I find it almost unbearable that a man could, without hesitation, order the death of millions of people and then pick up a violin and play music of heartbreaking beauty. It seems so wrong, in a way that I find difficult to articulate. I think perhaps its because I think music and poetry and art and stories are so often expressions of beauty and love and healing, and a man like that should not be able to create it, or appreciate it. I know this is foolish and untrue. An appreciation of beauty and cruelty of heart have gone hand-in-hand for centuries. I just want it to be true.



But Reinhard is like Hitler and the rest of the cogs in the Nazi death machine – they are obvious villains, almost cartoonish in their virulence. And I was concerned, in the main, with more subtle kinds of beastliness – the ordinary people who betrayed their friends or families, or who looked the other way and so allowed evil to happen. 

I think the character in THE BEAST’S GARDEN who disturbed me the most was Stella Goldschlag, a real-life woman in 1940s Berlin. She was a beautiful young Jewish woman who became one of the infamous ‘catchers’ for the Gestapo. This meant that she was paid to find and point out other Jews to the Nazi police, so that they could be shipped off to their deaths in Auschwitz. Stella Goldschlag betrayed many of her old school-friends and neighbours, and was so hated the Gestapo gave her a revolver to protect herself against assassination attempts. She later said she had become a ‘catcher’ to save her parents from the concentration camps, but the truth is her activities only intensified after both were sent to Theresienstadt.  Nicknamed ‘Blonde Poison’ for her pretty Aryan looks, Stella Goldschlag was paid 300 reichsmarks for each Jew she ‘caught’, and it is estimated she was responsible for the deaths of up to 3,000 people. Her own husband ended up in Auschwitz, and yet she continued to work for the Gestapo right up until the fall of Berlin. Of course she was motivated by fear (she had been tortured by the Gestapo before she agreed to work for them), but also I think by greed and a desire for a soft and easy life. It is the fact that she knew her victims, and knew what was going to happen to them, that make her actions so horrifying to me. 



I loved the way you wove in the stories of real people among the fictional. I was amazed to find out that people such as Libertas, the Admiral, and Heydrich were real; and that Ava, Jutta, Rupert, and Leo stood alongside them just as three dimensional. Were there challenges in weaving the real and the fictional?

Absolutely! It would have been much easier to have had everyone in the book (except Hitler and Heydrich, of course) being made-up characters whose speech and actions and motivations I could control. 

However, a key concern for me in my most recent books has been this idea of giving a voice to forgotten women. In BITTER GREENS, I tell the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the 17th century French noblewoman who wrote the best-known version of ‘Rapunzel’. In THE WILD GIRL, my heroine was Dortchen Wild, the young woman who was the original oral source for many of the Grimm brothers’ most beloved fairy tales. THE BEAST’S GARDEN differs from the previous two books by not being inspired by the true lives of forgotten fairy-tale tellers. However, it is galvanized by the true lives of people who risked everything to stand up to Hitler, and whose stories are now largely unknown. Libertas Schulze-Boysen, Mildred Harnack and their friends were ordinary women, with hopes and dreams and talents that the world will now never see fulfilled. I find this very sad, and so I felt a strong desire to honour the truth of their actions, and to celebrate their courage and strength of spirit. Their true stories were so astonishing, so powerful, so heartbreaking, and so inspiring, I did not want to take their actions and give them to fictional characters with made-up names and backgrounds.

There was one character who began as a fictional creation of mine, only for me to find that she really – in one sense, at least – existed. The thought of it still raises all the hairs on my arms. 

In the original fairy tale of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, there is an evil enchantress who curses the hero so he is trapped in the shape of a beast. When I was planning my novel, I called this character ‘the Gestapo woman’ and decided that she would be a young woman who admired and worked for the Nazis, and is in some way responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of my hero, Leo. 

I chose to call this character ‘Gertrud’, because I don’t like that name, and because it means ‘spear-maiden’, thus tying her back to the Valkyries of Norse and Wagnerian myth. 

Many months later, I am working on the chapters in which the Gestapo arrests Ava’s friends, Libertas and Mildred. I read Libertas’ heart-rending letter she wrote to her mother on the eve of her execution (a letter which I reproduce in the book), and realise – with an electric shock of nerves – that Libertas was tricked into betraying her fellow resisters by a young woman working for the Gestapo … and that young woman’s name was Gertrud. 





Let's talk about some of your characters. Ava is described in the book as somebody who "would not keep her head down and her mouth shut". 
How important was that for the story?

Extremely important! 

Ava needed to be headstrong, courageous and far too outspoken for the plot to work. The story begins with her rushing through the darkness on Kristallnacht in order to try and save her best friend and his family, who are Jewish. She runs into a stranger, and in the intensity of the moment, speaks from her heart about her fear and hatred of the Nazi regime. She does not realize that the stranger she has met is an officer in the Abwehr, the German secret service. She risks her life, and that of her family, by speaking out so frankly, and her impulsiveness could have ended very badly for her. Instead she changes her life and that of the Nazi officer. 

Later in the book, she joins the underground resistance movement, something that no sensible German hausfrau would do, and she speaks out through anti-Nazi graffiti and leaflets. Her outspoken character drives the whole plot of the book, right up to her unwitting betrayal of her husband towards the end. 

Ava is also a singer, and her musical voice plays a very strong part in the whole narrative too. 

I have a lot of bird symbolism throughout the book, inspired by the key motif of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, the Grimm fairy tale that first sparked this book. Symbolically, the lark is seen as a messenger from God, the carrier of news, the herald of light and joy and the new day. So Ava is my messenger of light, my lark. Her name even means ‘bird’ and ‘life’ – I chose it very carefully. (Do you remember? We were in Oxford together when I found it.)


Ava is also described as almost synaesthetic. She sees music and colours in everything. Is that something taken from your own life or someone you know?

Yes, that’s me. I have always had the ability to see images, or stories, in sounds. When I listen to music, if its something that moves me or excites me, I will get a series of little moving coloured images in my mind, like a snippet of a film. Every time this happens to Ava in the book, I describe something that I have seen myself, in response to the same piece of music or the same word or name. I have been told it's a form of synaesthesia but I don’t believe it is, simply because it does not happen to me all the time. Not all names spark an image in my mind’s eye, and not all music tells me a story. Sometimes, if I concentrate hard, I can conjure an image. Synaesthesia, however, is said to be both involuntary and constant i.e. the same colour is always seen at the sound of a particular note of music.

Perhaps it is simply because I have such an over-active imagination!



Rupert (Ava's "almost-twin") was my favourite character. His poetry was sublime. I wondered if you wrote it or if it was actually poetry found secreted around the Jewish prison camps?

I’m glad you loved the poetry. I wrote it all. Most of it was written at fever-pitch, late at night when I was exhausted, and appears in the book virtually word-for-word as I first wrote it down. I did, however, read quite a lot of poetry when I wrote THE BEAST’S GARDEN. Mainly Rainer Maria Rilke, who I quote extensively through the narrative, but also Holocaust-driven poetry by writers such as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Czeslaw Milosz, Lotte Kramer, and Chaia L. Heller, unbearably sad and moving poems.




Let's turn to research now: Berlin, which is a city I love, is always changing. After the allies had taken it, it was described as "a pile of rubble next to Potsdam". How did you go about reconstructing the brilliant, beautiful pre-war Berlin?

It was important to me to bring Berlin of the late 1930s as vividly to life as I could, to deepen the sense of waste and desolation following the city’s fall in April 1945. 

So I had to do a lot of research. Pre-war travel guides were useful to me, especially one in which I found a map! History books, memoirs, old photographs and news-reels, descriptions in pre-war German literature – these were all useful to me. I travelled to Berlin, and went to all the places that still existed or had been rebuilt. I particularly loved the Tiergarten, and walked in it every day. In my mind’s eye I carried all the old photographs I had studied, in which nothing was left of the Tiergarten but a few burnt sticks and acres of ash.

And because I found Berlin so inutterably moving, this crucible of 20th century history, I think I managed to pour all that empathy and connection into my descriptions of how the city once was (or, at least, how I imagined it once was). 




Some of the details of your research were captivating. I need to know: was there really a woman who ate the gravel Hitler had stepped upon?


Yes, there was. Not just one. Many.

At least according to Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a German novelist of the time who kept a secret diary between 1936 and 1944. He hated Hitler with an absolute passion, and most of the diary is a record of that hate. He wrote: 

‘My life in this pit will soon enter its fifth year. For more than forty-two months, I have thought hate, have lain down with hate in my heart, have dreamed hate and awakened with hate. I suffocate in the knowledge that I am the prisoner of a horde of vicious apes, and I rack my brains over the perpetual riddle of how this same people which so jealously watched over its rights a few years ago can have sunk into this stupor …’ His diary is a reminder that not all Germans adored Hitler to the extent of literally eating the ground he trod on!

David Pryce-Jones, one of Unity Mitford’s biographers, repeated the anecdote about the swallowed gravel while discussing Hitler’s extraordinary charismatic pull over young women such as Unity and her sister Diana, and that is where I first read it. 




You wrote about Unity Mitford and her obsession with Hitler. Why do you think women felt that way about him?

I think it has to do with the giddy dangerous allure of power, especially absolute power, and also with Hitler’s own personal charisma. He had a way of fixing his eyes on someone with unswerving intensity that made many people – both men and women – feel a strong physiological reaction. Their temperature rose, sweat broke out on their hands, their collars felt too tight, they would feel light-headed and unsteady. Many did faint in his presence, in much the same way that people swoon over pop stars. Films of the time show women rushing the barricades, arms held up to touch him, trying to kiss him, and being dragged away by his bodyguards. It was more than his personal charisma, however. Unity was in love with him before she even met him. She moved to Munich in the hope that she might meet him, and spent days hanging round his favourite restaurant until at last he noticed her. In some way, Hitler’s words – both his promises and his threats – filled some hunger or need in the hearts of Unity Mitford and other young women like her. Freud would have called it a death impulse. 




The fear of the oppressive fascist regime pervades everything in this story. It adds so much pressure to the characters that you're sure they can't survive.
You show a side of Germany during the war that isn't often shown: that of the German people. Did you ever reflect, while writing this, on whether you would be like Ava, or if you would keep your head down and your mouth shut under such circumstances?

Oh yes! All the time. I kept thinking: what would I have done? Would I have had the courage to try and resist? 

It was very important to me to show that Ava was just an ordinary young woman, led step-by-step into extraordinary acts of bravery and kindness (and so too, by extension, Libertas and Mildred and the other real-life women of the story). They were not spies, trained to kill a man with their hat-pins. They did not have guns, or shoe-phones, or skeleton keys. They had to work and queue for food and try and find warm clothes for their children and spend their nights in air-raid shelters, struggling simply to survive. And yet somehow they found the courage to surreptitiously pass food to starving prisoners, to hide Jews and try to help them escape, to keep records of the atrocities they saw … all at the risk not only of their own lives but – under the Nazis’ sippenhaft law – of their whole families as well. 

I like to think that I would have been so brave. Yet I find it hard sometimes simply to stand up for what I believe in. 

And would I risk my children’s lives, my parents’ lives, the lives of all my dear beloved ones, to do so? I don’t know. I hope so. For one thing I have realized acutely since writing this book is that each one of us must stand up for what is right. Some things really are worth fighting for, and dying for. 





How implicated are those who do just keep their heads down when such awful things are happening?

In a way, this was one of the questions that tormented me the most while researching and writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN. 

It is very easy to become absorbed in your own busy life, hardly aware of what is happening outside our own small circle of influence. Wars and famines and atrocities can happen in the world, and barely make a dent in our consciousness. Sometimes, we are dreadfully sorry for what is happening. We wish there was something we could do. Other times, we know, but experience a kind of compassion fatigue, and a diffusion of responsibility. Someone else will help, we think. I’ve got a lot on right now. 

I can understand such thoughts and feelings because I have been guilty of them all. 

We can look back in time and be horrified that a Jewish refugee ship was shot at when it tried to land in Florida in 1939. The 900-odd refugees on that ship were forced to return to Europe, where many later died in concentration camps. It seems a shameful failure of compassion. Yet similar scenes of pragmatic cold-heartedness are happening on our own shores now.  

In future years, will we be trying to excuse our leaders’ actions by saying ‘I’m sorry, we didn’t know’? 



And, at this point in time at least, we do not have to fear our doors being smashed down by the Gestapo, and our loved ones being dragged off to concentration camps. We do not have to fear torture, slavery and a slow cruel death. 
If we do not like the way our country is run, we can vote to change our government and make our displeasure felt in protests, strikes, and by raising our voices. 

I would do almost anything to save my children from harm. I can understand how so many people turned their faces away, and pretended not to see. I can understand how tongues would be turned to stone, and hearts would be padlocked shut. 

Yet to understand such behavior is not to condone it. 

I’ve been telling people – only half joking – that writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN triggered an existential crisis in me. I have always thought deeply about the big ontological questions, and explored them in my fiction (its one reason why I love fantasy, a narrative form that embraces Big Thinking.)

But the tragic story of the German underground resistance has made me think a lot about the nature of good and evil, and what it means to be one or the other. And that old adage that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing is true.

So I want to make sure I do something. 

Since writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN I have tried hard to be braver and more outspoken, and to stand up for what I believe to be right. I am trying to do more to help others who are in need and suffering. I am trying even harder to be a good person.

Because I know now that evil does exist – and that we must always fight against it. 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!


SPOTLIGHT: The Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke

Sunday, January 03, 2016

   


I first encountered Rainer Maria Rilke when a friend gave me a copy of LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET when I was in my early twenties. It spoke to me very powerfully, and some lines were deeply engraved into my soul:


“In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?”


I read LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET many times, and moved on to reading all of Rilke’s poems and letters. My favourite collection was called RILKE’S BOOK OF HOURS, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Their version of Rilke was simple, yet profoundly powerful. It was a book I often picked up to browse through, then would not look at again for years …until I needed it again. 


I also read a number of biographies of his life, which was one long struggle to live deeply and intensely, to write truthfully, and to understand love.



Born in Prague, in what was then part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, in 1875, and christened Rene Maria Rilke, he spent much of his childhood dressed as a girl, as his mother grieved for a daughter who had died after only a week of life some time before his birth. 

Unsurprisingly Rilke had a difficult adolescence, was sent to a military school that he hated, and then on to various universities (though he never graduated with a degree). He had a long and intense relationship with a married woman, Lou Andreas-Salomé, who later studied with Sigmund Freud in Vienna. Rilke travelled with Lou and her husband to Russia and met Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak, and later lived in Paris where he worked for the sculptor Auguste Rodin (and was sacked by him for taking poetic license with the letters he wrote on the sculptor’s behalf). 

At the age of twenty-five, he married another sculptor, Clara Westhoff, but they had an unconventional marriage, each pursuing their own careers and leaving their daughter Ruth to be raised by Clara’s parents. I have often wondered what their daughter felt about this, and what impact it had upon her. Rilke and his wife then had what he called an ‘interior’ marriage – a relationship conducted mainly through intense, passionate, and often self-justifying letters. 

Rainer Maria Rilke & his wife, Clara Westhoff


Clara & their daughter Ruth


His experiences in World War I – which saw him unable to escape from Germany - lead to a long battle with writer’s block. He found refuge in Switzerland, and there wrote many of his most intense and lyrical poems during a high pitch of creativity in February 1922 – a "boundless storm, a hurricane of the spirit". Of these, perhaps the First Elegy is the most famous (and one of my own personal favourites): 




A long struggle with his health followed, and Rilke died in the arms of his doctor on December 29, 1926, at a sanatorium in Switzerland, from leukemia. 

It is said he died after pricking his finger on a rose thorn … 

Given his obsession with roses, this seems fitting. He wrote as his epitaph for his grave: 

Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch,
Lust, 
niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel Lidern


This is usually translated as: 

Rose, oh pure contradiction, 
joy, 
of being no-one's sleep under so many lids.

What the English translation does not convey is the punning similarity between the German for eyelids (Lidern) and songs (Liedern) – so that there may be a covert reference to music and perhaps poetry in this strange and enigmatic set of lines. 
I have wondered about this epigraph a lot, trying to understand it. Reading a number of different academic articles about it, I find that no-one really seems to know what it means. 

The comparison between rose petals and eyelids may refer to something Rilke wrote in his diary in 1900: 
‘I’ve invented a new form of caress: placing a rose gently on a closed eye until its coolness can no longer be felt; only the gentle petal will continue to rest on the eyelid like sleep just before dawn.’ 

Or perhaps it has more to do with another favourite poem of mine, from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus:

Erect no gravestone. Just let the rose
bloom every year for him.
For this is Orpheus: metamorphosis
into one thing, then another.
We need not search for other names.
It is Orpheus in the singing, once and for all time.
He comes and goes. Is it not enough
that sometimes he outlasts a bowl of roses?
Oh, if you could understand -- he has no choice but to disappear,
even should he long to stay. As his song
exceeds the present moment,
so he is already gone where we cannot follow.
The lyre's strings do not constrain his hands.
It is in moving farther on that he obeys.


(This translation comes from Joanne Macy. The translation by Edward Snow begin ‘Erect no monument. Allow the rose/to unfurl each year on his behalf ..’ and finishes ‘The lyre’s snare doesn’t trap his hands. And he obeys, even as he overreaches.’ One of the problems with reading Rilke in translation is that there are so many different versions! I tend to have favourites that I return to. Of my personal collections, I tend to find Joanne Macy’s translations simpler and more spiritual, Edward Snow’s more literal, and Stephen Cohn’s the most intensely poetic. His translation begins ‘Build no memorial but let the rose/blossom each year according to his pleasure; for this is Orpheus …’ ) 



I read Rilke in depth again when I was writing my latest novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN, which is a retelling of the Grimm brother’s version of Beauty & the Beast set in Nazi Germany. 
I was initially drawn to rediscover his work because of Rilke’s obsession with roses, (a potent motif in the French version of the fairy tale).



He has many poems that feature roses as their subject, or as a symbol or metaphor. I’ve always loved these lines, about rose petals falling:


‘And what they shed: how it can be light or heavy,
a cloak, a burden, a wing, a mask — it just depends —
and how they let it fall: as if disrobing for a lover.’


The same poem ends:


“And aren't they all doing the same: only containing themselves,
if to contain oneself means: to transform the world outside
and wind and rain and patience of spring
and guilt and restlessness and disguised fate
and darkness of earth at evening
all the way to the errancy, flight, and coming on of clouds
all the way to the vague influence of the distant stars
into a handful of inwardness.
Now it lies free of cares in the open roses.’

Rilke, "A Bowl of Roses." Trans. Galway Kinell & Hannah Liebman. American Poetry Review 1999 28(3):61 


As I was researching and writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN, I read many of my favourite Rilke poems again, and discovered many other key motifs in his work that resonated strongly with the book I was writing – images of birds and angels, flying and falling, stars and dark spaces, and – most importantly - a heartfelt grappling with the meaning of love and death. 




I read again a passage that had moved me strongly as a young woman:


‘Love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.’ 
(from the Seventh Letter in Letters to a Young Poet, New World Library edition). 


Here are some of the poems that I reference in my novel.


Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened.
like winter, which even now is passing.
For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.
Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing.
Climb praying as you return to connection.
Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.
Be. And, at the same time, know what it is not to be.
The non-being inside you allows you to vibrate
in full resonance with your world. Use it for once.
To all that has run its course, and to the vast unsayable
numbers of beings abounding in Nature,
add yourself gladly, and cancel the cost.


(from Sonnets to Orpheus, No 13, trans. Joanne Macy )




(A hand-written manuscript page from Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus


and another:

I love you, gentlest of Ways
who ripened us as we wrestled with you.
You, the great homesickness we could never shake off,
you, the forest that always surrounded us,
you, the song we sang in every silence,
you dark net threading through us,
on the day you made us you created yourself,
and we grew sturdy in your sunlight…
Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven now
And mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.


(from "The Book of Hours, I, 25" – trans. Anita Barrows  & Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hourse: Love Poems to God, Riverhead Books, 1996)




Dying is strange and hard
if it is not our death, but a death
that takes us by storm, 
when we've ripened none within us.

(from "The Book of Hours III; 8" – trans. Anita Barrows  & Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hourse: Love Poems to God, Riverhead Books, 1996)


This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.


From "The Book of Hours II, 16" - trans. Anita Barrows  & Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hourse: Love Poems to God, Riverhead Books, 1996)


And from the same book (which is one of my favourites):


The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.
I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All my becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.”




Rediscovering the work of this intense, lyrical, and mystical poet has been one of the greatest joys of my journey in writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN – I hope you will discover some of his work too. 

Do you have a favourite Rilke quote or poem? Please share with me! 


SPOTLIGHT: The history & meaning of 'Beauty & the Beast'

Sunday, November 15, 2015





"Beauty & the Beast" is one of the world’s most beloved fairy tales. It is also thought to be one of the oldest. It has its roots in a story called ‘Cupid & Psyche’ which was included in the collection of stories known as Metamorphoses, written in the 2nd century AD by Apuleius. That is more than two thousand years ago ... and there are more than one thousand different variants of this tale, in cultures all over the world. 

In many versions, the monstrous bridegroom is a serpent. In the Norwegian version ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, he is a bear. In the Grimm brothers’ version, ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, he is a lion, and in the English variant, he is a dog. 

* ‘Cupid & Psyche’-type tales usually feature three sisters. The youngest is the most beautiful. She must marry (or live with) a monster, beast, or animal, usually as penance for some kind of theft or misbehavior. In ‘Cupid & Psyche’, she was so beautiful that people began to worship her instead of Venus. In ‘Beauty & the Beast’, her father steals a rose. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, the father tries to catch the beast’s pet lark. 

* The Beast comes to her bed at night in the form of a man, but she must not see him.

* The Beauty betrays the Beast somehow. In ‘Cupid & Psyche’ and ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, her dangerous curiosity leads her to light a lamp so she can see who her bridegroom is. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, she allows light to fall upon him. 

* He is revealed to be a beautiful man - a prince or a god. But since she has seen him, and was forbidden not to, he must leave. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, he is transformed into a dove.

She searches for him, sometimes having to complete many difficult tasks in order to find him. Her journey is to the underworld and back, seeking redemption.




In 1740, a French writer called Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve took the well-known ‘Animal Bridegroom’ tale and rewrote it as ‘The Story of the Beauty & the Beast’. Being over 100 pages long, this is the first time a fairy tale was retold in novel form. Villeneuve’s version was dark, complex, and sensual. In her tale, the danger is very real – the Beast is fierce and wild, and must be tamed by the girl. As Terri Windling has written ‘(in Villeneuve’s story) the Beast is a truly fiercesome figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur … The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere.’ 

Sixteen years later Mademoiselle Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, a French woman working as a governess in England, took Villeneuve's story and cut it to the bone, removing much of the latent eroticism and complex back-story. She published her simpler version in a magazine for young ladies. In Beaumont’s story, the monstrous shape of the Beast is a kind of furry costume that he wears, hiding the good and noble man within. 



The story was therefore no longer about the Beast's need for transformation, but instead focuses on the heroine’s need to learn to look beneath the surface. So Beaumont’s story is closer to the original ‘Cupid & Psyche’ tale, in which the heroine must undergo a series of trials and tests before she is worthy of her divine lover.

Beaumont’s version of the tale has now been retold so many times it has its own sub-category in the folkloric classification system – Tale Type 425C ‘Beauty & the Beast’. 



The Meaning of the Tale


As always, there are multiple interpretations of the meaning of the story. As P.L. Travers said, ‘we go to fairy tales not so much for their meanings as for our meanings.’ (quoted in The Meanings of "Beauty and the Beast": A Handbook, by Jerry Griswold.)

Bruno Bettelheim looks at the symbols of the tale. For him, the stolen rose is indicative of the ‘broken flower’ of maidenhood, and so anticipates the loss of her virginity. This would make ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a story of sexual awakening, as so many fairy tales are. For Bettelheim, who was a Freudian psychoanalyst, the story is therefore one of oedipal conflict – the daughter must grow away from her childish love of her father and into a more mature love of her husband. 



Steven Swann Jones believes fairy tales are ‘symbolic depictions of social and emotional crises faced by audience members … (‘Beauty & the Beast’-type tales) dramatize the central and apparently problematic experience of coming to terms with marriage.’ 

Old school feminists might argue that – by trying to please her father by marrying the Beast - Beauty is locked into a female-reductive patriarchal society. 

However, newer feminist readings of the tale look back to its mythic roots. Psyche means the vital breath, or breath of life, and so stands for the human soul. Psyche, the heroine of the old tale, has to undergo a long journey down into the dark terror of the underworld and back up into the light, a journey of transformation, redemption and rebirth. 

This mythic reading of the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ tale fills it power. It is the story of a woman’s journey towards true knowledge of her secret lover, and indeed of the nature of love itself (remember that a rose is often a symbol of secrets). 

Marina Warner has written: ‘The Beauty & the Beast story is a classic fairy tale of transformation, which, when told by a woman, places the male lover, the Beast, in the position of the mysterious, threatening, possibly fatal unknown, and beauty, the heroine, as the questor who discovers his true nature …by the end of the tale …. The terror has been faced and chased; the light shines in the dark places.’ 



You may also enjoy reading some of my other blogs on fairy tales:






PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

SPOTLIGHT: Best Children's Books Set in World War II

Sunday, November 08, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Best Children’s Novels Set in World War II

My new novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm fairy tale ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, set in Nazi Germany.

I have been fascinated by World War II ever since I was a child, and read every book I could find set during those tumultuous years as I grew up. 

I thought I’d make up a list of my favourite children’s books set in World War II for you. 


The first book I ever read with that setting was The Diary Of Anne Frank. It sent a seismic shock through my life when I first read it at the age of twelve. Her voice was so honest and true, and her ending so very tragic. I found it devastating, and it began my lifelong fascination with the Second World War.


I am David by Anne Holm was published in 1963, and written by a Danish author. It’s a haunting tale about a 12 year old’s escape from a concentration camp and his struggles to find safety and a home. I have read it again several times, and it never fails to shock and move me. 



The Silver Sword by Ian Serrallier, published in the late 1950s, is another utterly gripping and harrowing children’s book set during World War II. 
On a cold winter’s night in Warsaw, three children watch in horror as the Nazis arrest their mother. Left alone to fend for themselves, in a city that has been bombed into ruins, the three children struggle to stay alive. Eventually they hear their father is alive and has escaped to Switzerland. They set out to find him, keeping as their talisman an old letter opener that they call the silver sword. 


The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico is a small exquisite book about the friendship between a crippled young man, a girl, and a snow goose. It was first published in 1940 as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, then he expanded it to create a short novella which was first published on April 7, 1941. It was my introduction to the extraordinary story of the Dunkirk evacuation, and has lingered in my imagination ever since. Youc an read a longer review here.


When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr is inspired by the author’s own childhood, growing up in Nazi Berlin. It tells the story of a little girl who does not even realise that she and her family are Jewish until the pogroms begin. Her father – an outspoken writer – has to flee in the middle of the night, and Anna and her mother and brother must try to follow as best they can. I remember lying awake for weeks afterwards, imagining what I would pack … where I would hide … would I remember a can opener? Which one of my beloved soft animals would I take? 


Good night, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian did not have as strong an impact upon my imagination as many of the other books in my list – perhaps because it is set in England and so the danger did not seem so acute. It tells the story of a skinny Cockney boy sent away from London because of the Blitz. He is reluctantly taken in by a grumpy old man in a small country village, but the two end up being each other’s saviours. As a child, I mainly remembered the scene in which the boy, Willie, is discovered to have been sewn into his undies by his mother … and his bed-wetting …. But I read the book again as an adult, and found it a beautiful and subtle book.
 

I first read Dawn Of Fear by Susan Cooper because I loved her Dark is Rising fantasy series so much, rather than because of its WW2 setting. However, it lingered for a long time in my memory … I think because it felt so real. It tells the story of a mob of boys in blitzed London, their games and feuds, and the sudden shock of tragedy that changes everything. An unjustly ignored book, I think. 


As I grew older, I read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, an utterly brilliant story about the Danish Resistance and how they worked to save nearly all of the country’s Jewish population after the German occupation in 1943. This is a book I return to again and again – it is so simple, and yet so powerful. In my estimation, it is one of the best books for children about World War II.



In my teens, I also read Briar Rose and The Devil’s Arithmetic, both by Jane Yolen. The first is an extraordinary reimagining of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ‘Briar Rose’, moving between the modern day story of a Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter and her grandmother’s harrowing escape from the Chelmno concentration camp. The second is a timeslip adventure, taking a modern-day girl – who finds her family’s Jewish traditions embarrassing – back to a Polish village in the 1940s. When the Nazi soldiers come and start rounding up the Jewish residents, only Hannah has any idea of what lies in store … but no-one will believe her. Utterly compelling and heart-wrenching.


As I grew up, I never stopped reading WW2 fiction intended for the young … here are a few favourites by contemporary authors:


A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

This is the first in a trilogy about an extraordinary family, the FitzOsbornes, who live in a tumbledown castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray. The FitzOsbornes are minor royalty, and their home has a strategic position in the ocean between Germany and Great Britain. Beginning in 1936, the trilogy charts the lives of the family as war breaks out in Europe. It is fresh, charming, surprising, and will make you smile one moment and weep the next. You can read more about Michelle Cooper and the Montmaray 
Journals here




 
I also really love those books of Eva Ibbotson set during this period. My favourite is A Song for Summer, which tells the story of an unusual English girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in a progressive Austrian boarding school in the late 1930s. As always, the minor characters are extremely eccentric and delightful, but there are darker shadows here as the Third Reich spreads its tentacles over Europe. I’d also recommend The Morning Gift and The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson, set in the same period and sharing her delicious blend of sparkling humour, acute insight, and heart-warming romance.


The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo is one of my daughter’s all-time favourite books. I first read it to her when she was about eight, and she has read it again many times since (Michael Morpurgo is her favourite author). It’s the story of a girl and her cat and their small English village, and the impact of the war upon their lives. I am not ashamed to say I cry at the end every single time. We also love Waiting for Anya and  An Elephant in the Garden by the same author.


One of the most brilliant, clever, and heart-rending novels about WW2 that I have ever read is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. It was only published in 2012, and so is a recent addition to the oeuvre – and absolutely one of the best.   It tells the story of a young British female spy whose plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Arrested and held prisoner and tortured for information, she tells her story on small scraps of paper … yet is she telling the truth? This is one of those books that is terribly hard to summarise in a blurb, in the fear of giving away the story’s unexpected plot twist … and yet you want to say to everyone: READ  IT!




Elizabeth Wein’s follow-up Rose Under Fire is almost as good … which means it is absolutely soul-shakingly brilliant.


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne has been widely celebrated and has sold a motza. I did not like it much when I first read it – I felt it struck a note of false naivety, plus I thought it was too similar in key ways to Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, which I absolutely loved. However, I have re-read the book a few times since then and have been won over. In a way, its simplicity and naivety make it a key entry point for teenagers who have never read any Holocaust fiction … and its ending (very similar to the ending of Jane Yolen’s novel) at least does not try to escape the awful reality of Auschwitz. 
 
I just hope that readers of John Boyne’s work will go on and read Anne Frank, and Anne Holm, and Ian Serallier, and Jane Yolen, and those other writers of extraordinary WW2 children’s fiction. 


And one final note: I cannot talk about wonderful WW2 children’s’ fiction without mentioning my own sister Belinda Murrell’s brilliant and heart-wrenching novel The Forgotten Pearl, set in Darwin and Sydney in the 1940s.

 


You may also like to read my blog about The Diary of Anne Frank, and how reading it changed my life. 


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!


SPOTLIGHT: Jazz Music in Nazi Germany

Sunday, October 25, 2015

I have always loved jazz music, ever since my mother used to play it to me as a little girl. 


So when I was writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN – my novel set in the German underground resistance in Berlin during the late 1930s and early 1940s – it was a perfect opportunity for me to weave in many of my favourite songs of the era.




The Nazis did not approve of jazz. 


It was seen as a symbol of the decadent and dissolute Weimar Republic. After Hitler came to power in 1933, there were some early prohibitions – jazz music by black or Jewish musicians was banned, for example. 


The repression of jazz music intensified in 1937 and 1938, as many young Germans began to embrace the new jazz-style swing music with its wild dance moves. Many clubs where the Swingjugend (lit. Swing Youth, usually translated as Swing Kids) met to play jazz and dance swing were banned. However, the clubs just moved underground, with the Swing Kids meeting in basements or at each other’s houses. 


Early in the novel, in 1938, my heroine Ava goes to one of these underground jazz clubs with her best friend Rupert. She wants to be a jazz singer, while he plays the trumpet. 


“Listening to jazz and swing was banned, of course. Herr Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, called it ‘niggerjazz’ and ‘jazzbazillus’, as if it was some kind of disease. Ava and Rupert loved it passionately. Whenever they could, they sneaked out to watch Hollywood movies like Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or Day at the Races with the Marx Brothers. There was one scene in that film which Ava just loved, where black male dancers threw their short-skirted partners up into the air and spun them in deft somersaults. All the dancers skipped and swung and spun as if they were all so full of joy they were just about ready to burst out of their skins.”




      

Later: 


“Ava and Rupert loved jazz because it was all about celebrating the individual. Jazz was improvisation, innovation, inspiration. Nazism was all about subjugating the individual. It was control, constraint, constipation.
And so they defied it the only way they knew how - by singing and dancing and swinging.”



Ava has a form of synaesthesia. When she listens to music, she sees colours and images. This is actually a strange gift of mine, which I gave to her. Often – when I describe Ava ‘seeing’ as she listens to music - I am describing what I myself ‘see’. 


“As long as Ava could remember, words and songs and stories had conjured imaginary pictures for her. When her father read fairy tales at night, Ava saw the dark forest leaning over her bed. When she sang ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, she saw a thin black woman creeping away through a forest, carrying all that she owned tied up in a red scarf, hoping to find freedom, hoping to find love. 

People’s names were like flashes of brightly coloured pictures in her mind’s eye. Her father’s name, Otto, was a railway tunnel through a hill of pine trees. Monika’s name was steely-grey and sharp-toothed, like a trap. Bertha was shaped just like her name, soft and billowy and yet capable of stinging. Rupert’s name was a drag on a cigarette, the first mouthful of smoke, the hit at the back of the throat. Jutta was one of those feisty little black terriers, always barking at bigger dogs. 

Ava’s mother’s name had been Clementina. It was a joyous name, full of sunshine and sweetness, yellow-gold as C major. There was nothing sharp or black or cruel about the name Clementina. Ava had never known her mother, but when she whispered her name she saw her, golden-skinned and smiling. 

Her own name was white-winged, like a bird leaping into the sky. AVA. 

Then there was Nazi. A word with claws.”


Here is Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’ 





 Ava’s “favourite song of all time was Billie Holiday singing ‘Summertime’, with Artie Shaw on clarinet and Bunny Berigan on trumpet. Billie’s voice was not perfect by any means. It was tremulous, even weak. There were no astonishing vocal acrobatics, no extraordinary range. Yet it raised all the hairs on Ava’s arms. 

As Billie Holiday sang, Ava saw in her mind’s eye a sad-eyed black woman with her head wrapped in a kerchief, rocking a drowsy child in her arms. The endless flat cotton fields stretched away to the horizon, sharp-etched thorns snagging blowsy white balls like clouds hooked from the sky. The light was golden, thunderous. White-winged birds soared high. But the black woman must stay, pinned to the spot, to that life. Her voice broke. She could sing no longer. So the two voices of the trumpet and the clarinet sang for her, giving her the strength to lift her voice again, to spin out that thin thread of hope to the sleeping child. 

Listening to that song, Ava felt it in every cell of her body. It made her want to cry, thickening her throat and burning her eyes. It made her want to dance, a slow sun-worshipping sway, lifting her arms to the sky. It made her want to sing.”


Billie Holiday singing ‘Summertime’ is my all-time favourite song too.





Another favourite song of mine that Ava sings is Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Under the Spell of the Blues’.





And I describe Rupert doing a trumpet solo of ‘The Very Thought of You’. Here is the amazing Wynton Marsalis and his band playing the same song:






 
After the beginning of World War II, it became even more dangerous to listen to jazz. Many Swing Kids were arrested and sent to concentration camps.  


Rupert was one of them. He was sent to Buchenwald.


One of the biggest and most brutal of the German camps, Buchenwald later became famous for its underground musical ensembles. A jazz band was set up there in 1943, with the musicians been given easier jobs in the camp to protect them. Instruments were bought or stolen, and the musicians ranged from young to old, amateur to professional. Rehearsals were held secretly during official work time. Eventually, the camp jazz band played even to the SS officers, who were bored and wanted entertainment.  



"Buchenwald Concert" - Pierre Mania

In the outside world, jazz was breaking free of Goebbels’ bans as well. German soldiers were so sick of the old-fashioned folk music being released by the Propaganda Ministry they were illegally tuning into British and American radio stations to listen to their jazz tunes. Goebbels knew the importance of maintaining morale, both among the military and civilians. So he set up state-sanctioned jazz bands that played state-sanctioned jazz music. 


However, after the cataclysmic defeat of German forces at Stalingrad in February 1943, Goebbels declared a state of 'total war' and all entertainment venues – including opera houses – were shut down. Most of Berlin had been bombed into rubble, and the dreadful machinery of the Holocaust was grinding millions into dust. 


“For Ava, music had always been the way to heal herself. When she sang of loss and love and longing, she brought those feelings out of the darkness and into the light. She had always thought that she would die if she could not sing, as if music was a part of her body, like her heart or her lungs or her liver. Now Berlin lay in ruins …. Ava was not sure that she ever wanted to sing again.” 


Somehow she finds the strength to sing again, in order to save her husband. Dressed in gold silk, she sings to a room of SS officers. The song is Billie Holiday’s ‘Lover Man’







You may also enjoy my blogs on:


THE BEAST’S GARDEN: HOW A BOOK CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE



BEST BOOKS ON BERLIN AT WAR



BEST MEMOIRS OF LIFE IN BERLIN DURING WW2



THE BEAST’S GARDEN: How liminal dreaming brought me a story of love, war & resistance




THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How a book can change your life

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Sometimes a book can change your life.

The Diary of Anne Frank was that kind of book for me. 

I read it when I was twelve years old.  I can still remember the awful shock of reaching the end, and finding out that Anne did not escape her attic, that she died in Bergen-Belsen when she was only a few years older than I was. 

I had never read a book like it before. It felt like I had been punched hard in the solar plexus. I could not breathe, I could not cry. My very heart felt bruised.


Anne Frank

I began to write my own diary a few days later. Anne Frank had written hers as a series of letters addressed to an imaginary friend named Kitty. I did the same, but addressed mine to “Carrie”. The first entry was written on 15/8/1978 and began ‘Dear Diary, your name is now Carrie. You’ll be my confidant and my port in which to lay my head and my poor worn-out hopes, thoughts and ambitions …’ 

I have written in my diary nearly every day since. That is thirty-seven years of consecutive diary writing, much more than the two years so tragically given to Anne Frank.

Her diary also sparked in me a lifelong fascination with Hitler, and those few brave people who tried their best to resist Nazism. I began to collect a library of books to do with the Second World War, many of them first-hand accounts and memoirs. I was particularly interested in stories of ordinary people who found within themselves extraordinary courage and strength. I knew that one day I would try and write a novel about someone like Anne Frank. 

The years passed, and I wrote a great many books. More than thirty-five at last count. My books range from picture books to poetry, and from heroic fantasy for children to historical novels for adults. I have written books set in Renaissance Venice and at the court of the Sun King in Versailles, in the English Civil War and in the perilous reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Napoleonic Wars, and in worlds of my own imagining. Yet the Second World War never loosened its hold on my imagination. I continued to read as many books as I could find set at that period, and to continue to think about writing one of my own. 

Fairy tales are another long-held passion of mine. I have just completed a doctorate in the subject, and many of my novels have fairy tale motifs and metaphors entwined through their stories. 

The Wild Girl tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most beloved ‘wonder tales’. She told him stories like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,’ a beautiful variant on the tale we know as ‘The Beauty and the Beast’. 

Arthur Rackham's illustration for 'The Singing, Springing Lark' 

In this story, the father catches a lark, rather than stealing a rose, and the beast of the tale is a lion by day and a man by night (an arrangement which I always thought might have its compensations). The greatest difference, however, is the ending. In Dortchen Wild’s tale, the heroine must follow a trail of blood and white feathers her lover leaves behind him, and then outwit the enchantress who first cast the curse upon him. The heroine is given three gifts to help her: a dress as golden as the sun, another as silver as the moon, and a griffin on which to escape. 

Writing a novel always throws up many unexpected ideas as well as unforeseen problems, and The Wild Girl was no exception.  Taking place over twenty years, and told from the point of view of a young woman forgotten by history, The Wild Girl was very research-intensive indeed. And, for a long while, I did not have a strong sense of the narrative structure. I knew I wanted to retell one of Dortchen’s stories in some way; I did not yet know how. 

While researching the Grimm Brothers, I was distressed to learn their tales had been banned in Germany after the Second World War, as part of the Allies’ Denazification program. Hitler had loved the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales and had recommended all German households have a copy on their shelves. I went to bed that night troubled and upset. I loved the Grimm tales too. In times of darkness and fear, they had given me light and comfort. Yet I had always hated the Nazis and all they stood for, including their burning of books. 

I could not get to sleep that night, my mind in turmoil.  Eventually I got up and found myself a novel to read. I chose an old World War II thriller, about the Danish resistance to the Nazis. I read the whole book through, finally going to sleep long after midnight. Just before I fell asleep, I thought again about the novel I was struggling to write and about the beautiful tales Dortchen Wild had told Wilhelm Grimm. I said to myself: “Trust in the universe. The answer will come.” 

The next morning, as I drifted in that hypnopompic state between sleeping and waking, an image rose up in my mind’s eye. I saw a beautiful young woman, wearing a dress as golden as the sun, singing in a vast dark hall. Her audience were German soldiers in black SS uniforms. I knew instinctively that she was some kind of spy, or resistance fighter, and also that she was German herself. 

I wrote in my diary that day, Monday 3rd October 2011: ‘I couldn’t sleep last night for worrying about Wild Girl … I need something new, strange, unexpected, surprising … I woke this morning and lay in that dim borderland between awake and asleep, that place of creative dreaming, and the idea came to me – why not have the secondary tale set in WWII … perhaps she has to flee and live wild in the woods – or joins the German Resistance - & she carries everywhere a copy of the Grimm fairy tales, as a kind of talisman … it feels good, it feels right, it feels hard and scary – but absolutely seems it have some kind of power to it …’  

My unconscious mind had put together two very different desires – wanting to write a novel about resistance to the Nazis and wanting to retell one of Dortchen Wild’s fairy tales – and come up with something quite unexpected. 

That was the beginning of my novel The Beast’s Garden, a retelling of the Grimms’ version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, set in the German underground resistance to Hitler.

That vision, that not-quite-a-dream, was the beginning of an extraordinary journey of discovery for me. At first, I thought that this story of courage and resistance would be the second narrative strand in The Wild Girl. Slowly I came to realise it was a novel in its own right. I had to put the idea aside as I wrote The Wild Girl and finished my doctorate in fairy tale studies. The idea would not leave me alone, however. I began to read as much as I could about the German Resistance. 

I discovered, rather to my surprise, that many Germans abhorred the Nazis and risked their lives to stand against Hitler. I read about the Swing Kids who played jazz and danced swing in basements and cellars, despite the threat of arrest. The White Rose group of students in Munich printed leaflets calling the German people to rise up against the Third Reich. The Edelweiss Pirates in Cologne did battle with the Hitler Youth and hid deserters from the army. The Baum group in Berlin blew up one of Goebbels’ exhibitions. Other resisters smuggled Jews out of Germany, or hid them in their houses and gardens. Most of them paid for their defiance with their lives.

One of the most successful groups of resisters was based in Berlin. The Gestapo called them the Red Orchestra. They called themselves the Zirkel, which simply means circle. Their members were writers, actors, journalists, musicians and sculptors. Their leaders were a Luftwaffe officer called Harro Schulze-Boysen, his young aristocratic wife Libertas, and their friends Arvid and Mildred Harnack. Mildred would earn the terrible distinction of being the only American woman to be executed by the Third Reich.

Harro & Libertas Schulze-Boysen, who were both executed for their resistance to the Third Reich

I imagined a young German woman (the Beauty of the tale) who marries a Nazi officer (the Beast) in order to save her father. But secretly Ava helps her Jewish friends whever she can. One day she meets Libertas, and is drawn into the dangerous world of the underground resistance. Living a double life, she must spy on her husband Leo in order to help save whom she can. Gradually she comes to suspect her husband is himself involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. When the plot fails, Ava must risk everything to try and save her husband from a cruel traitor’s death. 


The Beast’s Garden was in many ways the most difficult book I have ever written. I found the research utterly harrowing. For months, every day was spent reading about Hitler, about the Gestapo, about the Holocaust. I wrote the first draft entirely in first person, as if it was a diary or a memoir. But then I found it was too limiting, trying to tell such a big story from just one person’s point of view. I rewrote the entire book, in just six weeks, from a number of different points of view, including that of a Jewish girl in hiding. 

On Thursday 12 February 2015, I wrote in my diary: ‘I finished the novel last night, at 1am … and could not sleep afterwards … very tired now, but oh so happy …’


The Beast’s Garden is my paean to all those ordinary people who found such extraordinary courage and strength of spirit within them during the dark days of the Third Reich, including, of course, Anne Frank and the people who hid her and her family. 

You can read more about my liminal dreaming here and more about my research books for THE BEAST'S GARDEN here


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

SPOTLIGHT: Best Books on Berlin at War

Friday, September 25, 2015

My novel THE BEAST'S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm brothers' version of 'Beauty & the Beast' set in Nazi Germany. 

The story takes place between Kristallnacht in November 1938, and the fall of Berlin in April 1948, with most of the action centred on Berlin, the nerve centre of the Third Reich. 

I read a great many books to help me imagine what life must have been like in Berlin during those tumultuous years. Here is a list of those that helped me most:



BERLIN AT WAR - Roger Moorhouse

This book rarely left my desk for the months and months it took me to research and write THE BEAST'S GARDEN. Lucidly written and a mine of information, it is probably the best book on what it was like for ordinary Germans to live at the epicentre of Hitler's war. I can recommend this to anyone!



THE FALL OF BERLIN 1945 - Antony Beevor 

The story of the Fall of Berlin is one of terror and betrayal, destruction and bloodshed, rape and revenge, and is not one for the faint-hearted. Antony Beevor has examined every aspect of the events leading up to the cataclysmic destruction of Berlin in April 1945. The book is incredibly well-researched, and beautifully written, but is best for those who have already extensively studied the history of Germany in the Second World War, or those with a particular acute interest in warfare and battles - every manoeuvre, every push and retreat, is given space on this book's pages. Perfect for me, since I needed a day-by-day breakdown of the city's fall!   



INSIDE HITLER'S GERMANY: Life Under the Third Reich - Matthew Hughes and Chris Mann

A broad and accessible look at life in the Third Reich, with lots of pictures and breakout boxes. Useful and informative, with a good bibliography.


VICTORY IN EUROPE - Gerald Simons (with the editors of Time-Life Books)   

A simple and well-illustrated look at the final months of the Second World War in Europe, with lots of maps and photographs and newspaper headlines. It is one of a whole series of Time-Life illustrated books on World War II which I bought at a second-hand booksale in an old church in the Hunter Valley (with thanks to my brother Nick who lent me the money to buy them, then carried the heavy box out to the car.)

I also read a number of memoirs of life in Berlin during the war. The most useful to me were LETTERS FROM BERLIN by Margarete Dos and Kerstin Lieff, and BERLIN DIARIES 1940-1945, by Marie Vassiltchikov.  You can read more about them here.

You can also read my blogs on Best Books on Hitler and Best Books on Jews in Nazi Germany 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

SPOTLIGHT: Best Books on the German Resistance

Thursday, September 24, 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. I first got the idea in a liminal dream - as I drifted in the shadowlands between sleeping and waking, I saw an image of a young woman, dressed in a 1940s golden gown, singing to a nightclub full of men in black SS uniforms. I knew - I don't know how - that she was German, and a member of an underground resistance movement sworn fight against Hitler.  (You can read the whole story about that first moment of inspiration here).

I had not realised that there was a German resistance movement before.  

had heard about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose group, and knew there had been numerous attempts to assassinate Hitler, but that was the extent of my knowledge. 

I got out of bed and went down to my study to see what I could find out.  Within a day or two, I had most of the plot of THE BEAST'S GARDEN roughly planned.

Over the next few years, I read many books about the German Resistance, and I thought I would share some of them with you, if you were interested on going on to read more.



GERMANY'S UNDERGROUND: The Anti-Nazi Resistance - Allan Welsh Dulles

This is the classic account of the German Underground, written by someone who was there on the ground and published in 1947. 

Allen W. Dulles was the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Switzerland during the war. This was the predecessor of the CIA and was formed to conduct espionage behind enemy lines. He concentrates on the 1944 Generals Plot to assassinate Hitler, best known as Operation Valkyrie, but does touch upon many other resistance groups, such as the Kreisau Group. A really good place to start, as I discovered.   




OPERATION VALKYIE: The German Generals' Plot Against Hitler - Pierre Galante
This account of the Generals' Plot looks at the sequence of events from the beginning of the conspiracy to the bitter failure of the end. The Generals' Plot has been immortalised by Tom Cruise in the 2008 movie 'Valkyrie', so most people will know the basic story arc - the madness of Hitler, the growing unease at many in his army command as the Holocaust began its terrible human toll, and the repeated failed attempts to assassinate the dictator.  This is a very readable and persuasive account of the events which led to the July 1944 plot to blow up Hitler at his Wolf's Lair headquarters, and the violent aftermath of its failure. 


ON THE ROAD TO THE WOLF'S LAIR: German Resistance to Hitler - Theodore S. Hamerow
A scholarly examination of the men and women who worked to bring about the Operation Valkyrie, with many references to primary documents such as letters, diaries, and reports. It is particularly concerned with the slow awakening of conscience in the generals and other army personnel, and their individual decisions to risk their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, to kill Hitler. A fascinating but rather heavy read.

COUNTDOWN TO VALKYRIE: the July Plot to Assassinate Hitler - Nigel Jones

A very readable account of Operation Valkyrie, with a close look at the personalities of the men involved, and the chronology of the events. Very useful to me as I built my timeline!


CONFRONT! Resistance in Nazi Germany - ed. John J. Michalczyk 

A more scholarly look at the topic, with a variety of different essays each focusing on a different aspect of resistance within Germany. 


CANARIS: Hitler's Spy Chief - Richard Bassett

A biography of the fascinating and enigmatic man at the centre of the plot to assassinate Hitler - the dictator's own spy chief. Canaries was head of the Abwehr, the German secret intelligence service, yet he worked quietly for years to feed information to the Allies and  misinformation to Hitler. He paid for it with his life, just days before the liberation of the concentration camps by the Allies.  



RESISTING HITLER: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra  - Shareen Blair Brysac

RED ORCHESTRA: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends who Resisted Hitler - Anne Nelson 

At the heart of THE BEAST'S GARDEN is the tragic story of the Red Orchestra, a circle of writers, actors, artists, journalists and academics who played a dangerous double game as they lived and worked in Berlin yet passed on secret information to the Allies. These two books were absolutely crucial to me in building my story, and I studied them again and again.  It is an absolutely fascinating and largely unknown part of German history, and I really encourage anyone interested in the German resistance to read these two books.  


BERLIN GHETTO: Herbert Baum and the Anti-Fascist Resistance - Eric Brothers

A little known circle of resisters were a group of young Jewish couples and friends who tried to blow up Goebbels' anti-Soviet exhibition, smuggling the fuses and gunpowder out of the armaments factories in which they worked as slave labour. The bomb attempt largely failed, and most paid for their defiance with their lives, but its a significant example of Jewish resistance to Hitler. 



SOPHIE SCHOLL: The Real Story of the Woman Who Defied Hitler - Frank McDonough 

The story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose group of friends is probably the most famous account of resistance in Germany, and - like so many others - it has a tragic ending. This is a really balanced and beautifully written account, and a great place to start if you want to discover more about those courageous Munich students. 


WOMEN HEROES OF WORLD WAR II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue  - Kathryn J. Atwood

A fascinating account of brave young women of many different nationalities, including Germany as well as the Netherlands, Poland, France, Denmark and the UK and US.   


 
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!


SPOTLIGHT: Best Books on Hitler

Wednesday, September 23, 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. Hitler himself makes a cameo appearance in the novel, and is - of course - an omnipresent force of malevolence and darkness throughout the whole story. I thought I would share the books that best helped me to try to understand some of the forces that drove him. I have to say it was soul-harrowing spending so many hours staring into his soul ... 

 

HITLER - Ian Kershaw

A magisterial biography of the dictator, with a broad and all encompassing interrogation of his life, his acts, and its consequences. An absolute must-read for anyone who is interested in Adolf Hitler.


THE DARK CHARISMA OF ADOLF HITLER: Leading Millions into the Abyss  - Laurence Rees

This is a shorter and more accessible biography of Adolf Hitler, with a strong emphasis on his messianic appeal to millions of people. Utterly fascinating. 

IN THE GARDEN OF THE BEASTS: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin - Erik Larson 

A brilliantly written look at the life of the American ambassador to the Third Reich, William E. Dodd, and his family in the lead-up to the Second World War.  It shows very clearly how Hitler managed to dupe the world into thinking he only wanted peace, and shows how Dodd and his family slowly became aware of the true horror of Nazism. Riveting reading (you can read my longer review here.) 

HITLER'S SECRET LIFE : The Mysteries of the Eagle's Nest - Glenn B. Infield

This is an old book - published in 1979 - and is full of prurient speculations about Hitler's sex life. His supposed affair with his niece Geli and her subsequent suicide, his obsession with cowboys, his weird personal habits, his interest in the occult, his taste for very young women are all recounted in the breathless manner of the trashiest newspapers. For example, Hitler's mistress (who never appeared in public and was never interviewed) is quoted as saying, 'Sometimes he doesn't even take his boots off, and sometimes we don't get in the bed. On the floor he is very erotic.'  HITLER'S SECRET LIFE is, nonetheless, fascinating (and sometimes revolting) reading. 

1938: Hitler's Gamble - Giles MacDonogh

An intense, month-by-month examination of the crucial year of 1938, when the Fuhrer at last showed his hand. 

INSIDE NAZI GERMANY - a History Channel collection of documentaries on Hitler. Includes:

The Rise of the Third Reich

The Fall of the Third Reich

Hitler & the Occult

The Private Voice of Hitler

Hitler & Stalin: Roots of War

Hunting Hitler

Elite German Forces of WWII 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

Subscribe RSS

Recent Posts


Tags


Archive


Blogs I Follow