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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 June 2014

Sunday, August 03, 2014


I came home from the ANZ Festival of Literature & the Arts in London with a whole bag of books and am slowly reading my way through them. Quite a few of them are by Australian writers who were speakers at the festival – it seems ironic that I had to travel 17,000 kilometres to discover books I could have bought at my local bookstore! 

Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy – Karen Foxlee
I really loved Karen’s mysterious and beautiful novel The Midnight Dress, and once I heard Karen speak about her new book Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy I knew at once that it sounded like my kind of book. I bought the gorgeous hard-back in London, and am glad that I did as the production is just exquisite.
The story revolves around eleven-year-old Ophelia who is smart and scientifically minded. She and her sister and father have moved to a city where it never stops snowing, as her father – who is an expert on swords – has taken up a position in a huge, dark, gothic museum filled with secrets and strange things. Ophelia sets out to explore, and finds a locked room hidden away in the depths of the museum. She puts her eyes to the keyhole … and sees a boy’s blue eyes looking out at her. He tells her that he has been a prisoner for three-hundred-and-three-years by an evil Snow Queen and her clock is ticking down towards the end of the world. Only he can stop her … but first he must escape.

A gorgeously written and delicate fairy tale, Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy reminded me of some of my favourite children’s writers such as Cassandra Golds and Laura Amy Schlitz, who are themselves inspired by Nicholas Stuart Grey and George Macdonald. (You can read my interview with Karen Foxlee here)

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes – Mary M Talbot & Bryan Talbot 
Another book I bought in London was what I can best describe as a graphic memoir/biography. Told in comic book form, the story compares the life stories of Lucia Joyce, the daughter of the famous writer James Joyce, and that of the book’s author Mary Talbot, daughter of the foremost Joycean scholar, James S. Atherton. Both narratives begin with the girls’ childhood and show their struggles to grow up in the shadows of difficult and demanding fathers. Lucia wants to dance, but is confined by the petty societal rules of her time. She ends up confined in a madhouse.  Mary rebels against her father, and forges a life for herself. The book shows how she fell in love with a young artist and married him – he is, of course, Bryan Talbot, the illustrator whose incredible artwork adorns every page. The book is acutely intelligent but highly readable, illuminating both the heartbreakingly sad story of Lucia James and the work of two exceptional contemporary artists. Not surpisingly, Dotter of My Father’s  Eyes won the 2012 Costa biography award.

The Spare Room – Helen Garner
I heard Helen speak in London and thought she was warm and funny and beautifully articulate, so I was very pleased to have her sign my copy of her first novel in sixteen years, The Spare Room. Published in 2008, the novel won a swathe of awards including the Barbara Jefferis Award. It reads more like a memoir, being told from the first person point of view of a writer named Helen living in Melbourne and being inspired by events that actually happened in Helen Garner’s life. However, no doubt many of the people and incidents have been changed during the writing process. The story is driven by the narrator Helen’s fear and distress, after a dear friend who is dying of cancer comes to stay with her for three weeks while undertaking some kind of quack treatment. The writing is crisp and strong and poised, and the characters spring to life on the page with only a few deft strokes. I loved it. 

Goddess – Kelly Gardiner
I’m been a big admirer of Kelly Gardiner’s gorgeous historical novels for young adults, Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes, both of which are set in the mid-17th century, one of my favourite historical periods for fiction. Goddess is Kelly’s first novel for adults, based on the fascinating true life story of Julie d'Aubigny, a woman out of step with her own time (The court of the Sun King, Louise XIV, in Paris during the 1680s) Raised like a boy by her swordsman father, Julie likes to dress like a man and will fight a duel with anyone who crosses her. One night she fights three duels back-to-back, winning them all. She elopes with a young nun and is sentenced to be burned at the stake, but escapes and becomes a famous opera star. The story of her adventures seems too incredible to possibly be true. The book is told in Julie’s voice – witty, intelligent and wry - and the whole is pulled off with wit and flair. 

A Stranger Came Ashore – Mollie Hunter
Mollie Hunter is a wonderful Scottish writer for children who is not nearly as well-known as she deserves to be. I have many of her books – some collected when I was a child and some (including a signed first edition) collected as an adult. I first read A Stranger Came Ashore when I was about eleven, after borrowing it from my school library. I’ve been looking for it ever since, but could not remember its name. Then, a month or so ago, I read a brief review of it on an English book blog and at once remembered how much I had loved it, and orderd a copy straightaway. 
It’s a Selkie tale, set in the Highlands of Scotland sometime in the 19th century. The novel begins with a storm, and a shipwreck, and a handsome, young stranger washed ashore. As his sister begins to fall in love with the stranger, forgetting her childhood sweetheart, 12-year old Robbie Henderson finds himself becoming more and more suspicious. He remembers an old tale his grandfather used to tell him about seals that turn into humans, but cannot believe it could be true. Soon he is caught up in a dark and suspenseful adventure as he tries to save his sister. A Stranger Came Ashore was rightly acclaimed when it was published in 1975, winning many awards including the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. 

The Color Purple - Alice Walker
I saw Alice Walker speak at the Sydney Writers Festival in May, and bought The Color Purple which I had read and adored about thirty years ago (it was first published in 1982 – impossible to believe it’s been so long!) I read it all in one gulp and loved it just as much as I did when I was a teenager. I loved the movie too. This book will always be on my list of all-time favourite books.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent
I finally had a chance to read this brilliant historical novel by debut author Hannah Kent. Burial Rites been a critical and a commercial success, and deservedly so. The writing is so precise and vivid, and the story so compelling. I found myself stopping to read certain sentences again, just for the pleasure of the words: ‘it is as though the winter has set up home in my marrow.’ Burial Rites is set in Iceland in 1830, the last year in the life of a woman condemned to be executed for murder. The use of real historical documents as epigraphs at the beginning of each section adds to the sense of truth and awfulness. A clever and truly beautiful book.  

Meanwhile, my research into Nazi Germany continues. Two stand-out books I read this month: 

Some Girls, Some Hats & Hitler – Trudi Kanter
Sifting through a second-hand bookshop in London, an English editor stumbled upon this self-published memoir of a young Jewish woman in Vienna and – enchanted by her romantic love story and vivid writing style – republished the book.
In 1938 Trudi Kanter was a milliner for the best-dressed women in Vienna. She was beautiful and chic and sophisticated, travelling to Paris to see the latest fashions and selling her hats to some of the most wealthy and aristocratic ladies of Europe. She was madly in love with a charming and wealthy businesseman, and had a loving and close-knit family. Then the Nazis marched into Austria, and everything Trudi knew was in ruins. She and her new husband had to try and find some way to escape and make a new life for themselves … and Trudi would need all her wits and panache just to survive.  

Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of The Woman Who Defied Hitler – Frank McDonough
The heart-breaking story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, a group of young university students who protested against the crimes of the Nazi regime and paid for it with their lives. 


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