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SPOTLIGHT: Best Books on Jews in Nazi Germany

Sunday, September 20, 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 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.

To begin with, I thought I'd share the books which best helped me understand the plight of Jewish people in Berlin during those terrible years. 

JEWS IN NAZI BERLIN: From Kristallnacht To Liberation - edited by Beate Meyer, Hermann Simon and Chana Schitz

This book is a collection of scholarly essays and articles by a variety of scholars, covering every aspect of Jewish life from the Juni-Aktion in Berlin in 1938, to the 'Snatchers' (the Gestapo's Jewish informants who betrayed many Jews hiding in the capital). It is beautifully constructed and illustrated, and contains many first-hand and personal accounts which really rammed home the horror of the times.   My copy is now looking very battered, as it was on or beside my desk for months. 

BETWEEN DIGNITY & DESPAIR: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany -  Marion A. Kaplan

My copy of this book has been marked on nearly every page - it was an absolutely essential guide for me. It draws on a variety of memoirs, diaries, letters, and official reports to explore what life was like for the Jews in the Third Reich. I particularly loved the emphasis it gave to the live of Jewish women as they struggled to feed and protect their families. 

HITLER'S WILLING EXECUTIONERS: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust - Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

This is one of the most chilling books I have ever read. I found it very hard to read, and only managed by studying one chapter at a time, with long breaks in between. It shows, with surgical precision, just how deeply engrained anti-semitism was in everyday German life and how that led to the Holocaust. Utterly heart-breaking and powerful, it draws upon a multitude of first-hand accounts and documents, many of them ever before examined. 

HITLER'S FURIES: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields  - Wendy Lower

In HITLER'S FURIES, Wendy Lower looks closely at the lives of thirteen ordinary German women who became renowned for their cruelty and barbarism in the killing fields of Eastern Europe.  Some were nurses, some were secretaries, some were wives of Nazi officers - yet they all acted with utter cold-heartedness and, in some cases, sociopathic sadism. Another harrowing read. 



Buchenwald is one of the most infamous German concentration camp, and is the setting for a few scenes in my novel THE BEAST'S GARDEN. These two books were of inestimable value in helping me understand what life was like for those poor prisoners locked

 inside its concrete walls. 'The Beasts of Buchenwald' were, of course, Karl and Ilse Koch, most famous for allegedly making lampshades out of human skin.  


In the upcoming weeks, I will blog about the best memoirs I read of life under Hitler, best books about the German resistance, and best books on Hitler himself. Keep an eye out!  


BOOK LIST: Books I Read in May 2014

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Its been such a busy time for me lately that I haven't had much time for blogging! I hope you'll all forgive me ... the good news is that I've been working on a new novel. 

I always have time for reading, though - here's my May roundup of what Books I've Been Reading. 

May is festival time in Sydney, and so I spent a lot of time talking about, and listening to other writers talk about, books and writing. It was wonderful to see the festival precinct at the wharves so alive and buzzing with book-lovers, and I bought a great pile of books that I shall be slowly working my way though in the upcoming weeks. 

A lot of my reading time is still being taken up by research, but I managed to read a few other lovely books as well. 

The Sequin Star – Belinda Murrell
Many of you may know that Belinda Murrell is my elder sister, and so I have to admit to a strong partiality to any book I read of hers. The Sequin Star is the latest in her very popular timeslip series for teenage girls. The action follows a modern-day Australian girl named Claire who finds herself thrown back in time to a Great Depression-era circus in 1932. She is rescued by a warm-hearted girl named Rosina who is riding on the back of an elephant. Claire has no way of getting back to her own time, and so begins to work in the circus. As well as Rosina and her pet monkey, Claire makes friends with two boys from very different backgrounds. Jem’s family is dirt-poor and living in a shanty town, while Kit has a chauffeur and lives in a mansion. Kit comes to the circus night after night to watch Rosina ride her beautiful dancing horses, not realising he is putting himself in danger. When Kit is kidnapped, Claire and her friends have to try and work out the mystery in order to save him. The Sequin Star is exactly the sort of book I would have loved to have read in my early teens (in fact, any time!), and is gives a really vivid look at life in Sydney in the early 1930s. Loved it!

Gift from the Sea – Anne Morrow Lindbergh 
After reading and enjoying Melanie Benjamin’s wonderful novel about the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh in The Aviator’s Wife, I was inspired to go back and read ‘Gift from the Sea’, the most famous of Lindbergh’s numerous books. It’s a small, delicate and wise book, full of meditations on the life of women. I first read it when I was sixteen, and am now thinking I shall pass it on to my daughter at the same age.  

The Unlikely Spy – Daniel Silva
I love a good spy thriller, particularly when its set during World War II, and Daniel Silva did not disappoint. The unlikely spy of the title is an amiable history professor and he is on the track of a ruthless Nazi spy working undercover in Great Britain in the lead-up to D-Day. This is more a novel of psychological suspense than an action-packed page-turner, but I enjoyed seeing the action from all sides, and found the historical details fascinating. 

Ingo – Helen Dunmore
I’ve been meaning to read this book for so long, but only picked it up this month because I was doing a talk on retellings of mermaid tales, and thought I should catch up on recent additions to the genre. I am so glad I did – I loved this book! It’s a very simple story – after a girl’s father disappears and is believed drowned, she finds her brother beginning to be drawn irresistibly to the sea as well. In time, the girl (whose name is Sapphire) learns of the mysterious realm of Ingo, the world of the mermaids that lies in the depths of the ocean. Its enchanting siren song is dangerous, however, and Sapphire will find it hard to escape its spell. What lifts this novel out of the ordinary, however, is the beauty of the writing. Helen Dunmore is a poet as well as an Orange Prize-winning novelist for adults. Her writing is both lyrical and deft, and I’m looking forward to the rest in the series. 

The Winter Bride – Anne Gracie
Anne Gracie is my favourite living romance novelist; she never disappoints. The Winter Bride is the second in a Regency-times series featuring four plucky young women trying to make their own way in the world, and finding all sorts of trouble along the path towards true love. Read The Autumn Bride first, but have this one close to hand as once you’ve read one, you’ll want more. I’m just hanging out for the next in the series now. 

The Chalet School in Exile – Elinor Brent-Dyer
Elinor Brent-Dyer was an extraordinarily prolific author who wrote more than 100 books in total, many of them in the famous Chalet School series about a 1930s girls’ school set in the Austrian Tyrol. I’ve been collecting them for years and had been searching for this one in particular – the rare The Chalet School in Exile, set during the Nazis’ Anschluss of Austria. The girls of the school fall foul of the Gestapo after trying to save an old Jewish man from being beaten to death, and have to escape Austria on foot through the Alps. It’s an extraordinarily vivid snapshot of a time and a place, and one of the few children’s books of the era to deal directly with the terror of the Nazis. I read it when I was about 10, and it made a deep impression on me at the time. An original first edition hardback with the original dust-jacket showing a SS officer confronting the girls is worth over $1,000 (though this is cheap compared to the almost $4,000 you need to fork out for a first edition copy of the first book in the series, The School at the Chalet). I however bought my copy from Girls Gone By publishers which re-issue the rarer editions at a much more affordable price (and feature the famous dustjacket as well). 

Meanwhile, I’ve continued with my own research into the Nazi era. I’ve read another half-a-dozen non-fiction books on the subject. Here are three of the best I’ve read this month: 

Between Dignity & Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany – Marion A Kaplan
This powerful and heart-rending book draws on many different memoirs, diaries, letters and post-war interviews to give us an extraordinary insight into what it was like to be a Jew in Germany during the Nazi years. It shows how the many small humiliations and unkindnesses of the early years gradually began to drag the Jewish community inexorably towards the horror of the Holocaust, and gives a sense of how that horror continues to shadow those that survived. 

Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields – Wendy Lower
This book was so chilling that I could only read it in parts. It tells the stories of the active role played by Nazi women in the Third Reich: nurses and secretaries and wives, as much as the already well-known horrors of the female camp guards. Some of the events seem impossible to believe, except that they have been documented in the Nuremberg court of law. 

Hitler’s Spy Chief: the Wilhelm Canaris Mystery – Richard Bassett
Wilhelm Canaris was the enigmatic head of the Abwehr, the German secret service. He was executed for treason in a Bavarian concentration camp only days before the Allies’ reached the camp and liberated it. He had been involved in the failed assassination of Hitler immortalised in the movie ‘Valkyrie’, but many researchers believe that he had been working to undermine the Third Reich from before the beginning of the war.  This detailed and in-depth examination of his life and work is not for the casual reader (it assumes a wide knowledge of the Nazi era and the Valkyrie plot), but it is utterly fascinating and convincingly argues that Canaris had been feeding secrets to the British for many years and was in fact protected to some extent by them. 

Want more? Here's my list of Books Read in April 


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