Sunday 26 July 2020

Writing Girl in a Smart Uniform

About the book

The story is based on something that really happened but for which we have a yet had no real explanation. A house in Germany held a special class in its cellar. Disabled children and children with learning difficulties came as day students to a little school in a house that belonged to woman by race defined as a Jewess even though she was no longer Jewish by religion.  There is an irony there.  The school survived and continued to operate from the house until the 1960s and only moved because it became too big.
We believe that the equivalents of Dad’s Army were asked to destroy the house and its occupants. They refused. The Hitler Youth were then asked to clear the house and they also refused. So it was down to the BDM girls. The BDM was the girls’ version of the Hitler Youth. They really were threatened with dire consequences if they didn’t obey.  So, they set fire to the cellar – but got the children out first.
The story came to us via my mother-in-law who was the granddaughter of Clara Lehrs, owner of the house where the school was held.
In this instance I’ve used fiction as a way of uncovering the facts.
We’re not even certain if this is the school she used to tell us about but some of my further research had led us to believe that this was the school she meant.

Research for this book

It all started with a sabbatical from the University of Salford and was based on some letters my mother-in-law received in 1979. Renate James (nee Edler) started to write her story but sadly lost her life to breast cancer in 1986. I decided to finish the story for her.
The letters were from her classmates at a school that she went to in Nuremberg. The school had to close because it wasn’t teaching the Nazi curriculum. Renate thought she was going to Stuttgart. In fact she was sent to England on the Kindertransport only days after her parents told her she was Jewish.  That has stopped many a publisher wanting to publish the books. How she could have not known, they asked. Well, she didn’t. So, I’ve published them through my own publishing company.
The girls kept a round robin letter going for several years and they filled three exercise books. One lady had found the middle one in her attic and made it her duty to contact every single one of the girls, including Renate.
The letters give a real insight to what it was like being a young woman during World War II in Germany. Before I started writing I transcribed all of the letters- some of them were very difficult to read - and then I translated them.  I really got to know these young women quite well that way.   
As I worked on telling Renate’s story as a novel, I found out more and more about her grandmother, who became the subject for the next book, Clara’s Story.            


Why I was inspired to write this

I wanted to explore a little more how young German women thought and why there was this resistance to authority just in time. Have I got it right? Who knows? I’ve given the protagonist a hard time: her parents separate, she has a Down syndrome step-brother, an abusive older brother and a nicer older brother who is killed in the war.  And there are many other problems as well.

What's next?

Well Face to Face with the Führer is the story of Renate’s mother, also a remarkable woman. The cover has a handbag and an antique pistol on it.  I say no more. But what might have been one of her achievements?  That is waiting in the queue to be published.
I’m also on my second draft of The Round Robin. I’m exploring in more detail three of the girls who were involved in the letters and their class teacher. The book is really fictional and only very loosely based on the original girls.
Then I’m planning a book about Helga who is a fictional character in Girl in a Smart Uniform. She is another Holocaust survivor but her story will be mainly in the 21st century.
As I wrote the first draft of The Round Robin I encountered another interesting character. One of the girls has an aunt who is involved in the German resistance. Will this series ever stop?        

How can we get a copy of the book?

Just click on the picture above. Links to the other two books are down below.

Do you have any events planned?

I have a whole workshop for schools. See details here. I’m happy to adapt to facilitating this via Zoom or other similar video-conferencing facilities.    

No comments: