Thursday, 16 July 2009

Telling the war stories myself - Leslie Wilson

I’m a British national, born in Nottingham, but my mother was born German. My father was British, and they met after the war and got engaged. Later, my mother came over and married him, and we were born.

This is a picture of me with my brother, I’m a little half-German kid in my first ever dirndl. I was so proud of it – it was one of those dresses you remember all your life because they were just perfect. I wish I’d kept it for my kids.

In my childhood I was surrounded by images of evil Germans. German spies were the villains in many of the adventure stories and comics my brother and I read, and they were always cold-eyed men – occasionally fat, cruel women – who said: ‘Schweinhund’ a lot, and enjoyed torturing people. If kids were portrayed, they were fat, ugly and greedy. It felt like a series of slaps in the face. Later, when I found out about the Holocaust, another image added itself: they had all adored Hitler and hated Jews.

Only the images didn’t fit with the Germans I lived with. My mother was slender and beautiful, and my grandmother was beautiful too, though worn by years of mental illness. She’d become ill when my grandfather was persecuted in 1933 for being a leftist – he’d never liked the Nazis. There’s more detail about this on my website, so I don’t want to go into that now, but the story was true. I’ve read his file in the German Federal Archive. He was a policeman, and he only just managed to keep his life and his job.

During that period my grandmother was constantly harassed by the Nazi women who’d say: ‘You’re scum, you’ll end up in concentration camp.’ When my grandfather was finally allowed to stay in the police force, she attempted suicide and had repeated ‘nervous breakdowns’ subsequently. Every time she was hospitalised my mother was afraid she’d be murdered, as many mentally ill people were during that time, especially because when she did become ill she’d say that Hitler was the Antichrist. Maybe the only thing that kept her alive was that we was the wife of an up-and-coming police officer – a good incentive for my grandfather to toe the line. And my mother had a best friend, in her teenage years, who was a quarter Jewish – who was killed, tragically, by the RAF in a bombing raid.

When I got older, I started to want to know about the Holocaust, and that was where my mother didn’t want to help. She’d been a child when the Nazis came to power, she’d never wanted to believe the rumours about what was happening, and when they were proved to be true she found if she thought about them she went into a depression. I discovered that last fact years later, but all I knew when I asked the questions was that I was pushed away. Of course, it didn’t stop me wanting to know. I read everything I could find, trying to understand the reality of Nazi Germany and how people who I knew not to be monsters but ordinary human beings could lend themselves to such crimes and let them happen.

Now I’ve written my own fiction about the period. Not just because I want my readers to understand how difficult and dangerous it was to resist Hitler – though that is part of it. Trying to tell it how it was is another way of seeking to understand. It’s meant facing up to some awful truths about what human beings are capable of – and I do mind that they were Germans and thus to some extent my countrymen. But I’ve also found out about the Germans who defied the Nazis and risked their own lives - and sometimes lost them - to save the lives of Jews at that time. There may not have been many of them, but I’ve been very glad to put that story out into the world.


Katherine Langrish said...

Fascinating post Leslie. I can't wait to read your next book.

Anne Rooney said...

I agree, fascinating. Thank you, Leslie.

Gillian Philip said...

I often think it's tempting to look back on this period and think choosing sides would have been a no-brainer. But it must have been an awful lot harder at the time, especially if you had kids. The outcome wasn't predestined.

Gillian Philip said...

Oh! In case that is misconstrued, I'm not trying to excuse anyone OR judge anyone - just saying it took a terrific amount of bravery from those who did stand up to it all.