The Importance of History: Part 1
Deborah Hallford explores translated historical fiction from ten authors writing about Germany and Austria during the First and Second World Wars
Importance of History: Part 1, June17
Thomas Hardy commented that "war makes rattling good history; but Peace is poor reading". Literature can challenge history as well as inform. Different historical perspectives help us to make sense of the world in which we live allowing us to gain knowledge of both our own and of other peoples’ countries, identity, culture and heritage.
Some years ago I undertook a search for translated children’s historical fiction novels. This was borne out of a passion for history and a desire to discover books from authors who provided different perspectives on the two world wars.
Books that are provocative, challenging or make you think are a vital part of learning about history. Many of the titles identified here fulfil one, if not all of those criteria. In the first of a three-part article covering translated historical fiction, part one will look at titles from ten authors whose books are set in Germany and Austria from 1914-1945. Part two and three will look at books from other European countries as well as Asia.
The First World War, also known as the Great War, was one of the most deadly conflicts in history. A global war originating in Europe, it lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918, with the loss of nine million soldiers and seven million civilians. It was supposedly to be the ‘war to end all wars’.
Although not a novel for children, Erich Maria Remarque’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front is well known for its examination of the tragedy and futility of war from the perspective of a German soldier, but there is one young adult anti-war novel, largely forgotten now, that also made an important contribution to children’s literature.
No Hero for the Kaiser by Rudolph Frank was first published in 1931. It was banned and publically burned by the Nazis in 1933 and was not reissued in Germany until 1979 with an English version appearing in 1987, published by Richard Drew and translated by Patricia Crampton.
In 1986 the well-respected writer, essayist and translator, Naomi Lewis, writing in the Observer, said that "it is a work so remarkable that you have to wonder why it has taken so long to reach us here".
Fourteen-year old Jan Kubitzky lives in a small Polish hamlet surrounded by Russian and German troops. After it is raised to the ground Jan is adopted by the German artillery unit and ends up becoming indispensable to them. Jan feels loyalty and affection for his German friends but as he witnesses the horrors of war travelling with the battery to both the eastern and western fronts he begins to question the futility of it all. After being wounded in France, Jan ends up in a ward with soldiers from all over Europe and the French empire in Africa and hears the viewpoints of the war from all sides. When the hierarchy of the German military conceive a plan to reward Jan for his loyalty, courage and bravery by making him a hero and German citizen, he finally rebels.
Frank is eloquent and acerbic in his condemnation of war and has created some memorable characters and scenes aided by the superb translation of Patricia Crampton. Frank himself was forced to serve in the German artillery in August 1914 and so was able to write from personal experience.
Throughout the narrative Jan’s questioning of the war is ever present and the following anti-war sentiment is relevant to any war, in particular to the First World War.
"What is a coward? You need more courage than a whole regiment of soldiers to say: I shall not touch a gun, I shall not shoot. You need more courage for that than to run about with the others and shoot".
The books dealing with the Second World War not only cover the war itself but also Hitler’s rise to power in Germany during the 1930s.
Gudrun Pausewang is one of Germany’s most respected writers of fiction for children. She creates novels that are powerful, edgy and hard-hitting. Three of her novels – The Final Journey, Traitor and Dark Hours all deal with very different aspects of the Second World War.
The Final Journey, written in 1992 and translated into English by Patricia Crampton in 1996, is a novel about Jewish life under the Nazi regime. 11-year-old Alice has been in hiding for three years with her grandparents. When the soldiers finally discover them, Alice must endure a long and terrible journey to a concentration camp. For Alice it is also a journey towards maturity, in which she discovers the truth about her parents, about the elaborate subterfuge with which her grandfather has tried to shield her from reality, the compassion, courage and inhumanity of others who are competing for their very existence, and her own capacity for these qualities. Pausewang spares her readers nothing – the full force of the appalling indignity of the situation – the terrible squalor, fear, brutality and final horrendous outcome are all dealt with in this short novel.
The Final Journey won the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation in 1999.
Traitor appeared in English in 2004, translated by Rachel Ward, and is set during the closing months of the war. In a remote village where the population is divided into Germans and Czechs, they each have divided loyalties with many Germans supporting the Nazi ideology while many Czechs are in opposition. As the Russians move closer, Anna, a young German girl, helps a Russian soldier – the enemy – by hiding him and bringing him food. Although this is at great personal risk, Anna sees the Russian as just another human being, unlike her brother who accepts the Nazi propaganda unquestioningly. The novel’s shocking ending with its dreadful denouncement emphasises the terrible cost to those who opposed the Third Reich, even in its death throws, as well as another invading army bent on revenge.
Dark Hours, published in 2006 and translated by John Brownjohn, is also set in the closing weeks of the war. Two days before Gisel’s sixteenth birthday her world falls apart. The Russian army are approaching Lower Silesia where Gisel lives with her family. They are forced to abandon their home and flee, leaving everything behind. Arriving at a train station not far from Dresden after a gruelling train journey where Gisel, her grandmother ‘Oma’ and her younger brothers, Harald aged six, Wolfi, 18 months and Erwin, twelve, become separated from their heavily pregnant mother. In a hopelessly crowded station the air raid siren goes off and in the crush, Gisel loses sight of Oma, one of her brothers and the remainder of their belongings. Panic abounds as a bombing raid on Dresden begins and everyone scrambles to the available bomb shelters. The shelter takes a direct hit and silence falls. Trapped underground buried under mounds of rubble, surrounded by death and with hardly any food or water Gisel must use all her strength and willpower to find a way to help her family survive.
Another important figure in the world of children’s literature is Christine Nöstlinger, one of Austria’s most well-known children’s writers. Her novel
Fly Away Home, published in English in 2003 and translated by Anthea Bell, is about the last few months of the war in Vienna under the Russian occupation. When eight-year-old Christel Göth’s home is gutted by a bomb, the family – including her father who has deserted from the army while hospitalised – take refuge in a large suburban villa just outside the city.
The story is narrated in a matter of fact voice by Christel; she has never experienced anything other than war and her feistiness becomes a necessary part of her survival. She steals cigarettes from under the noses of the Russians for her father, explores the abandoned villas and raids their cellars for food to supply her family with, makes friends with Cohn, the Russian cook billeted with them, and even steals the Russian major’s revolver! This is an autobiographical novel providing an unsentimental account, sometimes sad, sometimes funny and although it does not dwell on gory details, nothing is evaded.
Don’t Say a Word by Barbara Gehrts is also an autobiographical fictional account of the author’s life growing up in Germany. First published in 1975 it appeared in English in 1986 translated by
Elizabeth D. Crawford.
Anna Singlemann lives with her family in a suburb of Berlin. Anna’s father is a high ranking officer of the Luftwaffe, but he is also a member of the resistance. As the Singlemanns’ become increasingly aware of the dangerous direction in which the war is moving – the suicides of Anna’s Jewish school friend and her parents; the death of her first love on the Russian Front and the saturation bombing, life becomes incredibly hard. All the while Anna and her family must stay silent: her father is playing an incredibly dangerous game passing on secret information to the allies.
Though the characters are given fictional names, this deeply moving book tells a true story and one that is rarely told from this perspective. It closely follows the life of Erwin Gehrts who was a member of The Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle), a group of Catholics, socialists, conservatives and former communists who infiltrated the Nazi hierarchies and bureaucracies supplying both the western Allies and the Soviet Union with information about the war.
Gehrts was born in 1890 in Hamburg; he was a teacher of natural sciences and literature as well as an outstanding fighter pilot in the First World War. He worked as a journalist in Berlin until the Nazis came to power in 1933. Because of his war record, he received an appointment to the Reich Air Ministry, but led a dangerous double life as part of The Red Orchestra. He was arrested in October 1942 along with over an hundred members of the group. Gehrts was tried on 10 January 1943 and sentenced to death by guillotine on 10 February 1943. It was not until the reunification of Germany in 1990 that the Red Orchestra began to be acknowledged as a resistance group against the Nazi Regime making Barbara Gerhrt’s novel an important contribution, not just to children’s literature, but to history in general.
A Night in Distant Motion by Irina Korschunow is an understated novel about a tragic burgeoning forbidden love, but at its heart there is a search for moral truth which is incredibly powerful. It was published in English in 1983 and translated by
Seventeen-year-old Regine is a good student, a loving and dutiful daughter and a loyal supporter of the Nazi party. She has never sought to question her beliefs until one night in 1944 during an air raid where she meets Jan, a Polish prisoner regarded by the Nazis as ‘sub-human’, who pleads with her to help a wounded friend. From that moment on Regine begins to doubt her world view and takes unbelievable risks in her developing relationship with Jan.
The most compelling parts of the book are the discussions with Jan, Gertrude, the farmer’s daughter with whom Regine has found refuge, and Maurice, a French prisoner of war. Through these she begins to question what is going on around her. In one exchange with Jan she tells him how her mother’s blind faith in the Führer was completely uncompromising. Jan shows compassion by telling her not to condemn her mother for her beliefs, but Regine feels her parents are responsible.
"We’re all guilty together" she says.
"What do you mean by guilt?" Jan asks.
"Poles also killed Germans. Hate for hatred and then more hatred. Someone has to put an end to it. Do you know the story of the Pied Piper?"
"Yes. But my parents weren’t children anymore" replies Regine.
"Many people never grow up. They run after anyone who will make them promises" says Jan.
Korschunow’s novel provides insight into the blind belief that blinkered the ordinary German populace as to what was really happening. Her reference to the manipulation of news is particularly apt and resonates today with the advent of ‘fake news’. Referring to the editor-in-chief of the Steinbergen newspaper who always writes about ‘Our Final Victory’. Regine begins to understand the danger in his writing. "He twists facts until they turn somersaults" … "a regular magician …".
With the brutality of the regime, the fear of being denounced by an informer, even present for the smallest of misdemeanours, A Night in Distant Motion highlights resistance: of those who thought differently and who were prepared to take risks.
Korschunow received a Certificate of Honour from IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) and A Night in Distance Motion was selected by the ALA (American Library Association) as the best book for young adults in 1983.
Hans Peter Richter wrote many books for children and young adults. The most notable among them is his autobiographical Friedrich about the persecution of Jews in Germany during the Holocaust. His other two autobiographical books, I Was There and
The Time of the Young Soldiers are both important examples of life in Germany from 1933 until the end of the Second World War.
Friedrich was first published in 1961 in Germany and translated into English in 1987 by Edite Kroll. It is a compelling, deeply felt, tragic and unforgettable story of persecution seen from a child’s viewpoint.
As Friedrich Schneider and his best friend are growing up it appears at first that Friedrich is the more fortunate of the two. His father is respected and prosperous while the narrator’s father is unemployed until Hitler comes to power when everything changes. Friedrich’s father is forced to retire from his job in the civil service; Friedrich is expelled from school; is not allowed to join the Jungvolk; and becomes an orphan when his mother dies and his father is arrested and deported. The final harrowing sequence in the young seventeen-year-old Friedrich’s life during 1945 is when he is denied access to the air-raid shelter in order to seek refuge from the falling bombs. All because he is Jewish.
Friedrich won the Mildred L. Batchelder Award in the USA in 1972.
Richter’s second novel I Was There was written in 1962 and translated into English in 1972 by Edite Kroll. Young people throughout Germany were encouraged to take part in the glories of Hitler’s Third Reich first joining the Jungvolk and then the Hitler Youth Movement. The narrator and his friend Heinz become enthusiastic members, but their friend Günther participates only because of the pressures on himself and his family – his father is a communist and has already experienced prison.
I Was There spans a decade from 1933 – 1943 and the final chapters see the three friends joining and serving in the German armed forces. This is a first-person account dramatically bringing to life the day-to-day events and attitudes of Nazi Germany providing intimate glimpses into the lives of young people at the time.
“I am reporting how I lived through that time and what I saw – no more. I was there. I was not merely an eyewitness. I believed – and I will never believe again” - Hans Peter Richter
The Time of the Young Soldiers is Richter’s third book about his wartime experiences written in 1967 and translated into English by Anthea Bell in 1989. This novel focuses on Richter’s time in the Germany Army from 1939 - 1945. Momentous to every-day incidents are all outlined here – Richter’s training to become an officer, the brutality of some of his superiors, serving on the Eastern Front and being wounded and losing an arm. He later returns to Germany where he becomes involved in the training of young officers. By the end of the war he was 21 years old.
Richter’s observations are sometimes funny, sometimes tragic but it is all narrated with a completely dispassionate air, none more so that when he is describing the amputation of his arm. Once mentioned, his disability is rarely referred to again, but the adjustment to the loss of a limb, particularly in wartime must have been very hard for a young man under twenty.
Emil and Karl by Yanker Glatshteyn was written in 1940 and published in English in 2007, translated by Jeffrey Shandler. It follows a similar theme and timing to Friedrich, although set in Vienna. It is the story of two boys who live in the same apartment block and become friends – Emil, who is Jewish and Karl who is Aryan. Karl’s communist father died because of his resistance to the Nazis and when Karl’s mother is also taken away he turns to his friend Emil who has not been in school for a while due to the ‘racial laws’ that banned Jewish children from attending school. Both boys end up alone when Emil’s mother has a break down after his father is arrested. Soon, she too is gone.
The boys are looked after by the caretaker Josef and his wife Berta but they soon must move on. After several narrow escapes from the Nazi authorities their luck changes when they are befriended by Matilda and Hans who offer them food and shelter in their forest hideaway.
Glatshteyn, a Polish Jew was born in 1896 in the city of Lublin and immigrated to America aged eighteen. After visiting his ailing mother in Poland during 1934 he wrote Emil and Karl in which he chillingly anticipated the Holocaust that was about to unfold. Unlike Friedrich, Emil and Karl’s story is one of compassion, friendship and triumph over adversity.
Daniel Half Human written by David Chotjewitz in 2000 and translated into English by Doris Orgel in 2004, is also set during Hitler’s rise to power. Teenage narrator Daniel Kraushaar lives with his wealthy parents in the city of Hamburg. He and his best friend Armin have dreams of joining the Hitler Youth and even get themselves arrested for painting Nazi slogans on buildings. Daniel believes himself to be Aryan until he makes a shocking discovery - his mother is the daughter of Jewish parents making him half Jewish and therefore ‘half human’ in the eyes of the ‘supreme’ Aryan race.
Eventually Daniel’s secret is revealed causing an enormous amount of psychological upheaval, particularly once the Nazis consolidate their power and the anti-Jewish laws are passed. He is persecuted by his peers and ostracised by his teachers. When his family have to move from their comfortable home to a small apartment David’s lawyer father still refuses to acknowledge their new status and clings to the strength of his First World War record to save his family.
Armin, now an active member of the Hitler Youth is increasingly indoctrinated to hate the Jews and told he must no longer associate with Daniel. Once close friends, they are now set against each other. To make matters worse Armin begins a dangerous secret relationship with Daniel’s cousin Miriam and when it is discovered it will test their friendship to the limit.
Those of mixed blood – Mischling, the legal term used by Nazi Germany to denote people who were deemed to have both Aryan and Jewish ancestry, were especially problematic because when the first racial laws were introduced there was no clear definition of a Jew. Finally, the Nazis created a criteria – three or four Jewish grandparents meant you were Jewish; two or one rendered a person a Mischling.
Chotjewitz’s powerful poignant novel conveys the overwhelming increasing intensity of the persecution of the Jews, with chilling events such as Kristallnacht in 1938 vividly brought to life, but it also examines whether a friendship pitted against a ruthless ideology can survive.
From a rarely told perspective, two ground-breaking novels twenty years apart, deal with the Nazis ‘euthanasia’ programme – Reinhardt Jung’s Dreaming in Black and White and the more recently Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali.
Dreaming in Black and White by Reinhardt Jung was written in 1996 and was translated into English by Anthea Bell in 2000. A powerful novel of its time because it explored a theme rarely touched on – that of being ‘imperfect’, a threat to Aryan purity in Hitler’s Germany.
Following a school history assignment Hannes, a young disabled boy, is transported back to Nazi Germany in a series of connecting dreams. Because of his physical disability he is singled out for persecution, first in the form of bullying from some of his fellow pupils, and secondly by the over-zealous Nazi teacher, Mr Lang, who follows rigidly the Nazi doctrine: the refusal to tolerate imperfection. Even Hannes’ father is swayed by the Nazi propaganda and is prepared to sign the crucial papers that will seal Hannes’ fate.
An estimated 200,000 mentally ill and disabled patients were murdered between 1940 and 1945 and Reinhardt’s incredibly thought-provoking short novella sensitively deals with the ‘euthanasia’ programme used by the Nazis to eliminate what they termed a ‘social misfit’ in order to create their ‘master race’.
Hannes also poses challenging questions in his modern-day life. He is clearly disturbed by the notion that he should have been considered ‘a life not worth living’ in Nazi Germany because life is very dear to him but he also wonders whether he could be born today because there’s genetic testing for hereditary diseases – so would person like him even exist?
"Back then I’d probably have been killed. These days I might not exist at all. But since I do exist, I’m a living reproach. A living example of what won’t happen in the future any more".
Max is a deeply disturbing and challenging novel by French author Sarah Cohen-Scali published in 2016. Although a book that is likely to stir up mixed feelings, this meticulously researched novel, with an excellent translation by Penny Hueston, bravely tackles a subject that has been little written about – the Lebensborn programme.
"I will be blessed by the Germanic gods and seen as the first born of the master race. The Aryan race that will henceforth rule the world".
Max's mother is part of the Lebensborn programme (The Fountain of Life), to create the perfect baby with pure Aryan blood. Matched with a suitable partner baby Max arrives. He is the perfect prototype with the correct skull measurements, blond hair and blue eyes. Max narrates the story beginning from inside his mother's womb. He does not have time to form an attachment with his mother because once her job is done she is no longer part of his life. His early years are spent in the Steinhöring home near Munich which is run by Dr Gregor Ebner. From the moment he is born he is indoctrinated to follow 'the programme', to become the perfect Nazi. He is taught to endure pain and be brave at all costs, raised in an ideology driven by hatred and ruled by fear.
Four-year-old Max tells us of the 'special mission' he is used for in Poznan, Poland: to select and kidnap Polish children with Aryan qualities in order to Germanise them at 'Kalish' (an SS Gaukinder Home that became the school for stolen children. It is believed that up to 100,000 children may have been stolen from Poland alone, but there were many more taken from the former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, some of the Balkan states, Ukraine, Russia and Norway too.
It is only when Max meets Lukas, who is not what he seems, that he must fight to untangle the truth from the lie.
The unspeakable horrors of the Lebensborn programme is meticulously documented through the eyes of the protagonist 'Max' and Cohen-Scali certainly doesn't spare us any of the horrors. The eugenics plan was devised in 1935 and is laid bare, from the special 'breeding clinics' – where pure German SS Officers were matched with suitable German women, each of whom would have passed the racial purity test and their family lineage traced back at least three generations – to the fate of any 'imperfect child' who don't fit the criteria and, who are in Max's words, 'purified' (euthanased) or 'relocated' – sent to the infamous children's clinic at the Steinhof Institute in Vienna as part of the 'Merciful Death' programme where research and experimentation is carried out to establish ways in which congenital abnormalities are eradicated.
Max has received five French book awards which are richly deserved. It is a true masterpiece – a historical novel at its best; a story told comprehensively and eloquently, one that needs to be heard and giving a voice to all those who suffered under this heinous Nazi scheme.
An article by Harry Leslie Smith in the New European entitled ‘My Generation’s Hard Fought Lessons are Being Forgotten’* captured my attention. Smith was a young soldier of 22 who was deployed, with other men, from his squadron to Hamburg in the closing stages of the war to occupy the Luftwaffe airfield located there. This now 94-year-old, saw at first hand the utter devastation as he travelled through northern Germany.
"Death and refugees were strewn to the side of the dual carriageway like a wedding garland that had been tossed out from behind the gates of hell".
Smith writes that in those last days of the conflict he was angry "at how much young life had been shed because politicians, big business and the entitled had ignored for too long during the 1930s the evils of nationalism to further their own ends".
History repeating itself if an oft quoted adage but it is true that sometimes parallels can be drawn from events of the past and current trends. It is only when you read articles such as this from someone who experienced first-hand the horror of war and its aftermath that you realise how necessary it is to look back at major historical conflicts. Smith says that "at the end of the Second World War, everyone from ordinary blokes like me to knowledgeable politicians, pundits, educators and people of business knew that the old political formulas that allowed nationalism to supersede common sense has to change or else civilisation would die".
Like Smith, several of the authors mentioned here including Frank, Richter, Pausewang and Korschunow created powerful pieces of literature, not only to tell a story but to help young people to understand – as Pausewang so aptly put it in the afterword of Dark Hours
"Monstrous crimes were committed in my countries name. We cannot undo those crimes or turn back the clock; we can only do our utmost to ensure that no new dictator gains a hold over us, leads us into war, and persecutes, torments and annihilates our fellow creatures, no matter what their race or religion. The history of Germany during the 20th century should be a lesson to people of all nations".
Deborah Hallford is Co-Founder of Outside In World and has an MA in History.
*My Generation’s Hard Fought Lessons are Being Forgotten, Harry Leslie Smith, The New European, 5-11 May 2017
Dreaming in Black and White, Reinhardt Jung, translated from German by Anthea Bell, Mammoth (Egmont Children’s Books), 2000. First published as Auszeit oder Der Löwe von Kaube, Verlag Jungbrunnen Wien München, 1996
Emil and Karl, Yankev Glatshteyn, translated from the Yiddish, Scholastic 2007 First published in Yiddish as Emil un Karl, Farlag M.S. Sklarsky, USA, 1940
Daniel Half Human, David Chotjewitz, translated from German by Doris Orgel, Simon and Schuster, 2005. First published as Daniel Halber Mensch, Carlsen Verlag GmbH, Germany, 2000
Dark Hours, Gudrun Pausewang, translated from German by John Brownjohn, Allen & Unwin, 2006. First published by Ravensburger Buchverlag, Germany 2006
Don’t Say a Word, Barbara Gehrts, translated from German by Elizabeth D. Crawford, Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1986. First published as Nie wieder ein Wort davon? Germany, 1975
The Final Journey, Gudrun Pausewang, translated from German by Patricia Crampton, Viking, 1996. First published as Reise im August, Ravensburger Buchverlag Otto Maier GmbH, Germany, 1992
Fly Away Home, Christine Nöstlinger, translated from German by Anthea Bell, Andersen Press, 1976, 1985, 2003 and 2009. First published as Maikafer flieg! Beltz Verlag, Weinheim, Germany, 1973
Friedrich, Hans Peter Richter, translated from German by Edite Kroll, Puffin Books, 1987 First published as Damals War Es Friedrich, Sebaldus-Verlag GmbH, Nürnberg, Germany 1961
I Was There, Hans Peter Richter, translated from German by Edite Kroll, Puffin Books, 1987. First published as Wir Waren Dabei, Germany, 1962
The Time of Young Soldiers, Hans Peter Richter, translated from German by Anthea Bell, Armada (Collins Publishing Group), 1989. First published by Verlag Alsatia, Paris, 1967
Traitor, Gudrun Pausewang, translated from German by Rachel Ward, Andersen Press, 2004. First published as Die Verräterin, Ravensburger Buchverlag, Germany, 1995
A Night in Distant Motion, Irina Korschunow, translated from German by Leigh Hafrey, Hodder and Stoughton Children’s Books, 1984. First published as Er Hiess Jan, Benziger Verlag, Zurich, Koln, 1979
No Hero for the Kaiser, Rudolf Frank, translated from German by Patricia Crampton, Richard Drew, 1987. First published as Der Junge, der seinen Geburtstag Vergass’, Otto Maier Verlag, Germany, 1983
Max, Sarah Cohen-Scali, translated from French by Penny Hueston, Walker Books, 2016