Thursday, 23 April 2015


My novel 'Last Train from Kummersdorf' will be reissued  next month, and it made me think about its inception and the ingredients that went into it. I'd started to write it seven years before it was actually published, and it was a very different book then.

I began to write it because:
I went to see 'Schindler's List' and the images of heaped-up personal goods from murdered Jews suddenly fired up such fury and rage in me, I knew it would have to find an outlet in writing.
Because I read about the Battle of Berlin, how in the last stages lads as young as twelve were drafted in to fight, and the SS shot these kids if they cracked and begged to go home.
Because my mother is German, and one day - I think we were looking at an episode of 'Heimat' together - the Nazi Horst Wessel song was played and she began to sing along with apparent pleasure. I was horrified, but to her it was just a bit of her youth, and she didn't even connect it with the horrors of a society that had threatened both her parents' lives.
Because though I adored her when I was small, I found it harder and harder to understand her as I grew up, and I hoped, through finding out and writing about childhood in Nazi Germany, to somehow get to understand her.
So it was about things that I found intolerable, incomprehensible - and really needed to understand, because your mother is part of you, in a way.
I began with the boy, Hanno. He was the hardest to write. He's fourteen (almost fifteen) and he's been drafted into the 'Volkssturm', the Home Guard, to fight against the incoming Russians. This was an organisation that was largely characterised by the phrase in Henry Reed's 'Naming of Parts,' 'which in our case we have not got.' Hanno's entire unit has been wiped out around him, including his twin brother (I couldn't have done this now, not since the birth of my twin grandsons). Aching with loss, cut off from his mother and sister - who have fled to the West to escape the Russians - Hanno has no idea where to go or what to do now. In that state, he meets Effi.

Effi is a mass of prickles, and Hanno can't understand why she's so hostile to him, but they stay together, at first just because it's better than being completely alone. She is the daughter of a political refugee from Nazism, and got marooned in Germany when her mother insisted on coming back to be with her own mother, who was dying. The war broke out before they could get back, and then Effi's mother died of TB. Effi then went to her aunt, who was part of the Communist resistance to Hitler, and remained with her till she was also killed by a bomb. Now she is trying to cross the battle zone and get to the US army, because she knows her father is with them.

In writing about Effi's life in the then working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg, I owe an enormous debt to Bernt Engelmann, whose two books of mixed autobiography and oral history (published in Britain as 'In Hitler's Germany' told me about that left-wing resistance. I'd had no idea about it; I suppose the Cold War led to its suppression, so that all most people in England know about is the attempted coup of July 1944. But Communists and Social Democrats did what they could; admittedly, it wasn't much, but it included sabotage of munitions factories, at enormous risk, by those who worked there, getting Jews and others at risk out of Germany, and also reporting on conditions in the country.
Effi has learned to keep her mouth shut, and has a very different perspective on things from Hanno's - and of course, she wasn't difficult to write at all, because I could put my own thoughts and feelings on the page through her. She's jazz-obsessed, uses music as a way to get along in a dreadfully dangerous world. She carries a bag of things that might be useful to sell after the war's ended, and a harmonica which she uses to express her feelings, to torment other people when she feels like it. My brother sent me Sonny Terry's 'Freight Train rolling', so I could hear how Effi might imitate a train when she and Hanno are selling fake tickets. When she wants to be nice to Hanno, she calls him 'Swing Boy,' and promises him a great life when everything's over, listening to hitherto forbidden jazz. She wants to be a singer and have a lion, like Josephine Baker. She isn't callous, but she's tough, a survivor - I think it was good for me to write her.
Hanno from the hardback jacket

Hanno was the difficult proposition, but he was the reason I wrote the book, to try and understand what it was like to see the world through the lens of Nazi lies, I was enormously helped by my tai chi teacher, whose father was persecuted in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, who told me: 'You didn't have the language to see that things could be different.' At university, we had a unit in History of the German Language on the language of propaganda in the Nazi period. I found it really fascinating, I think because there were things in it that spoke to me subliminally, from my family background. It chimed in with what the 'Eighties women's movement pointed out, that society can gag people by withholding the means to name what is going on. Hanno was very young, younger than my mother, when Hitler came to power, and the Nazi society is all he has really known. Effi - often brutally - forces him to understand the reality behind the lies and the glorification of inhumanity.
My mother was on the run, in the open, in April 1945, as some readers of this blog know, escaping from Russians who'd tried to rape her. When that trauma, which she repressed for many years, came back to her, I was a young child. I can remember it well, because she had nobody but the family to talk to, and I, as well as my father, became her therapists. I've met other people who found themselves, as children, the only available people to listen to their parents' trauma. I can see why it happened, but of course she shared the horror with me, which is perhaps why I feel partly as if I had experienced these things. It's a common phenomenon known to therapists, who call it 'reverse transference', I think. I've written about second generation trauma before on this blog, so shan't go on about it now.
I heard that my mother had seen a man crucified on his own barn door for trying to stop the Russians raping his wife and daughter; she also told me about a child of eleven or twelve who was haemorrhaging to death because she'd been gang-raped. That dreadful image haunted me, and even now, I can't write it without crying. I was able to give it expression in the novel when Effi exclaims about a child who has been raped: 'That little Barbara, what has she done?' - If you want to hear more details of what the Russians did to German women and children, there are plenty of sources. Me, I've never been able to read the sections of Anthony Beevor's 'Berlin, the Downfall' that deal with rape. Or the diary of the unknown Berlin woman that is now published in English and so many people have told me about. The challenge was to write about the rapes without going into too much horrible detail, and I got the image that would carry the horror without being explicit, in an account by a Russian officer, Lev Kopelev (who was himself horrified at this crime - not all of the Russians raped) of a child with blood streaking down her stockings.

The other issue was how you survive, when you're on the edge, in the open, with very little to eat. It was a situation my mother knew all too well, from the post-war period. You barter. You filch, even. You forage if you can, but in springtime, there's not much to eat except nettles. If a horse is killed, it's valuable meat. And every bit of food counts.
The crucial difference between the 'adult' version and the 'Young Adult' version, was determined by what happened in between the initial drafts and when I took the book up again. I had gone to Berlin and read my grandfather's file. Rachel Seiffert, in her debut novel 'The Dark Room,' writes about a grandson who sets out to discover the truth about a beloved, kindly, grandfather. It turns out that he was involved in the murder of Jews in Russia.
Shortly after reading that book, I investigated my grandfather's file. He was an authoritarian, angry man, and frankly, I could always imagine him involved in incredible brutality. I expected to make a similar exposé; but in fact, what I found was the story of his persecution in 1933, and the only evidence regarding an atrocity was the underlining (in red ink) by a British investigator of a demand to know why he had not come back to his regiment at a certain date. I do still feel that when my brother and I were told that our grandfather had 'seen terrible things', it probably means that he also did them.
All the same, reading his file made me understand the pressure that there was on him to conform; that Germany under Hitler was truly a terror society. And just before I began to rewrite the novel, I was volunteering for the Refugee Support Group in my home town, and the stories I heard from refugees drove it home that those of us who condemn people who went along with the Nazis should be grateful they haven't had to make those kinds of choices. None of us knows what we'd do in a terror state; and it's not just an issue of onesself, but of the people who depend on one. 'I could have resisted,' my grandfather told my mother after the war, 'but there was you, and your mother to consider.'
The line between victim and perpetrator is not anything like as finely drawn as we'd like to believe - and I apologise to anyone who's read me saying this before on this blog. And so the novel's tone changed, very importantly, I think. It was no longer the vehicle for sheer anger (why did my grandparents' generation load up my generation with all this guilt and shame?) and really became a journey to understanding. If what I came to understand was bitter and dreadful, I think it has made me stronger.It was a great help that I actually went and walked round the area, with a reluctant teenage daughter in tow, when I first started to write, making notes about terrain, trees, plants, soil, animals and birds. I must assure my readers that I did give her a nicer time in our other days in Berlin, and she was glad she'd come with me - though not glad she'd had to trudge round those Zossen woods.
the pond where Effi and Hanno go fishing?
Things I enjoyed about writing the book: that knowledge of the place, which made it vivid to me, and, thank goodness, to my readers as well, as the many responses to it have shown me. The black humour, drawing on the jokes people told at the time. The music. The dog, Cornelius, who did magical things while behaving exactly as dogs do.
And however dreadful the events that surround this novel are, it turned out to be about hope, and new growth with a new generation; and about unexpected humanity and humour, love, even, in bad places. People often ask authors which is their favourite book, and I am usually cagey about replying; but Last Train from Kummersdorf is my favourite book, and I feel privileged to have been able to write it.

Last Train from Kummersdorf will be published by Faber and Faber on the 7th May


Clare Mulley said...

Sounds as though it would be a privilege to read this book too Leslie. Could I pay, inc p&P, for a signed one please?

rambutanchik said...

An amazing post. The things people do to each other, and why. I'll look out for your book - glad its been reissued

Lydia Syson said...

Fantastic that this is being republished, and what a moving and gripping introduction to the book's genesis. Congratulations!

Leslie Wilson said...

Some people have tried to explain the Russian rapes to me by saying: Oh, but look at what the Germans did in Russia, or even more contorted arguments about the German standard of living being so much higher, etc. Leaving aside the fact that rape by invading armies is far from unusual, many members of the Red Army raped their way through eastern Europe - I know about Poland, and Yugoslavia, where Stalin responded to complaints about the rape of partisan women by trivialising it. When, some years ago, journalists started saying 'rape has become a weapon of war', my response was: 'Hasn't it always been?' And the rapes were above all the reason why the Soviets were loathed in Eastern Germany. These things resonate through the generations.

Leslie Wilson said...

However, my mother never subscribed to 'better dead than red,' during the Cold War, and she had a better idea than many what she was talking about.

rambutanchik said...

As you probably know, Leslie, there's a huge rewriting or propagandising of WW2 going on in Russia now which makes it pretty impossible to talk there about the Red Army rapes or the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact or anything which suggests the Soviet side was anything other than 'good' and heroic. The same thing may be spreading to Ukraine, you might be interested in this:

In interviews for this, I got the excuse - yes the UPA slaughtered Poles but you have to remember the Russians/Poles slaughtered Ukrainians... Of course you have to put any wartime atrocity into context. But I don't think that makes it any less of an atrocity.

I really want to find out more about the way Germany has dealt with its recent past both legislatively and socially - I think Russia and Ukraine could learn a lot from it

Ann Turnbull said...

I would urge anyone reading this blog who hasn't yet come across Last Train from Kummersdorf to buy a copy and read it now. It's a wonderful, heart-breaking and hopeful story in which you will become completely immersed.

Thank you for telling us how you came to write it, Leslie.

carol drinkwater said...

This is such a moving post and the book sounds amazing

Leslie Wilson said...

Lily - I totally agree with you. Thanks for that link - it was interesting, though depressing. 'THEY commit war crimes, WE inflict unavoidable collateral damage.' The same can be said of bombing during the war. Bombing Guernica was horrific; bombing Dresden was a strategic necessity.Oh, dear.
Ann, thank you so much for your generous praise! and thanks to everyone else who has commented.