|Photo: David Ho
My recent book, Rose Under Fire, is partly set in the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück in Germany during World War II. I am not a witness to the horrors that were the concentration camps. I do not even have a family member affected by those horrors. So what gives me any right to tell this story? Indeed—what gives anyone any right to tell a story that “belongs” to someone else? This seems like a question that those of us who write historical fiction of any kind must ask ourselves over and over again: What do I know? How can I ever know enough? How can I ever do this justice?
Sue Purkiss addressed this issue in her recent History Girls review of Boy 30529 by Felix Weinberg pointing out that there is also a duty to “keep the memory alive, and introduce new generations to the appalling truth that such a thing can actually have happened, and not so very long ago.” I also hope that anything I write, even if it’s set in the past, has reason to resonate with the reader in the present. There’s a message in there not only to remember the atrocities of the past, but to be aware of the atrocities in our world today.
“…behind us is the multitude of the dead left at the camp, who fix us with crazed and envious eyes. Those millions of people, envy us and wish they could shout, ‘You fools, don’t you see that you are happy?’
“Isn’t it so? What did we ask of the living when we were like the dead? To think of us? To pray for us? Yes, a little, in the beginning. But mainly to do all they could to send us material help, and then, when they had done all they could, oh, above all, to enjoy life to the fullest! We so often cried out to them, ‘Be happy, be happy! Be happy, you who eat, and you who expect alms and receive them. Be happy, you who live in fine apartments, in ugly houses or in hovels. Be happy, you who have loved ones, and you also who sit alone and dream and can weep. Be happy, you who torture yourself over metaphysical problems, and you who suffer because of money worries. Be happy, you the sick who are being cared for, and you who care for them, and be happy, oh how happy, you who die a death as normal as life, in hospital beds or in your home. Be happy, all of you: millions of people envy you.”
The one thing I could do, and felt I must do, was to visit Ravensbrück. There is an annual week-long European Summer School held at the museum and memorial site, and I felt that by attending this seminar it would give purpose to my visit. I would not just be a tourist making a pilgrimage, but I would be learning something in addition to what the site itself had to offer, and I would be interacting with people. The theme of the summer school when I attended it in 2012 was “Remembrance and Media Biographies,” and the questions addressed by this theme seemed so appropriate to the fictional survivor account I was creating—which is, of course, based on many authentic survivor accounts, including the one quoted above.
The seminar considered the following: Is there a memory without its media presentation? How do different media shape our memory and perception? Does media overwrite real memories? Underlying these and other questions is the very real concern that the reality will disappear in time, with its attendant torrent of images and accountings. With the death of the last witness, the transfer of authentic memories becomes increasingly important.
During the course of the discussion at the summer school I was given much food for thought regarding the authenticity and authority of narrative—both in fiction and as documentary—and specifically regarding the reliability of my own role as an author, recreating a “witness” account of a concentration camp. Whether or not I have the right to tell this story is a dilemma that has bothered me from the beginning, and ultimately it comes down to this: I want to tell it and nobody has stopped me from telling it—quite the opposite. I’ve been encouraged. Tell the world—this is the mandate of the true witnesses, those who were dragged to their deaths in the gas chambers.
The academic and mental experience of the 2012 European Summer School was balanced by the physical and practical experience of actually being on site at the Ravensbrück Memorial. In addition to the obvious—the moving international museum in the original “Bunker” prison, the roses floating in the lake just beyond the concrete walls, the sober crematorium and empty factory blocks—there were other things to process. The fact that we were sleeping in the former SS guards’ quarters, now a youth hostel, made many of the attendees uneasy. For me, being the dummy who spoke no German was a new and eye-opening experience. I had never before, in an academic situation, had to rely on the kindness of strangers to open up even the simplest communication (“Do you have a pen I can borrow?”). And I found myself continually amazed at the beauty of the changing sky of northern Germany, a thing that many Ravensbrück survivors have remarked on.
|Bunker and crematorium
Claudia Lenz, Head of Research & Development at the European Wergeland Centre and author of The Holocaust as Active Memory (http://www.academia.edu/3499728/The_Holocaust_as_Active_Memory._The_Past_in_the_Present), told the seminar attendees: “Take your own personal expertise very seriously.”
On the third day of the seminar, I found myself giving a tour of the Ravensbrück memorial site to a group of my German colleagues from the seminar. Unlike me, most of the people attending were there primarily for the summer school course and not specifically for the location. So in fact I knew considerably more about Ravensbrück itself than many of my companions, and because our time was restricted by our course schedule, we couldn’t always get tours with site staff. Not only did I know the layout of the camp without needing a map, I also knew its history and many individual stories associated with its existence.
Tell the world. For all the faults and flaws of my telling, I have no choice but to tell this story as best I can.
Elizabeth Wein writes fiction for young adults. She is the author of Code Name Verity, as well as the The Lion Hunters cycle, set in Arthurian Britain and sixth century Ethiopia. Her most recent novel, Rose Under Fire, has been shortlisted for the Costa Award in Children’s Fiction. Originally from Pennsylvania, Elizabeth has lived in Scotland for over fourteen years. She is married and has two teenage children.