Video about the project

Friday, 25 October 2013

Remembering Theriesenstadt

When I wrote The House on Schellberg Street I did quite a lot of research about Theriesenstadt. Some details stand out:
  • It was a model concentration camp and was spruced up to fool the Red Cross.
  • It was considered by many to be a ghetto rather than a camp.
  • It arranged football matches.
  • It had an orchestra. (But so did Auschwitz!)
  • It housed many creative practitioners and much art work and music came out of it.
  • It wasn’t essentially a death camp  
I’ve now had to revisit some of the research and there are a few less savoury details emerging.   
·         It also provided “striped pyjamas”.
·         Inmates slept in crowded conditions just like in other concentration camps.
·         Heads were shaved.
·         It was a transit camp – many, such as Clara, were held there for a short while before being transported again to the death camps.
·         A gas chamber was installed there towards the end of World War II.
And then we have Clara in the middle of it all, not really knowing what to make of it.
Clara for me has become very much a vehicle for asking how and why.
Already as I write these rather demanding scenes I’ve had her and a companion resist escaping when they have a chance as they are transported.  They have no money and they are in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language, at a time when they don’t know exactly how terrible the place is that they’re going to.
Later she asks herself why they don’t try to overcome the guards. There are so many more of them than there are guards. Then she looks into the cold blue eyes of one of the soldiers and realises that at any given moment it is only one guard and one Jew; the guard is the stronger.
I have, I believe, just three more chapters to write to get to the end of the story, though I may also slot two extra earlier ones in.         

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

A Journey

I’m now part of the way through the first Holocaust scene I have to create from my imagination. Actually, though, I do have some leads. All those eye-witness reports I’ve read about what it was like on the transports. There are pictures of the 1941 deportation from Stuttgart, though none of the 1942 one.  One has to trust it was similar. Not all “undesirables” were transported by cattle truck and I’m fairly certain those going from the Nordbahnhof in Germany were not. They went in normal third class carriages. This was miserable enough, though. They packed in tight during the hottest part of the year and there was no corridor, therefore no toilet and presumably no food or water, for a journey that on a modern train would take eight hours. They are going to arrive at dawn in my story.
The characters again have taken me by surprise. Clara remains feisty. She dares to ask one of the officials how long the journey will take. She is roughly handled as she gets into the truck that takes her to the station and as she gets into the train. She doesn’t dwell on it but is pragmatic about the bruises that she knows will form. As there are people younger than her in the carriage, including some children, she remains optimistic that she will not be shut away in an old people’s home but will still have contact with other people. I didn’t plan this before I started writing – it all happened as I wrote.   
Selda, the young pregnant woman she befriended in Rexingen, seems a little distant. I too was puzzled by this. Had she guessed what was coming and was she trying to cool the friendship between her daughter and this old lady? No, not at all. Since the men arrived in the village in the morning her baby had not moved. When someone smashes a window on the train, the baby starts moving again and she regains her hope that she might, despite everything, give birth to a healthy child.
Yes, I’m getting into the trickiest part of the story. But therein lies the challenge.              

Thursday, 10 October 2013

22 August 1942

Now I really am getting to the crucial points in this story. This the date on which Clara is transported to Theresienstadt from Stuttgart.  The Jews to be transported were gathered at the Killesberg exhibition grounds. I’ve almost finished writing this scene. It is the last crossover with  The House on Schellberg Street. The writing has convinced me that Clara was still not absolutely certain of her fate.  Even now she remains hopeful.
The Killesberg still has a big outdoor exhibition site. When I was a student in Stuttgart in 1973 I mainly remember it as being a pleasant enough park. For some reason, though, I didn’t like it. There was no logic to this at all. Was I picking up some bad atmosphere form the place? Or had I actually come across the story of its past and forgotten it again and this was my subconscious telling me this?
The Zeichen der Erinnerung web site gives some information about the transports and a quite interesting account by a German eye witness who saw the transportees depart. It leaves us wondering still: did they know or didn’t they know? Clara’s transport is not mentioned here but it is on the memorial at the Nordbahnhof.
Now I have to deal with the journey to Theresienstadt, life there, and then the transport to Treblinka. I’m not doing any scenes at Treblinka. The final scene will be Clara’s granddaughter, Renate, finding the letter that she wrote but couldn’t send from Rexingen.
I shall put notes at the end of the book about what we think happened to her and how her life ended. We do know though that she was taken to Treblinka. Until we found out about eighteen months ago the family had thought she went to Auschwitz.  
It’s a little shocking that I’m so near the end of the book. It’s perhaps going to come out a little shorter than I’d intended. I do have a couple of extra scenes that I might put in but this must be because they’re necessary, not just to make the book longer. I’ll soon be into editing and redrafting.