Ever since I could read, I wanted to write a book of my own, but as Henri Matisse said, “Creativity takes courage”, and it took me a while to find the courage to start, and even more courage to keep going as I produced numerous terrible drafts.
Quite possibly, if I hadn’t found myself living in Paris, I might never have written a book at all. But with its rich literary past, Paris can’t fail to inspire. It’s breathing passion, art and history. Strolling through the streets, I came across the cafés where some of the world’s greatest writers spent much of their time, Café de Flore, where Sartre and De Beauvoir would meet, and Les Deux Magots, where Hemingway used to hang out.
But it didn’t take long for me to discover a darker, more disturbing side to Paris. It’s around every street corner, outside every school. You can’t miss it, and when I arrived in 1993, one of my first feelings was one of great sadness as I read the plaques marking the spot where Resistance fighters had been shot, or outside apartments where Jewish families had been forcibly removed from their homes.
My knowledge of World War II and the holocaust at the time was very scarce, and I wanted to delve deeper to try and understand how such horror could have taken place, only fifty years previously, in these very streets. Remnants of it were everywhere, sometimes in the most unlikely places.
Queuing in a supermarket one day, I glanced at the woman in front of me and saw she had a number tattooed on her forearm. Without words, just a number, I knew she’d been a prisoner of the death camp at Auschwitz. The shock of coming face-to-face with someone who had lived through the holocaust is something I’ll never forget.
Later, I had the opportunity to speak to a survivor of Auschwitz; a wonderful spritely lady in her eighties. Every year she came to the international school where I was teaching to share her story, moving teachers and students to tears. What struck me most was the way she found humanity in hell itself, like the German guard who gave her his sandwich; a detail I reproduced in my first book. These stories of hope in the darkest of places inspired me to write about this time and people like her. Though not only her, but people like the German guard who shared his lunch - just a man, probably no better or worse than most men, but none-the-less complicit in the atrocities that were committed.
I thought of my German great uncle Wolfgang, captured by the British Army in North Africa in 1943 at the age of twenty two. He was sent to Southern America, where he worked in the cotton fields, later being transferred to England. At the age of fifteen, Wolfgang had been obliged to join the Hitler Youth when it became obligatory in 1936. After the war, he returned to Germany, but his mother told him there was nothing left for him, so he returned to England, where he met and married my Great Aunt Dorothy, who is still alive and well today.
His story intrigued me, and I wanted to write a book with a character like him. Not a hero. Not a villain. Just a man.
France has come a long way since the war ended, and Chirac’s speech of 1995 was a turning point for France in facing up to its part and its role part in the deportation of the Jewish population. many students now have the opportunity to take ‘Le train de la mémoire’, a slow train that takes them to Auschwitz. My sixteen year old son went on this trip. He came back with lots of tiny candles he spread around his bedroom, but he didn’t want to talk about it. I felt sorry he had to learn about the inhumanity and cruel discrimination of which we are capable. On the other hand, this isn’t a lesson we should shy away from. Prejudice can creep up on us, and we have to be aware of this, so we can stop it happening before it ever begins.
Some say they’ve heard enough about World War II, but I’m concerned we haven’t heard enough to stop us from repeating history.
I wrote about the war, but not the horrors of war. My book is about ordinary people who find themselves in a time of history that called for extraordinary actions.
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