A Coward's Death

This is the day Hitler died in his Berlin bunker. This is the day he finally gave up on his dream of a thousand-year kingdom . . . the final days of the Third Reich. When visiting Berlin in 2019, I toured the surface of the bunker where he died. It’s a nondescript parking lot. And so it should remain. A nothing place for a coward.

Creative Commons: Hnapel
Not only was he responsible for killing millions while he was alive, the mayhem he unleashed continued after his death. For the those who survived him, the war was far from over. For each of my parents, living their separate lives, the worst was yet to come with years of Soviet captivity still ahead. While the Führer ran away from any sense of responsibility, millions of men, women and children, beautiful horses, and family pets would continue to starve and many still died. The survivors knew that a return to what once was, would never be. Too much destroyed. 

What a coward Hitler was, what a self-serving maniac. And all those Nazi elite who saw their hero self-implode, who faced some kind of reckoning and humiliation in Nuremberg, or who ran away . . . may we never forget the stench of your evil. As the generation who experienced . . . who smelled, hungered and cried through those final years . . . as they fade away, we must never forget. We must always be brave and support the vulnerable, so that the weak don’t ever become revengeful bullies. Hitler might be dead, but hate continues to seek life. Even today. 

Like Déjà vu?

Like many of my fellow baby-boomers, I traveled through Europe as a youth. What started off as a structured university-work-program, morphed into a year-long adventure—a roller coaster experience filled with extreme highs and lows. (Only the young can have so much drama!) Now, upon reflection, with Tainted Amber soon to be released, I realize my experiences in a small Bavarian town helped me gain insight into what my mom might have experienced when she worked in rural East Prussia as an independent, but naïve, young woman. 

After she died in 2011 and I gradually went through her belongings, I came across the documents she’d completed to access a German pension. I learned that she’d worked as a maid for three different landowners in rural East Prussia. In Tainted Amber, I’ve melded these into one location. 

I didn’t realize Berchtesgaden’s significance when I chose it out of a list of options at the student employment office at 42 Feuerbach Strasse in Frankfurt an der Main. I remember the office address clearly because I was so afraid of getting lost. I could have picked Stuttgart, Heidelberg or other cities, but Berchtesgaden sounded like ‘garden’ and I’ve always preferred nature and the outdoors over city congestion.

Creative Commons: Colin Smith
Berchtesgaden was the end of the line for the Deutsche Bundesbahn. It was a long train ride deep into the mountains. I concluded that maybe Berchtesgaden would be like Banff. I had no idea I was entering Hitler’s favourite area. The rail station, my introduction to the town and entrance point to my new job, had a big date sprawled into the brick: 1938. Turns out it had been remodelled that year because of the many official Nazi, and international, visitors who would go through its doors. It was then that I had an inkling of the town’s history. It’s been a slow simmer, this fascination with the Second World War, but the ingredients to turn its study into a passion have always been there. Back in the seventies, I was merely a young woman determined to have fun and explore without her parents’ supervision. 

Tainted Amber, set in 1937, is a story about how Nazis impact eighteen-year-old Katya. East Prussia was a place, like the Berchtesgaden area, that the Nazi elite would frequent to enjoy nature and relax. Katya ignores them as best she can. Like me, she’s determined to be independent, and coincidentally, has ambitions to be a writer. 

Kaiser Bun: CC- Kobako
The Pension, (hotel with bed and breakfast) where I worked, was old, nestled along a roaring creek and ancient trees. It wasn’t the most fashionable place in town . . . definitely more rustic than modern and it suited me perfectly. Like Katya, I would have to go down to a dark, dank cellar if I wanted a bath. Limited hot water.  I preferred heading to the local pool and using their showers. Honey for the fresh Kaiser buns that were delivered every morning came from the hotel's garden. I had no idea that forty years later memories of my tiny servant room would become the template for my character’s own room. Even now, I look back at the completed book and I’m surprised at how I incorporated my experiences into Katya’s own. It wasn’t intentional.

Does that happen to other writers? It must.

The Borders of our Lives

If travel is about meeting people from other cultures, then staying right here in Winnipeg gives me plenty of the positive perks of travel. I love my opportunity to do EAL tutoring. It gives me a chance to travel while staying home. Immigrants from all over the world come to this cold city of Winnipeg for a better way of life. I know, sometimes that’s hard to appreciate.

Besides using Zoom, I’ve adapted to the forced isolation of the pandemic, with a walk and talk. Back in the old days, we’d meet in a café. Now a former South Korean student and I get to meander on local trails. It feels much more like we’re friends, comparing our different cultures and experiences, than in a student/teacher relationship. In fact, that is what we are . . . friends. 

The other day I asked my online student how her remaining family felt about the unrest back in her home country of Ukraine. Russian troops have amassed at the Ukrainian/Russian border (albeit for practice) and a British warship is now heading to the Black Sea and the jailed, anti-Putin crusader, Alexei Nalvalny, is close to death. My Ukrainian student, here in Canada, hears more about events in Russia and Ukraine than her mother does, only two or three hours away from the Russian border. She says her mother is too busy just trying to survive, day to day, to pay attention or worry about troop movements on her country’s border or about dying activists. This caused me to reflect on my mom’s own history and recollections from the Second World War.

I used to question my mother’s ignorance. How could she not know that Nazi Germany was an aggressive state? How could she not pay attention to the build-up of the Wehrmacht? How could she not question the newspapers or the propaganda that spewed out of the radio? How could she not see what was coming? Was she deceived or did she not want to see? How was her news manipulated? Read more about that here.

It makes me realize that even today we need to question what we glean from radios, TV (is that still a thing?), newspapers and the ubiquitous social media. Can we see our world, today in 2021, for what it really is? I am white, educated, retired and vaccinated.  I have a vehicle and a single-family dwelling. Through these lenses of privilege, I view the rest of the world. Can I really see it? What threatens the borders of my life? Or perhaps I’m too busy spending, consuming and entertaining myself to even notice? I hope not. I seriously hope not.

Map: Ukrainian border with Russia by Aleksandr Grigoryev

April, April . . .

Welcome to winter. Three or four inches of snow cover everything. Of course. It’s April in Winnipeg, so we’re not surprised. The German’s have a word for this fickleness of nature. Actually, a few words . . . it’s a poem. 

I didn’t teach my kids German. I know, it’s a shame. But . . . I did teach them this poem and I think it should be mandatory for any Winnipeger.

April, April, kann machen was er will. Bald Regen und bald Sonnenschein, bald ist die Luft voll Schnee.   (April, April, does want it wants. There’s rain and then sunshine, and then the air fills up with snow.) It’s by Heinrich Seidel from Mecklenburg (1842-1906). In German, there's a catchy cadence to it. 

Seidel was an interesting fellow. During the day, as an engineer, he designed the roof of the Anhalter train station in Berlin. He was also a sort of guerilla gardener (if I understand that term correctly), scattering seeds he collected on various trips, throughout his hometown of Berlin. Theodor Storm was one of his critique partners, and Seidel’s most popular book Leberecht Hünchen, a light-hearted series released between 1880 and 1893, is still available today. 

Seidel’s sense of humour and appreciation of nature comes through loud and clear in this simple April poem that any child, once they hear it, remembers for life (even my second-generation kids here in Canada).  

Experiencing weather invites a sort of a universal language, wouldn’t you agree? 

Simple Things

Grateful. Grateful for the constancy of this old enamelled teapot (bought in downtown Winnipeg, in the Hudson’s Bay basement back when that was still around).  I’ve poured green tea from this aqua teapot (made in Poland) almost every morning for more than four decades now. On occasion, I’ve traded it in with pretty glass pots, but they never last. So it’s back to this good old standby. 

My aqua pot has come along on many a camping trip and at times gets charred black by flames. It’s tough and now has enough character that I suppose I’ll be pouring tea from it for a few more mornings yet. 

I’m also grateful for the plants that have chosen to thrive in my space. I don’t consider myself a gardener. A plant has to be tough to hang out with me. But the English ivy is actually climbing and the humble spider plant loves it here.

The trick to my in-house garden? Only grow what works. That’s an insight I can pass onto real life. Find the right growing conditions: the right light, soil and water and stop trying to be somebody I can’t sustain. 

In Tainted Amber, my protagonist, Katya, is more of a shade-loving violet, but she yearns to be a sun-loving rose like her friend, Minna. Me? Perhaps I’m more of a carefree spider plant, able to adapt to almost any growing condition, preferably surrounded by books and good light. 

Learning to Write Better through Reading

I finished reading The White Rose Resists by Amanda Barrett this past week. The novel, based on the actual White Rose resistant group whose young leaders were tragically executed, via guillotine, in 1943, piqued my interest because of the extreme reviews it had on Goodreads. I’d only had a vague knowledge of the real event which involved Munich university student siblings, Hans and Sophie Scholl, along with fellow students, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf, among others. These five were convicted of treason and immediately killed. Their crime? Sending out propaganda leaflets suggesting that the war was a lost cause. 

I was moved by the actual events behind the novel, but I found the structure of this novel confusing.  When a narrative is written from different points of view, there needs to be a corresponding change in ‘voice’. This can be done through dialogue, thought processes and interactions. Merely defining a viewpoint with a name at the beginning of each chapter left me constantly turning back to the chapter beginning, wondering who the I had morphed into now. Who was doing the actual talking? The author never let me forget that she was telling the story, even though she no doubt meant the opposite. I get what she was trying to do. I’m guilty as charged, writing fiction in first person, present-tense to create the least amount of distance between the reader and the action. But when that first person is constantly changing, the reader can’t develop any empathy towards the character—only confusion.

Another irritant, which I put in the editor’s court, was the constant reference to vater and mutter, ja and nein, etc.. We get it, it’s a German story. But the words here seemed gratuitous and jarring. As well, by inserting the fictional characters, Kirk and Annelise, into the plot, she creates an artificial love story and only weakens the historical fact. I'm grateful to other reviewers who articulated much better than I can some of the issues of this mostly five-starred book. (Go to Goodreads to follow the discussion).

Enough of my criticisms. While the re-telling by Barrett might be flawed, there’s no weakening of the actual tragic incident.  I found the narrative most compelling when it shared the final hours of Sophie Scholl’s life. 

So while I’d been warned by other Goodreaders not to bother reading, I’m grateful I did, after all. Sometimes reading what doesn’t work can be as useful to a writer as reading what does. Here’s what I will try to apply to my own writing:  I will be careful with my use of foreign words; I will try to establish credible points of view; and I will not insert characters that don’t add to the overall plot. I don’t mean to disparage this novel. The author told a deeply felt version of an important event and she includes great references at the end which can lead readers to find the true story in between the fiction, if they, in fact, care. Writing historical fiction deserves truth. But in the end, as authors, we can only try our best. Editors, we need you!

Photo: Creative Commons, Bust of Sophie Scholl by Wolfgang Eckert 

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