While researching my very first book, The Girl from Munich, and sifting through the treasure trove of documents, photos and memorabilia that my German grandmother left behind after she died, I discovered the letter that started the journey towards Letters from Berlin.
It was sent to her when she was in her eighties by newly connected relatives in Germany. They’d been trying to find other branches of the family that had dispersed after the war and had found my grandmother’s cousin, recently returned to Germany after spending nearly forty years living in South America. He wrote them a short letter in response to their enquiry about his family.
He wrote that he remembered meeting my grandmother’s brothers on their way to the war, never returning from the Eastern Front where they both perished but that he’d lost contact with the family after his father’s death. It was wonderful to discover a part of my grandmother’s family that I knew nothing about but the icing on the cake was the copy of a German newspaper article that accompanied the letter. I had no idea what it was about until I began translating it. That article blew my mind! It briefly covered the story of this man’s family from the 1920s through to the late 1940s – the war years in Germany and into the Soviet occupation. There was enough detail there for me to research further and I found the same story in multiple German newspaper articles.
The reason his story was so sensational was because he was involved in a landmark legal case in Germany in an attempt to reclaim property lost to his family at the end of the war. The legal case took over 20 years from first lodgement, reaching the Supreme Court in Germany. The final verdict was a resounding victory, handed down when he was lying in hospital. His courage, determination and persistence finally paid off. He died two weeks later.
Besides being an incredible story, the amazing thing for me was to learn more about my family. I discovered through the newspaper reports that my grandmother’s uncle was married to a Russian woman with Jewish heritage. He owned a large estate outside of Berlin and was predominantly a timber merchant. I couldn’t believe everything this family, my relatives, had endured. Their story made me immensely proud and I knew immediately that I wanted to tell it – not just because it’s such an incredible story full of heartbreak, survival and human endurance but because it’s about family. What a family will do to stay together, what a family will do to protect its own. It’s a story about family and legacy and in the process of learning about this branch of my family and what their lives were like, I realised that it was also about legacy for me and my family too.
Letters from Berlin, although inspired by the life of my grandmother’s first cousin, is told from the perspective of the fictional Susie. I wanted to tell this story from a female’s point of view, an upper class German girl living with the family who has an understanding of what was happening to the Jewish people, one foot in each world as such, looking in at the war experienced by a rarely mentioned group of people, those Jews married to Germans and their children who were considered half-breeds, ‘mischlinge’ like my grandmother’s cousin.
The law protected Jews in mixed marriages which is what kept so many Jewish people safe until the end of the war, even with the new Nazi laws and rulings. The Nuremburg Laws of 1935 redefined race law, persecuting those who had Jewish blood, rescinding their German citizenship and forbidding marriage or relationships with Germans. There were so many rulings that arose out of these laws especially after Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, in 1938 where Jewish synagogues were torched, businesses vandalised and many Jewish people arrested. Although Jews were no longer allowed to marry Germans, there were many ‘mixed marriages’ that already existed and the laws were not retroactive. Many couples were pressured to divorce but many didn’t. Jewish women who were married to German men, who did not practice their faith and baptised their children as Christians, usually Lutheran, like my relatives, were considered to be in ‘privileged marriages’ which allowed them the status and privileges of a German family, including full rations, being allowed to stay in their homes and not wearing the Star of David. However, ‘unprivileged marriages’, Jewish men married to German women or with children brought up in the Jewish faith, although also protected to some extent, were treated less favourably. Many in such families lost their jobs and were ostracised by their community, friends and even family.
Christian children with a German father were also considered German citizens but as the war began and then escalated the restrictions on this group rose. Already forbidden to have a relationship or marry a German, they were then unable to join the military and attend university among other restrictions. But by 1943 when my story begins, all bets were off and everything changed. The Final Solution to rid Germany and Europe of the Jews was underway and as the end of the war and Germany’s loss loomed closer, the more desperate the Nazis’ attempts to ensure no Jews were spared became. So although not in immediate threat of deportation to the eastern ghettos and concentration camps of Poland through 1943, their lives were tenuous and the threat to their very survival was a real and present danger.
So many of the details in Letters from Berlin are true and were part of my family’s story. The particulars of this case that had been reported on and had reached the public domain were all I had to begin my story but these facts were explosive and heart wrenching enough to allow me to tell the story as it essentially happened. Research provided further layers to the story and helped build a picture of what family and legacy meant in the climate of the Third Reich and in 1943 with Germany’s first big loss in the war on the Eastern Front at Stalingrad and ‘The Final Solution’ well underway, what extent people were prepared to go to protect the ones they loved. Again I found, like in The Girl from Munich, a common theme running through the war years was of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in extraordinary times and I had to tell this story to honour this family’s memory.