Researching for the Schellberg Cycle by Gill James
The Schellberg Cycle is a series of five books that skirt round several Holocaust survivors and one person who might be described as a Holocaust victim. It also attempts to show what life was like for ordinary German people.
It is all based on a true story about which we have very few details: a school for disabled children that Clara Lehrs a Jewess, who was naturally also under threat, hid in her house on Schellberg Street, Stuttgart.
My mother-in-law, the granddaughter of the Jewish woman, was brought to England on the Kindertransport only a few days after she was told that she was technically Jewish. Her school anyway was being disbanded but the girls decided to keep in touch via a round robin letter, written in exercise books. One of the ladies found one of the exercise books in her attic and made it her job to contact all of the girls, including my mother-in-law who had so mysteriously disappeared.
I started the story as a project for my MA in Writing for children. Later I had a sabbatical from the University of Salford, UK. Five months sabbatical has led to five novels and I’m now embarking on a series of school visits based on this story. Quite good value I think.
My first task was to decipher the handwriting of the letters. First I transcribed them and then I translated them. This was a demanding task but it did give me the voice of the German girls. A lot of the detail was if I’m honest a little boring but two theme emerged: duty and camaraderie. These may seem worthy themes but in fact they were there as a result of Nazi indoctrination. The BDM (girls’ equivalent of the Hitler Youth) provided a fabulous uniform and lots of interesting activities at a time when there was not much money and a lot of despair. The letters give some insights into compulsory work experience and later war work. One of the girls describes having to leave her barrack through the window because the snow wouldn’t let them open the door. I’ve not used these letter verbatim but form their essence I’ve created some fictional characters.
Apart from this very useful resource however we only have a few anecdotes remembered by my husband and myself. His great-grandmother was murdered at Treblinka. His mother died of cancer in 1986 and his grandmother died in 1978.
There were lots of gaps in the stories. I did what we all do in historical research – I found out as much as I could about the times that they lived in. My Pinterest boards are full of pictures of 1940s fashions, and even 1920s, and glimpses of domestic life.
There has had to be a lot of factual research. This ranges from what was happening politically at the time, what were the rules and regulations that they all lived by, down to what was the weather like on a certain day – and one must check the calendar carefully. You can’t have them going to church on a Wednesday. Important also: which cut flowers would be available in London in September 1939.
I’ve used repeated experience where I can: a visit to the Holocaust Centre at Nottingham where you can spend some time in a “hiding place” or go on a journey in a cattle truck, I’ve lived on war rations for a week and I actually wear 1940s’ clothes a lot.
Imagination remains a powerful tool. We almost get into method acting at this point. What would Clara Lehrs do in these circumstances? What was it like for Renate Edler who came to England not speaking a word of English? What was it like for her father who was not allowed to leave German as he worked for German defence? In fact, I gained a valuable insight as I wrote about him. He was involved in designing the V2 bombs. As he knew his wife and daughter were living in England, he decided to work slowly. I’ve since read that the German engineers working on those bombs thought them so horrific that they did indeed keep stalling. Only the other day I realised why Clara Lehrs stubbornly refused to leave Germany because of these disabled children. Of course she would be concerned about disabled children – her husband was disabled. Ernst Lehrs senior suffered from rickets and had a curved spine.
The research really is fascinating. It’s a real privilege to give a voice to these people who no longer have one and I have to be so careful that I’m being fair to them. Just this week I’ve decided to include a few pages of Hitler’s point of view in the current work. That will be interesting.