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Research: WWI Soldiers

I love doing the research for my novels. I can and do lose days at a time finding and reading background information from which facts, or a sense of place or time will emerge to inform my story. I am often asked where I learned about the story in Even in Darkness, and the simple answer is, from my family. However I also did 10 years of research before I started writing. I traveled to Europe and Israel, was fortunate to be able to interview most of the major characters in Germany, Belgium, and Israel, translated family letters and documents and scoured archives in Germany, at Holocaust Memorial Museums in Detroit and Washington D.C., at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York.

Two pieces of research work for this book were particularly impactful. The first is a wonderful book of letters, Jewish Soldiers’ Letters from the Field 1914-1918: Letters from Former Pupils of Sigmund Feist, director of the Reichenheim Orphanage in Berlin. In it are letters from the front sent “home” to the director of an orphanage by Jewish residents who’d gone on to serve in the military. As I had characters who were orphans, and characters who were soldiers in both world wars, these letters were first hand sources that told of the adventure, horror, dutifulness, loneliness and the details of landscape and battle. They provided the basis for several war scenes and fictional letters in Even in Darkness.

Apart from serving to inform parts of my novel, the research into WWI German Jewish soldiers had another meaning to me. Half the stories I remember my grandfather telling during long Sunday dinners around his dining room table were about the antics of the commanding officers and the other soldiers in his WWI cavalry unit. Never mind that it was the German Army, or that his hard-won Iron Cross First Class medal wasn’t enough to keep him from having to escape with his life from the Nazis two decades later. He fought for his country in the Great War as a Jew and a German just as he’d fought for his saber-fighting Jewish fraternity. The character based on him in Even in Darkness says to his sister after enlisting in the Army, “There will be war. Jews cannot sit and wait. We have to fight harder and more bravely than anyone to prove ourselves.” Jewish Soldiers’ Letters from the Field deepened my understanding of what the more serious side of my grandfather’s war experience must have been like.

It’s hard to imagine, with the Holocaust looming in the recent past, that any young Jewish man would have joined the German Army to fight in the Great War, but they did in droves. My own eager grandfather left his legal studies at University in Munich to fight. Later, he would practice high-powered law in Berlin for 20 years, escape Germany, and eventually be re-admitted to the German bar in order to help Jews secure restitution from the German government. As much as he loved America and was forever grateful for the opportunity to live here, he never lost his pride in his WWI military service, or his identification as a German. He traveled frequently to Germany, and provided a welcoming home to every German consular official that came to our city.

This duality, which allowed him as a refugee from Nazi Germany and a practicing Jew, to also proudly embrace his heritage as a German, seemed not to bother him at all. It bothered a lot of other people, creating many uncomfortable moments for me as I grew to realize that others, particularly in the Jewish community did not approve of my family’s continued connection to all things German.

The alternative Holocaust survival narrative that is the legacy of my family’s experience and responses to that time is at the heart of Even in Darkness. The capacity to embrace boundary-defying change, to live with resilience and to refrain from painting the evil that inevitably confronts us with a broader brush than necessary are themes that ground this novel.

Next time…… letters on a bread wrapper..

Some Sources:

Hank, Sabine, and Simon, Hermann, 2002, Feldpostbriefe judischer Soldaten 1914-1918: Briefe ehemaliger Zoglinge an Sigmund Feist, Direktor des Reichenheimschen Waisenhauses der Judische Gemeinde zu Berlin Teetz:Hentrich and Hentrich [Jewish Soldiers’ Letters from the Field 1914-1918: Letters from Former Pupils of Sigmund Feist, director of the Reichenheim Orphanage in Berlin], Volume I and II.

Survivors: International Tracing Service, Bad Arolsen

Stadt Archiv, Stadt Dortmund

Landesarchiv Berlin

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