Hitler's Daughter (1999 Harper Collins)
Winner Younger Readers section CBC Book of the Year;
shortlisted for Vision 200 and Cool awards;
shortlisted for the 2001 Yabba and Koala awards
The bombs are falling, the smoke is rising from the concentration camps, but all Hitler's daughter knows are the lessons with Fraulein Gelber and the hedgehogs she rescues from the cold.
Did Hitler's daughter exist? Is it all too long ago to really matter . . .
Some books take a long time to grow. Hitler's Daughter first germinated when I was still a child, and a kind man helped me with my German translation. I'd been panicking, shrieking 'My life is ruined! I can never go to school again!' and in desperation my mother called a friend of hers over then went to bed.
It was late at night and he'd been drinking. Something in the story we were translating must have caught him, because there in the silent house he began to tell me another story, about a 14 year old boy in Nazi Germany who joined the Nazi party and worked in a concentration camp and when the war ended was smuggled out to Australia. And no, that isn't really how it happened, because I don't want to identify him. Perhaps he was just a man I met on a bus . . .
'How do you tell good from evil,' he asked me 'When the world around you is insane?'
I forgot about the incident as teenagers do for over thirty years. Then three years ago I took my mother and 14 year old son to see a performance of Cabaret.
There is a scene in the play where the young waiter sweeps the floor of the cafe; the lights are low, the stage is empty and he sings 'Oh gather together and greet the dawn, tomorrow belongs to me.'
My son sat there entranced. 'That's was me,' he told me later. 'I kept thinking, that's me and my friends. Tomorrow belongs to us.'
Then the waiter began the final verse: Oh Fatherland Fatherland show us the sign, your children are waiting to see, the morning will come when the earth is thine, tomorrow belongs to me.' The lights on stage rise and suddenly the waiter lifts his arm in the Nazi salute . . .
My son sat there stunned. He realised he had been identifying with a Nazi song. He also realised that if he had lived in Germany in 1936, he and his friends might have been Nazis too.
How do you tell good from evil when the world around you is insane?
Well, one way is from books. Every book, no matter how trivial, is a record of the way the author sees the world, a map of their values. It doesn't matter whether you intend to do it or not: it just happens. Show me any book and I will tell you at least some of the values of the author. 'Give me a girl at an impressionable age,' said Miss Brodie, 'and she's mine for life.'
Well, I believe that if you give a child at an impressionable age a thousand books, you are giving them a thousand different world views. No two people ever have quite the same world views. Expose a child to enough good books, and they will learn to think. Books give you a depth of values and ideas in a way that movies and televison never can. (And yes, I'm prepared to argue this in more detail...but don't have room here!)
When I was 14, trying to do my German homework, I came across a passage I couldn't translate. My mother called a friend of hers who spoke German to help me.
It was late by then. He came over, and my mother went to bed, and we worked on the translation. But I think something in the story we were translating must have moved him (and perhaps he'd been drinking too- he hadn't known he was going to be called out to help a kid with her homework.) Because there in the silent house he began to tell me quite a different story.
He told me about a 14 year old boy, in Hitler's Germany, who joined the Nazi Party, because his parents were Nazis, his teachers were nazis. All he had ever heard or read said it was good to be a Nazi. He believed it all- the duty to rid the race of anyone who was blind, or lame, who was Jewish or Gypsy or homosexual, or anyone who believed in their religion more than Hitler, or who disagreed with his policies and had the courage to say so.
He became a guard in a concentration camp, because that is what 14 year old boys were doing in Germany at the end of the war. And when the war was over he was illegally smuggled out of Germany, with his parents, as many Nazi war criminals were.
He said to me 'When you are 14, and the world around you is insane, how do you know what is good and what is evil? How do you know?"
(And I've changed some of the circumstances here, because he was a good man, who had spent his life trying to atone for what he'd done. And he had only been 14)
I forgot his words for many years. Then ten years ago I took my mother, my brother, my cousin and my 14 year old son to the theatre to see Cabaret for my mother's 70th birthday. The play is set in Germany, just as Hitler is coming to power. Half way through the teenage waiter sings the most beautiful song 'Tomorrow belongs to me.'
I watched as my son stared at the singer entranced. As he said to me later 'That song was about me and my friends. Tomorrow belongs to us.'
Then half way through the song it changes. The lights come up...you realise the waiter is wearing a Nazi uniform. The orchestra stands, and they too are wearing Nazi uniforms. And my son sat there in shock, because he had been identifying with a Nazi song. He said he realised how he so easily may have become a Nazi, if he had been 14 in Hitler's Germany.
How do you know what is good and evil when you are 14, and the world around you is insane?
If you are 14, and you realise evil is happening, what can you do? No one listens to 14 year olds...or do they?
If you are Hitler's Daughter, after the war, do you have to say you are sorry for what your father has done, and that you had no part of?
(And no, I don't have answers to those questions. But I think they are good ones to ask.)
Questions asked about Hitler's Daughter
Are any of the characters in Hitler's Daughter based on real people?
No, only the historical characters, like Hitler. I have tried to make these as accurate as possible.
I am interested to know what your background is and whether you have been to Germany or studied Hitler and his regime. Perhaps you have relatives who were affected during the Holocaust.
Yes, I've been to Germany, and studied the Hitler years in great detail, including much oral history, which is what the book is based on. And of course in my childhood there was the event that I mention on my web site. That was the genesis of the book- seeing this man, who I knew to be a good and caring man, so bewildered about that had happened in his childhood. But the past is quite literally another country- the Germany you see today isn't the Germany of the 1940's. For all my historical books I rely on things written at the time, or soon after, or oral histories of the time. It's the only way to see both the country and the ways of thinking and living.
I would like to ask where do you get your ideas from to write such novels, and do you write for pleasure or for a set purpose, i.e. education?
The ideas for books come from many places. The idea for Hitler's Daughter came from the incidents mentioned on my web site (Click onto Hitler's daughter if you haven't seen it.) I believe that books brew for many years- even decades- as your ideas develop. Then there's what I call a 'ping' moment when they all come together. And that's when you start plotting, developing characters and themes.
As for pleasure or set purpose- I simply don't know. I like creating things, whether it's a house, garden, theory of ecology or new recipe for choc chip macadamia biscuits. And sometimes there are the voices in the past calling 'remember me.'
It also depends on the book.
As an author do you sometimes feel that although sometimes there are no places for illustrations in a book, do you feel that they may sometimes be useful for those children who find it hard to create their own images and may miss some of the story or do you feel that the power of each person's imagination will build their own visual story and create a different reading experience for everyone?
It depends on the book. Books with a complex theme are so rich that no illustration can match the world that is inevitably created in the reader's own mind. Other simpler books can have an added dimension with illustration. But most of my illustrated books are a partnership with the illustrator- I write one story, but they add another with their illustrations. They're not illustrating my ideas- there's layering another set of ideas onto mine. Result: a much richer book.
What was your purpose for incorporating a story within a story?
Because Hitler's Daughter IS a story- a 'what if' story, there was no other way to write it without it seeming to be truth. But I used to play the story game for my younger brothers and sisters- and in fact for the children of the man who inspired Hitler's Daughter.
My first impressions of the story had a lot to do with the front cover. My initial reading was of the text with a boy on the front (Mark), Heidi in the background and a war zone at the bottom of the cover. I then bought my own copy which had a blue cover with the children on the front and Hitler in the background. These two different covers gave me two different impressions. I also know that there are several other different covers.
Which is your favourite front cover and why? Was it the way you imagined it to be?
For me both covers fit, though I think I prefer the sepia one, which is the one used now- somehow sepia hints more at a story from the past. But a writer has to be aware that as soon as the text leaves their hands the book will be imagined in a different way by everyone who reads it. It becomes as much their book as yours. As long as the cover expresses the theme of the book- and is beautiful- I'm happy. And doesn't have anachronisms, come to think of it which can be a struggle, though not with the present team at Harper Collins.
Jackie I was wondering how you engage children with your texts? Your front covers are appealing but I was more interested in the tone and voice used within the actual story. Are there any 'tips' that you would use for your story writing.
The tone varies with the protagonist. I've just finished writing the story of the Burke and Wills expedition from the point of view of the camel, and the young Afghan cameleer Dost Mahomet. So the voices of the two are quite different. Even when the story is not first person I use a tone which would match the way they think.
But if a story is engaging enough- if the readers long to know what happens on the next page- I think kids can cope with quite a bit of complexity in language … and a heck of a lot of complexity with ideas. Often kids are hungrier for ideas than adults. A tip? Don't underestimate kids. Often the funny and simple will engage them for half an hour- but the books they reread year after year will be the complex ones that challenge them. (ie of course- Harry Potter)
I was wondering if when you wrote Hitler's Daughter did you have an age group in mind? Also did you travel to Germany at all during or before the time you wrote the book?
I spent some time in Germany many years ago, and used to speak German- very rusty now but okay for snatches in WW2 movie. But the Germany of today is so different from the land of the 1940s- the past really is another country. So I relied on the oral history of the time- memories of ordinary people collected over many years by various researchers
What were some of the inspirations that helped you come up with some of the characters?
The way that Mark thought so deeply about Anna's story made me think and believe that the story could be true as well. Would you use the book for a 4/5 class?
The major inspiration for the book was of course the story on the web site from my childhood. But there is a little of my son in Mark, the boy who asks questions; of myself, perhaps in Anna, who tells stories, and Ben and Little Angie are based a bit on kids who really did wait at the bus stop for the school bus many years ago.
Yes, I'd use the book for a 4/5 class. Anywhere from year four upwards, I think. It won the UK WOW award for the book most likely to get reluctant reader's reading-though I think kids see the book in a quite different way from adults. (Many kids for example think that the major theme of the book is that adults never listen to kids or answer questions truthfully- neither of which I intended but both of which are there.)
The question I want to ask Jackie French is if at the end of the book the girl is talking about her own grandmother?
Yes, of course. But remember no one ever told Heidi she WAS Hitler's daughter. Hitler did have many proteges- and perhaps several of them would have liked to imagine that he really was their father, instead of a man who made himself responsible for the orphaned children of dead comrades.
When you write your books do you think about how your readers might respond and why they might read your books? Do you want them to read for pleasure or knowledge or for any other reasons?
Yes, of course. Every page is written pondering on the reader's response. Hope there are a hundred different responses to every page too, for every reader- enjoyment, identification, the feeling of entering another world, an intellectual challenge as well as emotionally satisfying … could keep going for pages.
Do you think that primary school students could be deceived by the story and think that Hitler really had a daughter who is living in Australia? Or does it matter that they may think this or not?
I've never come across a child who finished the book thinking that Hitler HAD a daughter, though many write to ask if he did. But the question is always there for them as a question, not an answer. And while Hitler almost certainly never had a daughter, he did adopt protégés … and yes, one may very well have considered him her father, and then come to live in Australia.
Did you know much about Hitler when you were 10 years old? What spurred your interest? He changes in so many of our eyes when we imagine him as a father.
I knew Hitler only as the conventional villain when I was 10. By the time I was 12 I was trying to work out how someone could feel they were right, but be so wrong. Mein Kampf is fascinating- or was to a 12 year old- mostly because it is so silly. He was a genuine idealist- and even tried to be a philosopher. What do people need then to make them think rigorously, in way that Hitler never learned to do? How do you teach people to realise what is prejudice and what is reasoned analysis?
Questions from some children in Greece about the Greek edition of Hitler's Daughter
What does (writing) a book mean to you?
It's the best job in the world- I sit at my desk telling myself stories and get paid for it.
How did the idea occur to you to write such a book for children?
We were really amazed by your book. What would you think if you were Hitler's daughter?
I don't know. I was worried when I first wrote it, because I was writing about a time I hadn't lived through. But I hope it has worked.
In the Greek edition of your curriculum vitae it is mentioned that "you don't believe that the past can only generate exciting adventures but it can also offer to us ways of comprehending the present". What do you mean by that?
I think maybe the translation wasn't quite accurate.
I think that the past can be an exciting new world. But it can also help us to understand the present. Does that make more sense?
How do you feel when you finish writing a book?
Elated. It's one of the best feelings in the world. I just wander down to the shed where my husband is working and go 'oh wow oh wow oh wow' and he says 'Ah, have you finished another book?'
Have you thought of continuing the story of Heidi in a second book?
I don't think I'll ever write another book about Heidi, but I've sketched out a short story. I'm not sure if I'll ever finish it though.
Would you like your book to be turned into a movie?
Yes, I would. It's been made into a play though, which toured the country and won the two major theatrical awards in Australia. .
Which are the topics that are the greatest source of inspiration for you?
There are so many it would be impossible to list them. But especially history and the bush around me.
Would you like to mention a dream from your childhood that has been fulfilled?
To be a writer, and to be able to take the ideas and stories of my childhood and turn them into books.
Have you been to Greece? If not, would you like to come and visit the country?
Yes, I've travelled about Greece and Crete. I spoke a little Greek in those days (I went to a school with many Greek friends in Brisbane) but have forgotten most of it! Mostly walking, and staying in villages. It was wonderful. When I was a child I totally idolised Socrates and was fascinated by all of Greek ancient (and modern) history. My next book but one will be set in Greece. I planned to come to Greece again with a friend to do more research, but I had a heart attack, and wasn't able to.