Thank you to Nancy Bilyeau for inviting me to talk about the research I did for my novel, THE PLUM TREE.
When I started working on THE PLUM TREE, a WWII story about a young German women in love with a Jewish man, I knew the setting like the back of my hand—a small village in Germany surrounded by rolling hills, orchards, vineyards and medieval castles. I’d been to Germany numerous times to visit family and could picture the cobblestone streets and stepped alleys because I had walked them myself. I could smell the aroma of pretzels and tortes coming from the village bakery and taste the warm, dark beer being shared at the corner Krone. I could feel the soft cocoon formed by sleeping beneath a deckbed (feather bedcover) and hear the church bells echoing through the narrow streets. I could even get a sense of the fear and claustrophobia caused by wartime air raids, because I’d been inside the bomb shelter where my mother and her family hid in terror for nights on end.
My mother grew up in Nazi Germany, the eldest of five children in a poor, in a working-class family. When I started research for my novel, I asked her to retell the family stories about WWII so I could take notes, going as far as giving her a questionnaire about the details of everyday life. Through her answers, I learned, among other things, how the average German mother kept her children fed and alive during food shortages—domestic practices like making sugar out sugar beets, bartering beechnuts for cooking oil, using vinegar to preserve what little meat they had, keeping chickens safe in the attic, and letting a crock of milk sour on the cellar steps until it was the consistency of pudding, then serving it with boiled potatoes and salt. My mother remembers waking up to find her parents in the kitchen making sausage in the middle of the night because it was illegal to purchase and butcher a pig during the war. They told her they were making tortes and sent her back to bed. Every resource—wood, pigs, flour, church bells, iron gates, scrap metal, paper, bones, rags, empty tubes—was to go towards the war effort. And there were rules about everything, from how often a person was allowed to bathe, to the list of acceptable baby names.
When the war started, my grandfather was drafted and sent to the Russian front. I remember his stories about being captured and sent a POW camp, the deep snow, the freezing cold, the way the prisoners would undress and sleep in a huddle, hoping to freeze the lice off their uniforms. Every morning there would be dead men around the edges of the group, frozen while they slept. Eventually my grandfather escaped, but for two years, my mother and her family had no idea if he was dead or alive until he showed up on their doorstep one day.
During the four years my grandfather was off fighting, my grandmother repaired damaged military uniforms to bring in a small income. She stood in ration lines for hours on end, cooked on a woodstove, made clothes out of cotton sheets, and put blackout paper over the house windows so the enemy wouldn’t see their light. Under the cover of night, she put food out for passing Jewish prisoners and listened to foreign radio broadcasts on an illegal shortwave—both crimes punishable by death.
My uncles told me about seeing planes being built in the forest, beneath the canopy of thick trees, and I even had the chance to talk to an elderly man who was a former SS doctor. He showed me his photo album from the war, pointing out pictures of him standing near Hitler, of him drinking schnapps with other officers in front of a huge Christmas tree. He showed me a letter he’d sent to his wife from the Eastern front, and a hand drawn postcard with the image of a giant officer stepping over mountains into Germany, a bouquet of roses in his arms. I soon realized he was a doctor on the front lines, not in the camps, as I had assumed. He recalled the horrible conditions on the battlefields, operating on the wounded in a tent with mud floors, not having enough bandages and morphine.
In THE PLUM TREE, Lagerkommandant Grünstein is loosely based on Kurt Gerstein, a real SS officer who infiltrated the camps so he could witness first-hand what the Nazis were doing. During my research I found out that Kurt Gerstein tried to tell the world what was happening, but no one would listen. When the war was over, he died in a French prison after giving a detailed account of the camps to the Allies. Twenty days later he was found dead in his cell. Whether he committed suicide or was murdered by the other SS prisoners remains a mystery. His testimony provided the Allies with their most detailed account at Nuremburg.
Along with my family’s history, there were a great many books that were helpful to me while writing THE PLUM TREE. Among the memoirs that mirrored and expanded on my family’s stories were: German Boy by Wolfgang W. E. Samuel, The War of our Childhood; Memories of WWII by Wolfgang W.E. Samuel, and Memoirs of a 1000-Year-Old Woman by Gisela R. McBride. I also relied on Frauen: German Woman Recall the Third Reich by Alison Owings. To understand the Allied bombing campaign, which had become a deliberate, explicit policy to destroy all German cities with populations over 100,000 using a technique called “carpet bombing”—a strategy that treated whole cities and their civilian populations as targets for attacks by high explosives and incendiary bombs—I read: To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and its Human Consequences in WWII by Hermann Knell, Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombings of Civilians in Germany and Japan by A.C. Grayling, and The Fire by Jörg Friedrich. Among the many horrific air raid stories in these books were the firebombing of Hamburg in July 1943, dubbed “Operation Gomorrah” which killed 45,000 civilians, and the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, which killed 135,000 civilians. All of these books include some of the most haunting scenes I’ve ever read about what was like to be a German civilian during the war. These books reinforced my belief that this was a story that needed to be told.
To understand what it was like for civilians and POWs after the war I read: Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians under Allied Occupation by James Bacque. For information involving persecution of the Jews and the horror of concentrations camps I read: Night by Elie Wiesel, Eyewitness Auschwitz by Filip Müller, and I Will Bear Witness by Victor Klemperer.
Although The Plum Tree is a work of fiction, I strove to be as historically accurate as possible. For the purpose of plot, Dachau was portrayed as an extermination camp, while in reality it was categorized as a work camp. Undoubtedly, tens of thousands of prisoners were murdered, suffered, and died under horrible conditions at Dachau, but the camp was not set up like Auschwitz and other extermination camps, which had a deliberate “euthanasia” system for killing Jews and other undesirables. Also for the purpose of plot, the attempt on Hitler’s life led by Claus von Stauffenburg was moved from July 1944 to the fall of 1944.