Reflections on writing Last Train from Kummersdorf
It began with the idea of the boy, Hanno, devastated by his brother’s death and the death of everyone in his Home Guard unit, on the run, his head full of ideas of heroic last stands, but completely unable to imagine how to do anything about it. Then the girl, Effi, came into my mind. She was much easier to write than Hanno; she expresses a lot of my own thoughts and feelings – though I’ve never really wanted to keep a lion. I put them together, in the ruined farm, only of course, they couldn’t stay there. Someone had to appear to frighten them out onto the road, to meet other refugees.
So Major Otto appeared, roughly based on a Nazi my mother met when she was escaping from the Russians in 1945, clutching his brandy bottle, drunk and menacing and connected with Hanno’s dead father’s past. Then the idea of the train came into my head; what would refugees want more than anything else? To get on a train to get them away from the fighting.
Once those ideas were there, I began to feel as if I’d been there – though I must admit I went to Berlin and dragged my then teenage elder daughter over the ground to the south of Berlin. Oh, she was bored! I was writing down everything that grew there and the details of soil, etc, in the woodlands, while she was saying: ‘I could have been at a barbecue.’ She enjoyed the other three days in Berlin, though, and we even went back together about ten years later.
Three things sowed the seeds of Last Train from Kummersdorf in my mind. One was that I’d been reading about the last battle, in Berlin in 1945, and how kids of 12, who’d been drafted in to the Home Guard to fight the Russians, were shot by the SS if they cracked in the fighting. It made me furious.
Then my mother was profoundly marked and scarred by the Nazi period, beginning with my grandfather’s experience of persecution and fear for his life in 1933, which I have substantiated by reading his Nazi-era file. You can read more about her experiences in the FAMILY BACKGROUND section of this website. My other reason for writing the book was wanting to understand her, and the kind of world she grew up in, which was so different from the Britain of my own childhood.
A friend of mine who grew up under the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia said to me: ‘You didn’t have the language to think that things could be different.’ When I was writing about Hanno, I tried to think how it was to grow up in a country where compassion was a crime; where disabled people and ethnic minorities were systematically and officially regarded as undesirable; ending in the murder of many disabled people and the Holocaust; which included Roma people as well as Jews.
The last reason was wanting to write a book for young people that showed things in Nazi Germany as they were, and showed Germans as ordinary people, rather than the evil monsters the books I read in childhood showed them to be. I am not the only person to have done this, and there are some excellent and interesting books around nowadays. See the Fiction Sources section in the FURTHER READING section of this site.