My new novel, The Hidden, is set in and after the Second World War, a subject that still resonates in contemporary life, most recently in the debates on Brexit and Britain’s relationship with Europe. And yet even after seventy years, the war itself still holds secrets which can challenge our understanding of it and open up new areas of enquiry.
The Hidden is located primarily in the Channel Islands, the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the Germans from 1940 to 1945. An unexpected visitor in the present forces Dora, a German refugee, and Joe, a young Irish priest, to confront a time they thought buried in the past. As the story of the occupation unravels we see how their lives entwined and mirrored each other. Dora hid her Jewish identity while Joe hid a terrible secret. It’s a story about survival and shame, about passion and guilt.
But it’s also about silence.
I wanted to tell a different version of the occupation, less driven by the spirits of British exceptionalism, of Dunkirk and the Blitz, more akin to a European experience. For some years now I, along with many of my generation, have been trying to make sense of the generational memory of war, of our and our parents’ experiences. In the course of this, some historian friends and I had been regularly visiting Berlin. I had read Sarah Helm’s If This Is A Woman: Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s concentration camp for women, and on one occasion we visited the camp, and it was there that the idea of focusing on the singularity of women’s experiences took hold. Later, I discovered that 34,000 women were used as prostitutes in 500 Nazi-run brothels across occupied Europe. There were five in the Channel Islands, two in Jersey alone. European comfort women? I had no idea. We never heard about it. Little was written about it.
Why the silence? Sexual violence was not considered a crime against humanity as defined in 1945, so, unlike other war crimes, the evidence was not collected. Nor did the women speak out after the war, keeping quiet out of shame or fear or both. Women suspected of sleeping with the enemy – for whatever reason and under whatever circumstances – were subject to brutal vigilante justice on the continent and in the Channel Islands. Nor were there analogies to describe what they went through that could be recognized. The language, the concepts, what Maurice Halbwachs would call the ‘permissions’, did not exist. After the war, the women kept their silence, as Dora, my character, did.
She hadn’t the words. She hadn’t a story, and couldn’t borrow one either. There was nothing in the Bible, or Dante, nothing in Dostoevsky or Goethe that she could point to, it was like this. Who wrote about what had happened to women in war, apart from Berthold Brecht? She was no Mother Courage, and what happened to Dora was not part of that version of war either.
Who were these women? We know from incidental evidence collected in 1945 that women prisoners were used in brothels in the concentration camps, and that women were kidnapped into prostitution in Eastern Europe. But in the rest of Europe? The Channel Islands? Were they voluntary sex workers? Or were they, too, coerced?
At this point the historian in me took over. I learned from my research that one brothel on Jersey serviced the guards from the OT, Organisation Todt, which provided labourers for the Reich, mostly enslaved. Russian and Ukrainian women were among the involuntary OT workers brought into the Channel Islands in 1942, many of whom, I am guessing, were destined to service the OT brothels. The brothel for the Wehrmacht in Jersey was, according to British Intelligence, staffed by ‘licensed French women,’ whatever that meant. Volunteers? Perhaps. Clues suggested otherwise.
I trawled through the statements of former SS guards on Alderney, collected after the war as part of investigations into war crimes committed there. Although there were Organisation Todt labour camps all over the Channel Islands (including fourteen in Jersey) and although the conditions for the slave labourers were appalling, it was only Lager Sylt, the SS Concentration Camp on Alderney under the command of Maximilian List, which, in the view of the British, merited investigation for war crimes. Most of the evidence collected from the surviving prisoners was subsequently sent to the Soviet Union. (No copies were kept in the United Kingdom.) But the evidence from the guards remains and although it is not Jersey, the conditions were analogous.
My researches revealed nothing about the brothels because the SS guards weren’t asked – until I came across a sliver of evidence volunteered by Wilhem Girrbach, the SS garrison commander in Alderney, who said that he tried to engage women in Paris as ‘charwomen and orderlies’ but the promise of high wages attracted only ‘criminal elements… streetwalkers etc.’ Perhaps they came voluntarily, lured by money, but their use as forced prostitutes is in no doubt once they arrived: they were garrisoned together, subjected to compulsory monthly medical inspections, to punishments, imprisonment, and, if infected, ‘ruthless’ dismissal, as Girrbach boasted. The German army, like the British, were paranoid about VD.
And then in a particularly revealing touch, he complained,
‘… [As] I was exposed to the slander of this type of woman… rumours were spread that the personnel were not paid their proper wages…[and] that every woman who worked for me had to sleep with me, and similar nonsensical statements…’
Solomon Steckoll, one of the survivors of the SS on Alderney, referred in his memoirs to the French women in the brothel as ‘Algerian’ which adds another layer of political and racial complexity. The island commandant, D. R. Schwalm, estimated their numbers at ‘about 100′. Most of the women in Alderney were evacuated after the Normandy landings, and on Jersey British Intelligence reports that the brothels were wound down at the same time. However, the evacuation report from Jersey in May 1945 referred to thirteen women, all displaced persons. Nine of them were French.
So there was the backbone of my novel. But from those foundations I had to tell a story, to make it fly, to appeal. I needed characters, place, setting. In search of all that I went to Jersey and saw for myself the monstrous ruins of the occupation, imagining how it must feel to be trapped – a whole population trapped – on an island. My character, Dora, I based on the true story of Marianne Grunfeld, a German Jewish refugee hiding in Guernsey until she was betrayed, deported and murdered, a life story I fused with a Jewish survivor of Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp. Another protagonist in my novel was Maximilian List. His ‘Wanted Report’ for war crimes was still in the archives, a finding that for me as a historian was one of those moments when the hairs stand on end.
Making the transition from historian to novelist means transforming hard evidence like that into the softer fabric of a novel. Whereas a historian must build their argument on solid evidence and layer it skillfully and thickly, a novelist must wear their historical knowledge lightly, transform it into atmosphere, as invisible as the air we breathe. The temptation to ‘info dump’ must be resisted. Instead, information gleaned from research has to metamorphose into a detail, a character, a moment, a conversation.
Let me give you a concrete example. I wanted to know how the women in the brothels survived, so I read about sex workers in the 1940s and 50s, first-hand accounts such as Marthe Watts’s The men in my life, or sociological studies such as Women of the Streets, produced for the British Social Biology Council. I read also A Woman in Berlin, the account of women surviving mass rapes by the Soviet Army. What rang through loud and clear was the ability of the women to switch off, to disassociate, from the abuse. From that research, Collette was born.
‘You’ve never done this before, have you?’
Dora shook her head. Collette placed her hand on Dora’s arm.
‘Courage,’ she said. ‘Don’t think about it when they’re going at you. Be someone else, somewhereelse, in your head, when it happens. And laugh, inside. Oh,’ she added, ‘and listen. They think you can’t hear, but if you keep your ears open, you can learn a lot. That way you’ll survive.’
That advice Dora puts to practical use: as she is being abused, she takes herself somewhere else, going through the stations on the London underground or the U-Bahn in her native Berlin, or listing the Beethoven symphonies, the Mahlers. But whatever the strategy, the result was dehumanisation.
This dehumanisation had a traumatic impact. The women who had been trafficked during the war left no record, in terms of memoir, or testimony, much like the women today who are trafficked across continents to work in the brothels of Europe and elsewhere. How did they survive during the experience itself, and after, as they came to terms with it? We now know how long trauma can last, how viciously it can eat into an individual’s memory, self-esteem and personality. Certainly, after the war, the effects of post-traumatic stress were poorly understood, it at all, and were thought in any case to apply only to battlefield stress. The silence from the women, their inability to talk about their experiences, would have compounded their agony.
It is at this point that a novelist can step in and imagine.
On the face of it, there are crossovers between history and fiction. Both operate with prose, narrative, characters, with mentalities and context. But a historian’s approach is omnipresent, forensic and cerebral, a novelist’s partial, fluid and involved. Historians have evidence to support their characters and context, and to present an authentic interpretation of what happened in the past and create an argument. Novelists have to invent everything: characters, evidence and context to create that aura of authenticity. They also have to invent a plot robust enough to carry the weight of their story. They need to inhabit the world of their novel and its people in order to portray the illusion of reality, to invent detail that historians have no concern with. On the other hand, a novelist is not constrained by the evidence in a way that a historian is, can invent and circumvent, lie and speculate. Above all, they can, and must, inhabit a character and convert a cut-out figure into a thinking, feeling, sentient being. This gives the novelist a liberty denied to a historian, as thoughts can be created, dialogue charged, actions invented.
I could have told the story of 34,000 women working as forced prostitutes from archive sources, if they exist. But to tell the story of one such woman and invest in her the fears and hopes, the panoply of bruised, desperate emotions, the strategies for survival and the costs of silence, offers a truth that a historian could not dare to pursue. One character, one incident even, can speak volumes.
We see in fiction a mirror of our dreams and nightmares, behaviour and motivations. We see ourselves and others. It gives us a vision, a version of reality, a truth, through which we can say yes, this happened and now I can understand it. For literature reflects society and helps us comprehend it. Breaking silence is one way of making sense of the past and sometimes fiction is the best resource and tool for the job.
Mary Chamberlain is a novelist, historian, and Emeritus Professor of Caribbean History at Oxford Brookes University. Her UK debut novel, The Dressmaker of Dachau, was translated into 19 languages and was an international bestseller; her most recent novel, The Hidden, was a Sunday Times ‘Must Reads’ choice of the best recent books, and Choice Magazine’s Book of the Month.
[An earlier version of this piece has been corrected to remove mention of the Lebensborn project.]