I Can’t Wait to See…Part 1

July 8, 2010

I got really excited writing the end of my last post, where I talked about my trip to Europe coming up in September.  In less than two months, I will be on the longest plane ride of my life, bound for European adventure with my sweetie.  So this will be part one in a three-part series of history-related sites I can’t wait to see when we’re “over there.”  (Hint: there will be one part for each country we’re visiting.)

For our first country, the Netherlands, it’s all about World War II.

I can’t wait to see the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.  Yes, it’s heavily

Image from the web site of the bookcase entrance to the Secret Annex

 visited, what some might call “touristy,” but there’s a reason why so many people visit this place.  It’s the building, the very place, where Anne Frank, her sister and parents, their friends and their son, and a single dentist, went into hiding to escape Nazi persecution.  Anne kept her famous diary during her two years hiding in a backhouse she called the “Secret Annex,” which was attached to her father’s business.  The diary gave me images and real people to put with stories of the terror that swept through Europe, and I can’t wait to round out the experience.

Drawing of Corrie Ten Boom's house, from the web site

Of course, the flip side of the Jews who were forced into hiding is the story of countless people who opened their homes to provide those hiding places.  Let’s face it: in a country as flat and densely-populated as the Netherlands, private homes are about the only places to hide.  So the second thing I can’t wait to see is Corrie Ten Boom’s House in Haarlem.  Corrie is the author of The Hiding Place, in which she describes hiding Jews in a secret closet in the house she shared with her watchmaker father and older sister.  The Ten Booms were devoutly Christian, and Corrie’s account of hiding the Jews and later being captured and enduring Nazi prison camp will strengthen the faith of anyone who reads it.

The third place ties these two together in a larget context: the Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam.  This museum’s web site was helpful when I wrote my article on the Dutch Resistance Movement last fall for Faces magazine, and I feel I owe them the price of our two admissions in return.  I look forward to seeing pictures and articles on the ways simple acts of defacing posters and worker’s strikes, things we take for granted in the US, were powerful expressions of resistance over terror.  According to their site, they were chosen as the “best historical museum in the Netherlands.”  I hope to add my vote soon.

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The Darndest Things

June 8, 2010

I’ve been thinking lately of some of the crazy tidbits I’ve run across while researching my WWII series.  Since a lot of these didn’t make it into my books for one reason or another, I thought I’d share a few here.  In no particular order:

  • Cheerios first came on the market in late 1941.  They were originally called “Cheerioats.”
  • To confuse potential Nazi invaders, British officials took down road signs throughout Britain as bombings began in 1940.  The Nazis never made it to shore, and it mostly served to confuse the British.
  • Housewives were encouraged to collect grease from bacon and other meat in tin cans and bring them to recycling centers.  The grease was used to make amunition.
  • Tornado sirens were not used widely until after the war not because siren technology was faulty, but because to track tornados well enough to provide adequate warning, radar was needed.  Throughout the war, radar was purely a military technology.
  • Army recruits got increasingly younger as the war went on.  When my grandpa joined in 1940, he had to wait until his 21st birthday.  By the last year of the war, boys as young as 18 could be drafted or enlist without parental consent, and they were sent into combat zones, mostly as replacements.  Other rules grew more lax as well, such as the “perfect” vision requirement being lowered to “correctable” vision, and illiterate soldiers being sent to remedial classes instead of being turned away.
  • In World War I, most nurses were sent to the war via the Red Cross.  In World War II, the vast majority of nurses were part of the Armed Services, while the Red Cross sent women who provided snacks and other supplies to men in training centers.
  • When Pearl Harbor was first bombed, the reaction of many Americans was to ask, “Where’s that?” since Hawaii wasn’t a state.
  • Clothing was rationed in England during the war and for several years following.  Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth II bought her wedding gown in 1947 with ration coupons.

The everyday…from the past: Letter from 1947

June 3, 2010

With the fascinating stuff I found I also came across things that made me sad.  My family has a pretty deep military history.  Two of my great great uncles served in World War 2.

Letter from the Veteran's Administration with instructions about how Emily Sands should go about buring her husband.


Internees of War

February 1, 2010

I promised a follow-up to the Guests of War post to explain the other, more sinister reason my dear protagonist and her little sister had to leave England in 1940.  And just to go by the titles of these posts, doesn’t “internees” sound a little darker than “guests?”  Like the accomodations aren’t quite as plush?

England’s panicked response to the war went deeper than just shipping children out of the cities and hanging blackout curtains in windows.  In January 1940, the government began rounding up British residents born in Germany, Austria, and Italy.  Like the Japanese-Americans who were taken from their homes for no reason other than their ancestry, these “enemy aliens” had committed no offense other than being born in the wrong country.  They were taken to northern England for questioning, and while most went home within a few days, some stayed in detention centers on the Isle of Man.

Some of these internees were Jews or members of other groups Hitler

Into the Arms of Strangers--great book and documentary about the Kindertransport and how Germans were treated in England

 persecuted.  A few were even Jewish children who came to England from Germany on the Kindertransport trains in 1938 and 1939, but who had come of age during their time in England.  Refugee status apparently didn’t exempt you from the questioning, but one curious loop-hole did: for the most part, German women who had married English men were not questioned.  (This was discovered by my fabulous roommate-at-the-time, Megan the Amazing Librarian-Wizard.)  Probably sexist views of the time that these German women couldn’t do anything to sabbotage England’s war efforts, but I’m sure these women were grateful.

General public sentiment was all for the internments early on, or at least looked the other way.  After all, Germany was the enemy and might invade at any moment.  But one incident in July 1940 reversed this opinion.  Several internees who had been kept on the Isle of Man were put on a ship, the Arandora Star, which was bound for the British dominion (and formal penal colony) Australia.  The ship, which was British but full of German citizens, was torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat and sunk, killing one-fourth of the passengers.  Internments stopped after that, but suspicion still ran high.

My girls are the products of an English father and a German mother, and the discovery of the internments was one that set my whole story into motion.  Their German housekeepers are passengers on the Arandora Star and after their father dies, their mother is terrified the questioning will start again and she will no longer be protected.  They are saved from being “internees of war” and become “guests of war” instead, and for almost five years, I have tried to imagine what that dicotomy must have been like.


Guests of War

January 25, 2010

In a recent post, I credited a trip to London in 2005 for inspiring my three WWII-era novels.  The idea came to me after visiting the Imperial War

My photo of the Imperial War Museum, London

 Museum, where I’d strolled through a temporary exhibit called “The Children’s War.”  It told how WWII affected British children, including those who lived in big cities, those who were sent to the countryside, and those who were sent abroad.  My protagonist and her sister are the last of these, often termed evacuees, “seavacuees,” or “war guests.”  And in case you care, like I came to, here’s a rundown of what happened.

Picture it: London, 1939.  England and France have watched Germany take over Austria and Czechoslovakia without much bloodshed, but Poland is next on Hitler’s list.  They issue warnings, saying there’s no good reason to invade a nation with no military power like Poland, but those warnings fall on the deaf ears of a madman.  If he’d go after Poland, mighty England might be next, and the British children will be turned into little Germans before their parents’ eyes.  If you’re a parent living in a major British city, what are you going to do?

Not sit back and take it, that’s for sure.  As early as September 1, two days before England and France declared war on Germany, the English government organized a mass evacuation of children from London to the

photo of Julie Allen, from her bbc.com article

countryside, which was less likely to be bombed.  Children who remained in London and other cities were given gas masks that made them look like mutated elephants.   Residents of London “blacked out” their houses every night with boards and heavy curtains to keep all light from escaping into the sky so as not to alert a Nazi pilot flying overhead.  Fire fighters and air raid wardens patrolled the streets at night, keeping watch for enemy planes and homes with light showing through.  Sirens sounded at any sign of an attack, calling all residents to seek shelter in their basements, the London Underground, or Anderson bomb shelters constructed from aluminum siding.  Road signs were removed to confuse any Nazis who managed to cross into England, though of course it confused the English as well.

But not much came from this early panic.  The British called the first eight months “the phony war,” because the invasion they had prepared for had yet to happen.  It hit closer to home when the Nazis took over France in May 1940.  England then lost her most important ally, and the Nazis was only a few miles away across the English Channel.  Now the English had reason to fear an invasion, and many parents didn’t feel their children were safe enough in the countryside.

That spring and summer, thousands of children were evacuated abroad.  A government program known as the Children’s Overseas Reception Board sent children to English dominions, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.  Though the government program could not send children directly to America, thousands of children went there, staying with family, friends, or complete strangers.  Companies such as Kodak and Hoover, which had offices in both England and America, set up exchange programs where English employees could send their children to live with employees in America.

Some children traveled with their mothers or nannies, and some boarding schools evacuated their staff and students together, but most children went alone.  The evacuations ended when the ocean liner SS City of Benares was torpedoed by Nazi U-boats on its way to North America on September 17, 1940.  By then, the infamous London Blitz had begun and while London was bombed nightly for over 53 nights, Germany never occupied any of Britain except the Channel Islands to the south.  The invasion so many parents feared never came about, but by then their children were overseas and it was safer to keep them there.

For further reading, I highly recommend Jessica Mann’s book Out of Harm’s Way, which helped greatly when I began writing my first book about two sisters who spent the war on the other side of the ocean from their mother.

But there is an even darker side to why my girls had to leave England, and I will go into more detail about that next week.


Shameless Plug

September 1, 2009

But it is history-related!

My first paying article is coming out this month!  Check out Faces online or in the kids’ section of your local library.  It’s a magazine that teaches kids in grades 4 through 8 about world cultures.  September’s issue is about the Netherlands and I wrote an article about the Dutch resistance movement during WWII.  Mentioned in this article are such figures as Anne Frank, Miep Gies, and Corrie Ten Boom, along with a group of five children who thought of some really creative ways to destroy Nazi morale.

Did I mention they paid me for this article?  As in, I have a check in the mail?  It won’t make our mortgage payment this month (or even pay the electric bill), but it is money for writing about something I love.  How cool is that?


The Greatest Generation

July 20, 2009

Grandpa and Me On July 9, my beloved grandfather, Arthur Maiert, passed away, three weeks after his 90th birthday.  He had the role of “doting grandfather” down pat, not just with me, but with my brother, our cousins, their kids, and even our spouses.  Only me, though, his only granddaughter, did he call his “angel.”  He sang me silly songs from the 1930s like “Mairzy Doats” and “I Love You Truly,” always terribly off-key but heart-felt.  He watched Turner Classic Movies at our house (his cable service didn’t carry it) and taught me all I know about old films and the actors who starred in them.  Some of his favorites are some of my favorites—The Quiet Man, The African Queen, Holiday Inn.  And he told me what it was like back in Depression-era Detroit, living with German immigrant parents and four siblings, ducking under clotheslines strung about the house when it rained on laundry day, ordering a block of ice off a truck to keep food cool, playing games in the streets with neighborhood kids (most of whom also had immigrant parents or grandparents), watching Westerns and musicals at the movie theater and sometimes getting lucky enough to see cartoons or a stage show in the bargain.

Grandpa enlisted in the American Army in June of 1940, just after his 21st birthday.  Rumors of a peacetime draft were flying that summer (it was eventually enacted in September) and Grandpa was not one to sit around and be told what to do.  Plus, the Army was about the most secure job a young guy could have in those days—sure beat selling newspapers on the corner.  He served over five years, training first in California, then in San Antonio, then being shipped to England and eventually crossing into France, Belgium, and Germany.  He was always at the back of the lines, he said, never in the heat of combat, but he went willingly and served a long time as a member of what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation.”  My favorite of his many war stories was when a lady in an English pub yelled at him for singing.  “Don’t you know there’s a war?  How can you sing?”  “Of course I know there’s a war,” he said.  “That’s why I’m singing.”  He heard General Patton speak once and never forgot it, and saw then-A-list Hollywood stars who’d come to entertain the troops.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHow could I grow up with him so willing to tell me these stories and not become a history buff?  How could I leave history as a dull collection of facts such as “food was rationed during World War II” when he gave me concrete details like his mother demanding real beef instead of horsemeat from the butcher?  How could I hear Glenn Miller’s big band and not think of my grandpa dancing to it through a static-filled radio broadcast?

His history, like the history of all my family, is my history.  My history goes back to Germany and Poland, to farmers and minor aristocrats who eventually found their way to America and somehow produced me.  I don’t know all their stories, but the ones I do know, I treasure.  I can’t wait to tell them to my own children and grandchildren and give them the gift of embracing their past that he gave to me.

Rest in peace, Grandpa: June 19, 1919-July 9, 2009