Justine Saracen, author of several marvelous historical novels including “Tyger Tyger Burning Bright” and “Waiting for the Violins”, pulls us into the hearts and minds of the women and men who struggled to survive the chaos of war. These two novels are set in World War II, one in Germany, the other in Belgium. Fictional characters and historic figures combine and collide. There are allies and alliances, heroism and love, greed and sacrifice. The books are impossible to put down. I am so honored to have Justine here to share with you all the background on how the books came to be, the research required…and a sneak peek at her forthcoming novel.
by Justine Saracen
There are a hundred million stories one could tell about the Second World War. Already the eighty million who died, both in battle and as civilian victims, have their sad tales. You will be relieved to know that I have told only three of them. And they are the stories of women.
For many Americans, but particularly for the young, the image of World War II is a sort of simplified, morbid cartoon in which the Nazis were the villains, the Americans were the heroes, and the Jews were the victims. Having lived in both Germany and Belgium, and speaking both relevant languages, I’ve learned that there were many shades of gray, and it is in those shaded areas that I set my novels.
Tyger Tyger Burning Bright tells about the war from inside Germany, starting with Leni Riefenstahl. This genius German filmmaker, who made one of the most brilliant and ground-breaking documentaries in cinematic history, had the bad taste to do it for Adolf Hitler thereby lending her prodigious talent to the glorification of fascism. But the novel also gives us Katja Sommer, a “good German” married to a stalwart Aryan lad in the Wehrmacht, who then falls in love with Frederica Brandt, one of Goebbels’ mistresses. You’d think we were deep in Nazi filth here, but no. The women enable each other to struggle actively against their own government and smuggle valuable information to the Allies. In the end, the horrors of the war remain, but it becomes a bit harder to identify the perpetrators, all the more so when the two gay male figures, one of whom suffers in a concentration camp, must also kill for Hitler.
Waiting for the Violins rolls the Klieg lights farther to the west and lights up the war from the French and Belgian coast. To ‘get’ the title, you have to know that Les sanglots longs des violons (The long sobs of the violin) were the opening words of the code message from the British to the French and Belgian resistance in June 1944 informing them that the invasion was about to begin. The line from the Verlaine poem was a signal for them to step up attacks on railroad lines, power stations, telephone exchanges, any installation the Germans would need to respond to the Normandy landings. And, in a manner of speaking, the resistance had waited three years for those violins.
The “Resistance,” in Belgium was a tangle of organizations with various and sometimes contradictory goals. But women were central to them. The novel pays homage to three of those organizations: the Armed Jewish Partisans, the Comet Line, and the Maquis of the Ardenne Forest. I have the honor of personally knowing descendants of résistants from two of these groups, and they gave me permission to use the actual names and tales of their heroic relatives.
My best friend’s aunt was a courier for the Maquis in the Ardenne Forest, killed at the age of eighteen by a sniper the day the allies arrived in Belgium. The martyred woman was called Celine, and her niece, who was named in memory of her, brought me to see her grave and monument. The living Celine also provided me with newspaper clippings describing the death and the tribute paid by the Belgian government, and I pledged to ‘make her live again’ in the novel.
Even more touching – though no one tragedy is greater than the other – was the story told to me by a transwoman I became friends with through the local lesbian association. When she felt comfortable enough to trust me, she revealed her childhood tragedy, of being surrendered at the age of three to a Catholic family by Jewish parents just before they were deported. They perished at Auschwitz, though an uncle who had been part of the armed Jewish resistance, did survive the camp, and returned. She gave me pictures of all the family members and a book of testimonies of the Jewish resistors themselves. Most moving of all, she brought me to Breendonk, the concentration camp that still stands as a museum outside of Brussels where we found her uncle’s name on the memorial wall. My friend appears in the novel – with her full permission – as herself, the three year old child Jackie.
The third group I studied was the Comet Line (Le Réseau Comète), an underground railroad that helped downed aviators and others (Jews, anti-Nazi politicians, POWS) escape through Spain.
The line was founded by Andrée de Jongh, a little slip of a woman with incredible endurance. I traced the Comet Line route through France and over the Pyrenees, where he led her ‘passengers’ by train, wagon, and foot, in the most hostile conditions and under the daily threat of death.
Both she and her father Frédéric were captured. She was sent to Ravensbrück but survived the war. Frédéric was executed, as well as twenty three other leaders. In total, the Comet Line is credited with saving between seven and eight hundred Allied soldiers and civilians.
My principal heroine, who starts as a nurse caring for the wounded at Dunkirk, is herself grievously injured, but a year later she returns to Belgium working for SOE, a clandestine network set up by Churchill to identify and aid resistance in the occupied countries. She parachutes in, (as the SOE agents usually did), in the middle of the night. She meets the successor to André de Jongh, who manages the Comet Line, and they join forces.
When the novel ends, the war is still raging, but geographically the struggle comes full circle, with the two women standing above a beach. It is no longer the beach of humiliation and defeat at Dunkirk, but rather the cliff at Arromanche in Normandy, and this time they are witnessing the first rumblings of the Allied invasion force. Where they once fled, now they are returning – with a vengeance.
After a two-book catharsis, I thought I was done with World War II, but then a pilot friend of mine drew my attention to the Night Witches, female aviators in the Soviet Air Force during the war. So I rolled the camera to the east and to Moscow to illuminate what were surely the toughest fighting women since Boudica of the Britons.
The Witch of Stalingrad, which is currently being edited for publication next year, is about a regiment of women aviators who flew out at night in flimsy aircraft and in freezing snow to harass the Wehrmacht troops. The Germans called them “Night Witches” and the name stuck. They were young and idealistic, and courageous, and fought under almost unfathomably difficult conditions. The one that caught my attention, I confess because she was the most beautiful, was Lilya Litviak. She is also the most mysterious since she disappeared in the middle of an air battle and, although her plane was found, the accounts of the discovery of her body are contradictory and vague, and bear the mark of legend. But that very vagueness gave me an opportunity to create my own version, which involves her rescue by another historical woman, the photo-journalist Margaret Bourke-White, who, in fact, was in Moscow during the war. As a fiction writer, I was prepared to make up anything at all to spin a good yarn, but as a feminist, I was thrilled that I could use the lives to two actual, dynamic (and purely coincidentally beautiful) women to tell the tale.
Who knows if they were gay? In the spirit of Gay Pride Month, I claim them to be gay, and who is to say otherwise?
Want to know more about Justine and order her books? Here are the links: