Today I am going to feature a guest post written by Daniela Tully, I hope you found it as interesting as I did! Tully’s Book ‘Hotel On Shadow Lake” comes out on April 10th. I will include some helpful links below.
How Hitler’s watercolors influenced my writing
As a German by birth, I am usually utterly bored by stories about WWII. I know I say this at the risk of coming across as ignorant, but in my generation we have kind of heard them all. Have grown up with them. Have been indoctrinated with a feeling of guilt, at school, by the older generations, through the media – even though not even my parents’ generation was old enough to have acted in some form or another during the Third Reich and the following word war.
The beauty of a debut novel is that you think a lot less about your readership than you do with the follow-up. In fact, I didn’t think about the reader at all when I decided, after all, to set a significant part of the novel in Munich in 1938. I realized that I had to speak about the Third Reich if I wanted to achieve the desired emotional impact of my present plot strand, a mystery set in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York.
And now I am so happy I did, as this plot strand resonates especially strongly with the readers – as does my 1938 heroine, Martha, who is modeled on my own grandmother. She received a farewell letter from her twin brother, written to her during the war in 1944, which only reached her in 1990, forty-six years after his death. Witnessing the impact it had on her after all those decades also left a deep impact on me. It also triggered other memories associated with Nazi Germany: my great uncle Reinhard comes to mind. He was this gentle, kindly old man who owned a small kiosk cum bookstore in the tiny suburb of the mid-sized German city where I grew up. He always gave me sweets and presents as I passed his shop on my way home. He had those warm eyes, and I always felt drawn to him. As my grandmother (the same one who received the letter) looked after him in his old days, I tended to spend even more time around him. When he died, she was left in charge of cleaning out the house. While my grandmother and my mother took care of the downstairs, my father, brother and I went up to Uncle Reinhard’s attic. And wow! There we stumbled across a true treasure trove. After decades of selling magazines and books, we were bathed in a legacy of the earliest Playboys (I clearly remember all that “unshavenness” in women in the 60s…), Der Spiegel, the German equivalent to The Times, an endless array of valuable stationary, like golden fountain pens, rare ink bottles, precious writing paper. And then we dug deeper and ventured into the far-flung corners of the attic – and found a treasure trove of a different kind, of a darker nature: vinyl records with speeches by Adolf Hitler, a box filled with rare editions of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, each with a personal dedication by Uncle Reinhard, to people unknown to us, other boxes with pro-Nazi literature, with novels that had once replaced those that were burnt, due to being considered ‘un-German’ in the book burnings during 1933. Another box contained something that looked like a SS uniform, and in the bottom of another one, we found prints of rare Hitler watercolors.
Was it possible that lovely Uncle Reinhard, with his warm eyes, had been a devoted Nazi?
We went home and listened to the records, listened to Adolf’s voice, to the way he rolled his ‘r’s, the way he broke up his sentences, made a pause, with the same precision and love to detail that he had applied to the buildings in his watercolors. He did six watercolors and one drawing during WWI, between November 1914 and June 2017, at the front as a soldier, and from the hospital when wounded.
One thing I remember clearly when studying his watercolors for the first time, at an age when the knowledge and understanding of painting as an art form was rudimentary: there were only landscapes, no people. Hitler hardly ever painted people. And the few he had painted have ironically been criticized as representing “a profound uninterest in people.” One early painting in this set, for example, is titled Kolsterruine in Messines, and depicts the ruin of a monastery. Today, Messines is mostly remembered for the infamous Christmas truce that was proclaimed between the British and German troops on 24th of December 1914. According to Herman Nasse, who wrote the preface to Hitler’s watercolors, this painting “converts the harrowing experience of a daunting destruction to a colorful, picturesque vision” and functions as a “hauntingly grave cenotaph of war”. Of course it is impossible to say now if I would have reacted any differently to his paintings had I been able to look at them with impartial eyes. But I do remember that I found this one in particular strangely cold and detached, especially in light of what it was supposed to depict, according to Nasse. And I also remember feeling a pang of guilt myself, that I felt as detached as I did to World War II. And drawing any kind of comparison to a man like Hitler is just plain creepy.
Many of those things we found – like the stationary, Playboys and old toys – we sold on a flee market… but not anything that had to do with Hitler. We are talking here about the year1992, forty-seven years after the end of WWII. But still, there was this guilt. This shame – what will the people think if they see us with Adolf’s memorabilia, trying to make a buck out of it?
Adolf’s memorabilia disappeared for a couple of years, only to resurface and enter our consciousness again when we moved houses. By that time both my brother and I had reached an age at which we had grown frustrated when it came to this subject matter. “We need to sell these, finally”, we said to my mother, pointing at the rare edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And finally, my mother’s will was broken and an appraiser of rare books called. It was a Saturday, I remember clearly. I wanted a TV for my room (I forget what my brother wanted), but the money we would receive for the books was promised to us; a good deed by the parent’s, or maybe – deep down – a way to not keep what they might have considered what was unconsciously ‘dishonorable’ money to their generation?
Saturday morning was usually the day that my grandmother would come by, mostly unannounced. She came half an hour before the appraiser came. We had brought the box up from the basement, and had placed it strategically in the hallway, to catch the appraiser’s eye immediately upon his entry into our house. The box smelled moldy after decades in our basement, but the books were in perfect condition. My grandmother’s eyes widened at the sight of the box, at a title that would certainly wake a whole different set of associations for her than it did in us. We finished breakfast in the kitchen while waiting for the appraiser. Suddenly we noticed Granny was gone. We found her in front of the box. In her hand were the first pages of the book, the ones with Uncle Rainer’s personal dedications. “Nobody needs to know where these come from,” she said while stuffing the pages in the pockets of her skirt.
The appraiser rang the bell, and his eyes lit up when he saw the covers in the box. He hurried over, not believing his luck to have found this rare edition. And then his face fell when he opened the first. “Are all like these?” “Like what?” we kids asked. “The first pages torn out?” “Yes,” my grandmother said, defensively.
She had nulled their value within a matter of seconds, as she tried to bury a memory that couldn’t be eliminated just by taking out that personalized touch from a book written by a madman. Just as hiding his memorabilia in the basement won’t, or being unnerved by it, or bored, like me, would never do the trick.
This is no epiphany for me, but having witnessed over the years the impact of history on the generations that followed this dark chapter made me dive into it in my novel. Maya, the heroine of my present plot strand, has, like me, no connection to the Third Reich and Hitler’s atrocities, outside the connection by nationality. And still, her hero’s journey has been created during the Third Reich, if you consider this practically; Martha living on in Maya, if you consider this spiritually.
And both angles work. Now, I am surprised that I had seriously considered not telling of Martha’s plight in 1938. It would have been a major mistake (as much as tearing out those pages was).
PS: Hitler’s watercolors still lie unsold in our basement, by the way.