I finished reading Surviving Brigitte's Secrets by Saskia Tepe a couple of weeks ago and still find myself thinking about the book. It is a personal and moving story which provides fascinating insights into the life of a Holocaust survivor and the effects of that experience on the next generation. The book is written with honesty and sensitivity yet deals with such a difficult subject in a very readable and accessible manner. I asked the author if she would be willing to answer some questions for my bookblog and was delighted when she agreed. I feel honoured to share Saskia Tepe's thoughts with you to-day.
What made you decide to publish Surviving Brigitte's Secrets?
Anyone I have ever been introduced to probably initially regretted asking the question, ‘…and where are you from?’ Before I can even think about answering what is really quite a normal question, they have to listen to me telling my mother’s story. On the whole however, I think that once they get past the preamble, people have found being introduced to me fascinating, and I say that tongue in cheek. But it’s true, although everyone has heard of the Holocaust, not many people know individual stories. Moreover, they also seem to be intrigued by the fact that the war didn’t just affect my mother, it also defined me, where I was born, and how I came to live in the UK.
I hadn’t heard of “second generation survivors” before, or realised that my early life experiences would have affected me so deeply. When I initially began to write everything down, it was for personal cathartic reasons. Once it was all in a word document, I realised that we were victims of a little known piece of social history. Thousands of displaced people remained in Germany well into the 1960’s, and I was saddened at the lengths desperate people had to go to in order to make a new life. The aftermath of my mothers’ experience as a result of Nazi persecution and my own experience as a refugee arriving and settling down in a foreign country pointed out further lessons to be learned, lessons that are still apt no matter how our society changes, and I wanted to share that publicly. Since the book has been published, I feel a great deal of relief, a sense of closure, and I am very happy about that. I give talks in libraries, and my mother’s story has also been told on an online database for educational purposes.
What kind of reader would enjoy Surviving Brigitte's Secrets?
If my book were a novel, it would have many popular modern themes - racism, the reasons for keeping secrets weighed against the devastating effects discovery of those secrets can have on others, labelling, bereavement, obsession and emotional turmoil, and searching for identity and roots.
Of course, being a true account, all this might make it sound quite a harrowing read – but I can assure you it is not. Because it is also about the best of humankind - love, the strength of the mother-daughter bond, and the wondrous kindness of others. So though it is heart rending at times, it is also uplifting.
When I applied to publishers, I wrote the following:
I foresee five main groups of readers who would buy this book:
• Children of parents who lived in post-war DP/Refugee Camps in Germany – given that there were millions of people that emigrated from them to the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. The DP website http://www.dpcamps.org/dpcampseurope.html shows that many émigrés never shared their experiences with their children.
• People who enjoy reading personal accounts of WW2 survival stories, and children of Mischling Jews who survived the war.
• Women or men who have suffered bereavement and had to come to terms with unanswered questions left behind once their loved ones die.
• Women or men interested in searching for their roots, perhaps because they have discovered that one of their parents turns out to be a step-parent.
• Women who enjoy reading memoirs or personal social histories.
I think that still holds true.
What was the most difficult aspect of your research for Surviving Brigitte's Secrets?
The most frustrating thing I have found is that so much information is not available to me here in the UK. My mother moved so many times through three war ravaged countries, that it would take an expert to piece together what happened to her. However, much more is becoming available on databases, and I am continuing to research my mother’s history. The box of documents she left, which helped me discover some of those secrets she had kept so carefully close to her heart, still gets looked through even now. I am constantly surprised when I find a little word here or there that sends me on another lead.
What was the most surprising thing you found out when you were researching Surviving Brigitte's Secrets?
I hate to say this, but there were things about the account my mother told me when I was thirteen, that were, to me, implausible. To me, she was simply prone to exaggeration. But I hid my disbelief, because it was not something I felt I could ask questions about. For example, when she said that she managed to escape on the way to Auschwitz… everyone knew that the Nazi transports were in closed trains; open topped trains didn’t exist did they? And then, while I was writing the book some 40 years later, and the internet was available to help with research, I found a picture of a train, used to transport prisoners between labour and concentration camps in Poland. Open topped. Just like she had said. I felt a real mix of emotions. Not just surprise, and elation, but also extremely humbled and ashamed for doubting her.
Are you working on any writing at the moment?
I blog about my continuing research and discoveries, and I might have to write a revised version of the book – some of the things I have discovered!
Whilst trying to get my memoir published, I began writing a fictional account of my mother’s life. Now I am working on adapting that into a novella with a different heroine and a different outcome.
As I am moving to the US in the new year, and beginning life as a “snowbird” - a retiree who travels with the weather, and discovers the secret places of the States in their recreational vehicle - I also intend to write a travel blog.