Even though the battles of WWII were waged on other continents, and ended fourteen years before my birth, I always felt that the war was part of my personal story. In the back of my mind, I knew that I’d write a book about it – this one was ten years in the making.
My father grew up in Nazi Germany. He was 3 when Hitler came to power, 9 when the war began, and 15 when it ended; therefore, it shaped his childhood, his personality, his outlook on the world, and his opportunities in life. He sometimes spoke of his experiences in the Hitler Youth. There was the time he stole the German flag during a war game, the goal of which was to steal the flag of France. This violation enacted a visit to his home by local Nazi officials who were not too pleased and, as the story goes, things could have ended very badly for my Opa. Many myths, garnered over the years, persisted, and in the back of my child’s brain was this list that contained my father’s name – people who had pissed off the Nazis. But I never understood why that would make remaining in Germany dangerous for my father – wouldn’t that have made him more of a hero to the conquering forces? In any case, I knew that many of his dreams had been aborted, such as competing in his favourite sporting event, one we often watched together right up until his death in 2017, the Tour de France. He also once divulged that he would have loved to become an architect, another thwarted ambition.
At the age of 20 he left Germany, alone – the only one in his family to do so. His dad, my Opa (whom I never met), was the one who pushed him to leave. He knew my father was made for bigger adventures and that there was nothing for him in post-war Germany. So, off to Canada he sailed – most probably scared, but also excited. I found these hand-drawn maps in his papers after he died. He must have been 19 when he drew them, while the plan of coming to Montreal was being formed. I can see him in his old room, using whatever resources he would have had back then, trying to understand the foreign city he would be moving to. Somehow, the thought of him doing this is tender for me. I can see him grafting his hopes and dreams into the crudely drawn grid.
His ship, the SS Homeland, docked in Halifax, and he was processed at Pier 21, where years later his grand-daughter would work and weave his story into her tours. Then he took the day-long train trip to Montreal. He was spooked by the endless expanse of trees, 24 hours of trees, and wondered if he’d made a terrible decision. Where was civilization? He was supposed to be met at Central Station by a priest from Riviēre des Prairies, which you can see on the map above, all the way in the east end of Montreal. But the priest never showed up! Rumor has it he was busy with a girlfriend that day and forgot about my dad, but that might just be one of the myths that spring up around my father’s story. Speaking barely a word of English and no French at all, he found the local Red Cross and they helped him find a job as a farmhand in the Eastern Townships, near Cowansville. He and a Polish farmhand were treated very poorly by the farmer and had to eat stew from the same pot, no bowls. Eventually my dad moved to work for Farmer Brown in Sutton and there he was treated very well. We met big burly Farmer Brown when we were kids and all I can recall was the tiny wooden staircase that did a steep turn around the corner of his little kitchen. I wondered how he managed to squish himself into it.
Here was my dad back then, so young and handsome, and so thin. He said he was always hungry and couldn’t get enough food inside him for years after the war ended.
Eventually, he moved to the city, became an electrician, and met my mom, who was good friends with the daughter of the woman whose boarding house he lived in. But that’s a story for another time.
I often tried to get my dad to talk more about the war years because I was terribly curious, as all writers are. I wanted to know every detail. But he didn’t share much – I think those years were just too hard. I visited his hometown twice as a child, and signs of the war were everywhere – in the broken bodies of the old men, in the ruins, and in the army trucks that rumbled through town. Many things confused me, such as when my dad didn’t allow us to the use the swing his neighbour hung from a tree in my Oma’s backyard. He said they had been Nazi informers. That was hard to understand as a 9-year-old, but we never went near the swing. When he showed us the hole in the cellar that they had dug out in order to hide his sister when the liberating soldiers came to town, I was filled with terror. That cellar became a central feature of my second novel, Split.
Having a father with a heavy German accent in the 60s was not easy either and my sister and I were often teased. I clearly remember the kids on our street in Park Extension yelling, Your father is Hitler, and becoming very distressed. No one wants to think of their father this way. None of this confusion was helped by the fact that every villain of every movie back then (the 60s, 70s) had a heavy German accent. I remember being mortified when I went to see Bedknobs and Broomsticks with my best friend when I was 11 – there they were again, evil men who sounded very much like my dad.
Hence, The Ribbon Leaf is the result of many years of curiosity and also of an inner working out of what it all meant to me on a personal level, being raised by someone who was shaped by a horrific war and who came of age in such cruel times and in such a hateful environment. I wanted to explore what growing up in Nazi Germany might have been like, the day-to-day parts of it, not the larger conflict so much. And I wanted to explore a theme that is close to my heart, friendship. What did the Nazi era do to friendships that must have existed between Jews and Christians? I recently heard a young girl, a refugee from the war in Syria, say, “In war there is no childhood.” Children lose so much when they grow up in the midst of hatred and violence. It robs them of something they can never regain; I saw this firsthand with my father. This was my impetus for writing this book. I hope it adds something to the canon of literature about children and war and reminds us that we need to be better as human beings.
Some interesting artifacts: These are my dad’s school report cards from the war years. The Nazis controlled every aspect of children’s “education” – or, more accurately, indoctrination. Text books were rewritten to reflect Nazi values, and each report received the official Nazi stamp with the eagle insignia at the bottom. You can see the school year in the top right. I am amused by the pictures of “wholesome” German life, where everyone has the typical Aryan looks, and the glorification of hard work, the battlefield, and the army.
In The Ribbon Leaf, Sabine’s brother Hans is anxious to fill out his Ahnenpass to prove his “pure” Aryan bloodline, which would bring him many perks in the Wehrmacht, or the German army. Germans were encouraged by the Nazis to fill out this book to the best of their abilities by investigating family records, church records, any source really. This was required by anyone getting married and was also enforced for those who worked in the civil service, as did my Opa, who delivered benefit checks to war widows during WWII. He had lost an arm fighting in WWI and was therefore spared being drafted. Amongst the treasures in my dad’s papers was my Opa’s hardcover vermilion Ahnenpass, where he was able to record family lineage back to the early 1700s. It is chilling to think of a time when blood lineage and heritage were so important and could elevate one group of people high above another, to a degree that could be fatal. Nationalism is a dangerous ideology and my father left Quebec as soon as he retired, to not be around it anymore. He said he’d already experienced its outcomes firsthand and did not care to be around it again. Here are some photos of his father’s Ahnenpass, with a sample of what the record keeping looks like inside.
Writing The Ribbon Leaf entailed lots of research. I was fortunate to receive a Canada Council grant in 2013, which allowed me to spend six weeks in Berlin in 2014. There, I used museums and war memorial sites to soak up information and atmosphere. I also read extensively. The following is a bibliography of all the books I used when researching. I kept a notebook where wrote all the interesting details, especially tiny every day ones; for each year of the war, I then made a master list of key events both in Europe and in Canada, with a particular focus on Montreal, that I wanted to weave into the story. I also watched lots of archival footage of the war on the Canadian War Museum website, the Montreal Holocaust Museum, and the NFB.
Anonymous. A Woman in Berlin.
Behr, Hans Georg. Almost a Childhood. Granta 2005.
Bruhns, Wibke. My Father’s Country: The Story of a German Family.
Burns, Patricia. Life on the Homefront. Montreal. 1939-1945.
Copp, Terry. No Price too High: Canadians and the Second World War.
Doer, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See.
Durflinger, Serge Marc. Fighting From Home.
Fountain, Nigel, Ed. WWII The People’s Story.
Fritzche, Peter. Life and Death in the Third Reich.
Gay, Peter. My German Question: Growing up in Nazi Berlin.
Herbst, Jurgen. Requiem for a German Past.
Karres, Erika V. Shearin. A German Tale: A Girl Surviving Hitler’s Legacy.
Kater, Michael H. Hitler Youth.
Kerr, Judith. Out of the Hitler Time.
King, Joe. Fabled City. The Jews of Montreal.
Kramer, Clara. Clara’s War.
Larsen, Erik. In the Garden of Beasts.
Lebert, Stephan. My Father’s Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders.
Moorhouse, Roger. Berlin at War.
Read, Anthony and David Fisher. The Fall of Berlin.
Samuel, Wolfgang E. German Boy: A Child in War.
Samuel, Wolfgang E. The War of our Childhood: Memories of WWII.
Sharenow, Robert. The Berlin Boxing Club.
Shelton, Regina Maria. To Lose a War: Memoirs of a German Girl.
Schőnhaus, Cioma. The Forger.
Stargardt, Nicholas. Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis.
Stella, Robert A. and Maria Wolf Stella. Maria’s Story. Lost Youth in Hitler’s Germany.
Strickland, Eycke. Eyes are Watching. Ears are Listening.
Weintraub, William. City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and 1950s.
Willmott, H.P. et al. World War II.
Wiseman, Ellen Marie. The Plum Tree.
Witterick, J.L. My Mother’s Secret.