Wednesday, August 08, 2012
I've recently finished listening to an audiobook called A different Kind of Courage. It is about the life of an ordinary girl in Hamburg called GretelWachel during the second world war.
Gretel was a feisty, lusty and attractive young German woman brought up by a Socialist grandfather. She inherited his values, and these made her a natural opposer of the Nazi regime. The book opens with a scene that exemplifies this. Gretel is in a train, on her way to her first day of forced labour in a factory to make grenades. The train pulls up alongside workers who are clearly starving - one of the many races the Nazis considers subhuman. So Gretel stands by the window, and without making it obvious, drops her sandwich onto the ground by one of the workers. The worker doesn't look at her, but later she sees the worker pick it up. This encourages her fellow passengers to do the same, and on subsequent journeys Gretel notices that the workers are making sure they are working by the track when the train comes along.
This is Gretel's modus operandi - small acts of disobedience which she hopes will undermine the Nazi machine. When she works in the armaments factory she fills the shells inadequately and works so slowly she is eventually relocated in an office - and creates havoc in there too - deliberately mixing up the records.
The book carries on through Gretel's life - her marriage to a Communist who also happens to be a misogynist, and then into another office job where she becomes one of the team of women responsible for transposing messages using the enigma machine. It is on her shift that the plot to kill Hitler and attempted coup d'état (Valkyrie) comes to light. Meanwhile, in her room in her mother's house, she is busy not only operating a nice little (black) 'business' on the side, but also one day looks after a special guest in the cellar.
Inevitably, all these episodes of undermining Hitler's Germany were noticed and Gretel was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, tattooed with a number and sent to a transition camp. The conditions here did not seem as horrendous as those in one of the infamous concentration camps, but food rations were minimal. Gretel's solution to this I found one of the most unusual and interesting episodes of her life.
Gretel went on to live to a grand old age, and the book is the result of a collaboration between Gretel and her neighbour, Claudia Strachan, who patiently interviewed her and correlated her stories over ten years. It is a worthy testament to an impressive and inspiring life and I think deserves a larger audience.