Bearing Witness: An Interview with Elizabeth Wein

posted in: Elizabeth Wein | 12

Today I’ve something completely different for you.

Given the age of my kids I tend to review picture books, chapter books and nonfiction aimed at the under 10 crowd. But over the summer I read a YA novel that took my breath away; and this is no trope, for I finished it gulping for air, both sobbing and full of not-exactly-joy but certainly a passion for life.

I simply couldn’t not share it with you. I want to share the very best of books with you, and this is one of those. Whilst I’m sure it will win awards, I’m even more confident that it will change the shape of your heart and what you see around you.

roseunderfireThe book that will do this is Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.

Starkly put, Rose Under Fire is about life in Ravensbrück concentration camp during the Second World War.

It’s about the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) of the British Royal Air Force and the women who played a part in it. It’s about the “Rabbits”, 86 women on whom brutal medical experiments were conducted without consent, whilst prisoners in Ravensbrück. Its about some of the themes and characters of an earlier (and also excellent, award winning) novel by Wein, Code Name Verity, exploring their lives later in the war. It’s a riveting, deeply moving book, and one of the questions it raises is about how to bear witness to the Holocaust.

I felt the best way I could do that right now, was to interview Wein.

Playing by the book: Rose Under Fire tells a (fictional) account of an American civilian’s experience of her time in Ravensbrück concentration camp towards the end of the Second World War. It is beautiful, sensitive, and brimming with passion, love, hope. It is also utterly harrowing to read. I don’t think I stopped sobbing for the last 100 pages. What on earth was it like to write? (In the afterword you share one instance where you did cry, but the experience of reading it is so emotionally draining – and in equal measure emotionally uplifting – that I can’t believe researching and writing it was any easier on the heart.)

Elizabeth Wein: While I was writing it I kept torturing myself with my inability to tell this story — not only because I can’t possibly experience what these people experienced, but also because of my cowardice in being unable to come close to it. Could I live on a couple of pieces of bread and a bowl of broth every day for a week? I could, but I didn’t. Could I stand outside without a coat in the freezing rain for an hour or two? I could, but I didn’t. I was scared to do it: scared of cold, scared of hunger. And it felt wrong to try, since whatever I did to try to get into their shoes, I wasn’t going to be in their shoes.

And then, there were things that I couldn’t bring myself to write. I baulked at describing how they used cadavers to make the roll calls come out right. For some reason this seemed like my limit — the boundary I couldn’t cross. And then I crossed it anyway because if I don’t tell it, who’s going to know?

Playing by the book: Did you have to lock yourself away? Did you lead parallel lives for the duration, whilst writing? Did you find yourself like Rose becoming immune on some level to the horror?

Elizabeth Wein: Often, I used gaps in Rose’s memory to account for details I didn’t want to have to describe. Rose describes herself as becoming immune to the horror, but it’s probably more accurate to say you get used to it. I’ve discovered that my “immunity” is very specifically related to Ravensbrück itself. I have a heightened familiarity with that particular camp, and I’m fortified against anything I find out that happened there. But when I hear about the atrocities that happened at other camps, places I’m less familiar with, a whole new level of horror hits me. It’s like the inmates of Ravensbrück struggling to understand the rumours coming out of Auschwitz — impossible to comprehend unless you’ve seen it for yourself.

I dreamed a lot about Ravensbrück while I was writing Rose Under Fire, and I never dream about my books. Never. Curiously, in most of my dreams I was visiting, either as an onlooker or at a memorial site in the present day. Sometimes I was being treated as a prisoner, but it was always a simulation—never the real thing.

Playing by the book: Given the emotional intensity of the book I wondered if you have been able to read it since it was published – to revisit it. In the novel, two prisoners from Ravensbruck explore so thoughtfully how difficult it is for them to revisit their experiences (in the context of considering being witnesses at war crime trials after the war is over) and I wondered if you had experienced something like it with your own bearing witness.

Elizabeth Wein: One of my fears is that I’m going to be asked to read Rose’s poems in public and that, like her, I’m not going to be able to do this.

There are some things I can’t talk about. But I can’t write about them either, so yes, I guess I am like my made-up characters in the limits to which I can bear witness. An example is mothers and children in the camps. I managed to write about the cadavers, but not about mothers protecting and losing their children. I know a lot of things I can’t talk about. I guess that’s what makes me feel instinctively that some prisoners might have trouble following through with the promise to “Tell the world.”

Playing by the book: My response to your book got me thinking about “ownership” of stories about the holocaust. Part of me felt guilt for enjoying so very much a book that was only possible because real people suffered, died in the most awful of circumstances. But then I felt that perhaps it is ok for me to feel so connected to Rose’s story because it is about humankind (and the worst of humanity) and we need such stories to feel vital and relevant to us in the hope that it prevents anything like it happening again (and to remind us of the goodness, kindness, beauty all around in everyday life). As the writer of the story how did you feel about ownership? And about the relationship between “truth” and imagined stories?

Elizabeth Wein: This is so true, and so hard, and I talked about it a little in my answer to your question about what it was like to write the book. I really did feel, a lot of the time, that this was not my story to tell. But if I don’t tell it, who is going to any more? The books by the few survivors who tell their own stories are dated and out of print—and not necessarily accessible even when it’s possible to get hold of them. Several of my main sources I had to read in French. So I am telling it as far as I am able. But I don’t own this story. It belongs to the real people who lived it. I am just passing it on — a similar role to Rose’s.

As far as truth is concerned, I tried very hard not to misrepresent anything or sensationalize anything that happened within the context of Ravensbrück. There may be errors, but most of the incidents I’ve described are based on survivor accounts. I guess the difficulty is that the reader doesn’t know how much to believe. I don’t know how to remedy that in fiction — I mean, after all, for all my good intentions, it is a work of fiction.

It never occurred to me to feel guilty about anyone “enjoying” the read, though! The whole time I was writing it I kept thinking, “WHO is going to want to read this? NOBODY is going to want to read this!”

It’s true. I’m rather astonished, and delighted, to find that people are connecting with it so deeply.

Playing by the book: Ownership in another sense intrigued me; you state in the acknowledgements that your editorial team was “much more actively involved” in the creation of Rose Under Fire. Can you share a little more about this, and about how this different sort of genesis for a story felt for you as a writer

Elizabeth Wein: Well, mainly this was because I was operating under a deadline. I’ve written work-for-hire novels before to a deadline, but never a full-length book of my own creation, and that meant that I delivered a manuscript which I considered less than perfect. As a result, I was given more editorial direction in polishing the rough draft than I’ve ever had before.

I’d say that the structure of the novel changed a little as a result, but not the fabric of it. We removed some extraneous scenes and characters. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the work was that I had three editors working on this at the same time – Stella Paskins at Egmont in the UK, Catherine Onder at Disney Hyperion in the USA, and Janice Weaver at Doubleday in Canada— and they all had to be consulted and they all had to agree on any changes that I made.

It was actually Stella who came up with the title. All four of us, and my agent Ginger Clark as well, had been emailing back and forth for weeks trying out different combinations of stressful descriptive situations involving the name Rose! We all agreed, from the start, that Rose’s name should be part of the title. My working title was simply “Rose’s Book.”

I was reluctant to give up my control over the timing of the manuscript, but I really did need guidance on the revision, and was grateful for it.

Playing by the book: As part of the research for this novel you visited Ravensbruck. What it the place like today? What still exists? And what did it feel like to be there? Are any of the “Rabbits” (the name given to the women who were experimented on in Ravensbruck, and who play a major role in Rose Under Fire) still alive?

Elizabeth Wein: After the war Ravensbrück ended up deep inside East Germany, and for fifty years it was used as a Soviet Army base. So it had an active and complex history for a long time after it ceased to be a concentration camp. Under the Soviet administration a memorial site was dedicated there in 1959, so the buildings that were part of that project were preserved (essentially, the prison block). The SS barracks outside the camp walls were all used as Soviet officers’ quarters so they are all still standing and are in good shape. They are now part of the current museum and memorial site and also house a youth hostel.

A few of the factory buildings and the walls are still there, but none of the barracks remain standing. The main part of the camp has been cleared and the surface is spread with black cinders, to replicate the memorable ground cover at the time of the camp. Depressions in the ground mark where the barracks stood. Trees that were planted when the camp was first built have now matured, so the effect is that of an open plaza or park.

The administration building where new prisoners were processed no longer stands, but the red-tiled floor of the shower room has been preserved because the initial dehumanizing process of being made to strip, shower, then get your head shaved and be issued with prison clothes was a hugely traumatic experience for most prisoners and made a lasting impression on them. Even those who had been in prison for months before arriving at Ravensbrück found this process shocking.

For me, it was amazing to be at Ravensbrück. I had been so mentally invested in this place for so long (two years) before I finally got to see it. I think in some sense it must be a pale reflection of what a survivor would feel travelling back for a memorial ceremony—it obviously isn’t the place you knew, and yet you recognize it. I knew my way around. I actually ended up giving tours to some of the other people attending the summer school we were enrolled in, because most of them were there for the seminar and not because of the location, so I knew considerably more about the camp than my colleagues.

I wrote a couple of blog entries, including photographs, while I was there:

Post from Ravensbrück
One More from Ravensbrück

I believe a few of the “Rabbits” are still alive, but I’m not sure which ones. I’ve been constructed a sort of memorial page on my website, with photographs and links to their biographies. I’m about half way through and so far I haven’t been able to confirm those who are still living, but many of them did live long and productive lives after the end of the war.

I believe Wanda Połtawska, the author of And I Am Afraid of My Dreams, is still alive. The heroic Girl Scout Wacława Andrzejak may also still be living.

Playing by the book: And talking of research for your novel, you hold a pilot’s licence and clearly love flying – your knowledge and passion shine through in both Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity. As someone who doesn’t fly can you describe what it is like to pilot a plane?

Elizabeth Wein: Hahahahaha! That’s not really a question I can answer in a paragraph or two!

I think that what you really take away after a couple of lessons is that it’s actually just a mechanical skill, like driving, which you have to practise and practise until a lot of it becomes automatic. Maybe some people find it intuitive, but not me. You’re not soaring free in the sky like a bird on the wing: you’re checking your oil pressure, making time and distance and wind speed calculations, making sure the engine and radio are set correctly, etc. etc. Learning to fly is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The initial payback is a sense of satisfaction in doing a difficult job well (hopefully), and only then can you look around you and enjoy the beauty of the open sky. I try hard to get this across to my readers, too — it’s something you have to work at and take very seriously, but it really does open up wonders to you.

Playing by the book: What sort of plane do you normally fly? Of the planes you haven’t flown, what sort of plane would you like to fly?

Elizabeth Wein: I did all my training in a Cessna 152, which is a pretty standard training aircraft. Lately I’ve started flying a Piper Warrior, also known as a PA-28, which is a little bigger than a 152 (it seats 4 instead of 2!) and has low wings rather than high wings. They’re both single-engine planes. I am pretty short and find the Warrior is more comfortable for me to see out of!

Of course I dream of some day being able to try my hand at flying a Spitfire. I think every pilot does. But on a more realistic level, I’d really like to learn to fly a floatplane. I did get one lesson in one once. I have this dream where I become an expert seaplane pilot and own a little plane of my own and fly it around Scotland landing on lochs and staying at remote Victorian hotels.

Playing by the book: I understand that you are now working on a book set in Ethiopia in the run up to World War 2. Can you share a few more details? And do you have any hopes or plans to return to Maddie or Rose or any other character from Code Name Verity or Rose Under Fire in the future?

Elizabeth Wein: The new book is set during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, but its focus is on the transplanted American family who finds themselves caught up in it. There are a brother and a sister who learn to fly. I don’t really want to say more because I’m still in the middle of writing it and things are bound to change!

I do have an idea for a book set in the “next generation” of the Code Name Verity world, taking place in the early 1970s, which might feature some characters from CNV or ROSE. I guess what I should emphasize is that in my head, their stories continue before and after the events that take place in the novels. Maddie, I feel, is still alive today. My daughter and a friend and I were discussing a scenario where an elderly Maddie and Jamie are flying to France in the present day, on a scheduled commercial flight, and make a stink in security. Maddie: “I remember flying to France with no lights and 500 pounds of plastic explosive in the back and nobody made me take my shoes off!” Jamie: “You dinnae want to see my feet. I lost my toes in the North Sea.”

Playing by the book: Ah Elizabeth, yes! And how lovely to end the interview with laughter. Thank you. Thank you for your books, for your bearing witness, and – through your writing – for making me feel like I can be a better person than I am.

Elizabeth Wein’s website:
Elizabeth Wein’s blog:
Elizabeth Wein on Twitter: @EWein2412
Elizabeth Wein’s keynote speech at the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Conference 2013.

Thanks to Chalet Fan, whose review of Rose Under Fire made me drop everything and head straight to the bookshop.

12 Responses

  1. Zoe

    No, no Maureen, I think ending with laughter is a very good thing. The book is full of humanity and warmth, and laughter reminds us of what’s worth fighting for.

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