(Editor’s note: This 35th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series was submitted by Rebecca Cantrell. She’s the author of the Hannah Vogel mysteries set in 1930s Berlin, Germany, the newest of those being A City of Broken Glass [Forge], which is due for official release in the States today. Cantrell’s books have won the Bruce Alexander and Macavity awards, and been nominated for the Barry and RT Reviewer’s Choice awards, among others. In addition to the Vogel books, she is now working with best-selling thriller author James Rollins on a new “Blood Gospel” series. In the essay below, Cantrell recalls how her work on three previous historical novels led her to compose A City of Broken Glass.)
The spark for my first novel, A Trace of Smoke (2009), ignited in my imagination almost 30 years ago. I was living in a city crammed with ghosts and stories--Berlin. As an exchange student, I attended a German high school, learned German, and gained 10 pounds (from very, very good chocolate).
For spring break I took a trip to Munich. Unlike my more well-adjusted peers, I skipped out on the drinking and went to the concentration camp at Dachau. I suspect that this tells you everything you need to know about me and the books right there, but I know I’m supposed to write more than two paragraphs.
So, I went to Dachau. Because the happy students were swilling beer and gulping pretzels, I was basically alone. Wind moaned through open wooden barracks. My feet ached because my black leather ankle boots were more fashionable than warm. It gets dark early in Germany in the spring, especially on an overcast day, and I wished for a flashlight to drive away the shadows and ghosts.
But I didn’t have one, so I headed inside the camp and stopped in front of a plain wall. It held a row of colored triangles that had been worn by actual prisoners: yellow, red, green, blue, purple, pink, brown, and black scraps of fabric. Above each now faded triangle, thick Gothic letters spelled out categories: Jewish, political prisoner, habitual criminal, emigrant, Jehovah’s Witness, homosexual, gypsy, and asocial (a catch-all term used for murderers, thieves, and those who violated the laws prohibiting Aryans from having intercourse with Jews).
Even though I was just a teenager, I’d read enough to know what the Nazis did to the Jews, the Communists, the gypsies, and those who disagreed with their ideology. But I’d had no idea they’d imprisoned people for being gay.
I stuffed my hands deep into the pockets of my too-light coat (with rolled up sleeves and the collar turned up in the back, because it was 1985) and thought about my German host brother. We were the same age and often went clubbing in Berlin until the wee small hours of the morning. The subways stopped running around midnight, and if we missed that last one, we were out until 5 a.m., unless we caught a night bus. Then we were on the night bus for hours as it wended its way through every tiny street imaginable before reaching Mummelmannsweg, where we lived. Without much adult supervision, my host brother and I spent what, in retrospect, were probably too many nights leaned up against each other like puppies sleeping on the top front seat of the night bus or on the benches at the subway station waiting for the first train.
He had perfectly styled 1980s bottle-blonde hair, an extravagant fashion sense, and he was gay into the marrow of his bones. We would snag a table at a gay/straight club called the Metropol, where we would both drink a Berliner white beer (his with a red shot of syrup, mine with a green) and then dance with an endless array of GIs. At the end of the evening, we’d hook back up and start our long journey home, talking about guys. Forty years earlier, those innocent evenings would have been enough to send my host brother to a sure death in the camps.
As I took the train from Munich back to Berlin, I couldn’t stop thinking about how such a thing could have happened. Thirty years later, I’m still thinking about that pink triangle. How did German history reach that point in time where they hung such triangles? I’ve grappled with the question in non-fiction. I wrote my senior history thesis about it, explaining that even as American soldiers freed the camp prisoners, they sent the people with pink triangles straight to prison. Because being homosexual was still against the law. And I’ve investigated the matter in fiction. My first stab at it was a short story called “On the Train,” set aboard a train traveling between Dachau and Auschwitz (anthologized in First Thrills: High-Octane Stories from the Hottest Thriller Authors, edited by Lee Child).
When I sat down to write a novel a few years ago, Hannah Vogel appeared. She’s a sarcastic and tough crime reporter in the 1930s. Hannah doesn’t shirk, and she reports back the stories she finds. In the first story, A Trace of Smoke, she’s searching for the murderer of her brother, a gay cabaret singer.
I’ve now spent several years researching the grimmest period in German history, following Hannah from book to book, hoping to find a little light in all that darkness. The second novel, A Night of Long Knives (2010), was set during a purge where a thousand people were murdered over the course of a few days. When I started researching it, I discovered a wealth of material about the major military and political victims, but nothing about the vast majority of men killed simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, went to the wrong parties, allied themselves with the wrong other men. Just as Hannah struggled to bring their stories out, so did I. Most of the victims were young, barely out of their teens, when they were lined up against a stone wall and shot. The Nazis forbade newspapers from printing their obituaries, and stopped the police from investigating all deaths that happened over those few days--suspicious or not--so that by the time of the Nuremberg Trials no one even knew how many people had died. But Hannah risked it all to find out and let the world know. She’s determined that way.
The third book, last year’s A Game of Lies, deals with the Berlin Olympics of 1936, which was like a mini-vacation as far as research was concerned. Nobody died, and there is a wealth of material out there documenting every minute of the games. Hannah and I tried to dig below the surface, to show the things that didn’t make it into the documentaries that talk about Jesse Owens’ medals (OK, he’s in the book too) or the carefully staged tableaux filmed by Leni Riefenstahl.
My new book, A City of Broken Glass, was the most intense for me to write. I knew that I wanted to show things we hadn’t seen before, starting with the small Polish town to which Herschel Grynszpan’s family was deported with thousands of other Jews of Polish descent living in Germany. The conditions in those hastily erected camps would enrage him so greatly that he shot a German diplomat in Paris and touched off the events of Kristalnacht in November 1938.
The more I researched this story, the more I realized how intensely personal those events were. It wasn’t just storm troopers breaking shop windows and burning down synagogues. It was about neighbors who had joined the Nazi Party going into their Jewish neighbors’ houses to humiliate them and destroy their possessions. It was about children watching their toys being smashed, knives slashing through sofa upholstery, every piece of glass in a house broken--from the windows to the dishes to jars of jam. It was about half of all Jewish men in Germany and parts of Austria being rounded up and sent off to concentration camps. It was about the end of lives, of an era in history, of trust, of safety and the beginning of the Holocaust.
The only people left alive today are those who were children back then, and I listened to their heartbreaking accounts on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Web site and on YouTube. Like Hannah, I had nightmares as I walked with her through those streets, letting her see what happened and bringing back the stories.
Because she’s a writer, too, and that’s all she could do.