Writing Interrogating Ellie

In its broad outline, Interrogating Ellie is the true story of my mother, who married an Austrian and moved with their daughter to his home in Zell am See in 1938. The major events recorded in the book, and many others, were recorded in a file that my sister found in the National Archives at Kew in September 2013, some of the contents of which are reproduced in the book with only minor changes. My mother also told us, the children of her second marriage, about some of her experiences, including the more traumatic ones that are contained in the book, and my Austrian half-sisters were able to tell me more. Interrogating-Ellie_Cover_v2_LR in the shape Amazon website requires compressed

There are points, though, at which the novel deviates from the facts as I know them. This is partly in the interests of creating a convincing dramatic reconstruction of events. Most names, including my mother’s, I have changed. Obviously I do not know the precise content of conversations as they are written in the book; these have had to be imagined. Mrs van der Lye and her husband were real, as was Walther Günth, and these are their real names. Mrs van der Lye was the proprietor of the language school where my mother worked, but as far as I know she was not killed by a bomb and the building at 45 Rennweg still stands. In fact, the building underneath which my mother lay buried for four days was the Biberstrasse apartment block, which has now been rebuilt. If you go to Google Maps and get an aerial photograph view you can see the rebuilt part of the building, which is on the corner of Biberstrasse and Rosenbursenstrasse. Walther Günth gave my mother sugar lumps after she was dug out, and she would never have sugar lumps in our house because of this memory. I would love to know more about these people, but I have been unable to locate further information about them, beyond the fact that Mrs van der Lye shared the same name as the director of Die Goldratten. As this is a Dutch name, it seems reasonable to think this may have been her husband.

The character of Carl Mayer is based on Carl Szokoll, as readers who know about the history of wartime Vienna, and about Szokoll’s involvement in the July 20th plot and Operation Radetzky, will have guessed. The character of Poldi was partly inspired by Anna, servant to the Ephrussi family, who is described in Edmund van der Waal’s Hare with Amber Eyes and also draws on Sarah Gainham’s fictional creation, Fina, in Night Falls on the City. The character of Rudofsky was suggested by the artist Josef Dubrowsky and, in particular, the description of him provided in Hilde Spiel’s Return to Vienna. I must emphasise that although real people inspired these characters, they should be regarded as fictional creations. There is no evidence that the real Eloise Picot encountered these people.

Other characters and the events in which they participated – Kurt Steinhauser, Joseph Marcher, Martin Herz, Susan Zainzinger and her brother Paul, for example, are either to be found in the file that my sister found, on whom I have elaborated a little, or were suggested by people I found in a variety of historical sources, for which see below. Frau Zainzinger is buried in the cemetery at Kaprun and you can see her photograph, and that of her husband, on the grave there. There are several Marcher graves there too.

Louis is based on a composite of different people. There was indeed a man called Louis who used to visit us as children with his wife, who had smuggled my mother out of Vienna in the way described in the book. But the events in Klagenfurt involved a different man, much as the real Louis may have found this disappointing, as it was obvious to all of us that he admired my mother a great deal. In other respects, the depiction of Louis and his FSS colleagues draws on memoirs written by a variety of FSS men, listed below.

And my mother, in fact, had three daughters from her first marriage, not two. One stayed with her grandmother in Zell am See, but the other two daughters were brought up by a farm family. It was all I could do to try to explain how one daughter came to be set aside, but to explain two was somewhat beyond me. I am pleased to say, though, that I possess a wonderful photograph of my mother with her three daughters, taken in the 1960s in Austria. She is in the centre of them, laughing with pleasure as all three young women look at her with expressions of delight on their faces at their reunion with her.

As for the Bauer family, there are some who may feel that I have been unfair to them. I come from her second family and, in so far as she spoke with us about the Bauers, which was not much, her account of them – or at least of her mother-in-law – was uncomplimentary. But if you speak to my Austrian sisters, as I have done, it is clear that the Bauers also had many complaints to make about my mother’s behaviour. I hope that I have conveyed that Ellie was by no means simply an innocent victim of persecution, but was instead a person whose own choices contributed to her troubles. Yet she was also a person who, disadvantaged by her upbringing, living through extraordinarily adverse circumstances, somehow found the inner resources to survive these and the effects of a pernicious ideology that reached profoundly into the heart of family life.

The ‘I’ in the book is me, of course, and is for the most part an accurate account of things I have felt or witnessed. Sometimes, though, ‘I’ reports on things that his sisters experienced and told him about. For example, one night my mother drank a little more than usual and talked about her time in the Pengg-Walenta chain factory and her experience of being bombed, but this was something told to me by my sister. I must acknowledge and thank her for what she has done to explore our family history; without her the file would never have been found and I would never have written this book. I hope she will feel that what I have written is something that is a fitting memorial to our mother.

As for the name ‘Julian Gray’ you should know that this is a writing name, chosen in the interests of preserving the anonymity of the characters in the book, some of whom have living descendants who may find the depiction of their relatives is not to their liking.

Finally, although I know Ellie’s mother passed away at a relatively young age in Birmingham, I still do not know for sure who Ellie’s father was. There was an aunt who lived on the south coast who knew his identity, but she had been sworn to secrecy by her own mother (‘Grandmère Picot’ in the book) and she died without revealing the name, in spite of Ellie’s brother (‘Billy’ in the book) asking her as late as the 1990s to tell him who his father was. There is, though, some evidence to support the view of his identity described in the book. Presumably, given his nationality, he would have had to return to his home country on the outbreak of the first world war. At any rate, the shame of her daughter having had two illegitimate children was too much for Grandmère, which is why Ellie’s mother was banished from the island.

My writing of this book, as you may imagine, has been an enterprise of personal significance. When I first read the file delivered the British government’s verdict on my mother’s moral character, it upset me, even forty years after her death. But as I say in the book, I realised I had to just try to understand what led up to those judgements. My explorations of both family history and the history of the times have helped me to do that. I do still wonder, though, about the people who wrote those judgements in the file: Miss L Saunders, Herbert Dunk and the others. What were their lives like, I wonder? There are other details which deviate from the facts as I know them, but I have outlined the most significant ones. The reconstruction of her life and of the times she lived through is as accurate, historically, as I have been able to make it. As well as visits to the places where she lived, I have benefitted enormously from reading the following books:  

Everyday life in Austria during the Nazi era and history of Austria

Bischof, Gunter, and Plasser, Fritz. (eds) (2009) New Perspectives on Austrians and World War II. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Bischof, Gunter., Pelinka, Anton, and Herzog, Dagmar. (2009) Sexuality in Austria: Contemporary Austrian Studies Volume 15. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers

Bukey, Evan Burr. (2000) Hitler’s Austria: Popular Sentiment in the Nazi Era. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.

Bukey, Evan Burr. (2011) Jews and Intermarriage in Nazi Austria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gainham, Sarah. (2012, first published 1967) Night Falls on the City. London: Abacus

Hamann, Brigitte. (2011, first published 1999) Hitler’s Vienna: A Portrait of the Tyrant as a Young Man. London and New York: Tauris Parke.

Kirk, Timothy. (1996) Nazism and the Working Class in Austria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

de Waal, Edmund. (2011) The Hare with Amber Eyes. London: Vintage.

Weyr, Thomas. (2005) The Setting of the Pearl: Vienna Under Hitler. Oxford: Oxford Univerity Press.  

The coming of the Russians

Anonymous. (2011, first published 1954) A Woman in Berlin. London: Virago.

Beevor, Anthony. (2007, first published 2002) Berlin: The Downfall 1945.  London: Penguin

MacDonogh, Giles. (2007) After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift. London: John Murray.   A

llied occupation

Ableitinger, Alfred., Beer, Siegfried and Staudinger, Eduard (eds) (1998)  Österreich unter alliierter Besatzung 1945-1955. Studien zu Politik und Verwaltung, Bd. 63, Wien: Böhlau. [Austria under Allied Occupation: 1945-1955]

Rauchsteiner, Manfried. (2005) Stalinplatz 4 : Österreich unter alliierter Besatzung. Wien : Edition Steinbauer. [Austria under Allied Occupation]

Rathkolb, Oliver (1985) Militäradministration aus Österreich 1945 in englischer Originalfassung  (Hg.).   Wien : Böhlau. [Society and politics at the beginning of the Second Republic. Confidential reports of the U.S. military administration from Austria in 1945 in the original English version]

Spiel, Hilde. (2011, first published 1968) Return to Vienna: A Journal. Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press

Wagnleitner, Reinholt. Understanding Austria: The political reports and analyses of Martin F Herz, Political Officer of the US Legation in Vienna 1945-48; Salzburg 1984.

Dos Passos, John (1946) Tour of Duty. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.  

Field Security Service

Gibson-Watt., Andrew. (1990) An Undistinguished Life. Lewes: The Book Guild.

Lewis., Norman (2002, first published 1978) Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy. London: Eland Publishers.

Steers., Robin Austin (ed.) (1996) FSS: Field Security Section. London: Books for Dillons only  

Other stories of English women in Nazi-occupied territory

Bielenberg, Christabel. (1968) The Past is Myself. London: Chatto and Windus

Shakespeare., Nicholas. (2013) Priscilla: The Hidden life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France. London: Harville Secker.

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