Wednesday 28 June 2017

Pioneers of flight: Hitler's forgotten Valkyries

First published by Pan Macmillan on 28th June 2017

Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were talented and record-breaking women who fought convention to make their names in the male-dominated field of flight in 1930s Germany. In her new book, The Women Who Flew For Hitler, acclaimed biographer and author Clare Mulley tells the real story of Hanna and Melitta. Here, Clare explains why she was drawn to write about these two fascinating women. 

Among the women who were awarded the Iron Cross during the Second World War, for me, two stand out. Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were both brilliant pilots whose skill and conviction placed them firmly at the heart of the Third Reich. Hanna with her dazzling smile, blonde curls and blue eyes, was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler’s new regime, happily lending her image to a series of publicity articles and collectable cigarette cards. She also test-flew the most pioneering designs from the Nazi aircraft development programme. The darker, more serious and seemingly shy Melitta had a more conflicted relationship with the regime. Although one of their most senior aeronautical engineers and the lead Stuka dive-bomber test-pilot, she would never accept many of the policies and practices of National Socialism.

As young women, Hanna and Melitta had learnt to fly fragile wood and canvas gliders over the same green slopes. With engine-powered flight prohibited under the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, gliding became the focus for German national pride after the First World War. Although girls were only expected to watch, the women who dared to take to the skies quickly became icons in this golden age of flight.

In 1936 both Hanna and Melitta would wow the crowds flying at events during the Olympic Games. Two years later Hanna became the first women to fly a helicopter, and the first person ever to fly one inside a building, blowing all the gentlemen’s hats off as she circuited the Deutschlandhalle. When war came she tested the design of wing blades developed to cut through British barrage balloon cables, practised deck landings, and eventually crash-landed in a prototype of the famous Me163 rocket plane, destroying much of her face. Hitler awarded her the Iron Cross for her courage and commitment to duty, making her the first woman to receive the Iron Cross during the war.

In contrast, Melitta Schiller had quietly built her career further away from the limelight. A brilliant aeronautical engineer as well as a test pilot, Melitta’s work was fundamental in developing the accuracy of Stuka dive-bombers. Sometimes she would pass out during tests, regaining consciousness just in time to pull out before impact. She knew she had to work at the limits of the possible; it was through becoming uniquely valuable that she hoped to help protect herself and her siblings – all of whom had been defined as Jewish ‘Mischling’ in 1937. By 1944 Melitta had been reclassified as ‘Equal to Aryan’, her family were safe, she too had received the Iron Cross, and she was heading up her own military flight institute; an unheard of position for a woman, let alone one with Jewish ancestry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, although they knew each other well and often met before and during the war, Hanna and Melitta had a difficult relationship.

As the tide of the war turned against Nazi Germany, Hanna and Melitta both looked for radical ways to bring an earlier but very different end to the conflict. Their beliefs, decisions, determination, courage and dramatic actions would put them powerfully on opposite sides of history. Yet later, when Hanna was infamous, revered and abhorred in almost equal measure, Melitta simply faded from the record. Uncovering her story has shed extraordinary new light not just on both these women’s lives, but on life more generally inside Germany under the Nazi regime, the limited options open to some, and the courage it took to face realities and act on truths under the perverting conditions of dictatorship and war.

Friday 19 May 2017

My Weapon is My Writing: Olga Tokarczuk at the London Book Fair.

First published by English PEN, 12 May 2017

‘I treat language like a tool, like a fork and knife when you have to eat reality’, the multi-award winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk told her audience at the English PEN literary salon at this year’s London Book Fair, causing quite a stir. Verbal cutlery or not, Polish is now the second most spoken language in England and Wales, and Poland was this year’s ‘market focus’ at the fair. Visitors were buzzing round the stands showcasing the country’s long and vibrant literary heritage through the work of novelists, poets, non-fiction and children’s authors, as well as Poland’s five Nobel prize winners for literature. Tokarczuk, Poland’s most famous female writer and more than once on the Nobel long-list herself, was one of several international authors attracting the crowds to PEN’s salon.

Perhaps it is ironic then that in recent years the Polish domestic budget to help promote challenging literary authors such as Tokarczuk has been considerably reduced or reallocated. This is partly why PEN America awarded a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to Jennifer Croft for Tokarczuk’s award-winning The Books of Jacob, to help bring it to an English-speaking readership. ‘Promoting free speech, giving someone a voice, is the most important job in the world’, English PEN’s Robert Sharp says, ‘especially when there is so much need for empathy and understanding in the world.’

I have a particular interest in Polish history and the Polish book market. My last book, The Spy Who Loved, was a biography of Polish-born Krystyna Skarbek, a.k.a. Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent in the Second World War. One of my hopes for the book is that as well as telling the story of this remarkable war hero, it might draw attention to some of the key roles played both by women, and by Poles, during the war. I was delighted when The Spy Who Loved was translated into Polish and published under the title Kobieta Szpieg, or ‘Female Spy’. Unable to return to Poland under the Soviet-backed Communist regime after the war, Krystyna Skarbek spent the rest of her all-too short life in London, and is buried in Kensal Green. At first I felt she would have been delighted to be, in some sense at least, finally returning home. But of course she has never been forgotten in the country of her birth where she is already the subject of a number of studies and one fascinating work of fiction by the novelist Maria Nurowska, who met me in Poland during my research for the book to share her insights. Sadly none of Nurowska’s books have yet been translated into English and, even the prolific Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob will be only her third novel published in English.

Tokarczuk was a professional psychologist until, she says, she realised she was ‘much more neurotic than my clients’. She now claims she could not live without writing: ‘the truth is, I cannot do anything else’. In conversation with Rosie Goldsmith at the English PEN literary salon, she spoke powerfully about the responsibility that, she believes, comes with writing, and which she sometimes feels weighing on her back ‘like luggage’. ‘Proud to be a feminist writer’, one of her key concerns is to consider reality from diverse points of view. As a young girl she used to sit, out of sight, under tables, ‘looking at shoes, legs, and the entire theatre’ as she listened in to other people’s conversations. Growing up she felt the rich presence of Jewish culture everywhere, among other influences, and began to relish how deeply literature was connected to culture. Her own writing reflects the traditional multiculturalism of Poland that existed before the war and the homogeneity promoted by post-war Communism. But it also addresses more negative issues, such as Polish anti-Semitism. Her books are ‘the best advertisement you could think of for Poland’, fellow author Jacek Dehnel argues, ‘but they show the history of Poland from a non-national point of view, giving voice to various minorities’. When pushed to define her writing identity, Tokarczuk says she feels like ‘a Central European writer, writing in Polish’.

Today Polish identity is principally, but not exclusively, Roman Catholic, and with the country’s current, socially conservative, ‘Law and Justice’ party in office, there is once again less celebration of the nation’s traditional diversity, and less promotion of alternative voices. For some, ‘social life in Poland is focused on demos’ Tokarczuk laughs, but for her, ‘my weapon is writing’. ‘Poles don’t want to know the truth about our history’, Maria Nurowska adds. ‘The role of the writer is to overthrow, and this is what Olga [Tokarczuk] does.’ As tool, knife and fork, or weapon, Tokarczuk and her compatriots know how to deploy words to good effect. What is needed now is the support to help them reach greater audiences both domestically and across international borders.

Thursday 20 April 2017

Translating Lives: What it’s like helping refugees to learn English

First published by Refugee Action on their website, 29th March 2017.

‘Open your files’, Hilary remembers brightly beginning her first English-language class for Syrian refugee families in Cambridge, talking through an interpreter. ‘The whole group smiled, sat forward, and turned open the back cover of their files, ready to go’. Learning a language from absolute scratch can, it seems, be much more than simply a question of grammar and vocab. It is about learning how to translate your entire life, and learning how to operate in a different country and through a culture and set of rules that may often appear to work back-to-front.

Hilary’s colleagues joke that she has been teaching English to refugees coming to Britain ‘since the Huguenots’. That might be pushing it, but her decades of service testify to the fact that desperate people seeking refuge is far from a new phenomenon. Hilary’s first classes were for Ugandan-Asians arriving in Derby in the early 1970s. As a former French teacher who had just left work to have a baby, she volunteered to give some English-language classes, and has never looked back. Soon she was also teaching women coming from Punjab, and not long after she had moved to Cambridge, in 1979, she started classes for the first refugees to arrive from Vietnam, who came under the auspices of Save the Children.

A decade later it was refugees from Bosnia supported by the Red Cross. Some of the men arrived weighing only 6 stone and were sent straight to hospital. Almost all were undernourished, abused and traumatized. On learning that Hilary received a small salary, one of the men ‘stared at me with his wonderful blue eyes’, she recalls, and told her ‘I would rather the government just gave me the money so I could buy a gun and go back to protect my family’. His wife and children were still living under shelling in Mostar, but would eventually be reunited in Cambridge.

The Syrian families now settling in Cambridge are arriving under a government scheme to provide safe shelter for select families from refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey, who are deemed to be particularly ‘vulnerable’. The first four families arrived in late 2015, and have since been joined by another five. It is a slow process, as arrivals depend on Cambridge City Council being able to provide suitable modest-rent accommodation within the city. New landlords are always desperately needed.
The government scheme includes funding for the adults to attend some English classes but none that are suitable for complete beginners exist in Cambridge. Instead the independent volunteer Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign organizes, among many other things, specific classes with Hilary and two other volunteer teachers. The teachers work for free, and premises are provided by both the Quakers and a Catholic Church which donates use of its hall as well as money for refreshments, warm clothes and toys for the children.

Hilary always starts new classes by dividing her group down gender lines. She then asks the groups separately whether they are happy both to learn together, and to have a female teacher. So far the classes have always opted to be taught together with her – which is good because as yet there is only one male teacher, although several men volunteer as interpreters. Nevertheless Hilary is acutely aware of the significance of gender in her classes, and generally feels the men find the work particularly difficult. ‘The men are more conscious of making a fool of themselves, either in language classes or in public’, she says. Struggling to even write their name in front of their wives can be a further blow to self-esteem at a time when ‘everything has been taken away from them, not just their homes, jobs, friends and language, but also the status that came from earning a living and providing for their family – that’s all gone’. In some ways the Syrian women’s familiar roles continue, albeit in different circumstances. Few have worked outside the home, and in Britain they are busy ‘shopping, cooking and looking after the children – and this helps them to relate to ordinary life in a different country’ Hilary says. ‘Men are more cut off from their everyday experiences.’ Hilary therefore tries to maximize the value of her language classes by developing spin-off projects. The women are now swapping recipes and hope to publish an English-language Syrian recipe book. With the men, Hilary hopes to arrange for each to visit someone doing the job they used to do in Syria, such as tilers, tailors – two great jobs to help with pronunciation Hilary notes – builders or civil engineers. Not only will this give them a chance to see how transferable their skills may be, but it will also give them the opportunity to relate to a professional other than a teacher or social worker.

There is still some work to be done before such a project can be realized however. Classes are arranged via an interpreter so Hilary can learn a little about her students as she introduces herself. She needs to ascertain their previous level of education as study skills are a great advantage, and it is also good to know about their interests so she can pick up on this to support their learning. At the same time, she will never ask about their families or past life, because this might open up trauma or cause friction or embarrassment. It is a difficult balancing act requiring considerable empathy and respect on the part of both teacher and students. Mobile phones are a mixed blessing in such circumstances. Everyone has pictures to share that they can talk about, but recently one woman showed some film she had just received of her old house destroyed, with the bodies of several dead soldiers in front of it.

The first goal is to enable the class to be able to recognize, write, say and spell out loud their and their children’s names accurately. Then they move on to health vocabulary, using games and songs to help make it stick. Children of school age attend local schools supported by volunteers, but pre-school children come to the classes with their parents, where another volunteer will play with them in the same room. Hilary is always delighted when she is teaching and a toddler’s voice suddenly sings from under the table ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ or repeats ‘it’s two o’clock’, but she also recognizes that the children’s fast progress can be an added pressure on their parents.
The main challenges the adult students face however, are all practical ones. Personal and family health is one key issue, as many arrive unwell. They also have other appointments to keep. Few want to argue about the time they have to sign on at the job centre, and they may not have the language yet to explain a timing clash. But Hilary has yet to have a student drop out, and some travel with toddlers an hour each way on buses to attend.

Over time fantastic results come from such dedication. Last month one mother proudly told Hilary she had made a doctor’s appointment for her son, and taken him alone without needing an interpreter. Another is building up his language by watching football on TV. Already a Manchester United fan in Syria, he has discovered that football really does transcend borders – played by talented people like the Swedish-Bosnian-Croatian Zlatan Ibrahimović, and enjoyed by Britons of all backgrounds.
Of course, it takes time. Last week one man told the class how his attempt to buy dates at Asda led to him being told it was the 3rd February, but his ability to puzzle it out already shows how much he has learned. Hilary tells me that what her students most want to learn, once they have the essentials, is how to make small talk. ‘They want to know what to say over the garden fence, or when somebody comes to their house’, she says. ‘How to say “come in, would you like a cup of tea?”’ and also how to know when to leave a social event – how to read the signals embedded in unspoken language. Part of the problems is that Cambridge people often don’t talk to them after saying hello – not necessarily from prejudice but rather from embarrassment in advance that they won’t be understood.
‘On the whole’, Hilary believes, whatever people’s political views, most ‘do think it is important for refugees coming here to learn English’. What is needed is firstly more properly funded classes, at times that work for the refugees and with some degree of childcare, but also more community engagement. Refugees, like anyone else, want to make friends, they want to invite their neighbours round or take their kids to football matches with their schoolmates; they just need opportunities to engage.

‘I think I’ve been so lucky’, Hilary says, looking back over her career and later voluntary work. Not only does she feel she has learnt huge amounts about diverse cultures and universal human nature, but she’s had such heart-warming experiences along the way. ‘When my son went to school,’ she laughs, ‘they asked him what his mum did for a living. “Oh”, he replied, “she eats samosas and drinks tea”’. Today Hilary still gets invited round to her former students’ homes, sometimes to the weddings of the younger generation, and out to celebrate New Year at different festivals at least five times throughout the year. The lesson is that once people from different countries can communicate, they can bring so much to each other. ‘It has been such a privilege – being invited into people’s homes at such an important stage in their lives’ Hilary says with a smile. ‘They remember me and I never forget them – it’s wonderful.’