Two years ago, I started a story about a little girl hiding in a house.
I am fascinated by houses. Perhaps because I moved a lot as a child, perhaps because I see how they reflect the personalities of the people who live in them, perhaps because in my early childhood I knew several homes with rooms and attics full of potential treasure: stuffed animals, old gramophones, books, stacked photographs.
Homes seem to me to have a personality of their own. When my husband and I were house hunting twelve years ago, we would walk out of a property and say “that’s a happy house” or “that’s an unhappy house” even though there was nothing visible to indicate a difference between them.
My story started innocently enough but as it wound its way from muse to keyboard, the child in the story stopped being carefree. She became someone desperate, unhappy, lonely; hiding in a perfect, neat, cold house. I wrote it for a competition and hadn’t quite finished it when a friend told me a story about her mother’s childhood in Nazi Germany and somehow a little of that was woven in too. My story is set in an unspecified world in which there is persecution for being different. I’m not publishing it here for the moment as I hope to publish it elsewhere but this is about what happened after it had been written.
Once I’d finished and refined it, I entered the story into a local competition run by the Rotary Club and it was short-listed for the Mayor’s prize. In October 2016, I went to the Corn Exchange (our local equivalent of a town hall) to read it out.
Odd as it may sound (since I was the one who’d written it) I found it hard to read aloud because although I knew what was happening, I still got choked up. I tend to speak quietly and quickly even when I’m not nervous. The acoustics in the building are not very good and I had to read while holding a microphone and also conscious of the fact that I would then have to clamber back down some steep steps without a handrail in heels and somehow try not to fall (give me a staircase and I will fall down it). I could feel myself getting angry on behalf of this imaginary little girl, caught up in the political machinations of adults and my voice started to crack. I ended with tears in my eyes. There was applause, I got down the steps without making a fool of myself and then found I had to climb back up because I’d won.
After all the prizes had been handed out and I was safely back on ground level again, a lady in her late seventies or early eighties came up. She said her hearing was poor and she’d been sitting at the back and not quite been able to make out everything I’d said. She asked if I could drop round to her house and give her a printed copy of some of my stories so that she could read them for herself.
The following weekend, I found her house (which had a wonderful door as if it would lead into a magic realm) and as she wasn’t in, popped the stories through the letterbox, leaving my address but forgetting to leave my phone number, meaning to go back a few days later.
Life was busy and it went out of my head.
A week or so afterwards, as I was in the kitchen editing photographs one Sunday and my mother, who’d come round for the afternoon was sitting with me doing embroidery while dinner burbled away in the oven, the lady arrived at my front door, having walked maybe a mile across town to do so. I invited her in for a rest and something to drink before driving her home. She said some lovely things about the stories I’d given her but then she asked about the inspiration for the one about the hiding little girl.
I explained that part of it was imaginary and the other part was inspired by stories friends of Polish and German descent had told of hiding Jewish fugitives and from reading a book called “My Hundred Children” by Lena Kuchler-Silberman and books by Corrie Ten Boom.
Over a cup of tea, the lady explained that she was Jewish. In 1938, while she was still a baby, her parents had escaped Austria but her grandparents, uncles and aunt had not been able to leave. There is now barely a trace of them.
She knows one uncle died in Dachau and one grandfather was beaten to death before even getting to a camp (the Viennese Nazi authorities kept good death records – don’t you love bureaucracy?). Her parents told of people just getting a knock on the door and being given half an hour to get themselves down to the town hall.
“Can you imagine, the Corn Exchange is our town hall,” she said, “so they come to your house and they pick on you because you’re Jewish, or Catholic, or Protestant or Muslim or immigrant or you name it, and you have half an hour to get to the Corn Exchange and you don’t know what will happen to you and maybe no-one will ever find out.”
The lady who took the trouble to bring me back my story now lives in a nice town in a peaceful country with children and grand-children of her own living in other nice towns. She sat, telling me her life, drinking tea with my mother, calm and friendly.
My mother is just a few years younger. The only separation she experienced during the war, was when my grandmother moved to be near family in Scotland with her two small children, away from the risk of bombing. They left my grandfather (too old to join up and in a reserved occupation) to carry on working in London and living in the empty family home. My mother’s family tree has all its branches in the last century at least.
The other lady’s family tree, like so many, had branches hacked off and destroyed.
All that potential, all those nearly people. All those children who maybe couldn’t hide quite safely enough. Her life now may be pleasant and safe, but her parents’ desperate flight, the loss of their loved ones are engraved on her.
I know her story is not news. I know, even worse that that, it’s not old news. The Nazis weren’t the first to do it and they weren’t the last.
It is going on right now, somewhere in the world, as I type this.
Religious grounds, ethnic grounds, racial grounds, political grounds, gender identity, sexuality, how many generations your ancestors arrived – somewhere someone is justifying a reason for the humiliation, discrimination, disenfranchisement, dehumanisation, persecution and death of other human beings just because they are different.
I wish it wasn’t true. More than anything, I wish I didn’t know there are people in “civilised” countries who are right this moment looking forward to starting it up again.
God forgive us for never learning and for the capacity for hatred in the human heart.
The evidence is right in front of us. And don’t assume you could be safe because we may not know the criteria. Watch out, because any one of us may be summonsed to the town hall one day and the hiding places may yet run out.
Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission