Ellen Feldman Shares the Research Process Behind Return to Berlin

Ellen Feldman Shares the Research Process Behind Return to Berlin

Much like your previous book Paris Never Leaves You, Return to Berlin transports readers between two key historical moments – the height of WWII, and its aftermath. What research did you conduct to capture the atmosphere and details of these two historical moments?

I researched both these moments in time and the extraordinary settings in which they occurred as I do most of my books. I begin with general histories, move on to personal memoirs, and delve into newspaper and magazine articles of the era. I frequently explore archives as well, though that wasn’t necessary with either of these books. I did, however, interview a German-American woman who had lived in Occupied Berlin as a child and relied on a friend who was born in Germany, speaks the language, and knows the customs.

Then two serendipitous discoveries sent the novel hurtling in new directions. In a memoir of the period, I discovered that shortly after Kristallnacht, the student body, faculty, and administration of Bryn Mawr College, a small women’s college in Pennsylvania which just happens to be my alma mater, took up a collection to establish two scholarships for non-Aryan German girls. Clearly, Millie had to win one of those scholarships. For her experiences as an undergraduate, I relied on an oral history of some of the students who were there at the time. For the ambiance – what the campus looked and felt like, how the young women lived and learned and grew – I took a stroll into my own past.

My other surprising discovery involved a group of young Jewish men who had been born in Germany but managed to flee to America before the war. (When whole families could not get out, they sometimes managed to send one member, usually the eldest son.) At first these immigrants met with suspicion and rejection. The older ones might be spies. Even the youngest were viewed through the virulent lens of anti-Semitism that dominated the country. Then in 1942, the government realised it was sitting on a gold mine. These young men, who were eager to return to Europe to fight the Nazis, not only spoke the language, they knew the customs, the terrain, even the psychology of the enemy. Who better to question POWs and infiltrate enemy lines?

A top-secret camp, second in security only to the Manhattan Project, was set up to instruct these men. It was called Camp Ritchie, and the men became known as Ritchie Boys.

The training was arduous. The duty was chillingly dangerous. They were told that if they were captured they must never let on that they’d been born in Germany and especially not that they were Jews for fear of being shot as spies rather than treated as POWs. At least two of them suffered that fate and were executed on the spot.
After the war the fewer than two thousand Ritchie Boys were credited with having provided sixty percent of all actionable combat intelligence on the western front. Nonetheless, for almost half a century they were not permitted to talk about their exploits. Only now is their story being told. It is one of heroism, patriotism, and the extraordinary bonds these men forged among themselves and with their adopted country.

Reviews

Powerful and Moving: Read Our Review of Return to Berlin by Ellen Feldman

Review | Our Review

20 September 2021

Powerful and Moving: Read Our Review of Return to Berlin by Ellen Feldman

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      Publisher details

      Return to Berlin
      Author
      Ellen Feldman
      Publisher
      Simon and Schuster
      Genre
      Fiction
      Released
      15 September, 2021
      ISBN
      9781761101847

      Synopsis

      For fans of The Light After the War, a young woman haunted by a heartbreaking secret finds hope and forgiveness in a city shattered by war.

      Young Meike Mosbach and her brother escape Berlin just before the horror of Kristallnacht, leaving their parents and little sister to follow them to America. But their family never arrives.

      Haunted by their loss, Meike becomes Millie and graduates from college to work as a magazine journalist while David enlists in the army to work in intelligence. After the war, they both return to a shattered Berlin, hoping against hope to find their family.

      Postwar Berlin is a wild west where drunken soldiers brawl, spies ply their trade and ‘werewolves’ – unrepentant Nazis – scheme to rise again. Consumed with rage at her former country, Millie’s job for the army rooting out Nazis from regaining a voice seems the perfect outlet. But her anger begins to thaw as she is faced with the daily reality of what the war has done to everyone, and the enigmatic Major Harry Sutton, who seems too eager to be fair to the Germans and far too perceptive about Millie.

      In the rubble of postwar Berlin, Millie must come to terms with a devastating secret and find the courage to embrace love – and a new beginning.

      Ellen Feldman
      About the author

      Ellen Feldman

      Ellen Feldman is the acclaimed author of Scottsboro, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, which was translated into nine languages, Next to LoveTerrible VirtueThe Unwitting and Lucy. A former Guggenheim Fellow in fiction, she has a BA and MA in modern history from Bryn Mawr College and after graduate studies at Columbia University, she worked for a New York publishing house, like Charlotte in Paris Never Leaves You. She has lectured around the US, Germany and the UK. She lives in New York and Amagansett with her husband and rescue terrier Charlie.

      Books by Ellen Feldman

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