would you have a picture of Hitler on your wall?

This is a picture of my mum and her family. It was found shortly after Mum died, along with some private letters and diaries – mum’s the smiling girl at the front with the fringe. Mum was German and came to Scotland after WW2 to train to be a nurse. Shortly after arriving she met my dad, a lad from Leith. They fell in love, married, had a family and the rest is, as they say, history. Mum never really talked about her life before coming to Scotland and we, my brothers and sisters and Dad, didn’t ask. It was a surprise, therefore, to suddenly see photos of a family we didn’t even know existed. I’d studied German when I was younger and Dad was especially keen I translate Mum’s letters and the diaries for him. He was missing her badly and maybe he thought the contents of her papers would bring him closer to her?  I don’t know. He didn’t say. But, to be honest, I was reluctant to snoop through Mum’s things. In life Mum was a private person and this seemed such an intrusion of her privacy. However, that picture of Hitler on the wall behind the piano had shocked me. I couldn’t understand why anyone, let alone my granny and granddad, would have a picture of an evil dictator (arguably, the most evil dictator!) in their living room. In the end I agreed to translate Mum’s papers for Dad because I wanted to know the answer to that question – and I got it. I discovered that my mother and her family, and many, many other ordinary Germans living under Hitler, had very little choice over how they lead their lives. They suffered unspeakably cruel things and horrific injustices and were victims of war  tyranny, who deserve respect and compassion.

I’m not sure when I knew I’d write about Mum’s story in The Blue Suitcase, it may have been as soon as I  saw that picture of Hitler on the wall behind the piano, but I knew I would.

But I have a question: Do you think it was right of me to snoop through my mum’s private letters and papers and then write about what I found? Is there anything a writer shouldn’t write about?

Had you been in my shoes, what would you have done?

And to thank you for getting in touch, between now and the 30th of June I’m going to put the names of everyone who leaves a comment on my blog in a hat and pick one out. The lucky winner will receive a free copy of The Blue Suitcase 🙂


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14 Responses to would you have a picture of Hitler on your wall?

  1. Isobelle Lauder says:

    I don’t see anything wrong in looking through (I don’t think of it as snooping) your mum things after her death. If it helped your dad with his loss, even more reason to do it. We all live our lives basically from day to day and don’t ask or receive the background information that some people need. Most of that information is lost forever and we are left wondering what our parents and grandparents were like and what their life experiences were.

    If you mum didn’t want things found, she would have destroyed them – I have destroyed personal letters from my husband (although we hopefully are a long way from dying) as I would not want my children and certainly not my grandchildren reading them.

    • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

      Hi Isobelle, many thanks for your comment. I have often wondered why Mum didn’t destroy some things. Did she want them to be read at some stage? Did she not think it mattered? Possibly? Who knows? It did cause some upset in the family when I started to translate the papers, not everyone thought it right I do so. But I think sometimes we have to go by what we believe is right. Thanks again – and your name is in the hat:)

      “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.  The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath

    • john gray says:

      Hi Marianne. I love the title of your latest post. It shows how we need to look at everything through the perspective of history. So much has to be learnt by studying the diaries and records of the ordinary person during world shattering events such as WW2. Historians asked questions like, “What were women doing?” in various periods of history. As they uncovered nearly-forgotten history of women’s struggles for equality and freedom, they were surprised at the amounts of material that were, indeed, available. You are playing your part in trying to keep an important aspect of history from being once more forgotten.

      • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

        Hi John, thanks very much for stopping by and for your thoughtful comment. I never though of it like that. I know, from what people have told me (including Adrienne here today), that reading The Blue Suitcase has made them look at the history of WW2 and Germany with fresh eyes and if I have in some small way made that happen and helped in preventing these events from being forgotten, then I’m so pleased. Thanks again!

  2. Adrienne Allan says:

    Hi Marianne. It’s not snooping to go through your mum’s things after her death. She must have known that one of her children was likely to do this task.We all face someone sorting through our personal effects when we are gone and have the choice about what to leave or discard as we travel through life. I think your mum’s story was just waiting to be told and who better than her own daughter to tell it? I did not know about Hitler’s tyrannical rule over his own people until I read The Blue Suitcase. Why is this part of history overlooked? I don’t think the suffering of the German people under Hitler is well known at all and I for one am glad that you chose to tell it. With best wishes, Adrienne x

    • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

      Hi Adrienne, thanks for this. I felt exactly like you when I started reading Mum’s letters and the diary extracts ie: shocked. I knew nothing about what had gone on and this was my mother’s life! I also started to research the period to be sure I really understood what had happened and discovered even more tragedy and suffering from that time on all sides. That’s one of the reasons I wrote The Blue Suitcase as a fiction, because although it was inspired by Mum’s life and the lives of her brothers and sisters, I wanted to include in the telling what had happened to other mothers and fathers etc. I also wanted as many people as possible to read it, and I thought more people are likely to read a story than a history. It’s a funny thing, when I was at school I did German, and then later at Uni, only because Mum wanted “someone in the family to speak German”. She never spoke to us in German herself. Okay, I liked languages so it wasn’t a hardship, but it was definitely her idea. If I had not taken German at school, her story wouldn’t have been written. Thanks, again, Adrienne 🙂 (your name will go in the hat at the end of the month!)

  3. Murdo Morrison says:

    I can understand why you might have reservations about using family history in your writing. I think many writers do, including myself. I think the fact that you ask such questions shows a sensitivity that will guide you well. Your family’s is also your personal heritage. Therefore, I don’t view your curiosity about your mother’s past as snooping. Motivation and intent are key components in such research. I think of those painful to read books in which writers provide the unhappy details of their childhood. There is always the risk of crossing the line into self-justification and questionable taste.

    For me the real issue is, does what I write add value to the reader? Have I managed to say something about human life and experience that has significance and can be meaningfully shared? If that is the goal then, clearly, one’s personal history and experience are legitimate sources to draw upon. Your book The Blue Suitcase exemplifies these values for me.

    Regarding the image of Hitler on the wall: do you know when your family picture was taken? What’s interesting to me is that it appears to be a drawing rather than a photograph. It is also placed in a corner of the room. I don’t know if it was the expected thing to have such an image in German households at the time. Perhaps it was to keep the neighbors quiet. Germany was a very repressive state in the Nazi period. Informants were common and no public resistance was tolerated.

    • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

      Hi Murdo, thanks so much for your very thoughtful comment and kind words about The Blue Suitcase. Regards exploiting one’s past, I agree, there is a fine line between taking advantage of our personal heritage for self promotion and with sharing it with others in a meaningful way. As a human being I was disturbed what I discovered and thought other human beings could too. It’s tricky though when it’s your own family, or friends. As for the photo, actually, you’re right it probably is a drawing, or at least a print. Why did I think it was a photo? Probably because that’s what we have on our walls (of the kids and the dog, and my parents etc). I digress …(hem!) I think the actual family photo was taken around 1935 (based on the apparent age of my mum) and that was when Hitler passed the Nuremberg Race laws. It was also the year, I believe, that the Nazi party closed all the church schools and made them National Socialist schools and replaced religious pictures in them with pictures of Hitler, so having to have a photo of Hitler somewhere in your house was probably very expected. So, I agree with you. I think by 1935 you could safely say Hitler was a dictator, and many Germans had to be very careful how they behaved, if they didn’t want to get reported for being “unGerman”. It’s so easy to judge, though, isn’t it, without knowing the facts? What terrible times people lived through and how lucky we are now! Thanks again, and your name will be in the end of the month hat ;o)

  4. Louisa says:

    It is a dilemma, but as your other guests have pointed out, think what would have been lost if you hadn’t translated the letters! I also had no idea of how much the German people suffered during Hitler’s reign — this is an important part of history that is pretty much ignored! You are doing an important job, and Granny would have been proud, in her own way! 😀

    • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

      Hi Louisa, thanks for your comment. I had no idea either. It really shocked me too. And, interestingly, even after all this time, it is still pretty much ignored. Although, that said, a German publisher recently don’t told me Germans are now finding their voice when it come to their past. In fact I came across a new book today by a German author who was an expellee just like Mum. I don’t know what Mum would have thought about The Blue Suitcase. I’d like to think she would have approved, not sure about proud 😉

  5. Emily says:

    Hi Marianne
    It is a tricky question – sometimes I think it is personal and you should not be posting photos etc. .. then I think well, it’s ok as it gets the bigger story out to more people, and we got your great book ‘The Blue Suitcase’ – I do wonder why should it be in the public domain, the photo and the question! Anyway –
    Love Emily

    • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

      Hi again, Emily:o) Its all so difficult with photos. Yesterday I was at Penicuik High School talking to three different classes of students and giving out prizes to another group. It was a great day – part of their Arts Week. Had I only remembered to bring my camera, I’d loved to have taken photos of the day’s events – ha ha ha! But there are so many issues around taking photos of young people, in many ways I thought it best not to having taken the pics, anyway. As for using personal photos, well, people are interested in human stories and pictures are so good at bringing a human story to life! Talk soon 🙂

  6. Joy Claridge says:

    Hi Marianne,
    I think it depends on your motivation and actions and yours were exemplary – I think your Mum would be proud of you and content that her story was told with dignity. It’s the writer’s job to take risks and push boundaries – the only rule is – be true to your heart. See you soon.

    • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

      Thanks, Joy. I agree, being true is what matters, otherwise what would the point be of telling the story?
      Yes, see you soon 🙂

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