Historical fiction novelist Karen Truesdell Riehl joins me today to chat about Helga: Growing up in Hitler's Germany.
Although I cursed it in my youth, dyslexia turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Not being able to read or write until the age of ten forced me to express myself through acting. At the Stephens College playhouse in Missouri I fell in love with an actor, a married actor. That experience led to the publication of my memoir, Love and Madness: My Private Years with George C. Scott. After Stephens College, I moved with my new husband (not George) to North Conway, New Hampshire, where we owned and operated the Eastern Slope Inn for 15 years. My third husband and I now live in Carlsbad, California with Stu and Clark, our stuffed dogs, Zoomer, our robot dog, and Bart and Gilda, our greedy turtles.
Please tell us about your current release.
This is the true story, as told to the author by the woman who lived it, of how a ten-year-old girl joined the Jugend, Hitler's youth movement. Ten-year-old Helga is forced to join the Hitler youth weekly meetings. Lies and treats are used to build her allegiance to the Fuhrer. As the war draws nearer to Berlin, Helga is sent away to a Youth Training Camp. Her slow disillusionment and harrowing escape home, is a coming-of-age story of a young girl's survival of Nazi mind control. A 2015 San Diego Book Awards Winner.
What inspired you to write this book?
I met Helga in 1978, a German emigrant war bride working as a librarian in an elementary school in Washington state. We became friends. When she told me she had been a Jugend, I asked her for an interview.
Excerpt from Helga: Growing up in Hitler's Germany:
What's an Aryan?
We always began our school day by paying homage to the Fuhrer. The rest of the day we studied arithmetic, reading and writing. Then a great day arrived: We were each given a children’s version of Mein Kampf, told to memorize it and be ready to recite. When I held it in my hand I felt as though the Fuhrer had written it just for me. I would make him proud when it was my turn to recite passages from it.
That evening after dinner I asked my parents if they would like to hear me read from Hitler’s great book.
“My stomach is already upset tonight. Read it to your Mutter," Vater growled. He gave Mutter an odd look, stood, put his hat on his head and walked out the door.
“Where is Vater going?”
“You know how Vater likes to take an evening walk.” She began to clear the table, and said, “You may read it to me while I wash the dishes.”
After I finished, Mutter said, “You read well, Helga.”
“Will you help me memorize it?”
“Yes...I will,” she answered slowly. But I could tell it wasn’t something she really wanted to do. I talked to Emma and Agatha the next day about our helping each other. They’d had the same reaction from their parents.
“I thought they would love to hear the Fuhrer’s great words,” Emma said. “But they said the teacher probably meant for me to memorize it by myself.”
“I don’t think our parents know how important his words are,” Agatha said.
“Let’s work together. It’ll be fun."
For the next week we helped each other commit every inspired word to memory, hailing the Fuhrer after every paragraph.
On the scheduled morning, eager to speak Hitler’s amazing words and afraid I’d forget one or two if I didn’t get chosen to recite immediately, I shot my arm in the air, waving it furiously.
“Helga, you look like you might burst if you don’t get to speak. You may be first to come up front and recite.”
When I stood up and walked the few feet to the front of the room I thought my heart would explode with pride. I prayed my knees would stop shaking. I cleared my throat and began to speak, my voice quivering. As I stood in front of the Fuhrer’s photo, speaking his words, I felt a new closeness to him, as though he himself were in the room guiding me. My voice grew strong as I recited. I loved the words, but did not understand about Aryans.
So one Sunday afternoon, when Grossvater, Grossmutter and Tante Alvina, Vater’s sister, were visiting us, all sitting in the living room, I asked Vater if he thought I was perfect.
“Of course you are, Helga, especially when you obey me.” He winked at me.
“What exactly is an Aryan?” I asked.
“My little girl is getting technical. Why do you ask?”
“Because at the Jugend meetings our leaders say we must be perfect Aryans.” I said.
Grossvater stood and crossed the room to the bookcase. He took down Vater’s big black, dictionary. “Let me answer that for you, Helga.” He searched a page. “This is what it says. The Aryan race is a concept in European culture that was influential in the late 19th and early 20th century. It derives the idea that speakers of the Indo-European languages constituted a race.” Grossvater did a slight bow, marched to the sofa, and sat next to Grossmutter.
“Does that answer your question, Helga?” Mutter asked.
I didn’t want to admit in front of everyone that I didn’t quite understand. “I guess. Am I all German?”
“No, you are half Danish,” Mutter smiled. “Luckily you have good Dane in you to sweeten the sour German blood.”
“Oh really, now?” Vater gave Mutter a silly look. “I thought it was the other way around.”
“Well, at least I know I’m not a Jew,” I said.
There was silence for a moment until Grossmutter said, “Helga, why do you say something like that?”
“The Jugend leaders teach us that Jews are devils who cheat us out of our money and never wash.”
For a moment there was silence until Grossmutter said, “Helga, that’s not true. There are good Jews and bad Jews. They’re just people like the rest of us.”
That was the first time Grossmutter had ever told me something that I knew was not true. It made me angry. “Mutter, may I go to my room? I have some reading to do for class.”
No one said a word as I left the family gathering. I went to my room, leaving the door open enough to listen.
“It’s terrible what they are teaching her at those meetings,” Grossvater said.
“Yes, it is. But what are we to do? If we say anything, she might...”
“No. Not our Helga,” Grossmutter said.
“Just the same, we have to be careful.”
“Let it go,” Vater said.
“Did you know Max Adler’s brother was directed to seek out the Jews and report their addresses to the Gestapo?” Alvina whispered. “He knew the Gestapo would take him, and maybe his family, if he didn’t obey. He told his family he wouldn’t do it. ‘Let Hitler do his own dirty work!’ The next day he hanged himself.”
What exciting story are you working on next?
The Inn Game and Sins of Kot-Do-INIT. This is about a fictional resort town in New Hampshire in 1970, a whimsical story of the owners of a ski resort in the fictional village of Kot-Do-Init, who try to entertain vacationers while small town gossip and the hunt for a madman swirl about them. Jim White's death from a fall from a skimobile while riding it late at night with another man's wife places the town's wealthy playboy under suspicion.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I began my writing career after my first two books, Love and Madness: My Private Years with George C Scott, a memoir, and Saturday Night Dance Club, were published. I have since written a total of 13 books, 8 novels and 5 plays.
Do you write full-time?
I write six days a week. Out of bed at six, I write until eleven a.m.
If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I am a retired actor, still actively engaged in following professional theatre. I'm also a portrait painter. I'm also a voracious reader.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I don't use an outline for fiction. I let my characters lead me.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
From the time I was three years old, my big ambition was acting. The hundreds of lines I learned, the many characters I played and a vivid imagination have helped me with plots and dialog in my writing.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I love my husband's nose.
Thanks for being here today, Karen.