Should Your Read Your Mother’s Private Letters And Diaries?
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I have always loved crime fiction. And so when, a few years ago, I started writing I was sure my first book would be a mystery or whodunnit. However, while terrible, criminal things happen in The Blue Suitcase, it’s not a crime novel as such. It is, in fact, an historic fiction based on my mum’s life, and inspired by letters and diaries I found after her death. It’s also the last book I ever imagined writing. Not because I didn’t love Mum or had anything against her, far from it, but because when I was growing up I knew so very little about her.
My mum was a very private person. She never talked about her own family and she didn’t do idle chat or gossip. She was also strict, children were seen not heard sort of thing – with nine kids I suppose she had to be. Growing up we only knew four things about Mum: she was from a place in Germany called Silesia; she came to Scotland after the end of World War 2; she trained to be a nurse at Leith hospital, which is where she met Dad; and her parents came from a place in Germany called Prussia. To make her past seem even more mysterious to us we never find Silesia or Prussia on any map in any Atlas. (And we looked!).
Of course, what we didn’t know then was that after the end of World War 2 Silesia, which was very much part of Germany, was ceded to Poland. As a result, my mum, her family and her friends and neighbours and over five million other ethnic Germans were forcibly expelled from their homes and displaced. Perhaps if Mum had talked about her past, we wouldn’t have felt so confused about who she was. But she didn’t. And while there’s confusion, there’s doubt. And, oh boy, did we doubt! You see, according to TV programmes of the time, like Dad’s Army, Hogan’s Heroes and Scooby-Doo, and according to all the kids at school, Germans were Nazis. And, as everyone knew, Nazis were the baddies. Did this mean our mum was a baddy? That couldn’t be right, could it? We kids regularly stayed up late, huddled in my sister’s room, whispering about why Mum never talked about her home in the mysterious Silesia. Best case scenario, Mum was a spy and sworn to secrecy. Worst case scenario, Mum was, yes, a baddy. And if Silesia didn’t exist, could we be sure she was even from Germany? The one and only time I was brave enough to ask Mum about her past, she said wanted to look forwards not backwards.
Years passed. We children all grew up. Forgot all about where Mum was from. Had children of our own. Mum became a proud and doting grandmother. Then a few years ago Mum very sadly died. It was then, when I was helping Dad sort out her things, that I found her old diaries and letters, written in German, in a small blue case. Dad immediately wanted me to translate the papers – he knew as little about Mum’s early life as the rest of us. At first I resisted, not because it was impossible, I knew enough German to reasonably translate everything, but because it seemed such a massive betrayal of Mum’s trust. I told you, she was a private person, didn’t I? How could I read her confidential letters and diaries? Besides, who cared after all these years? It was ancient history.
But that was before I found the sepia photo. Nine smiling children sat in three rows of three, flanked at either side by an elderly man and women. I recognised Mum, even though she could have only been about ten, because she looked so like one of my sisters. The other children were her sisters and brothers and the elderly couple her parents. I must have looked at that photo at least ten times before I noticed the second photo. On the wall. Behind them. A bit blurry. But unmistakable. A head and shoulders photo of Hitler. I was suddenly a child again. Feeling that horrible sense of doubt and shame and confusion at having a mother who was German. Then I felt anger. As an adult I knew my mum to have been an honest and kind person. I couldn’t believe her parents had not been equally kind. So why was there a photo of Hitler on their wall? That was when I decided to translate the letters and diaries.
It took me a while, and I spent a lot of time in the library on research, but eventually I was finished. I was shocked by what I discovered. My mum wasn’t a hero or a Nazi. Instead, like thousands and thousands of other Germans, she was an ordinary person whose life was turned upside down and inside out when Hitler came into power. She survived the thirties and the horrors of WW2 only to be expelled from her own home and end up in a Red Cross refugee camp. She lost her family and friends and suffered untold grief but was denied the opportunity to talk about what had happened to her because she was the wrong nationality. No wonder she never wanted to look back. Why would you? For my part, it made me realise just how much, as a child, I had wronged Mum by believing that she could have been a bad person. I was determined to right that wrong by telling her story. I felt I owed Mum that much. And while The Blue Suitcase is not a crime novel in the conventional sense, it does reveal the mystery about my mum’s life.
Not everyone in my family was happy that I translated my mother’s private letters and diaries. Some siblings thought by doing so I had betrayed her trust. What do you think? Should I have left the documents unread? If you found your mother’s private letters and diaries would you read them?
Marianne Wheelaghan is our Featured Author for November.
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