Monday, April 9, 2012

Guest Author James R. Benn

We’ve guested Jim once before,  back in October of last year, when he contributed a post about Armed Services Editions during the Second World War.  If you missed that one, be sure to read it here:

Jim, of course, is the author of the acclaimed Billy Boyle series, historical mysteries set against the background of the Second World War. The next book Death's Door is slated for September of this year. The most most-recently published was, A MORTAL TERROR, launched last September. My review is among the many you'll find here:

On Desperate Ground, with an entirely different cast of characters is just out -- and high-up on my TBR list. It's available in both print and eBook form, and can be found here:

Leighton - Monday

How I became a writer.

                It was my 50th birthday, back in the year 1999. My wife and I were on a trip to Germany, visiting Berlin and the Harz Mountains. History and hiking. On my birthday, September 5th, we walked up a hillside to a restaurant offering spectacular mountain views. As we dined on the deck, Debbie asked me about my life goals on this landmark half-century mark (she’s a psychotherapist, it comes with the territory).
                “Well, I always wanted to write a book,” I said. I’d been a reporter during college and still harbored a desire to see if I could write a novel.
                “Why don’t you do something about it?” she quite reasonably asked. It was then I realized I’d wanted to write for the past three decades and had done nothing about it. If I waited another thirty years, things might not work out. Another liter of German beer came around, and plans didn’t get very specific. But I’d made a commitment of sorts, and all I needed was an idea. It didn’t take long.
                In Berlin we took several sponsored walking tours. One was Jewish Life in Berlin, focusing on the past and present history of Jewish life in the city. The tour guide took us to the New Synagogue, built in the nineteenth century as the main Berlin synagogue.

Constructed in the Moorish style, it was architecturally and historically important; the Berlin government had granted specific permission for the synagogue to be built facing the street, an important distinction for the Jewish community. Their house of worship did not have to be hidden away. The document also stated that the synagogue had the right to exist forever on Oranienburger Strasse.
                Fast forward to November 9, 1938; Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass).  Synagogues and Jewish business all across Germany are being vandalized and burned.

A crowd of Brownshirts descends on the Neue Synagogue and begins to set torches to it. In the face of that state-sanctioned terror, a single Berlin policeman, Lieutenant Otto Bellgardt, draws his pistol and orders the crowd to disperse, citing the protected status of the building, adamant about his intent to uphold the law. One man against a mob. He won. The Nazis left, and the Berlin fire brigade arrived in time to put out the fire that had been started. A single person. It would have been so easy for Otto Bellgardt to stand aside, to give up in the face of impossible odds.
                His behavior addressed a question that had always troubled me; what can one person do in the face of unspeakable evil? Otto Bellgardt found his answer, and kept his honor, not to mention the New Synagogue, intact. Later in the war, the New Synagogue (now rebuilt) was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. Otto Bellgardt, pictured below, disappeared in combat on the Eastern Front, another casualty of war.

                Our tour then took us around the corner to Saint Hedwig’s, a Catholic Hospital where Marianne Hapig was the chief social worker. As Jews from Berlin were rounded up for shipment to concentration camps in the east, many were temporarily housed in a building near the hospital. Marianne Hapig and a doctor from St. Hedwig’s began providing medical assistance for these Jews as they were awaiting deportation, living in cramped and unsanitary conditions. She came up with the idea of diagnosing some with contagious illnesses, and offering the services of St. Hedwig’s. The Gestapo, wanting to avoid an outbreak of disease, quickly agreed. A handful of lives were saved as the Jews were declared dead and hidden in the city. But Marianne Hapig’s crusade had just begun.

                At the time there were thousands of Jews in hiding in Berlin. Word spread through the underground of anti-Nazi sympathizers that medical aid was available at Saint Hedwig’s. Illness, malnutrition and injuries from constant Allied bombings took its toll on the health of these hidden Jews. As we stood on the steps of the main entrance to the hospital, pictured above, I wondered what it must have been like to emerge from hiding, sick, without identity papers, needing to trust rumors of medical care. While it took courage and daring for Marianne Hapig to do what she did, and it must have taken a brave determination for hidden Jews to take that step in blind faith.
                During the war, identity papers were more precious than gold. Without them, any spot check on the street would mean deportation if not instant execution. At some point, Marianne realized she had a steady source of valid Aryan identity papers; those of the victims of the bombings who died at the hospital. Instead of turning them in, she began to save them and then was able to provide papers to hidden Jews who fit the physical descriptions of the dead.
                As the war worsened for the Germans, the Wehrmacht finally took over Saint Hedwig’s as a military hospital, and ordered that all civilian patients be removed. It was the end of Marianne’s source of identity papers, but also the occasion of her greatest inspiration. She demanded that if the military ordered her patients to be released before they were healthy, they should provide transportation to the country for recuperation, and that each patient must be assigned a nurse’s aide as a companion. The Wehrmacht obliged, and before long a convoy left Berlin for safer ground, with hundreds of patients and their helpers – young Jewish girls, now armed with official identity papers.
                Marianne Hapig provided the inspiration for what would become my first novel. Fictionalized as Elsa Klein of Saint Ludwig’s, her story became a keystone of that book. Marianne survived the war, and there are several plaques and remembrances of her in Berlin today.

                I didn’t expect further inspiration for my foray into writing, but it came yet again in the Harz Mountains. We had left the wonderful, history-thick city of Berlin behind to hike in central Germany, an area that had seen some of the last days of fighting in World War II. One day, at the end of a long hike, we descended a path down a hill and came upon a small German military cemetery. It was secluded, and a fair distance from the main road. We detoured in, and were struck by the dates on the tombstones; late April and early May 1945, the last week of the war. The ages on the markers were young and old, sixteen and sixty, little in between; sad, useless sacrifices.
                In one corner of the cemetery there were other tombstones, all marked Unknown Russian. And unlike all the other grave sites, each of these plots held a pot of fresh geraniums. Who were these Russians? And why were they there? Military cemeteries are for the dead of specific nations, and enemies are never co-mingled. I recalled a news item from the year before, about a soldier in the Gettysburg National Cemetery having been identified more than 140 years after that Civil War battle as a Confederate. His remains were respectfully disinterred and returned to his home state.
                So who were the unknown Russians, and why did they lie with German dead in this small, out-of-the way graveyard of young boys and old men? And most mysteriously, why were there fresh flowers on the Russian graves?
                And who put them there?

                I came up with my own answers to those questions when I returned home and started writing On Desperate Ground. I had no reason to wait another thirty years; ideas and intent combined to show me I could conceive of and bring a novel to conclusion. Completion bred confidence, and the process gave birth to the Billy Boyle WWII mystery series. But this first novel is close to my heart, as is the memory of those real people who dared to act in the face of evil.


  1. I am reading ON DESPERATE GROUND now. It is a book not to be missed. Excellent.

  2. I have just downloaded your book. If it is as moving and interesting as your post, I will be very pleased. I didn't know these things about Berlin (my family was from Vienna). Thank you very much.

  3. Thanks to both of you. History is so thick in Berlin it lays upon the ground. The white line marking where the Wall stood; cobblestones of the Gestapo prison cellar recently excavated (where notes from prisoners were found tucked under the stones). If one wishes to become a writer, Berlin will seal the deal.

  4. James, this post moved me to tears. I love your Billy Boyle series. Now here's a new book to add to the list. Many thanks for the story behind the story.

    Pat Browning

  5. An addendum to this story: We were in Berlin during a Jewish holiday (sorry to say which one escapes me) and my wife and I attended services at the New Synagogue. It was a very moving and emotional experience, after hearing both stories told above, to sit and listen to the service in that synagogue - spoken mainly in German. History is profound.

  6. This was such an interesting and inspiring post! I will look forward to reading this book (and all of your books). Thanks for sharing all of this.

    Brenda P. Williamson

  7. Welcome back, James. You sure do know how to tell a tale! It's a subject filled with lessons to learn and memories to keep fresh if we hope to avoid...precisely what's happening today.

  8. An oft read book is Corrie ten Boom's The Hiding Place, which reminds me of good among evil.

    I shall add On Desperate Ground to my TBR list, for Marianne Hapig's story.

  9. This is quite a post. Thanks for sharing the information about Marianne Hapig and her bravery in saving so many Jewish people. And her intelligence in figuring out these strategies and then carrying them out; it's amazing.

    This trip to Berlin to the New Synagogue reminds me another very emotional experience of a friend. She went to Berlin to speak at a conference of gay and lesbian people. It was very big.

    She, who is Jewish, taught herself Yiddish just in order to give her speech. When she spoke, hundreds of people stood up, cheering and crying.

    The language had been so suppressed in that evil past and so many people killed who had spoken it that it was barely heard in Germany at that time, not that long ago.

    Every time I think of that story I cry. What it must have been like for her to do that and then what it must have been like to hear the speech moves me every time I think about it.