Why did I write The Blue Suitcase?
My mother very sadly died few years ago. Shortly after her death, I was helping my father sort out her personal things when we came across a collection of letters, diary extracts, old postcards and faded documents, all in German. They dated back to before Mum came to Scotland – Mum came to Scotland after the end of the WW2 and trained to be a nurse in Leith Hospital, Edinburgh, where she met my dad. Dad, who was Scottish from Leith, was very keen I translate these documents and letters (I'd studied German and had lived in Germany so not as mad as it sounds).
You see, Mum's early life was a bit of a mystery to the family: all we knew about her life before coming to Scotland was that she was from Silesia, which didn't exist, and that she never saw her parents again after she left Germany. To be honest, I was uncomfortable with the idea of reading my mum's things, she'd been a very private person (and it was going to be hard work, I'd not practised or read any German for years). However, Dad finally managed to persuade me.
I started by translating a diary extract, which I first assumed had been written by my mother. However, it quickly became clear the diary extract(s) had been written by my aunt, Antonia, who had gone to live in Argentina after the end of the war. From her letters, it became clear Antonia had been very unhappy in Argentina. She wrote to Mum regularly and when she wrote she included an extract from her dairy, which dated to before the war and which she'd painstakingly retyped on sheets of airmail paper. This was what I was translating. The very first extract I looked at was dated 1947. It was one of the last she sent. I was shocked at the contents of Antonia's diary. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. Much of what I discovered was distressing. I needed to know to if it was true so I went to the library to find historically accurate, factual, unbiased books, which would help me make sense of my mother's life.
By the time I finished at the library, I knew I had to write about what I had discovered: if only so that my children would know what life had been like for their granny.
At first I thought I would write a biography, but I felt uncomfortable doing that: firstly because of the gaps in the diaries and letters, it was difficult for me to know for sure what had happened to my family throughout the whole of this period (1932-1947), secondly, I simply couldn't write about Mum. It was too personal. Eventually, I had an epiphany: I would create a fictional family, which would be like Mum's family, but not the same. And this is what I did. I also created a fictional main character in Antonia, who is a combination of my mum and my aunt. Much of what happened to my fictional family happened to my real family, but much didn't, although it could have done – certainly, everything that happened in the novel is based on true historic fact: if didn't happen to my family, it happened to someone else's family.
Next, I had to decide “how” I was going to tell Mum and Antonia's story. I eventually decided to develop the format of a diary and letters: I wanted to try and recreate in the reader that same sense of 'discovery' I had experienced when I first translated the documents. And that's how The Blue Suitcase came to be: it's the undertold story about life under Hitler for an ordinary German family, but it's also a story about a young girl growing up and surviving against terrible odds.
Why did I feel so compelled to write this story? I wanted to right a wrong: when I was young there was an unspoken belief that all Germans were “baddies” and Hitler's “willing executioners”. And I am ashamed to say, I remember feeling embarrassed at times because my mother was German. Now I know that not only were many ordinary Germans also victims of Hitler's terrible regime, but that my mother was a refugee, and like millions of other German refugees, forcibly expelled from her home at the end of WW2. It seemed to me wholly unjust that the suffering of my mother and my aunt, and so many other aunts and uncles and mothers and fathers like them (on all sides), should go unacknowledged.