The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Melanie Martin

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Melanie Martin

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Summary: In War and Love: A family's testament of anguish, endurance and devotion in occupied Amsterdam Melanie Martin reconstructs what happened to her family in occupied Amsterdam in WWII. It's a highly compelling, if occasionally shocking read. Days after she finished the book Sue could not stop thinking about what she had read and was delighted when the author agreed to chat to her.
Date: September 2019
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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In War and Love: A family's testament of anguish, endurance and devotion in occupied Amsterdam Melanie Martin reconstructs what happened to her family in occupied Amsterdam in WWII. It's a highly compelling, if occasionally shocking read. Days after she finished the book Sue could not stop thinking about what she had read and was delighted when the author agreed to chat to her.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Melanie Martin: First and foremost my mother, she reads her copy very often. Then a vast array of people who I have spoken to about my book and who have been in touch with me after reading it. Firstly it was my friends and family but now the image of readers is broadening. There are so many people from every walk of life interested in history, especially World War II. Albert Roux, Sir Vince Cable, James Reed, very elderly people at the Ellery Hall day centre in Teddington, book clubs, 'A' level students. Hopefully people inspired to record the stories from their families about the interesting events that happened to them.

  • BB: When I read your book I was conscious that writing it had been a labour of love. The care that you'd taken shone out from every page. How long did it take you to complete the manuscript? How did you cope with all the external research which was obviously necessary?

MM: War and Love has certainly been a long-term project, something I've thought about for over 20 years. I first started recording the stories of my family in 1997. I had to play back the recordings and transcribe it word for word. I had a day job (and still do), so I worked on it in stages a few weeks or months at a time and then there were long gaps. It was a distant vision to create an actual book.

I met with the historian, Bob Moore in 2011 whose writing I had found most inspirational. He opened my eyes to the need to undertake more thorough research. I read more books, made trips to Amsterdam and attended a Guardian Masterclass for budding authors.

In 2014 I joined a group called West London Writers. I was fortunate that at one meeting nobody had turned up apart from me. The organiser, Alice Francis, read a few pages of my work I had with me. I was amazed when she said I think you could get this published. She found me an agent who a long time ago had discovered Jackie Collins. For a while I was optimistic about the prospect of finding a publisher. But it was not to be and I had to be content with lovely rejection letters.

I redoubled my efforts to make the manuscript more manageable and readable. At that stage very few people had read it. I gave drafts to people I trusted and sought their feedback. I knew I had to stop tinkering with it so that my mother who is almost 93 would see the work as a finished book before she departed this world. In 2018 I decided to self-publish. It cost quite a bit of money but I rationalised it on the basis that I know people have spent more on a new sofa! When the book was published it I embargoed it until I could personally deliver a copy to my mother. I wanted her to be the first person to see it - it was a wonderful moment and I knew I had made the right decision.

The research part doesn't really stop. I am still finding new information. It's become a hobby so not something I have had to cope with. Just need to draw a line under it sometimes.

  • BB: Was there ever any conflict between how your family must have felt in reliving the dreadful events of WWII and the rigour you needed to apply as an historian?

MM: I wouldn't say there was any conflict at all from my family in reliving the dreadful events and my historical rigour. My uncle Harry described the recording process as cathartic. Unfortunately Harry died in 1999, many years before I started researching the events seriously. I wish I could have spoken to him about some of the things I have found, it would have added a lot more I am sure.

Nearly all of the events that my family recalled I was able to corroborate through my research. That part of my investigative work was really fascinating. There are just one or two events in the story which were slightly inaccurately recalled. They are not important and I explained these in the book.

  • BB: Reading of Willem's murder made you cry. How did you feel when you wrote about it?

MM: Chapter 15 of the book was a real labour of love. It's where I haven't held back any of the grim details of how so many Jews were murdered in Sobibor. Part of my research took me to Westerbork camp. Amongst other things the archivist handed me a piece of paper which was my grandfather, Willem's index card. It is the camp record of his date of birth, his address, his next of kin, the date of his arrest and other details. Scrawled in pencil is 18.5.43: the date he went on transport to Sobibor. It's the last piece of information to do with his existence. That made me cry.

The other thing that's still brings a lump to my throat is the letter which Kitty sent in May 1943, telling her family of Willem's deportation. She wrote two versions of the letter. The one for her mother which was more upbeat included the words Don't you write me but cheery letters for I will be very disappointed if you are not a brave girl. Kitty didn't have a stamp but when being moved from Westerbork to another camp she just tossed the letter on to an apple cart and hoped someone would post it. Miraculously they did.

  • BB: Did your family feel that it was a relief to have talked about the events of the occupation or did it bring up memories they would rather had stayed hidden?

MM: I think they all found it a huge relief to talk about the events of the occupation. Especially Harry who originally resisted talking to me about it. He had not spoken about the war to anyone except the very small circle of friends who had lived through it with him. It was my aunt Liesje who steadfastly refused to talk about any of it.

  • BB: What made you decide to publish the story? Were your family at all reluctant for you to go ahead?

MM: My mother was reluctant at times for me to publish the stories because there are aspects of what happened which are very personal and some which are regarded as family secrets. I decided to push ahead with it for a number of reasons. I explained these to my mother but then she would forget so I set it out in a letter.

The other part which was uncomfortable was publishing what happened to Liesje when she had never wanted to talk about it. So the parts relating to Liesje are mostly not her words. Through my research I have pieced together what happened. I loved Liesje very much. We were close and understood each other. She was beautiful, brave and loving and her story, above all, deserved to be told. I think she would be proud of me now and as I said to my mother In 100 years' time none of us will be here anymore but the record of what happened will be.

  • BB: Has it affected how you view Amsterdam? Are some places tainted by what you now know happened there?

MM: My view of Amsterdam hasn't changed. I love visiting Amsterdam and when I haven't been for a couple of years I get withdrawal symptoms. Plus I like to visit my friends and family there. It's a magical place and so many areas have relevance in the book. If I have the opportunity to walk around and explain the significance of those places it really brings the story to life.

I guess it is some of the people of Amsterdam and what they did - or didn't do - which could have tainted my view slightly. But this is more than balanced by the many acts of kindness and courage which I learnt about, particularly from my family. For example the man who agreed to exchange identity with my uncle and the family in Ijmuiden who allowed my mother to hide with them. Without such people most of my family probably would not be here.

  • BB: Do you see any parallels with the current political stage? I'm thinking broadly about the rise of right-wing populism.

MM: Not so much parallels but I am clearly concerned about extremism. People have short memories and tend to act selfishly rather than looking long-term. Propaganda has always been an issue.

  • BB: Although this is a relatively slim book it's obvious that writing it was a major undertaking. Would you ever undertake anything on this scale again?

MM: I'm unlikely to do anything on this scale again although I am now working on the next edition. I think there is some new material to be added but I am hoping it won't turn into a major project.

I am planning a second book. It's the wonderful story of my father and his brilliant life and in particular his wonderful poetry. So mostly it's a poetry book.

  • BB: What's next for Melanie Martin?

MM: As ever juggling activities to promote War and Love, my day job, spending time with my 93 year old parents (who live in Norwich) plus keeping healthy.

  • BB: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Melanie. It has been a pleasure and a privilege.

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