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RESEARCHING ‘MANNA’ PART 2: Hearing the voices of the war

As time passes and the Second World War slips from the living memory of humanity, efforts have been made by family members, museums and government organisations to gather the stories of those who lived through the conflict for posterity. Some of these collections have been published for the public as books. Some have been made available as media resources. Peter Jackson used audio recordings of First World War veterans made almost fifty years ago to create the narrative track for his documentary film, THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. Similar projects related to the Second World War could be created the same way as thousands of stories have been preserved in various ways for people to consult in the future.

Where MANNA and the occupation of the Netherlands in World War Two is concerned, I have pulled source material from a number of places. First, the internet, using Google and Wikipedia as a starting point, helped to lay a foundation. Wikipedia is, to me, a good resource because of the links reaching out from articles to other websites or books. I have found much useful information that way. Wikipedia is good for the SEARCH part of fact finding. Google and Wikipedia quickly turn into rabbit holes and dogs chasing their tails when searching, though, because websites link to other websites, but the information shared is either the same or a variation therein. If you need a deep dive, you need to look elsewhere.

Books. Lots of books. Books about the subject directly and things spinning off from it will be a good place to start. For me, these were resources I used to get going. OPERATION MANNA/CHOWHOUND was already out of print when I picked it up. A newer book, OPERATION CHOWHOUND, came out jut a couple of years ago. Together, they compliment each other on the food drops that gave my book its inspiration.

Then, as I realized I needed to learn more about life under the occupation, I supplemented website information and photographic references with these little books of personal anecdotes from survivors of the occupation, either in the Netherlands itself, or in the colonies of the Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia. I collected the ones I felt were the most useful and then decided to add some primary material of my own, meeting people who were in the Netherlands during the war and interviewing them. Two of the three interviews I conducted were recorded for posterity.

Why not more interviews, you may ask? I have asked many people. Few wished to discuss their experiences. Others, according to relatives I’ve talked to, had forgotten much over time and could offer little of use. A couple examined the information I brought and said I knew more about aspects of the occupation already than they did… and they lived through it! Having said that, though, every one of those interviews lifted a curtain that was obscuring the vision I had of the world I wanted to created for MANNA. In one case, a look at a design for a kitchen I created raised concerns about the size and I was able to make it more realistic. In another case, my image of tanks and trucks everywhere was debunked quickly by one witness who said luckily the tanks stayed away from his town and only came through when trouble was in the offing. I learned about the use of horses in Holland- thousands of them. I heard about relatives who fought with the Resistance and relatives who were drafted into the army and sent to Russia. I heard stories that surprised me, touched me, horrified me and captivated me. More books reinforced those accounts and enriched them further. For example, reading about Arnhem was one thing. Hearing someone describing the sight of hundreds of transport aircraft flying past her home towards the drop zones at the beginning of Operation Market Garden was something else entirely.

Memories, I learned, could be stronger and more vivid with age than one might assume and attitudes generated by the experience of the war could be hardened surprising by time. “I hope they got what they deserved,” said one witness when he heard about the number Dutchmen who enlisted for the SS divisions formed in the Netherlands and sent to the Eastern Front. Other sentiments- not to be shared here- were also echoed.

These accounts are like gold, and more are being unearthed from sources long silent in the world. DUTCH GIRL, the story of Audrey Hepburn’s experiences in the Netherlands during the war was published just last year, long since she passed away. It’s well worth reading and I found it to be a great addition to my library on the Dutch in the war. To balance the perspective and try to get inside the experiences of Germans in the war, as occupation soldiers and support personnel would have had stories of their own, I read a lot of books about life in the Reich and in its service. A number of these books were memoirs of events that happened in the youth or childhood of the narrators. No one else is left today to tell their stories.

I would say to anyone out there wanting to attempt historic fiction, primary sources where possible are very helpful, but round them out with a range of materials. Be open-minded in terms of where you look. Sometimes, an unlikely place will yield a nugget or two of useful information. Don’t just concentrate on the narrative. Build resources about the whole of the world in which it takes place. It’ll make the story rich and authentic. Think of your story as being like an engine. You see the overall shape of the thing. But you need to remember the hundreds or thousands of parts- some moving and others not- that went into making it what it is. As anyone who’s had car servicing done, those little parts have their roles to play in the smooth operation of the engine. Don’t neglect them in your car any more than you would do so in your story. And finally, take your time in putting it together. The only person you are racing against until the book is complete is yourself and maybe the few friends you had read it at some point. The world is unaware of the thing until it finally appears in print and even then it might not even so much as wobble upon its release. So get it right while you get it done.

Hilde seems happy with her new book. Do it right and you’ll be happy with yours.

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