by Ellen Feldman
It’s a truism that writers are always squirreling away random observations, eavesdropped comments, and stray anecdotes as grist for their literary mills. A novel spanning years and featuring myriad characters can spring from a moment witnessed on the street, a comment overheard in an elevator, or a few lines about people from another world or era. The Living and the Lost was born of the last. Then two research discoveries sent it hurtling in new directions.
While delving into the background for my earlier novel, Paris Never Leaves You, I stumbled upon a paragraph about a French family trying to flee the Nazis. I won’t relate the incident. It would be a perfect spoiler for The Living and the Lost. I will say it involved a teenage boy who makes a split-second decision that will shape his survival and that of his entire family. While I knew I couldn’t use the occurrence in Paris Never Leaves You, neither could I get it out of my mind. The heartbreak of it haunted me. The moral conundrum nagged at me. Was his action right or wrong? Was there a right or wrong under the circumstances?
As the situation continued to plague me, it became more personal. Because I am a woman and feel closer to a woman’s reactions, sensibilities, and plights, though of course I write about men as well, the character of Millie began to take shape in my imagination. By the time I began to write, I knew the bind Millie would be caught in and the decision she’d reach. What I didn’t know was how her choice, made on the spur of the moment, or so she thinks, would shadow the rest of her life. In one sense she goes on. In another, she never gets beyond. She is riddled with guilt. She hangs on to hope. Surely, her action can be undone. Surely it could have had other consequences than those she fears.
Millie was the crux of the story, but a novel, like the devil, is in the details. Character and voice are crucial for me, but plot is not incidental. Though I already knew quite a bit about the period, I needed more specific information to bring Millie’s particular story to life.
I researched The Living and the Lost as I do most of my books. I begin with general histories, move on to personal memoirs, delve into newspaper and magazine articles of the era, and explore archives. If there are people living who have relevant knowledge or experience, I try to interview them. In this case, I spoke to a German-American woman, who had lived in Occupied Berlin as a child, and also relied on a friend who was born in Germany, speaks the language, and knows the customs.
Then those two serendipitous discoveries I mentioned above opened new possibilities, a phenomenon every writer prays for. In a memoir of the period, I came across a passing reference to the fact that shortly after Kristallnacht, the student body, faculty, and administration of Bryn Mawr College, which just happens to be my alma mater, took up a collection to establish two scholarships for non-Aryan German girls. Clearly, my protagonist Millie had to win one of those scholarships. For her experiences as an undergraduate, I relied on an unpublished oral history of the college at the time. For the ambiance—what the campus looked and felt like, how the young women lived and learned and grew, even their conversations in dorms—I took a stroll into my own past. Times change but human nature doesn’t.
There is, however, one problem with that sort of autobiographical inspiration, and I have encountered it in other novels I’ve written. Now that the book is finished, I sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between my own college experiences and the ones I wrote for Millie. How much of that unsettling conversation over dinner in the dorm did I have and how much did I make up for Millie?
Another surprising discovery made the story veer even more sharply in a new direction. I knew that Millie’s brother David would have fled Germany as a boy and returned as a man to fight in the war and help build the peace. Thousands of young men did just that. When whole families could not get out—escape became increasingly difficult as the thirties wore on—they sometimes managed to send one member, usually the eldest son. As Millie ruminates in the novel, “A boy carried on the family name. A boy was by definition more important. A boy was a boy.”
At first, these young men met with suspicion and rejection in America. The older ones might be spies. Even the youngest were viewed through the virulent lens of antisemitism of the time. Then in 1942, the government realized it was sitting on a gold mine. These young men, who were eager to return to Europe to fight the Nazis, not only spoke the language, they knew the customs, the terrain, even the psychology of the enemy. Who better to question POWs and infiltrate enemy lines?
A top-secret camp, second in security only to the Manhattan Project, was set up to instruct these men. It was called Camp Ritchie, and the men became known as Ritchie Boys.
The training was arduous. Many recruits washed out. Since they trained in German uniforms and communicated in German, there were also ludicrous moments. More than one local farmer reported an enemy invasion, and more than one Ritchie Boy found himself staring down the wrong end of a rifle barrel. But as time went on, the locals grew accustomed to the strange goings-on.
Once the men shipped out, the danger became real. They were told that if they were captured they must never let on that they’d been born in Germany for fear of being shot as spies rather than treated as POWs. Being identified as Jews was even more perilous. At least two Ritchie Boys whose identities were guessed were executed on the spot.
After the war, the fewer than two thousand Ritchie Boys were credited with having provided sixty percent of all actionable combat intelligence on the western front. Nonetheless, for almost half a century they were not permitted to talk about their exploits. Only now is their story being told. It is one of heroism, patriotism, and the extraordinary bonds these men forged among themselves and with their adopted country. One of the joys of researching and writing The Living and the Lost was getting to know these men and creating a character in their image. Millie is, in some ways, my alter ego. David is my hero.
Ellen Feldman, a 2009 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of Paris Never Leaves You, Terrible Virtue, The Unwitting, Next to Love, Scottsboro (shortlisted for the Orange Prize), The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank (translated into nine languages), and Lucy. Her novel, Terrible Virtue, was optioned by Black Bicycle for a feature film.