The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The-Tattooist_FCR_Final.jpgTitle: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Author: Heather Morris

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Echo/Bonnier

Published: 1st February 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 278

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: The incredible story of the Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist and the woman he loved. 

Lale Sokolov is well-dressed, a charmer, a ladies’ man. He is also a Jew. On the first transport from Slovakia to Auschwitz in 1942, Lale immediately stands out to his fellow prisoners. In the camp, he is looked up to, looked out for, and put to work in the privileged position of tätowierer – the tattooist – to mark his fellow prisoners, forever. One of them is a young woman, Gita, who steals his heart at first glance.

His life given new purpose, Lale does his best through the struggle and suffering to use his position for good.

This story, full of beauty and hope, is based on years of interviews author Heather Morris conducted with real-life Holocaust survivor and Auschwitz- Birkenau tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov. It is heart-wrenching, illuminating, and unforgettable.

~*~

AWW-2018-badge-roseIn 1942, Slovakia is slowly falling into the grip of the Nazis as they march across Europe during war time, invading towns and countries, and rounding up Jews, and other groups seen as undesirable in their quest for German victory. Lale Solokov, born Ludwig Eisenberg, volunteers himself at 24 for what they are told is a work detail, to save his family. Lale prepares for a life away from his family, with clothes and books, though none of them know what lies ahead for Lale, or what the future holds in store for any of them as the Nazis continue their rampage. Instead of the promised job, Lale finds himself dumped at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most infamous Nazi concentration camps. Here, he will have everything taken from him, his head shaved, and a number inked into his skin, marking him for life as 32407, stripped of any other identity for three years. In Auschwitz, he is given the job of Tätowierer – and must tattoo numbers onto each new arrival – the ones not immediately sent to the gas chambers. It is here he will meet the woman he falls in love with – Gita – and soon finds himself find ways to get contraband to her and spend time with her, all at risk to his own life as well as hers.

In a moving fictionalised account of Lale’s life, Heather Morris, who spent three years interviewing Lale, has recreated the atmosphere of the camp, a dank, smothering atmosphere where the air is thick with ash and the screams of the dying that Lale and other prisoners are forced to listen to as they work in fields, in administration, as Lale tattoos new prisoners every day. Some events Heather imagined, to fill in the gaps, such as a scene where Lale and Gita were together when the American planes flew over Auschwitz, but most of it is true, based on Lale’s recollections.

It is a dark story, because the Holocaust was one of the darkest times in world history. But it is one of those events, and there are many – that we should never forget, never let happen again. Through the dark, colourless life of Auschwitz, and the torturous conditions Lale and Gita had to live in, their love endured, and they never gave up hope of finding each other when the camp finally closed down and the prisoners were sent on death marches or simply ran away, with the hope of finding people who could help them. The shadows that Lale and Gita fought were real, and this is a story that everyone should read, another Holocaust story that reminds us what complacency and allowing evil to manipulate an entire nation can result in.

The language is simple and accessible, yet it deals with the complexities of life, of love and the Holocaust in a way that shocks the reader but at the same time, gives them hope that Lale and Gita will find a way out of the camp. Through the darkness of war and death, it is their love for each other, and determination to live, that brought this story to life so that people reading it now will never forget what happened.

A moving, dark story that must be read, and learnt from so that something like this stays where it should: in the shadows and smoke of history, never to be repeated but to serve as a reminder of what humans are capable of at their very worst.

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The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

9780733640001Title: The Paris Seamstress

Author: Natasha Lester

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 27th March 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 435

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: How much will a young Parisian seamstress sacrifice to make her mark in the male-dominated world of 1940s New York fashion? From the bestselling author of A KISS FROM MR FITZGERALD and HER MOTHER’S SECRET.

How much will a young Parisian seamstress sacrifice to make her mark in the male-dominated world of 1940s New York fashion? From the bestselling author of A KISS FROM MR FITZGERALD and HER MOTHER’S SECRET.

  1. Parisian seamstress Estella Bissetteis forced to flee France as the Germans advance. She is bound for Manhattan with a few francs, one suitcase, her sewing machine and a dream: to have her own atelier.
  1. Australian curator Fabienne Bissettejourneys to the annual Met Gala for an exhibition of her beloved grandmother’s work – one of the world’s leading designers of ready-to-wear clothing. But as Fabienne learns more about her grandmother’s past, she uncovers a story of tragedy, heartbreak and secrets – and the sacrifices made for love.

Crossing generations, society’s boundaries and international turmoil, THE PARIS SEAMSTRESS is the beguiling, transporting story of the special relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they attempt to heal the heartache of the past.

Author+photo+for+Biblio+high+res+NatashaLester006

~*~

Estella Bissette’s quiet life in Paris with her mother working as an atelier and making copies of patterns in 1940 is under threat. A chance encounter with MI0 Agent, Alex Montrose, and what Estella sees as a case of mistaken identity, pulls her into a world of danger and espionage, and as the Germans march further towards France, and her beloved Paris, Estella’s mother ensures her safe passage to America, on American papers – revealing that the stories she had told Estella about her father were not true. Escaping with her sewing machine and one suitcase, Estella is sustained on the trip by a dream to become a fashion designer, and the friends she makes on the journey from Paris to New York. Once in New York, Estella will encounter a variety of people in the fashion industry and who are working as spies and will soon be drawn into a world of fashion and secrets.

In 2015, Estella’s granddaughter, Fabienne, is in New York to see an exhibition of Stela Designs, the ready to wear clothing line that Estella created during the turbulent years of war. Fabienne is close to her grandmother, and in New York, away from work and her mother, she begins to uncover the secrets of her family – secrets surrounded by tragedy, espionage and heartbreak that shaped Estella, and the decisions she made, and why she made them. As Fabienne uncovers these family secrets, she encounters Will, who works in one of the top jobs at Tiffany’s, and his sister. As they work through their lives together, and the struggles they face, their friendship grows, and evolves. In the face of personal tragedy, Fabienne must uncover the answers to her family’s past.

AWW-2018-badge-roseThis was the first Natasha Lester novel I have read, and I really enjoyed it. I loved Estella’s passion, and her desire to create something unique in an unknown world during a time when there was so much uncertainty. Safe in America as Hitler and the Nazis take Paris, Estella finds herself in and out of work as a sketcher, working towards her own goal of creating her own line. Her passion for this, which is ignited further by her friends Sam, and Janie, who are amazingly fun characters as well, and in a time of war and feeling alone, welcome Estella easily into their lives as a friend.

Estella’s world is peopled by figures who existed at the time – Lena Thaw, Alexander Montrose, and others connected to them, and the mystery surrounding these characters and their links to Estella are slowly revealed as the novel moved between the early 1940s and 2015, where Estella’s story revealed itself as Fabienne spoke to her grandmother and went through diaries. Estella’s bravery drives the narrative, and it is her strength that I adored, her ability to find what she loved and make something of it. When she discovers Lena, a woman who looks just like her, something stirs in her, and this is where the mystery of what links them starts to come out, slowly, with many questions along the way from Estella in 1940, and Fabienne in 2015.

It is the slow yet well-paced pacing of the secrets and their unfolding that I enjoyed, alongside the history of World War Two in France and Paris, and the moment America is drawn into the war, and the reactions that Estella experiences from people to whom the war is a mere inconvenience for them getting their fashion from Paris, and the feelings of betrayal Estella felt throughout when she found out the secrets people had kept, and the burden of these secrets that she was able to let go of and help Fabienne discover her family history.

I found this to be a delectable book, where the history of the war, and a family of secrets and mysteries were the forefront against a backdrop of fashion, and a world where grandmother and granddaughter found solace, It crosses three continents: Europe, America and Australia, and encompasses the love of a mother and daughter, the love of friends, family, a sister, and sacrifices made to keep secrets. It is a well-written novel, where the romance is realistic, and not over-powering but still there, existing in a perfect balance with the other elements that kept me more engaged. I liked that Estella and Fabienne found love, but it was their family mystery and secrets that kept me reading late into the night to find out what Estella had been hiding for so many years.

An excellent historical fiction that takes female voices, in a time and place where their lives are dictated by those around them and expectations of society, and where in a male dominated world, Stella Designs made a mark in the fashion world of Natasha’s novel, and where these strong women didn’t allow their lives to be dictated by convention. Instead, they were spies, and mothers, seamstresses and friends, people who sacrificed so much for those they loved, and whose lives were complex and interesting. I always enjoy novels with a heroine who finds a way to fit into the world she lives in yet at the same time, question the conventions and finds a way to make her own mark on the world, and show that women could do what they set their minds to, even in a time of war like Estella.

Much like Kate Forsyth’s historical fiction, this had similar elements of mystery and intrigue that drew me in, and I hope to read more of Natasha’s novels soon.

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The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

war saved life.jpgTitle: The War that Saved My Life

Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s and YA

Publisher: Text Publishing

Published: 16th May 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 336

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: · Winner, Newbery Honor Book, United States, 2016 

  • Winner, Schneider Family Book Award, United States, 2016 
  • Shortlisted, West Australian Young Readers’ Book Award, 2017

An exceptionally moving story of triumph against all odds, set during World War II.

Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room flat. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure for Ada, and for Miss Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take in the two children. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?

This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity—a classic in the making.

~*~

For nine years, Ada has lived in a tiny, one room flat with her mother and younger brother, Jamie, in London. For years she has been confined in this dreary place because of a birth deformity – clubfoot. She receives little care and love from her mother, and all her affection comes from her younger brother, whom she has raised. When war is announced in 1939, all the children of London are evacuated to less populous areas to save them from being bombed by the Germans. For Ada, this is her chance to leave home for good, to escape the horrors of her young life and get out of the dim home she lives in. On her bad foot, she hobbles towards the school, receiving assistance from Stephen White, a neighbour also being evacuated. Unaware of what the outside world is like, both on the journey and arrival in Kent, where they are placed with Susan Smith, and their lives begin to change. Jamie gets to go to school, Ada learns to ride, and they learn what it is to be kept safe, though throughout, Ada feels that there will always be something that will take them away, that this cannot last. The war is present, though never at the forefront of the book, just a threat that lingers as Ada fights her own war against everything her mother has told her she is and breaking down her own barriers to let people in, to learn to read and to find her place in the world. But can Ada’s sanctuary last?

The War that Saved My Life is more than a story of survival in war, it is survival of who Ada is and who she can become, survival of spirit and the land. It is a unique experience of war told through the eyes of a disabled child, who has always been the carer, and never cared for, fearful of a mother who has never loved or wanted her and struggling with a disability that she has been told can never been helped. In this story, there is a harsh reality shown of disability and the way it is seen and treated – the unwillingness of Ada’s mother to help or care for her versus Susan’s desire to keep Ada safe, wanting to help her and wanting to care for her, and the repercussions of nine years of being treated poorly, of being abused, set against the backdrop of a war that killed millions and wounded many more.

Each character has layers that need to be peeled back slowly, and they are. Even though Ada’s PTSD isn’t explained explicitly, it is shown in a way that readers can understand, and that people can relate to, giving people a character that they can see themselves in and representation of what they might have gone through or be feeling. The War that Saved My Life is told in first person format, through Ada’s eyes. The reader can feel and experience what she goes through: feeling trapped, feeling unable to articulate what she is feeling or find the right words, and the way her mind gives her conflicting messages, that she feels she cannot unravel properly.

It is more than a story about World War Two, it a story about the war that Ada fights within herself every day, trying to trust someone who cares for her after all she has been through. It is touching and shows the reality of Ada’s life with her mother. It shows the strength of love between siblings and the love that another can have for someone they aren’t related to.

In a story where the protagonist feels at war with herself and those around her constantly, she copes in the only way she knows how – detaching from a situation and letting herself go into her own world. She learns that there are many ways to love and care for people, and that sometimes, a lie to protect someone is okay, but lying to hurt and humiliate is not. With Susan, Ada learns that there are no absolutes in life, and that she can be helped, that her club foot can be fixed so she can at walk. Ada’s constant disbelief is coloured by the way Mam treated her for so long. It is a war that Ada is determined to win.

A touching story that can be read by all ages, The War that Saved My Life is deserving of the awards it has won and been nominated for. It is a book that shows a different side to the war, and will hopefully become a much-loved classic in years to come.

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The Boy Made From Snow by Chloë Mayer

boy made from snow.jpgTitle: The Boy Made From Snow

Author: Chloë Mayer

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery

Publisher: Hachette

Published: 14th November 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 328

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: ‘THE BOY MADE OF SNOW had me compulsively turning the pages to find out the fate of Daniel and his mother. A haunting and thrilling read. I absolutely loved it’ Kate Hamer, author of THE GIRL IN THE RED COAT
An evocative and stunning debut‘ Jane Harris, author of GILLESPIE AND I
‘Original and unsettling – and just a little bit heartbreaking’ Rachel Rhys, author of DANGEROUS CROSSING
‘A beautiful and evocative debut’ STYLIST
‘Affecting’ DAILY MAIL

In a sleepy English village in 1944, Annabel and her son Daniel live in the shadow of war. With her husband away, an increasingly isolated Annabel begins to lose her grip on reality.

When mother and son befriend Hans, a German PoW consigned to a nearby farm, their lives are suddenly filled with thrilling secrets.

To Annabel, Hans is an awakening from the darkness that has engulfed her since Daniel’s birth. To her son, a solitary boy caught up in the magical world of fairy tales, he is perhaps a prince in disguise. But Hans has plans of his own and will soon set them into motion with devastating consequences.

~*~

Daniel has grown up during a war.  In 1944, World War Two is nearing the end, and German Prisoners of War have been brought into the village of Bambury to work on the farms. His mother, Annabel, watches as they are marched in, catching a glance of one of them. Hans has been unlucky, captured by the British and Allied armies, and sent to a camp until the end of the war. As he works at Mr Dawson’s farm, chopping firewood to sell to the villagers, Annabel and Daniel befriend him. To Daniel, he is the woodcutter hero of the fairy tales Daniel loves, and lives in in his day to day life, a way of escape from the war. To his mother, he is unknown, mysterious and a force that will rekindle her desire for life, and bring light into a darkness she has felt since Daniel’s birth – a darkness that she has tried to fight against for many years. It is through this friendship she begins to find a way back to who she was before he was born. But Hans has his own plans that he uses them for, and sets in motion a series of events that have devastating consequences.

Told in alternating chapters for Annabel and Daniel, Daniel’s chapters are told in first person, Annabel’s in third person. In this novel, it has been done effectively, and evocatively. Through Annabel, we see the pain she is in, and the indifference she feels at times, and he struggle to cope with much in her life. Through Daniel, there is an innocence and a resilience – he knows more than he lets on, and must learn to find a way to cope in a world of war with a mother who he does most things for. Through his friendship with Hans, or Hansel, as he calls him, Daniel learns that the world is much more complicated than it is in fairy tales, and a devastating day will have adverse effects on his life and all those in Bambury. It is a story steeped in tragedy – tragedy of life, tragedy of war and the tragedy of humanity and how people cope, or don’t cope with horrific or traumatising events. The fairy tale aspect of the novel comes through in Daniel and how he views the world, especially through stories such as The Snow Queen, which is quoted before each chapter, hinting at what is to come. It is a haunting novel, set during a turbulent time in history, looking at how people cope when their worlds collide, and things seem like they’ll never be the same again.

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Wolf Children by Paul Dowsell

wolf childrenTitle: Wolf Children

Author: Paul Dowsell

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Published: 1st November 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 288

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: survival in the cellar of an abandoned hospital, Otto and his ragtag gang of kids have banded together in the desperate, bombed-out city.
The war may be over, but danger lurks in the shadows of the wreckage as Otto and his friends find themselves caught between invading armies, ruthless rival gangs and a strange Nazi war criminal who stalks them …

A climactic story of truth, friendship and survival against the odds, Wolf Children will thrill readers of Michael Morpurgo and John Boyne.

~*~

 

Wolf Children begins as World War Two has ended, and Germany has fallen into the clutches of Russian occupation as the rest of the world wages the final few months of war in the Pacific. With Hitler gone, and the Nazi regime obliterated, those who remain in crumbling Berlin must endure the Russian control over their city until an agreement can be made about where the East and West will be divided. Their world has been turned upside down, and Otto, Helene, Erich and Klaus have turned their backs on Nazi ideology, perhaps never quite bought into it in the first place, and have accepted the fate of the regime and seek only to survive the invading armies, rival gangs and a strange Nazi war criminal who has taken an interest in Otto’s younger brother, Ulrich, who has never quite let go of the Hitler Youth.

 

In a world not always seen in World War Two historical fiction, the impact of the end of the war on German citizens who did not support the regime they lived under, but were kept silent out of fear is not always explored. Here, it is shown through the eyes of six children who appear to have nobody left but each other, and in a world of uncertainty and lack of shelter, food and money, they must learn to barter with what they can, and eat when food comes their way. In a world of uncertainty, these children can only rely on each other, and with their lives at stake, will they survive the next few months of post-war Germany?

 

The harrowing stories set during, and after World War Two, from any perspective, are deeply unsettling and raw, and at times, uncomfortable, with characters like Ulrich who cling to the vestiges of a failed regime – where their attitudes are not shied away from, but at the same time, condemned by the characters around them. These stories, whether historical fiction, or biographical, or non-fiction, are not meant to make us comfortable. They are meant to remind us of what dangerous language and divisive ideas and talk can lead to. I have read many books that are set in the turbulent inter-war, war and post war years this year, and none of them have shied away from the discomforts of the historical setting or the ideas and language that floated around then, yet at the same time, have presented them in an accessible way for the audience – in this case, children and young adults. It is a book that is humbling and can serve to remind adults too about what happened and that it must not happen again. The devastation of Germany shows the scars of war – in the buildings, in the crumbling walls and bricks, and in the rubble that surrounds the bartering markets. It shows in the half starved people, and in the children who forage for food and who fear anyone they don’t know.

 

Wolf Children is a story that will stay with me, and one that should be read to gain a broader perspective of these post-war years. In uncertain times, this book shows what people will do when they are desperate, and what it will take for them to turn their backs on what they thought they knew, and help those who are truly the only ones there for them. A brave story, that shows the flaws of humanity in dark and dangerous times for all, with a touch of hope ebbing through the novel.

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The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington

the red ribbonTitle: The Red Ribbon

Author: Lucy Addlington

Genre: Historical Fiction/Young Adult

Publisher: Bonnier/Hotkey/Allen and Unwin

Published: 25th October 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 320

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: Rose, Ella, Marta and Carla. In another life we might all have been friends together. This was Birchwood. For readers of The Diary of Anne Frank and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

As fourteen-year-old Ella begins her first day at work she steps into a world of silks, seams, scissors, pins, hems and trimmings. She is a dressmaker, but this is no ordinary sewing workshop. Hers are no ordinary clients. Ella has joined the seamstresses of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as readers may recognise it. Every dress she makes could mean the difference between life and death. And this place is all about survival.

Ella seeks refuge from this reality, and from haunting memories, in her work and in the world of fashion and fabrics. She is faced with painful decisions about how far she is prepared to go to survive. Is her love of clothes and creativity nothing more than collaboration with her captors, or is it a means of staying alive? Will she fight for herself alone, or will she trust the importance of an ever-deepening friendship with Rose? One thing weaves through the colours of couture gowns and camp mud – a red ribbon, given to Ella as a symbol of hope.

~*~

Set during the final months and years of the Second World War, Ella has been whisked away off the streets to the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, known in the novel as Birchwood. Here, she is set to working, making clothes for the guards and the Commandant and his family. Here, she learns to make patterns, to choose the right colours for people, and together with Rose, the storyteller, whose fairy-tale optimism keeps the girls going during the darkest of days, dreams of the dress shop they will own one day in the City of Lights – Paris. Ella’s way of describing her world Them, Guards – Nazis, and Stripeys – those in the concentration camp – is both innocent and sobering. It is a child’s view of this world she now inhabits, a world where she is not immune to the brutality surrounding her. It is Ella’s perspective that gives the novel the powerful impact it needs to have, to remind us of what has happened in the past, and to prevent the same thing happening again.

To escape the horrors of the camp, Ella finds her solace in sewing and designing clothes, a skill that she knows she will use when she gets out – but in a place where it seems nobody will ever leave, she begins to wonder if she will ever achieve her dream, or if it’s just a way to comfort herself through the long, dark days. It is not a comfortable novel to read, and nor should it be. Any novel that delves into the darker depths of human history and humanity should not be a comfortable or easy read. What this novel shows is that we should never forget, but also that the human spirit’s capacity to push on through adversity and survive, even when we think we can’t go on.

The Red Ribbon is one of those novels that stays with you and haunts you. It is not one to shy away from the gritty reality that Ella lives in. Instead, the gritty reality is shown, and the horrors communicated through Ella’s eyes as she fights to stay alive and then fights to find freedom. It is a novel to be read alongside the history books, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and stories of resistance against the regime, as portrayed in The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth, Reading these books together will give a more human view of the Holocaust than we get from history books – a human face put to those affected, to those caught up in what was going and to those actively trying to resist. Lucy has captured the history and experiences eloquently, and sensitively, ensuring that the careful research she did has been communicated in an effective and informative way to readers, and giving them a chance to explore the history behind the story in her notes at the end of the novel. it is one that I hope to read again at some stage, because it is important that we keep reading these stories to never forget, and to prevent it happening again during our own lifetimes.

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Barney Greatrex: From Bomber Command to the French Resistance – The Stirring Story of an Australian Hero by Michael Veitch

barney greatrexTitle: Barney Greatrex: From Bomber Command to the French Resistance – The Stirring Story of an Australian Hero

Author: Michael Veitch

Genre: History/Biography

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26th September 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 320

Price: $35.00

Synopsis: The incredible untold World War II story of Australian hero BARNEY GREATREX – from Bomber Command to French Resistance fighter.

A school and university cadet in Sydney, Barney Greatrex signed up for RAF Bomber Command in 1941, eager to get straight into the very centre of the Allied counterattack. Bombing Germany night after night, Barney’s 61 Squadron faced continual enemy fighter attacks and anti-aircraft fire – death or capture by the Nazis loomed large. Very few survived more than 20 missions, and it was on his 20th mission, in 1944, that Barney’s luck finally ran out: he was shot down over occupied France.

But his war was far from over. Rescued by the French Resistance, Barney seized the opportunity to carry on fighting and joined the Maquis in the liberation of France from the occupying German forces, who rarely took prisoners.

Later, Barney was awarded the French Legion of Honour, but for seventy years he said almost nothing of his incredible war service – surviving two of the most dangerous battlefronts. Now, aged 97, Barney Greatrex has revealed his truly great Australian war story to acclaimed bestselling author Michael Veitch.

~*~

The legends, stories and tales that make up Australian history cover nearly everything about our country, and every Australian student is taught about the ANZAC legend, and the formation of this legend on the battlefields of Gallipoli and Word War One at various fronts throughout Europe, creating an image that has been carried through the decades since for each war, each battle and every serving member over the past century. In school, we learn in general terms about major battles, and about some important figures. It is the individual stories, – the heroic and the flawed aspects of the people they are about, that give our national story about our role in the wars an interesting colour and human face to them.

There are probably many stories that need to be told of the men and women that fought, but recently I read the story of Barney Greatrex, a RAAF/RAF bomber who, after being shot down over France, spent several months fighting the Gestapo in France with the French Resistance, striving to free France from German occupation and destruction – acts which would in the end, see him rescued and ultimately, France freed from German occupation at the end of the war.

Barney’s story begins in the leafy suburbs in Sydney Pymble, where he attended Knox Grammar in the decade before the war. During his time here and at The University of Sydney, Barney had been part of the cadets, something that prepared him somewhat for the rigours of military life. His training took him to 61 Squadron, and the task of bombing Germany during the Allied counterattacks. Facing enemy fighter attacks, and anti-aircraft fire night after night, each return to base, Barney was grateful to be alive. Until the aircraft he was in with six other men was shot down.

Barney was rescued by the French resistance, and joined the fight with the Maquis to liberate France from occupying German forces. It was to be many months before Barney’s family knew he had survived and was safe, and before he was able to return home, but not before endlessly recounting his experiences to the military.

Awarded the French Legion of Honour, Barney remained silent about his story for seventy years. In Michael Veitch’s latest book, he has done so. It is a story that should be read and taught alongside the stories of other heroes and battles, as it as much a part of the ANZAC story as they are, and gives a human face to a part of history that I have only ever known through statistics and facts, and that many more people may have only been exposed to through Fawlty Towers. Being able to read stories such as Barney’s when I studied Australian history in high school and at university would have made the far-reaching impacts of the war more interesting. We know the facts of much of the war, and the numbers of those who served, who died, through the Australian War Memorial and other books. These facts are, in general, not difficult to find, and are important to give background to the stories of individuals. As someone who has studied history, sometimes statistics and well known legends aren’t enough – sometimes it is the unknown stories, the stories that give the war a human face – whether on the home front, in battle or through people like Anne Frank, where war can really hit home for many people. These human stories allow people who may not have studied history, as I have to understand the war, and what people affected by it might have gone through during those years. This is why we need individual stories to be told alongside the facts. So that the ordinary people, not just the well-known generals and politicians, have their voices heard, their experiences understood.

It is a powerful story of the Australian spirit to dig in and never give up. Barney put his life at risk twenty times in the air, and then for months on end on the ground, before returning home to try and live a normal life – or as normal as he could for himself and his family. Those interested in history, military history, and Australian history can now know Barney’s story, and hopefully it is one that will be looked at in history class alongside other important battles and figures from Australia’s experience in the Second World War.

I found that the story was told sympathetically and without judgement, where Barney’s words told the story, and Michael Veitch was the vehicle that drove them out into the world. Eloquently told, and written so that it’s not jargon heavy, but terminology used can be worked out in context or looked up if the reader needs to, it is a gripping story of one man’s willingness to fight for what he believed in and keep himself alive.

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