In The Roses Underneath, a confident first novel by C.F. Yetmen, the details of one German female's wily survival skills are in the forefront against the backdrop of the Monuments Men cataloguing fine art stolen, sold and hidden during the Holocaust.
Anna struggles to salvage a life for herself and her sensitive six-year-old Amalia, while suppressing the pain of unspeakable postwar traumas and the abandonment of their husband and father, a Communist doctor in the Russian sector. Transient loyalties emerge for survival sake, and misplaced trusts migrate from one faction to the next. Anna is savvy enough to know where her few crusts of bread are buttered, but, as translator for the loose cannon Captain Cooper, who is taking an unorthodox approach in the culling of canvases, her safety and renewed sense of purpose are at grave risk.
Ms Yetmen, congrats on your first novel. How long did development of the book take you?
I got the idea in 2009, went to Germany to start research in 2010, and started writing after that.
Do you attribute your creating such a palpable sense of place in your book to that work?
Yes! I was publisher of Texas Architect magazine, and co-author of a non-fiction book The Owner's Dilemma: Driving Success and Innovation in the Design and Construction Industry. In my day job I write about buildings, but, I focus a lot on why a building makes you feel good. It has to do with the intangibles -- the light, the air, the color, the feeling. I wanted to understand the visceral feeling among the ruins of German cities as the Second World War ended. For example, the city of Wiesbaden -- how it would feel or smell in 1945? What effect would that have on your psychology?
Why did you choose to self-publish?
Traditional publishing takes so long and I didn't want to miss this window of opportunity. I'd heard that the rights to the Monuments Men tale had been sold some years ago, and I thought the development of the movie would take at least three years. But it moved so quickly...
... With George Clooney on board...
... that I jumped on the opportunity to get my story told and did it myself.
In your acknowledgements you thank your mother's invaluable sense of memory. Did she live in Germany at that time?
Yes, and my grandmother and great grandmother, too. My grandmother got a job working for an American colonel because she spoke English. My mother was five at the time and had flashes of memory she'd share with me. They were displaced at the end of the war, and my grandmother passed away before I could ask her questions about it all. But, when I began the book, my mother researched the period and went there with me to help. We met with friends of my grandmother from that same generation.
Was your family of Jewish origin?
No, but as Germans, my family had to deal with the reality of the war over the years. We wanted to make some retribution for the losses that went on and I think my mother has engaged intensely with Jewish culture as a gesture of atonement.
When I first realized that my grandmother was there during the Holocaust, I wondered what that era was like for ordinary German women. I learned that my great grandmother lived near a Nazi work camp for Russian slave laborers in the small town where they lived. The prisoners were starving and severely mistreated. My great-grandmother was caught throwing bread over the fence to them.
My grandfather, her son-in-law, an extremely honorable man, had some standing in the community so he interceded on her behalf. As a result, instead of being sent to a camp herself, she was sent to work in an underground munitions factory. She was probably close to 50 years old at the time. My mother recalls her grandmother (my great grandmother) saying that she prayed the munitions would not work, and that she even sabotaged some so they would not detonate. That question of what you were willing to put on the line to help others in this situation compelled me to write the book.
Living in crime-ridden cities like Los Angeles today, it doesn't feel safe to send a child out to play all day. In your novel, survivors leave their children playing on the streets amidst the aftermath of unspeakable horrors.
There was no choice. There was no childcare. The fathers were often dead or missing. There are lots of pictures of children playing in the rubble with used ordinance. My grandmother had to work, so my mother ran free all day. She wore a key to their room on a ribbon around her neck, as does Amalia in the book. Some places and schools were eventually set up to take care of children during the day, but not until later.
Amongst the many political and national loyalties, how did the Allies distinguish the stooges and liars, the Nazis and the SS from the credible helpers?
I don't think they were necessarily completely successful at it. A lot of people got away. Immediately after the war the Monuments Men began looking for art historians and museum curators from the infrastructure of the losing country. A questionnaire or Fragebogen was distributed to all Germans. It was basically a checklist, asking "were you in the SS, the SA, a Nazi?" Many of those experts hired turned out to be Nazi party members. The Americans promptly fired them. The local women, who were primarily bystanders during the war, had skills that became very valuable in this period.
Putting folks on the honor system to tell the truth in this chaos was a desperate act.
And trying to sort out the good guys from the bad guys was impossible.
I saw an opera in Houston last week called The Passenger. In it a woman is traveling to South America with her diplomat husband by boat, and she thinks she recognizes a former concentration camp prisoner. At the end it turns out the wife of the diplomat was an SS officer in the war, and a guard in that same camp. The playwright on which the opera is based was a Polish woman who had survived a camp there. Walking through the streets of Paris one day, she could have sworn she heard the voice of a former female SS officer, which inspired her writing. That woman had never been prosecuted and walked free there til the day she died.
A recurring theme in your book is "pick a side." In a city with so many sides in postwar Germany, was the American side a choice merely for survival in your opinion?
I think that's a fair assumption. After all, the Americans had been "the enemy" for years, and it probably took some Germans a while to trust anyone in a position of authority. I think when faced with day-to-day survival -- food and shelter -- people, of course, turn to those who have the resources to help them. But, I think it was a wary choice for a defeated people -- the Americans were occupiers of a war-ravaged land, after all.
Despite the Hitler agenda, many damaged buildings were salvaged and restored, and many retrieved works of art and culture are on display today. How did they do so well against all odds?
I think the Monuments Men were a noble bunch of men and women who took the process very seriously. In fact, at a certain point there was pressure from the State Department to bring all the fine art to America as the spoils of war. The Monuments Men in the "Wiesbaden Manifesto" said: if we take this art, then we are no better than the Nazis. It was an unprecedented gesture in terms of wartime protocol.
Remarkably most of the found art got returned where it belonged, especially since several greedy governments stepped in to claim art from private collections to put in their own national collections. It was a mess, but under the circumstances the committee did the best they could.
Apparently Hitler believed himself the arbiter of good taste for the future world. What features distinguished the art he hoarded for his dream museum in his hometown of Linz, to be the center of the new world culture, and the art he chose to destroy?
Hitler considered modern art to be "degenerate art" or "entartete Kunst" and even in the 1930s made those artists' lives miserable. But he was savvy enough to use the art he seized and confiscated to enrich Nazi coffers. These works were sold at auction for a steal -- so to speak -- and there was a movement by collectors in the U.S. -- many of them Jewish -- to purchase these pieces as a way to ensure their survival, even knowing that the money was funding the Nazi cause in Germany.
Hitler's tastes ran toward the classical -- Greek and Roman -- presumably he viewed this aesthetic as pure. His vision for the Fuehrermuseum was that it contain the works of the old masters -- DaVinci, Rembrandt, and Vermeer in particular -- classical antiquities as well as 19th century and classical German painters. The book Hitler's Museum by Birgit Schwarz provides an exhaustive catalog of the paintings he stole, seized and looted in a methodical and highly organized way.
Goering too, saw himself as a collector and made regular trips to the Jeu de Paume in Paris, where he selected pieces seized from Jewish families for his own estate. Hitler mounted an annual art exhibition of what he deemed "good art" at the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich. These were bland paintings and other works by Nazi-sanctioned artists that upheld so-called wholesome Aryan imagery and mythos that were more kitsch than art. Hitler himself was often the subject of these pieces, naturally.
I was relieved that, despite the darkness inherent in the detritus described in your novel, my dreams weren't disturbed. What's the recommended age for your readers?
I think my book is appropriate for middle school age and up. The Book Thief gets assigned in middle schools now, and it is brutal. I'm sure my book would sit well with young people.
Was it tough to put yourself in Anna's shoes in these conditions?
The childcare aspect came about easily because my daughter was three when I began the book. Figuring out what to do with your child when you work full time and want to write was difficult enough in peacetime.
Why do you feel the era of the Monuments Men has renewed interest in the media?
As the population ages and dies off, the younger generation will be getting that canvas hanging in grandpa's hall appraised. There are still lots of pieces of art that have never been found. They may be in a basement awaiting discovery. The big find in Munich recently certainly revived people's interest in searching their attics searched.
Makes you want to go to a lot of garage sales in Germany, yes? What is the significance of your title?
The title refers to an undercurrent in Amalia's favorite book (within my book) The Snow Queen. In one scene the little girl in the story talks to roses that have just bloomed. She asks if her little missing friend is under the ground. The roses tell her "no" and to keep on searching and to never give up.
Anna takes a huge risk in going by the American Captain's rules rather than the policies set by the Monuments Men. What justifies her recklessness?
She's not sure what to do with Cooper at first -- he is such an idealist. He starts to wear Anna down after awhile and she can't resist liking him. The American soldiers exuded such a different way of being -- big, smiling guys with their noisy jeeps and their hats askew. He represents a freedom and optimism that was unusual in a world of vanquished Germans. Anna realizes she can stay in the typing pool cataloguing or she can take a chance helping him and the cause to get to the bottom of the ownership issues.
Then she gets galvanized by the work. I palpably felt Anna's stoic hierarchy of needs for survival for herself and Amalia, first, with no luxury for mourning.
I don't think the Germans were allowed to grieve at all. They suppressed. They lived day to day. The German soldiers who had committed atrocities came home from the war and were confronted with what had gone on. The Americans were very intent on forcing the Germans to confront the truth. The government hired Billy Wilder and other American filmmakers to make short films inside the concentration camps that the German people were required to watch after the war and they then had to live with the comprehension. I think the sense of shame was insurmountable. As the character Emil, a former soldier, says in the book: "We won't ask you to treat us like heroes, and you can't ask us what we did."
So will there be an "Anna: Part Two?"
Yes -- I'm compiling it now. The Jewish people who survived had to just put one foot in front of the other to go on. I met with a survivor of Auschwitz and got more details for my next book.
Your book also resonates with aspects of the hit film American Hustle in its tale of tricks, turncoats and double dealing cons. Might the movie version of your book be called "German Hustle?"
That sounds good!
C.F. Yetmen's "The Roses Underneath" can be found on Amazon.