Writing Hidden Stories

Issue FourNon-Fiction

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By Glenice Whitting


There once was a drummer who’s name was Oskar, who lost his mother who ate too much fish.

There once was credulous people who believed in Santa Clause, but his real name was The Gasman.  Gunther Grass, The Tin Drum.


When Gunther Grass published his novel The Tin Drum in Germany in 1959 he caused a furore. He was breaking an unspoken German social rule: don’t mention the war. Many people did not want to discuss uncomfortable contentious issues. They wanted to ignore the past and pretend that the wars and the holocaust never happened.


Of course, the cultural suppression and denial of stories is not confined to post-war Germany. In 1906 my father was the first child born in Australia to German immigrants. Like many others, in 1941, to try to protect his family from the social consequences of two world wars, he changed his name and hid his German ancestry. Don’t mention the war. This set in motion an erasing of what he saw as a socially unacceptable past, and this denial of ancestry affected his children. I was born in Australia during World War II and grew up believing the lie that my father’s family came from Belgium. I didn’t meet my German grandmother until I was twelve and, by that time, understood that you didn’t ask awkward questions. There are many other people of German descent who have been denied access to their ancestry.


In any society, there are many forms of cultural and personal censorship that prevent the telling of tales considered unpalatable, unsavoury, subversive or insignificant. The result is that written history can be one-sided, dominated by strong cultural groups, the stories of minorities unvalued and unrecorded. These stories cry out to be heard and with every life extinguished, we lose part of our collective memory. So how do writers give voice to neglected stories of human beings who have been damaged deeply by world events?


Historical fiction speaks to the present and a possible future through stories, dreams, images and documents from a still-dynamic past. In Australia, since European settlement, the historical emphasis has been on English literature and history, and the stories of Australian aborigines have been ignored. Kim Scott, in an attempt to redress this bias and tell the story of his much-maligned people, in 1999 published his novel Benang (Scott, 1999), which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award. The ensuing publicity resulted in a better understanding and acceptance of indigenous Australians and their culture. My novel Pickle to Pie is my attempt to record the Australian story of two world wars from the losers’ perspective. I want to show how ordinary people are caught up in circumstances beyond their control; to illustrate that something their fellow country folk participate in, in a far away country, can render something good and honourable in their lives into something to be ashamed of, to hide and deny. And how in doing this they deny part of themselves, who they are, who they want to be. The repercussions of this behaviour can stretch ever onwards; tainting future generations. This is the real tragedy of an attempt to erase the past.


Many stories are based on real people and events but often, to fill in the gaps, move into fiction. Pickle to Pie began as a biographical short story based on my family history. My archival research revealed historical documents – such as birth, marriage and death certificates – and I discovered that my ancestors arrived at Port Melbourne from Hamburg in 1885. The logbook of the ship Taomina revealed their names and ages, and I became fascinated by my great grandmother, a midwife and healer who brought homeopathic cures and remedies with her to the new land. However, the problem I faced was how to put flesh on the dusty bones of historical fact. Her story awoke the storyteller in me and I wanted to bring to life on the page the great grandmother who committed suicide before I was born. It took several years of fact collecting before I could make the transition from biography to imaginative reconstruction.


Writing historical fiction enabled me to convey, via a conversation with her best friend, Grossmutter’s feelings about the difficulties and frustrations of raising her grandson.


“Was soll ich denn mit ihm machen? What will I do with him?” Grossmutter says to Mrs Klein. “Never a moment’s peace. At my age is it too much to ask for a little peace? Always Grossmutter this, Grossmutter that. Why? Why? Why? Always the why.”


This style of writing resulted in a blurring of the boundaries between the real and fictional, a form that is biographical in style, a kind of creative history. I wanted readers, through the perspective of the characters in the story, to feel they could recognise the past and imagine what it must to have been like to be part of the fabric of Australia during the momentous events of the twentieth century.


When writing suppressed stories, the personal censorship of history by family members can be an insurmountable problem. There are many forbidden subjects: incest; children born out of wedlock; insanity; suicide and, of course, world wars. These unsavoury secrets are kept hidden in a dark room with the door and family lips sealed. After my father’s death I discovered a box of postcards dating back to the nineteenth century at the back of a wardrobe. Many of the messages were in Old High German. Translated they revealed my hidden ancestry. They told a story of ordinary people living during extraordinary times, when something honourable in their lives— through circumstances beyond their control—became dishonourable. The result was a conspiracy of silence. Researching Pickle to Pie, I questioned my paternal uncle about the postcards. He said, “If your father didn’t tell you, then I won’t.” Snap. Close the history book. Don’t mention the war.


There are many other writers who use historical fiction to reveal suppressed stories. In his novel Austerlitz (2001), German-born novelist W G Sebald has tried to deal with how the tragedy of the Second World War was erased in German awareness: never talked about, never discussed. Born during the war, Sebald was too young to remember the horror and the disruption to ordinary lives of those times, and he uses a new literary form, part novel, part memoir and part travelogue to convey how the shadows linger and the events of the past cloud his life. He recalls that his strongest childhood memory was being shown images of the Holocaust whilst at school in Oberstdorf and that no one knew how to explain what they had just seen. Sebald’s novels are concerned with the theme of memory, both personal and collective. They are his attempts to deal, in literary terms, with the trauma of the Second World War and its effect on the German people.


Australian-born Markus Zusak did not have the problems of silence or denial when writing his novel. The Book Thief, set in Germany during World War Two, tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl growing up in Germany when it was forbidden to be friends with a Jew. Zusak (2005) says: ‘when I was growing up in Sydney, I heard stories at home about Munich and Vienna in wartime, when my parents were children. Two stories my mother told me affected me a lot. The first was about Munich being bombed and how the sky was on fire, how everything turned red. The second was about something she saw…’ Zusak combines both stories to convey loss, betrayal, unbearable sadness and incredible resilience. He uses the historical fictional device of a cool, world-weary voice of Death to describe the unthinkable the Holocaust. The book deals with contentious social issues but essentially, it is a message of hope; the kind you can hang on to in the midst of violence, poverty and war. Zusak uses fiction and dark humour to make an unbearable story bearable.


In the same way, Gunter Grass’s novel, The Tin Drum, tells a compelling story about Germany during the explosive years of the Third Reich (Grass, 1959). He explores the possibility that a young boy, Oskar, can disrupt the fearful years of the Hilter epoch. Oskar dreams he breaks up the Nazi mass meetings and other organised activities by beating his tin drum. The novel shows the futility of war and the effect on people trapped in those traumatic years. The book eventually put Grass at the top of his literary generation. Until then he had only been known to readers of literary reviews and people who attended experimental theatres. The Tin Drum became a best-seller and was also published in Paris, London and New York. Historical novels bring the issue of the war out of the domain of the historians and academics and into the public arena and his popularity helped more people to understand another interpretation of this era.


In her novel Fugitive Pieces, Canadian author Anne Michaels also uses fiction to convey unpalatable historical events that need to be revealed if people and countries are to begin to heal the wounds of the Second World War. Michaels uses a creative biographical style to bring her fictional characters to life (Michaels, 1996). The foreword reads,During the Second World War, countless manuscripts, diaries, memoirs, eyewitness accounts, were lost or destroyed. Some of these narratives were deliberately hidden, buried in back gardens, tucked into walls and under floors, by those who did not live to retrieve them. Other stories are concealed in memory, neither written nor spoken. Still others are recovered, by circumstance alone.’ Reading this novel, I found myself immersed in the mud and gore of a winter war in Europe in a way I had previously found impossible to experience via a traditional history book.


In contrast, American author Celia Hayes has written the Adelsverein Trilogy about a little known, long established German community in Texas so well integrated into the fabric of Texan society that they were relatively untouched by the events surrounding both world wars. In The Gathering Volume 1 she reveals a saga of family and community loyalties, and the challenges of building a new life on the hostile frontier. The family have come from Germany to Texas in 1847 under the auspices of the “Mainzer Adelverinein”-the society of noblemen of Mainz who seek to fill a settlement in Texas with German farmers and craftsmen. This is a well-researched trilogy and Hayes has taken great delight in recording the stories and customs of this little known community tucked away in the heart of Texas.


These books reach out to me and their stories reveal people, places, customs, sounds, smells and the mood of German immigrant families, and how they coped during extraordinary historical events. They tell me much more than my traditional research could convey. They make me realize that these stories matter. So, what tools could I use to tell my story of the German-Australian immigrant experience? Following Zusak, Grass, Michael and Klonicki’s example I used imaginative reconstruction and let my characters speak for themselves:


He stares at me as if I’m some alien species. “No wonder you think like that Fritschenburg,” he says. “You’re a bloody Kraut.”

“Not me, mate,” I reply. “I was born here.”


But who am I? What am I? I don’t feel as if I belong anywhere. I don’t belong to my grandparent’s world of thigh-slapping polkas and carved cuckoo clocks. I want to belong to the Australian world of beer, beaches and barbeque chops, but with a name like Fritschenburg most Australians will label me, Kraut.


Even though Pickle to Pie is a novel that explores the feelings and emotions of fictional characters, I did not want to simply wrap them in the fabric of Australian history. I wanted the background of traumatic events of the last century to be correct and a sense of “the real” to pervade every line. It was a surprise to find that, for me, much of the fun of writing historical fiction comes from sticking to the facts. I felt a responsibility to get those facts right and that entailed research, research and more research. The more I sifted through documents, the more I became involved. I was fascinated to discover that, during the Great Depression, many Australians in Victoria lived in humpies in a shantytown called Dudley Flats. Apparently in America, a similar slum area was called Hooverville. Desperate men in both countries seeking jobs walked until the blood ran out of their shoes. In Victoria, I discovered a preserved historical German community dating back to 1854 called Westgarthtown. Oddly enough, when I visited Westgarthtown, I saw the farmhouse I’d already imagined and described in my book. There was the cottage garden filled with herbs, the drying racks facing north to catch the sun, a bluestone well and the grapevine-covered verandah with the hooped pickle barrel standing by the kitchen door. It was an eerie feeling.

However, these details were not the only things I wanted to preserve between the pages of my book. I wanted to record Grossmutter’s old homeopathic remedies, nursery rhymes and German recipes, especially a Scripture Cake that would not only teach the lessons of the Bible, but would stick to the ribs of a large family when times were lean. All the ingredients of this large, solid cake are listed as passages in the Bible. When women immigrated to another country one of their most treasured possessions was the family recipe book. This particular recipe can be found in the early historical records of Germany, Canada, America and Australia.

We live tangled in a complex web of dreams and untold stories, and I constantly worried whether I should have left the stories buried under the soil of silence. I now firmly believe that the histories, memories and stories of minority groups form a vast repository of knowledge and experience to pass on to future generations. My challenge was to communicate collective, oral histories as clearly, accurately and emotionally honestly as I was capable. Writing this book honoured a sense of duty towards all those children of German descent who lived in Australia during the last century and who struggled to come to terms with their opposing worlds. I hope that Pickle to Pie gives them a voice.


Like so many other children born during the Second World War I copied my father and tried to forget the past. If I was discovered I would withdraw, not talk about my ancestry, and deny my heritage. Today, having researched and written about a tumultuous time in German/Australian history that spans two world wars and a worldwide depression, I am now at peace with myself. I am finally comfortable in my German/Australian skin.


The desire to write recent history inspired me to record my pen-friendship with an older American poet and write about the cultural expectations of women at that time. The result was Something Missing, published in 2016 by MadeGlobal Publishing. Diane, a young Australian mother meets Maggie, a sophisticated American poet, in a chance encounter. Everything – age, class and even nationality – separates them. Yet all is not quite as it seems. Maggie is grieving for her eldest daughter and trapped in a marriage involving infidelity and rape. Diane yearns for the same educational opportunities given to her brother. Their lives draw them to connect. This is the story of two unfulfilled women finding each other when they needed it most. Their pen-friendship will change them forever.


I worried that this book would not be defined as historical fiction until I realized that it may begin in 1975 but within the pages the plight of being born a woman in a patriarchal country during the twentieth century—with all the ensuing baggage of not being recognised, valued, educated or acknowledged—was historical research and the characters’ lived experience.


When writers pick up their pen and write historical novels based on the neglected histories of dispossessed and marginalized groups, they are writing disturbing stories that may be considered culturally unpalatable, unsavoury, subversive or insignificant. However, the power of these novels can be far-reaching. Future generations will have access to stories of celebration and lament; of obliteration and recovery; of silencing and powerful utterance, and a better understanding of the people and events of the past era. It is now over seventy years since the end of World War Two. It is time to mention the position of women in society and to talk about the war.




Grass, G. (1959) The Tin Drum (Great Britain, Martin Secker & Warburg Limited).

Michaels, A. (1996) Fugitive Pieces (Ontario, The Canadian Publishers).

Scott, K. (1999) Benang: of the Heart.

Sebald, W.G. (2001) Austerlitz (New York, Random House).

Whitting, G. (2007 & 2017) Pickle to Pie (Melbourne, Ilura Press).

Whitting, G. (2016) Something Missing (www.madeglobal.com).

Zusak, M. (2005) The Book Thief (Sydney, Pan Macmillan).


Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.