Tag Archives: Pushkin Press

The Edelweiss Pirates: teenage rebels in Nazi Germany by Dirk Reinhardt, translated by Rachel Ward (Pushkin Children’s, £7.99)

Though German resistance to Hitler once the Nazis were established in power was difficult, more than difficult, it did exist. The Socialist History Society brought together material on working class political resistance to the Nazis in Anti-Nazi Germans; the Christian resisters based round the Confessing Church especially Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller are well known; the ill-fated assassination attempt by the democratic centre and right under Claud von Stauffenberg, which led to thousands of executions, has been written about, notably in The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg (who came to Nottingham to speak in 1989); the student White Rose Group is also now well known. There were also the  Rosenstrasse demonstrations by the German wives of Jewish men which successfully stopped the deportation of their husbands in the spring of 1943.
The one group that has had limited attention is the Edelweiss Pirates. This book will help to give them a profile, not least as Michael Rosen has written a foreword to the British edition.
The Edelweiss Pirates were actually not so much a group as a movement, perhaps not even that, but their activities eventually involved several thousand dissident young people who were increasingly repressed by the Nazis. It was a counter-cultural informal association of like-minded working class teenagers, who played music, grew their hair longer than was considered proper, camped out in the countryside, and held street battles with the Hitler Youth, an organisation which everyone their age was expected to join. Only in relatively recent times has their significance as resistors been recognised, when earlier they were seen as something akin to drop-outs. People finally realised that being a drop-out under the Nazis was being a resistor and some paid with their lives. There are a number of memoirs of former Pirates published in Germany, but little about them here.
But does it work as a novel, and a novel for older children at that? The book starts with a hanging, the brother of the narrator being publicly executed. That chapter, like most of the book, is written in italics, in diary form, the narrator of the diary being a teenager who starts knocking round with a group of Pirates, gradually getting more and more involved, his contempt for the Hitler Youth leading him into direct confrontation and direct resistance. He was fourteen at the start, with only eight years of schooling and he would soon start work in a factory, treated like dirt because of his views. Alongside the diary – printed without italics – is the story of a teenager from this century who is given the diary by an old man. They meet, seemingly for the first time, in a cemetery where the old man is at the grave of his brother and the teenager at the nearby grave of his own grandfather. Why is he picked out at the person to receive the diary? We will learn, but until we do we follow the paths in tandem – the teenager reading the diary slowly, chapter by chapter, wanting to savour it, wanting to know what it has to do with him. He visits the poor care home where the old man is living and is touched by his surroundings, and by the old man’s love for his pet birds.
I was not completely convinced of the links between the two sides of the story though. The circle that you knew would be completed seemed a bit artificial. What was better was the diary itself, where you could feel the excitement of joining a tribe, a group of people who understood you and were like you (it’s not only teenagers who do this!). There was great tension in the battles with Hitler Youth and the illegal acts the Pirates undertook. However, to my surprise, the part that affected me most in the diary was when the war was coming to a close – the Gestapo was even more murderous  towards those who were not patriots, but also the city of Cologne, the setting of the book, was so badly bombed that people were starving, living under wave after wave of bombings of civilian areas by the Allies. The Pirates were under attack from all sides.
Verdict? Yes, read, try it on a young adult, but also hope for a good English-language book on the Pirates which is not fiction.
Ross Bradshaw
You can order any of the books mentioned from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans (translated by David Colmer) published by Pushkin at £7.99.

My grandfather was an old soldier during the second world war. Too old to have been called up normally, he was called up because he had been in the Territorial Army and had experience of weapons. He became a regimental sergeant-major “in the field”. Somewhere I have a photo of him with a group of other RSMs, friends of his. He was the only one to survive the war.
In charge of a supply column moving up Italy his group found themselves behind enemy lines after Italy surrendered and Germany invaded, sweeping down through Italy leaving his column stranded. Through the offices of some Glasgow Italian soldiers they were able to make contact with local partisans, hand over the supplies to them and fought alongside them for some months. Family legend is that was the one period of the war he would never talk about. What did they do that he could not talk about? Partisan warfare is not exactly nice, you can’t take prisoners.

An Untouched House | Willem Frederik Hermans | 9781782274445
From time to time I’ve read novels or experiences of partisan life and have just read An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans (translated by David Colmer), newly published by Pushkin at £7.99. Hermans was a Dutch writer, read by many in Holland, but whose work was so disliked that he went into voluntary exile. He did not make life easy for himself, as the afterword by Cees Nooteboom, explains. When Hermans died his archives comprise “thirty meters of coagulated anger”.
Partly this was because he published about the war before plucky little Holland had come to terms with aspects of their war that were not the stuff of legend. Later he was a critic of Dutch rule in Indonesia.
This book, first published in 1951, is a novella about a short period in the life of an unnamed Dutch partisan who somehow ended up fighting in an unnamed area of Eastern Europe. After a successful battle against occupying German forces he wanders off and finds the untouched house of the title, a rather beautiful house in an area deserted by its occupants. There’s soup on the stove, evidence of recent flight, but no sign of life.
The partisan explores the house, strips off his filthy battle gear, bathes and sleeps in clean sheets.
Then German soldiers turn up, knocking at the door, planning to requisition the house. He – the partisan – passes himself off as the owner and allows them in, simply grumbling a bit to ensure they look after the place, as any owner would. It sounds a bit like a farce typing this, but shortly afterwards the real owners turn up when the Germans are out on patrol. The partisan has no option but to kill them to avoid being found out. In due course his former partisan comrades arrive, the Germans have been beaten off for good, the German captain had already surrendered to the partisan of the story, now back in uniform and the mystery of the one locked room in the house has been solved.
The partisans proceed to find the wine cellar, get raging drunk and… well, they are not exactly nice to the house, their captive and an elderly deaf and confused man who had turned up to look after his collection of rare fish in that locked room. The fish don’t do well out of this either.
Sorry for the spoiler.
And this book is one of the reasons Hermans was read but not popular in Holland. Every occupied force and every army of occupation likes to think of itself at least in retrospect as the good guys, the most moral. Hermans, in An Untouched House, suggests otherwise.

Ross Bradshaw

An Untouched House is available for £7.99 post free from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk