I was four years old when my mother, Mathilda Gruber Conan, and my sister Laura and I joined my father Abraham Conan (née Makovietzki), in Germany where he was working as part of the Allied High Command Occupation Forces. He was involved in resettling the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps and other displaced persons.
I never asked questions about those years that we lived in Germany, first in Bremen and then in Hamburg. And neither of my parents ever talked about those times. My mother died in 1953 when I was eight years old.
A bag of letters
Some years later, my mother’s sister, Clara Gruber, gave me a bag of letters she received from my parents during their years in Germany. I probably read a few but I was busy with my family and my career. I moved some times and the bag of letters went with me. I was tempted to throw them away, but something made me hold onto them, although I never imagined that they would become part of a novel.
In 1989, while working as a news reporter, I met a Berkeley, California police officer named Rudi Raab. He was born in German eight days after WW II ended in Europe. After some probing, he admitted his father had been a high-ranking Nazi, in charge of a school called the Adolf Hitler Schule. I learned eventually that the school took the elite of the Hitler Youth and prepared them to become future leaders of the Third Reich. It was a repelling family legacy, made only slightly better by Rudi’s telling me that his uncle — his father’s own brother Gerhard Raab – had been murdered by the Nazis. He didn’t know why.
What meager knowledge Rudi possessed came from a very brief encounter with some postcards that he found years before at his grandfather’s home in East Germany. The postcards were from his uncle Gerhard. Rudi thought that they were sent from a concentration camp. Neither of us understood how that could have been.
As our relationship developed, we began to dig for answers and we started to write Acts of Reconciliation (which later became Stumbling Stone). In early drafts of the novel, when reporter Sarah Stern was going to visit her lover’s German family, she reads letters from her mother about postwar Germany. The material was from my mother’s letters to my aunt. During one of our many revisions of the novel over two decades, Rudi said to me, “Why are we quoting old letters? Why don’t we just let the Sarah’s mother in the novel actually have dialogue? After all, it’s a novel.”
I was delighted to bring my long-dead mother back to life as a speaking character in the book. She described food shortages, anti-Semitism among Allied troops and officials, interactions with the Germans and the horrific plight of many of the refugees my father helped emigrate to the U.S., including members of his own family I’d never met or known about.
Interviews and other documents
And to tell the story of Rudi’s family, we interviewed his parents, who were alive during the eighties when our writing began. Down the road, we were able to get access to some family documents, including death certificates, diaries, some of the long-hidden postcards and letters written by Rudi’s grandfather, the Gestapo and others. We also found information at the Buchenwald concentration camp and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
When you read Stumbling Stone, you’ll be able to see how we integrated this information. Stumbling Stone is a fiction work because we weren’t able to find out everything about Rudi’s uncle Gerhard and had to invent some of it; many Holocaust stories have blank spaces in them.
Some of the information we gathered that didn’t make it into our fiction book is posted on our website stumbling-stone.com. We’d like to hear from you about what else we should post on the web site and hear your stories.