The Fortunate Ones: Mary Tod talks to Catherine Hokin
WRITTEN BY MARY TOD
Mischling. Mixed blood. Hitler’s evil at work, classifying everyone with even a drop of Jewish blood. Author Catherine Hokin says: “The Nazis’ approach to racial classification, as laid down in the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, was meticulous and far-reaching – they weren’t prepared to miss a drop of Jewish blood. According to the 1939 Reich census, there were about 72,000 Mischlinge of the 1st degree and 39,000 of the 2nd degree in Germany.”
Felix Thalberg, one of two protagonists in The Fortunate Ones (Bookouture, 2020), is designated a mischling, specifically mixed blood in the second degree, despite being raised Christian and having three Christian grandparents. He lives in “a constant state of uncertainty, of never knowing when the laws protecting [him] would change.” He is marked, sneered at, singled out, and eventually sent to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp just north of Berlin and a training centre for SS officers. But not before he meets Hannah Huber – whose real name is Inge Ackermann – in a crowded dance hall and Felix’s life is forever changed.
What is it about World War Two stories that are endlessly fascinating to both readers and authors? Hokin’s novel emerged from a short story she wrote because she “wanted to explore what it means to be a monster.” WWII is full of monsters and those who suffered atrocities almost impossible to imagine at their hands. In The Fortunate Ones, Inge’s husband Max Eichel is the monster – a devoted Nazi, member of the SS, and a doctor experimenting on inmates at Sachsenhausen. The thought sends chills down my spine.
As war unfolds, Inge discovers that marriage to Max is more like a prison sentence rather than a world of happily-ever-after, while Felix endures concentration camp life as one of the “fortunate ones” chosen to work in the currency counterfeiting operation. Later, both contend with the aftermath of war: Inge in Argentina where many Nazis fled; Felix in the devastation of post-war Berlin.
The Fortunate Ones is a richly rewarding page-turner full of the unexpected. Chapters alternate between Felix and Inge in parallel timeframes, under completely different circumstances, yet never forgetting one another. The story lines are deftly balanced and equally engaging. Hokin spent a great deal of time plotting the links between the two stories to compensate for the physically separation of the characters. “There is always a danger with this type of structure,” she says, “that the reader could be more drawn to one character than the other and grow impatient with the sections they like less. This was a particular challenge with Inge who was, because of her upbringing and circumstances, far harder to make sympathetic – her character arc is the most pronounced and she has a lot of growing up to do.”
The German experience of World War Two gets less attention than the British, American, or French experience, and yet it is equally compelling in both emotion and circumstance and equally illuminating in terms of character and humanity. I asked Catherine Hokin what aspects of her research surprised or shocked her. While she replied that she uncovered so much, the hardest choice was what to leave out, she picked the Rosenstrasse protests as distinct. “This was an act of very vocal resistance carried out over 10 days by about 200 non-Jewish women who were protesting at the detention of their husbands and fathers by the Nazis. These Jewish men were, to that point, counted as ‘privileged’ but they had been rounded up for deportation in the brutal February 1943 purge of the Berlin Jews. Despite very real fears that the women would be, at best, arrested, their protest worked and the men were released.” Such a protest in a narrow street and face to face with German soldiers would have taken an amazing amount of courage.
Hokin was also surprised at the location of Sachsenhausen Concentration camp “for its proximity to the town of Oranienburg which is on the outskirts of Berlin. As I realised when I walked from the station, the camp is irrefutably part of it. What I have written about shutters closing and townspeople turning their backs as the prisoners were marched through is fact. One of the guard towers has a display directing visitors to a small window – this looks over what would have been a sprawling SS housing estate backing straight onto the camp, an estate many local girls lived in when they married SS officers. Without wishing to pass judgement, ignorance in this case must have been hard won.”
As mentioned above, Max Eichel escapes with Inge to Argentina in the last weeks of the war. According to Hokin’s research, “around 9000 Nazi officers and collaborators found sanctuary in South America, with as many as 5000 of them (including Mengele and Eichmann) relocating to Argentina.” Why? “Along with many other right-wing South American leaders,” Catherine Hokin says, “Peron [Juan Peron, President of Argentina in the 1950s] was drawn to Nazi ideologies. Documents have been discovered going back to the 1930s in which Argentine diplomats express admiration for Hitler’s ability to instil nationalism, xenophobia and a complete indifference to violence among the military – something Peron wanted to (and did) emulate. He is also known to have recruited Nazis with the military, technical and other expertise he thought would help him mould the ‘pure’ Argentina he wanted.”
As a reader, what I always wonder is how authors can bear to write about the concentration camp experience. Catherine says that it is critical “not to exploit the experiences and the suffering: it is essential to understand the realities and the limitations of ‘life’ in the camps and to stick like glue to the facts.” She visited several museums and read many accounts about the experience. Because so few camp inmates survived, she “chose to make Felix part of the counterfeiting team.” She felt that it was essential to “tell these stories because they matter” without “wallowing in other people’s pain.”
The Fortunate Ones is a story that matters. It will grab your attention from start to finish and make you think about war, consequences, choices, and the power of love.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: M.K. (Mary) Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, Time and Regret was published in 2016 by Lake Union. Mary can be contacted on Facebook and Goodreads, @MKTodAuthor and https://awriterofhistory.com/
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 91 (February 2020)