Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode · 2 weeks ago

WB-S2E46 Historical Fiction with Jennifer Coburn

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

WRITERS' BLOCK Ron Block speaks with Jennifer Coburn about her thoroughly researched and fascinating first historical fiction novel, Cradles of the Reich and about her path to change genres in her writing.

They lived in real fear that the Nazis would invade the United States. I think a lot of us forget how close that was to actually happening. So my father's parents, my grandparents, had a plan for what they would do with their three children if Hitler invaded, and the plan was my father, who was two years old, was to be adopted by the German family who lived downstairs in the two family home they shared, and this would save his life. Welcome to the Friends and Fiction Writer's Block podcast for New York Times bestselling authors One Rock Star, Librarian and Endless Stories. Joined Mary Kay Andrews, Chris Stin Harmel, Christy Woodson Harvey, and Patty Callahan Henry along with Ron Block as novelists. We are four longtime friends with seventy books between us and I am Ron Block. Please join us for fascinating author interviews and insider talk about publishing and writing. If you love books and are curious about the writing world, you are in the right place. Welcome to the newest episode of the Friends and Fiction Writer's Block podcast. I Am Ron Block, and on this episode, we're going to explore shifting genres in writing. A few weeks ago, I spoke with our own Kristin Harmel about her own pivot to writing historical fiction, and we love doing that so much. Today we're talking with Jennifer Coburn about her own journey down that path and the wonderful result, which is Cradles of the Reich. This book was recently published to great acclaim.

In fact, the Associated Press said every historical fiction novel should strive to be this compelling, well researched and just flat out good. Wow. Jennifer, welcome to the podcast. Thank you, Ron. It's a pleasure to be here. It's so nice to see you again. Well, here you again. Before we dive in, I just want to share a little bit about you with our listeners. They may not be familiar with you in your work, but Jennifer is not only the author of Cradles of the Reich, but she has also published a mother daughter travel memoir, Will Always Have Paris is the lovely name of that, and also six contemporary women's novels. Additionally, Jennifer has contributed to five literary anthologies, including A Paris All Your Own. Jennifer lives in San Diego with her husband, and so much more is going on in her life. We're going to talk about some of those. So Jennifer again, welcome and tell everybody what Cradles of the Reich is about. And one of the things we like to do is not only tell ask what the book is about, but what is the book really about? Yes, that's how my my daughter, when she was in school, we would talk about when she was doing a book report, what is the book about and what is it about? Yeah, we make that crazy voice, but anyway, Cradles of the Reich is the story of three very different German women who meet at a Nazi Lehman's born breeding home. And the breeding home was part of Heinrich Himler's plan to create a master race, which included creating two million babies, and the way that they did this was by arranging sexual liaisons between s S officers and young German women. And two they opened maternity homes for German women who were already pregnant. Most of them were unmarried, but some of them married. And three, when the war started in nine nine, the Nazi began identifying blonde hair, blue eyed children in countries they invaded,...

...and they kidnapped them and brought them back to Germany for Germanization and then for adoption, and in the end there were twenty thousand babies bread through the lebans Born Society and two hundred thousand children stolen, half of them from Poland alone. So the story is about three women who come from very different places in the Reich. One is the resistor, one is the bystander, and one is all in. She is proud to be part of the Nazi Party and the lebans Born program. So you put these three women all under the same roof, which ishim Hoakland, one of the maternity homes in the lebans Born Society, and you give them different needs and desires and watch them, watch them clash. So what is the story worry really about. The story is about women's friendships and the connections that we forge and how they can help us rise to heroism that we never knew we were capable of. I love it. It's and it's the kind of book where and so many historical fiction novels is like, this can't possibly be true. Oh my goodness, it could never really happen, because we're not really taught these things in school. We were brought up not knowing them. Unless they're part of our families and things. But one of the things about this particular story is where the idea came from. Tell us about that journey and how you went from the initial kernel of an idea to where you are now with the book. So Ron you had the exact same reaction that I did. When I heard about the leaven Sborn program. I said, this couldn't be real, This couldn't possibly had happened. Why have I never heard of this until I saw it mentioned...

...on the television show The Man in the High Castle. One of the German women in this dystopian show about nineteen sixty two where the United States is part of the Reich. One of the women says that she was bred through the lebans Born Society, and I thought, well, that's you know, that can't be true. But it piqued my curiosity enough to look into it, and I found that the lebans Born Society was a secret reading program that was around for ten years from nineteen thirty five until the end of the war. So when I heard about this, I said, I can't wait to read the historical novel about this, because I like to learn about history by reading well researched historical novels that not only answer all of my questions like where were these homes and how were the women selected? And why? Why would women have sex with strangers just to have a child for the Reich and that's what they called it, having a baby for Hitler. So I looked for this historical novel and what I found was that it didn't exist. There were lots of non fiction books, but no novels. So I decided to write the novel that I wanted to read with a book club. That's awesome, So this might be a good time to ask this, why do you think it's important or at least effective to tell these stories that based on fact through fiction. Well, there are a lot of nonfiction books about this, and I wanted to reach a different audience. I wanted to read reach women who read novels. Like me, I am not going to pick up twelve textbooks to read about something piques my curiosity. I'm going to pick up a novel to...

...learn about history. I wanted to reach women who read novels, and I think that that's a broader audience than historians who study through history books and independent research. So I um it's the way I learn about history. So I wanted to reach women like myself, and I think that the questions that arise from reading a book like Cradles of the Reich, I think it's important that we have these conversations that show us what the rise in fascism looks like, what are the early warning signs, what are the attacks on women's reproductivity. I mean, this is a story. This program, The Laban's Born is offensive to those who are pro choice and for those who oppose abortion abortion rights because own women were forced to have abortions and some women were forced to carry their pregnancies and abortions were illegal. So whatever the whatever side of that and the abortion debate you are on, this program is appalling because it strips women of their reproductive agency and for and the state tells them that what they can do with their bodies. It's yeah, it's terrifying and and that along with the rise of fascism are things that we're dealing with today. And it's almost like a like it's a warning to watch out for what's happening in the world now. Well, it is a warning. And let me just say, yes, the rise of fascism has very little creativity. There are certain approaches it uses every single time. Okay, So I wanted to just go back a little bit because I wanted to also ask about something I read about your father's story and his family story and how people that emigrated from Europe how they...

...felt about things after the war. My father and his family lived in the United States. They lived in Brooklyn in the nineteen thirties, and their families came to Brooklyn in the early nineteen hundreds, so they were not European refugees, but they lived in terror. They lived in real fear that the Nazis would invade the United States. I think a lot of us forget how close that was to actually happening. So my father's parents, my grandparents, had a plan for what they would do with their three children if Hitler invaded, and the plan was my father, who was two years old, was to be adopted by the German family who lived downstairs in the two family home they shared, and this would save his life. My aunt, Bernice, who was a teenager, she was gentile passing, which meant that she had features that didn't immediately identify her as Jewish. So a local Catholic Church offered her one of nine spots at a convent in upstate New York where they planned to hide Jewish girls. Unfortunately, my aunt Rita had polio and she walked with a limp. So even if righteous gentiles like the Kale family or the local parish in Brooklyn wanted to save Rita, there was no hope for her if Hitler invaded. This just blows my mind. It blows my mind, and it really stayed with my father throughout his life. He always carried that fear and because he did, he really passed along to me. That's what sparked...

...my fascination with the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. And then when I heard about the lebans Born Society, I had to learn more about how this eugenics program fit with the overall goal of Hitler's creation of a so called master race. It was what really was compelling to me ron was the lebans Born Society created life, while at the same time there were death camps destroying life. And yet it was the same the same end goal. It was opposite sides of the same evil coin. Oh wow, have so many questions, So how did you reconcile this because you have a Jewish background, You're writing about people that hated your people and did horrible, terrible things, and be able to keep the story authentic because that's what you did. It's it's an authentic story and feels so real. But how did you make all those things work together? Thank you? It was really challenging to try to crawl into the skin of a Nazi sympathizer or an active Nazi every night. I had three main characters, and two of them I could understand and show compassion for easily. The third one I really had to work on that. But you know, because every choice she made was terrible and everything that was going on in Nazi Germany broke my heart. But in order for me to create a character, Hilda is the true blue Nazi believer, and in order for me to create her as a character that was emotionally complex and nuanced, I had to give...

...you someone who was a real character who you could see how she degenerated into this beast of a person and show you what ordinary Germans we're dealing with at the time. And the way that I did that ron was I made friends with a neighbor of mine who had been a member of the Hitler Youth. He's ninety years old now. His name is Ralph Schultz, and he was a member of the Deutsche young In, which was the baby arm of the Hitler Youth, and he joined when he was seven. And I really am grateful to him because he could have told me, you know, Jennifer, I was forced to join the Deutsche young In. I knew right from wrong. My moral compass pointed in the right direction. But he didn't. He told me I loved Hitler. All of my friends did. He gave us something to believe in. He told us we were special, and he painted a bright future for us. And because of his candor, because Ralph was willing to tell me things that were unflattering to him and he he was, you know, he and his family were seduced by a madman and his whole nation had become a cult. But he told me what he really thought. And because of his honesty, I was able to craft characters that weren't one dimensionally villainous. And I need them to be I need them to be more than that, because when you the reader hear about Hill the story, I don't want you to think what is wrong with this woman. I want you to wonder what happened to her, and I want to answer those questions about...

...what happened to her within her family, within her country, within her own psyche, to lead her down this path. Because the Nazi people, or the Nazi the people who were indifferent to the suffering of the Jews, they are not those bad people that happened long ago over there. They are our neighbors. They are people who, when pressure is applied and when the circumstances are just difficult enough, could do the same. So I want to show that in an authentic way. And I really appreciate the compliment because that is what I worked so so hard to do while flinching every every step of the way, because as you mentioned, these are people who think the world would have been better with my family gone. Yeah, and the terror that comes through just some of the conflicts in the in the cities and the way people are treated, and I just it takes you back to like, I can't even imagine ever living like that, or ever wanting somebody to suffer like that. But you've given us a little bit more about Hildy. And one of the great things about historical fiction, and my point of view is bringing the characters to life. And you've done that so well with each of these three protagonists. But tell us a little bit more about the Gundi and Irma. Yes, thank you, okay. So, as I mentioned, each of the characters represents one of the three choices that German non Jewish German women could have made at that time. Gundy is the resist her. She is a twenty year old university student who the Nazis consider her physical perfection. She's tall, she has blonde hair, and blue eyes. But what they don't know about Gundi is that she is a member of the resistance and she is pregnant...

...with her Jewish boyfriend's baby. Now, most women volunteer for the Laban's Born Society, but Gundy is forced into the program. When she goes there, she meets Nurse Irma. Nurse Irma is a forty four year old woman who she is the indifferent. You know, she is thinking that the Nazis are doing good things for Germany and she feels that she is doing a service for her country by working at the Laban's Board Society. Then, once she's there for a few months, she discovers what this program is really about and what the Nazis truly stand for, and then Nurse Irma needs to make a choice whose side is she on. There you go, that's the perfect thing to get the reader involved. There you know, it's it's very character rich. So it's not only is it the setting in the history that terrifying, but it's just the human spirit of the three protagonists in your book. So I want to talk a little bit more about some of the facts that you discovered, because I've heard you speak and that's some of the best parts of your of your talk, and again these are things that to be were unbelievable. But some of the artifacts, let's talk about some of the artifacts that you discovered that you included in the book. Sure, some of them play a major part in the story, and then others are just tucked in there because they were too interesting to skip. One of the ones, one of the little little details where if you blink you're going to miss it, is that the Nazis developed a board game, an anti Semitic board game called You and Rouse and Ron. This is a game played with the whole family. Children are included, and you rouse means Jews out and the way to win the...

...game is to run three Jewish pegs off to Palestine. So that is part of the book, but it's a very small part. A larger part is this book that I found called dair Guilt Pilts, and that means the poisonous Mushroom, And that is a children's book read to two and three year old German children that tells them that Jewish people are like mushrooms. We may look harmless, but make no mistake, we are poison to the Vulcan. When I learned about that, I wrote in a scene where Hilda is visiting a friend who has children and they read this story to the children. Now, some of these facts were so unbelievable and so just horrifying that when a friend of mine was reading an early manuscript, and in the very first chapter, I have a scene where Gundy is in a doctor's office and she is having her head measured with calipers and her hair, skin, and eyes color coded by a Nazi doctor. They had twenty one different racial screening screening tools to see if they were pure Arian. Now, my friend is not only Jewish, but she is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and when she read that part about Gundy having that racial screening, she wrote to me in the margins, this does not seem believable. So rob Man is when I decided I needed to start a social media series called fact or Fiction, where I take different elements of the book and I post them on social media on Fridays and I explain that, yes, there was a girl's branch of the Hitler Youth and it was called Bunda dosham Itll and here were their goals and here is...

...what their uniform looked like. So when you are reading my book, you never have to wonder like, wow, did Jennifer Cockburn just have a really overactive imagination or is this based in fact. So if you go to my social media Jennifer Cockburn books both on on Instagram and Facebook, or if you look in the back of Cradles of the Reich, I did an extensive author's note where I explained to you what is fact. And then there are some areas that I took some creative liberty if the if I was researching something and there was no answer to the question, um, I would make it up. Yeah. It's endlessly fascinating and terrifying at the same time. Yeah. But one of the things that just just both is the I'm going to butcher this, but it's a mutre croys. Oh yes, the Mooto cross cross. So I just listened to the audio book of Cradles of the Reich and I think I'm butchering it too, So no words, it's it's actually like anyway. The Mouta Cross translates to the Mother Cross, and that is a war medal, a service medal that German women received for having four or more healthy children, either through birth or through adoption. And this cross was given to women um one day a year at a ceremony. If she had four children, she got a bronze cross, she had six, she received a silver cross, or if she had eight, she would receive a gold cross. So what you had was these was the Nazi party pushing for large families. Child rich families was what families with four or more children were called.

So if a woman or if a family had three children, they could adopt a fourth child and the woman would earn her cross. And where she would adopt these children from was the Laban's born society, where young women were either breeding children or having children unplanned pregnancy, or a kidnapped children, a child from Poland or Czechoslovakia or other areas where blonde hair, blue eyed children were produced. Yeah, and that part of the book where it seems like they're going almost going down aisles in a grocery store choosing produce, it's just it's just heartbreaking, heartbreaking. I'm glad you said it that way, because that is exactly how I tried to write that scene you're talking about when Irma and Sister Emma and Sister Marianne go to Munich and they lay out these babies as if they our products, and the wives of high ranking Nazi officials go shopping for a baby and take take children to round out their families and get a better color cross, and get a better color cross, get higher status. It really speaks to the commoditization of not only women's bodies, but of the children themselves. Right, Okay. So one of the other things that I know about about you and your work is that after this was done, somebody named John Gunderson came into your life. Can you tell us about him? Absolutely? So. I live in San Diego, and the San Diego Union Tribune did a story on cradles of the Reich. And a few days later I got an email from a gentleman who said, I am one of the last Laban's born babies. I was conceived during the war and born after the war, and I have a journalism background, and I am also a New...

Yorker, so I have a double whammy of skepticism. And I said, all right, John, why do you think you're a Laban's born baby? And he said, well, my birth mother was a Norwegian girl who was sixteen years old and she signed up and lined up to have sex with Nazi officers. And my birth father was a pilot for the Nazis. So I said, okay, well that's pretty much. That's pretty much a defines a Laban's born baby. And I met him. He brought his papers, and I had a friend. I have a friend who is a Holocaust scholar, and I asked her to take a look at his papers. He's one legitimate, he was bred through the program, and he's living in San Diego, not sitting in his later hosen and carving wooden figurines of ducks as I had imagined. A seventy seven year old um European and man doing but running a surf shop and surfing every day. Well, there you go. It can all turn around. So Jennifer, what's next for you? I know that you have another book coming out I think next year. Anything you can preview, I do, I do. I am continuing with Hilda's story in a book which is set in the raisin Stock ghetto slash camp, which was a model camp that the Nazis set up for propaganda purposes. When the Red Cross wanted to inspect, or when foreign dignitaries said, you know, we're hearing about these Nazi death camps, we want to inspect. They always they were always brought to Raise and Stock, which was quote unquote beautified for the inspection. And because of the high concentration of artists and musicians, the inspectors were able to see an opera, a symphony, They were able to view beautiful...

...paintings. So it was heaven and hell at the same time. It was a place where every night you could hear world class musicians, you could hear a lecture, you could go to a play. Actually, Fiddler on the Roof premiered at to raisin Stock. It was called Tavia the Milkman, and it wasn't a musical yet, but that is the first public showing of Tavia the Milkman was at to Raisin Stot. They did a performance of The Bartered Bride. There was a children's opera there called Brundibar, which played fifty five times at to Raisin Stot. It was the hottest ticket in the camp. So while you were a slave laborer, while you were living in squalor and eating starve shan rations at night, you had a vibrant arts scene. So that fascinated me, both the setting of the camp and also its use for propaganda. I mean, the Nazis created a propaganda film at this camp, and that's where Hilda comes into the scene. She has always wanted to be a Nazi propagandist. It's three years after the end of Cradles of the Reich. She is now on the crew working on the propaganda film, and she comes face to face with her old friend Hannah Kaufman, who she hasn't seen in ten years and is now a prisoner at the camp. I know people are only listening and not watching, but as you're talking, my head's getting closer and closer to the screen to hear the rest of the story. I can't wait, and that is coming out right now. We think spring. But as you know, ron these things to change, they do change change.

So remind everybody where they can connect with you online again. So I'm on Instagram and Facebook at Jennifer Cockburn Books. You can find me on my website Jennifer comeran dot com. And I love hearing from readers and connecting with folks who have questions. Book clubs. A lot of book clubs are inviting me and say, hey, why do you end the book the way you ended it? And I'd love to tell you, So please reach out and invite me to your book club or if you have a special event. I love traveling and seeing different parts of the country and meeting readers. Well, I noticed I didn't bring up the end because I have a big question about that. But I'm not going to talk about here and Livia, We're gonna have to come to that on their own. No, it's one of the characters. Oh, you want to see you want you want me to answer the question for you when we when we log off, when we log off, okay, because the last time we said, I said I didn't want to know, but now I want to know. Now you want to know, Okay, I want to know. So everybody get the book and then we'll talk after you've read the book. Jennifer, it's always so wonderful to speak with you. The story is horrifying, but it's important and your storytelling is so compelling. So congratulations on the book and we cannot wait for more from you. Thank you so much. Ron, It's really been a pleasure talking to again, and I appreciate the chance to speak with friends and fiction listeners. Yea and on behalf of the Fab four Kristen, Christie, Patty and Mary Kay. We want to send a huge thank you to all our listeners. You make what we do worthwhile and we appreciate every comment, referral, review, and like. Be sure to tune in next Friday for another all new episode. Thank you for tuning in to the Friends and Fiction Writer's Block podcast. Please be sure to subscribe, rate, and review on your favorite podcast platform. Tune in every Friday for another episode, and you can...

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