Everywhere I go, I keep my eyes open for another story. It’s not even that I’m purposefully looking, it’s sort of an unconscious awareness that is ready to scream when something interesting crosses my path. You never know when you hit pay dirt. This time it happened on a strenuous hike in South Tirol—Northern Italy.
At the entrance to the Gröden valley sits a little town named Klausen. And on top of the mountain, almost flying above it, thrones Cloister Säben. On a whim my husband and I decided to pay the cloister a visit. After all, the sign said it was only a 20-minute hike.
Right. The trail began with a series of uneven steps and natural rocks. Picturesque, yes, easy to walk, no. We scrambled our way up to the first vantage point at medieval Castle (Burg) Branzoll. Unfortunately, it is privately owned and we were not able to take a look inside.
So, off we went toward the cloister which seemed to mock us from its heavenly heights. The trail meanders on uneven ground along vineyards and sheer cliffs. Each turn offers a new breathtaking view of the valleys below. As the roads, cars and people in the valley turned to ants, we grew short of breath. Thankfully, a few benches offered moments of respite. All the way up there are small shrines with statues or old paintings depicting Christian figures. Some of them are decorated with flowers and candles. At last, we reached the first church (Liebfrauenkirche) which is located outside the cloister walls. You can refill your water bottle here. Unfortunately, the church was closed to visitors.So we continued uphill along fifteen-foot walls, and what is called the pilgrim’s trail. These walls are so strategically placed that you can’t begin to guess what is behind them. The only way to know is to see photos from a distance, usually from the Internet or public photos.
At some point we came across a poster sign that told the story of Sister Magdalena Told, a Benedictine nun who showed outstanding bravery and is credited with saving Cloister Säben’s fate. Apparently, during the Napoleonic wars in the late 18th century, the cloister was taken over by hundreds of French soldiers. Most nuns had fled, but Sister Magdalena held her own. The French soldiers eventually left, but in 1808, Bavarians, who fought with the French, reoccupied the cloister. What made it worse was that the new government had decided to remove the religious status as a Benedictine cloister. As a consequence, its precious possessions were sold to the highest bidders in the village below.
Sick about the destruction, Sister Magdalena dressed up as a soldier and hiked across the mountain to Bozen to complain to the local General. He not only listened, but promised to put a stop to the cloister’s occupation. Sister Magdalena proceeded to see the bishop in Brixen and pleaded for the reinstatement of the cloister. She got her wish.
What a woman! What a protagonist!
At the top of the hill we finally entered the oldest part of the cloister with the most amazing views I have seen in a long time. Flying is more like it when you stand up here above the valleys. Life as we know it is far removed. It is quiet except for the wind. You can almost imagine how it must be to live up here for a nun so close to her god.
The highlight of our climb, that by the way took nearly an hour, was the Holy Cross Church at the highest point of the mountain. Inside, time truly stands still. It is a small church with few adornments, a simple place that is more powerful because of it. I can almost imagine Sister Magdalena praying in one of the pews, asking for strength and wisdom how to defeat the French soldiers and save her beloved cloister.
Sometimes it takes lots of effort to find a precious place. Sometimes such a place reveals a precious story. I hope I get to tell it one day.
After the lull I mentioned in my last blog post, I have found my new story. Well, as much as a pantser can know at the beginning of a manuscript.
Two Failed Tries
I’d been thinking about a couple of narratives for a while. The first had to do with my grandfather, Willi, who also is Lilly’s father in ‘Surviving the Fatherland.’ He’s not a super likable character because he entered the war quite willingly and sort of abandoned his daughter (my mother) when he didn’t have to. In 1945, three days after Germany capitulates in Europe, he’s taken prisoner by the Russians and spends the next eight years in captivity.
After I began writing the manuscript, I noticed that I couldn’t get excited about it. The work didn’t flow and it was a chore to sit down and write. I think I’ve figured out why. I don’t particularly like my protagonist because my grandfather was a complicated man. To do this story justice, I’d have to step way back, create some distance and develop a character who isn’t so close to the real man. That’s extremely hard and potentially takes years as I had to do this with my parents in ‘Surviving the Fatherland.’
The second story I considered writing was a somewhat true happening about an ill-fated sailing tour in 1984. Because of a terrible storm, human error and plain naiveté, I almost died on that trip. However, this story did not feel right either. For one, it’s not truly historical and for two, it involves me.
My Next Novel
So, I stumbled across another idea, I’d considered a while ago, but hadn’t had time to explore much. In September 1940, Hitler decided to send ALL German children from infant to age 14 to the country. The Kinderlandverschickung (KLV) or Children’s Evacuation Program was immediately realized and as early as October 1940, the first kids left. Officially, this voluntary program was to keep children safe from bombs, provide adequate instruction through accompanying teachers and assure fun activities, including sports, crafts and games. Unofficially, Hitler had other things in mind.
- He wanted to separate children from the influence of their parents, from youth organizations, and churches.
- He also wanted all-out access to the young minds to bend them to his will, indoctrinate the boys to become Nazi soldiers and the girls to become mothers to bear more Nazi soldiers.
Children’s Evacuation Program in WWII
The KLV was a monumental effort, and in many ways succeeded to keep children away from the ever-increasing bombings by the RAF and other Allies. However, many children did not want to go and were forced. Many parents did not want their children to go and were manipulated through media and outright threatened. Of the millions of children who went (it is estimated that more than 2 million children participated, but exact numbers are unknown), many suffered terribly as evidenced by eyewitness reports.
Bed-wetting, illnesses, lice infestations, cruel teachers and zealous Hitler Youth leaders, who btw were supposed to lead all camps for the 10-14 year-old children, are testament to the problems KLV children experienced. There are many others, including inadequate quarters, nomadic conditions, when kids had to move through four, five and even seven camps, and the lethargic oversight of the KLV organizations. Especially, in the later part of the war, those kids staying in camps in the east, often barely escaped the advancing Eastern front. Some never made it home.
As you can see, the KLV program provides ample ‘breeding ground’ for my next story. I don’t have a title yet, but I have my two protagonists, Hilda (13) and Peter (14), best friends and neighbors.
I will share a few tidbits as I go. For now, I’m having fun.