The inspiration for The Rainbow was one born from my own familial history – it portrays a little-known historical wartime experience of Polish men and boys who were forcibly conscripted into the Wehrmacht. Little has been written about the fate of Polish soldiers in the Wehrmacht, either in historical fiction, or in German or Polish academic works or biographies, while in the UK, the part played by Poland in the war more generally has often been side-lined. Whether through trauma or shame, it is not known why their stories were not recounted.
As a child, my grandfather would tell me the story of his journey to England from his home country of Poland; his memory, to me, seemed sharp and yet the facts were bland – he was a soldier in the Second World War and he came to England and trained with the Polish army in exile. When the war ended, he stayed and married my grandmother.
It was only years later that my grandmother revealed he had first been a soldier for the Wehrmacht, and only subsequently joined the Polish army upon arriving in the UK.
Upon questioning, my grandfather did not wish to speak of his experiences in the Wehrmacht – whether through shame, trauma or both, he never said. Yet, there are memories I have of him telling me a story about how he was captured as a boy; he hid in the woods, his brother was too young, and he alone went into the German army, forced at gunpoint. When I think of this memory, however, I cannot help but question whether he told me this himself or it was in fact my grandmother.
I asked my family what they knew and there were variations on the theme: he hid in the woods but was captured; he was in Poznań for ice cream and rounded up; his father made him go after he was threatened by Nazi soldiers. This, then, is the problem with memory for a writer of historical fiction; it is handed down through Chinese whispers with each person’s memory playing tricks on them, and each of them filling in the blanks of the forgotten parts.
There were other fragmented memories that I recall being told about: a battle in France, a friend who died, someone in the family who went to Auschwitz – moments he suddenly recounted, yet even now I do not know whether he narrated these stories to me, or if it was a family member. It was these stories which embedded themselves into my mind and I could not let them lie; was my grandfather a Nazi or was he forced into it? Did it happen to others?
It was through this lack of knowledge that a want of understanding existed, and the need to imagine what little of recorded histories both in historical accounts in Germany, Poland, and England could not tell me. Many would argue that this topic deserved comprehensive historical research and the facts when found, should be presented as they were. But it was a problematic subject; it had a familial connection, and trauma and memory could not always be trusted to present the definite past. Furthermore, it was a difficult subject to research and compile testimonies – why would a Polish soldier, formerly in the Wehrmacht, want to admit to, or describe what he had done?
It made me question how to recount such a history in a way that felt it could be a responsible account of such lives lived; to provide this greater picture for my reader, setting aside historical fact in favour of exploring the unsaid, the undocumented. It became clear that, like most writers who take their craft seriously, I was not responsible for, but rather that I become responsible to – whether it be to fact or fiction, to myself, to the sense of storytelling, to form, or a moral or ethical duty, and in my own case, exploring what this responsibility means in terms of the lenses I chose to view the past.
Indeed, the questions raised during the research for this novel inspired me to not only write this story, but to investigate it academically, completing a PhD regarding the author’s responsibility to historical fiction, in which, I hope I have shed light onto what we call historical fiction, and in the novel, light onto what happened to over a quarter million Polish boys and men.
(c) Carly Schabowski
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About The Rainbow:
There, on the dusty floorboards, was a piece of paper, folded neatly. A newspaper article, written in German, alongside a faded picture of two men in Nazi uniforms staring at the camera. I was about to place it back in the box of forgotten things when something in the text jumped out at me. My breath caught in my chest. I know that name.
London, present day. Isla has grown up hearing her beloved grandad’s stories about his life as a child in pre-war Poland and as a young soldier bravely fighting the Germans to protect his people. So she is shocked and heartbroken to find, while collecting photos for his 95th birthday celebration, a picture of her dear grandfather wearing a Nazi uniform. Is everything she thought she knew about him a lie?
Unable to question him due to his advanced dementia, Isla wraps herself in her rainbow-coloured scarf, a memento of his from the war, and begins to hunt for the truth behind the photograph. What she uncovers is more shocking than she could have ever anticipated – a tale of childhood sweethearts torn apart by family duty, and how one young man risked his life, his love and the respect of his own people, to secretly fight for justice from inside the heart of the enemy itself…
A heartbreaking novel of love, betrayal and a secret passed down through a family. Inspired by an incredible true story. Perfect for fans of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, We Were the Lucky Ones and The Alice Network.
Order your copy online here.