The German Child is my ninth World War Two/Cold War novel for Bookouture since 2020. Typing that seems unbelievable to me and – when I tell people that I write two books a year – it’s hardly surprising that the most common question I get is: “where do you get your ideas from?”
It can be an unnerving question, especially if my mind is currently a blank and ‘what’s next then?’ conversations are coming up with my editor. The answer, however, is a simple one. For me, stories breed stories. There’s always a moment when I’m researching a commissioned book when a phrase or a reference jumps out of the source material that makes me think, oh that’s interesting, that could be another one…
With The German Child, the starting point came while I was working on Her Last Promise, the final part of my series set around the Theresienstadt ghetto. As part of that process, I was looking into the Aktion T4 euthanasia programme instigated by the Nazis in the late 1930s. This led me down a research rabbit hole – which is every historical fiction writer’s favourite place to go – and a passing reference to the role played by the Brown Sisters in the mass kidnapping of ‘Aryan’ children across occupied Europe during World War Two. There was no other information about them, but Brown Sisters was more than enough: I knew they had to feature somewhere in my next story. I made a note of it there and then, promised myself I’d leave it alone as I had a deadline to meet, and then I did what experience has taught me to do, and let the next part of the process happen… Waiting for the second idea to pop up and become a match for the one that’s already lurking.
I’m a magpie, I collect nuggets of interest from anywhere I can. A month or two after I found the Brown Sisters reference, somebody suggested that I might like the tv drama series Hunters which follows a group of Nazi hunters in 1970s New York. I didn’t, but I was intrigued enough to wonder if anyone was genuinely looking for Nazis in America at that time, given how many German scientists had been brought into the country at the end of World War Two. And that I wonder, led me to a book about the creation of the Office of Special Investigations, a department set up in Washington in 1979 to uncover the truth about the so-called “quiet neighbours.” The ex-Nazis brought over in 1945 to assist with the space and nuclear race already underway with the Soviet Union who became American citizens and went on to live prosperous lives.
By now I knew a little more about the Brown Sisters, because obviously I never listen to the ‘leave it alone’ voice. They were essentially child-catchers, trained to identify and kidnap children with supposedly Aryan traits in the countries occupied by the Third Reich, particularly Poland. They wore brown dresses, they were drab and deliberately invisible. Few people saw them in action, but the fear of their coming swallowed up whole communities. And what of the dozens of German Nazis who were living anonymous lives in American suburbs? These men had been brought to the USA for their scientific and medical expertise, with their pasts not only overlooked by the authorities but deliberately buried. They were surely the same: two groups of ordinary people who had done or were doing terrible things while surrounded by layers of protection and/or disbelief. Two groups hiding in plain sight.
Monsters we choose not to see. The quiet neighbour. The kind doctor. The people we never question, the people we unthinkingly trust. They’ve always been with us and we never learn to guard ourselves properly from them, and that’s what fascinates me.
It’s an all too familiar story and – thanks to an easily overlooked reference and a very odd tv show – it gave me the start of mine.
(c) Catherine Hokin
The German Child has a dual timeline and is set in Germany between 1941 and 1945 and in America in 1980. The WW2 storyline focuses on thesecretive Lebensborn racial-engineering programme and the suffering it caused which far outlasted the war. In the contemporary strand, Evieis a lawyer working to track down Nazis who were allowed to settle in America in 1945 with all their crimes wiped away. When she meets Sebastian, who knows his godfather was Heinrich Himmler and is terrified by that, and agrees to help him uncover the secrets of his past, everything she thought she knew about her own family falls apart…
About The German Child:
Berlin, 1944. ‘No! Not my child!’ Annaliese screams, her voice breaking as she pounds the window uselessly. But no-one looks up as the man in the SS uniform cradles her precious baby and strides away…
She lies unmoving on the threadbare cot, her throat hoarse from long hours of screaming but her tears keep falling. Her heart has been cleaved in two, now the Nazis have taken the only thing she has left – her child. She is utterly powerless against them. But as Annaliese cries herself to sleep, she makes a vow – she will find her precious baby again. Whatever it takes.
Berlin, 1979. Lawyer Evie has come to the city to investigate the horrifying stories of infants torn from their mothers during the war. One of the cases is Sebastian, whose yellowing birth certificate tells a heartbreaking tale. Evie is drawn to this lost man, and vows to do all that she can to help him.
But poring through old records, it is Evie who recognises the faded photo in a newspaper article. Her heart stops as she realises her whole life has been a devastating lie – and that her and Sebastian’s pasts are impossibly, unimaginably connected…
Fans of The Book of Lost Names and The Tattooist of Auschwitz will be swept away by this absolutely gripping and heartbreaking World War Two novel about the extraordinary power of a mother’s love.
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