From Fact to Fiction: Burying the Ghosts by Sonia Case

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Developing Your Craft | Plotting and Planning
Sonia Case

Sonia Case

Turning family memories into a story

To begin with, the question we have to ask: is fact more truthful than fiction? Or does fiction allow us to explore the ‘truths’ behind our memories and behind the history?

When I decided to write Burying the Ghosts, a novel based on a true story, I knew the events as my mother recalled them in video testimony to the Shoah Foundation, would be of limited interest to a readership beyond my own family. My Jewish mother, Ruth* left Nazi Germany when she was 18, just before the start of the war, managed to secure her mother’s release from a concentration camp and started life in London’s East End as a domestic servant before working in a factory producing army gear. In her interviews, she describes the large shop the family owned in Saarbrucken, her difficult relationship with her mother, Alice, and meeting my father in the 1950s. She speaks with great honesty but not always the best memory of her life on both sides of the water. There’s over four hours of spoken testimony  with frequent ‘I don’t really remember’ and ‘I’m not sure about that’. Events in themselves, unless they involve daring escapes and death defying adventures are – dull. The ‘facts’ of her life were ordinary. She survived Hitler’s demonic aim to destroy all Jews – thank goodness. She was one of the lucky ones. Instead, she describes her ordinary home life, the gradual anti-semitism that was infecting German society; she remembers a pleasant enough boyfriend and some humiliating experiences the Nazis inflicted on her outspoken mother. She talks rather vaguely about the wartime work and of course I was familiar with her later life from my own memories of life with my mother and father and my two half-sisters.

In deciding to write my mother’s story, what interested me was how my mother felt and experienced those dreadful events, how she changed as a result of the political turmoil in Germany and living through war in a foreign country where she knew almost no one. I wanted to imagine what it might have been like to travel alone on a train from Germany to Dover, wondering whether she’d be arrested by some sadistic German official for some minor inaccuracy. I wanted to explore my mother’s inner life. What would it be like to experience the gradual acts of hostility inflicted on the Jewish community, the growing isolation from your friends and neighbours, the desperation when you lose family members?

burying the ghostsWriting the events as a narrative with a compelling plot, characters that grew and changed, and, in all honesty, a story with a happy ending, was going to be far more truthful than any memoir I could have written. And aren’t we all much more familiar and comfortable with fiction than non-fiction? Don’t we all know from before we can even read, the impact stories have upon us, allowing us to reflect upon her own emotions and experiences and understand more about ourselves in the process?

By ‘novelising’, I could explore the family dynamics, Ruth’s teenage angst, her frustrations and conflicts. Scenes would accurately reflect the historical facts experienced by my mother – but now each event would reveal more about the characters’ emotional truths and their subsequent actions.

The book opens as if it’s the start of a fairy story: ‘once upon a time, many years ago, in a small coal-filled, black roofed town, lived a husband and wife and their two lovely daughters.’  Fairy stories, particularly those by the Brothers Grimm, reside deep in our psyche. They deal with love, revenge, jealousy, cruelty and every human emotion. Stories connect us in a way no other form of writing can. Throughout Burying the Ghosts, I return to the motif –  the childhood comfort of fairy tales, the images they evoke. When Ruth is staying in Berlin with a Jewish family, the Kaleckis, they visit the cinema to see Disney’s Snow White. It’s 1936 and Disney’s first full length animation. Just before the main feature comes on, there is news footage of Hitler visiting Berlin stadium, every seat filled with adoring fans waving and saluting. It’s a surprise to Ruth, to say the least. Now, I don’t know if my mother did see Snow White when she was in Berlin. It’s entirely possible but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that creating that scene allows the reader to understand the historical situation in Berlin and the impact upon our main character. I can show the tender relationship between Ruth and Anna, the little girl with whom she’s developed a sisterly relationship and the contrast between the Kaleckis as a family unit and her own flawed family. At the end of the novel loose ends are tied up – the Kaleckis an amalgam of others briefly mentioned in my mother’s video testimony. By fictionalising the ‘facts’, I’m able to include what might have happened to this family based on the horrors that others, so sadly, experienced.

Fiction has allowed me to tell my mother’s story more truthfully than any memoir or account could have ever achieved. It has allowed me to explore themes of the nature of evil, mother and daughter relationships, family loyalty versus loyalty to your adopted country, alongside the creative joy of crafting a plot, a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

And they all lived happily ever after – well in my story anyway!

*In the novel I have changed Ruth’s name to Hedda. Many of the other characters’ names have also been changed and Ruth’s love interest in Part 2 is based on a real life psychiatrist, but not one she ever knew.

(c) Sonia Case

About Burying the Ghosts:

burying the ghostsGermany is changing fast and the only route is out, even if you have to leave behind a troublesome mother.

When Hedda Israel escapes from Germany, her first challenge is to secure her mother’s release from a concentration camp. Still a teenager, Hedda falls for Peter Carter, an English psychiatrist engaged in war-work, and a romantic life awaits. But when awkward Alice joins her daughter in England and starts to make a little extra ‘on the side’, Hedda’s chance of love is almost certainly over.

Burying the Ghosts is based on the true story of the author’s mother who escaped Nazi territories. The story spans five decades from her youth to her later years when past ghosts are finally put to rest. It explores themes of prejudice, refugees and identity, mother and daughter relationships, forgiveness and guilt. When the whole world is against you, what can daughters expect of their mothers, mothers of their daughters and lovers of each other?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Sonia Case is the youngest daughter of German/Austrian refugees who arrived in England shortly before the outbreak of war. Born in the 1950s, the first child of Ruth who married Josef, a new widower and father to two young girls, she grew up knowing little of her parents’ harrowing experiences. She developed an early love of theater and pursued acting in her mid-twenties before entering the world of advertising during the heady 1980s. Stories remained central and a long teaching career allowed her to share a love of literature, theater and the rich world of the imagination. Burying the Ghosts is Sonia’s first novel.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from writing.ie delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books