The Willow Wren
By Philipp Schott
Publication Date: 23rd March 2021 Publisher: ECW Press Page Length: 342 Pages Genre: Historical Fiction
Ludwig is an odd and introverted child growing up in Hitler’s Germany. While his father is a senior Nazi, Ludwig escapes the unfolding catastrophe by withdrawing into books and nature. Eventually, when the Allied bombing campaign intensifies, Ludwig is sent to a Hitler Youth camp, where his oddness makes him a target for bullying.
As the war turns against Germany, the Hitler Youth camp spirals towards chaos. Ludwig escapes and returns home to find his father presumed dead. With Ludwig’s mother descending into depression, the eleven-year-old bears increasing responsibility for the survival of the family as starvation sets in under Russian occupation. Soon, it will be impossible to leave, so Ludwig must decide whether it is possible for a boy to lead his family across the guarded frontier to freedom in the West.
Based on a true story, The Willow Wren is a unique, poignant exploration of extremism, resilience, and the triumph of the small.
I was born in Germany. When I was one year old, we emigrated to Canada where my father had been hired as a physics professor at the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon.
Growing up, I don’t remember a time when my father wasn’t telling stories from his own childhood. Sometimes it was around a campfire by a lake in northern Saskatchewan. Sometimes it was while helping him to plant trees on the acreage we owned just outside of Saskatoon. And sometimes it was while driving somewhere. Everything is far apart in Saskatchewan, so drives were always long.
These stories described a childhood that could hardly have been more different from mine. His father had been a hardcore Nazi party member. Their house in Leipzig had been destroyed in a bombing raid. My father had been sent to a Hitler Youth camp. Being small and bookish, he was terribly bullied. After the war, under Russian occupation, they starved. Then in 1949, my father, at the age of 15, led the family in an escape across the guarded border to the west.
Objectively, this was all very strange and exotic and interesting, but I had heard the stories so often that I became blasé about them. By the time I was a teen I was beginning to do the dreaded eyeroll.
My father always planned to write his memoirs, so I thought it was safe to tune him out somewhat. Eventually I might have kids and they might find this interesting, but we’d have his memoirs in case I forgot any details or hadn’t paid close enough attention. Then, just after he turned 60, my father developed an aggressive brain cancer. He was dead in six months. There would be no memoirs.
Two years ago, as the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death approached, I started thinking about ways to honour his memory. I looked at sponsoring a bench in his name on the university campus, but it was an excessively bureaucratic process. Then I hit upon the idea of trying to write his memoirs for him.
I grew up surrounded by books. Everyone in both my immediate and extended family read obsessively. One branch of the family in Germany even part-owned a famous old bookshop. It was natural that I would gravitate towards writing. However, my father had counselled me to get a profession that would “put bread on the table”, and then I could pursue writing in my free time. Following this advice, I became a veterinarian.
Free time to write was scarce at first, but as I became established as a vet, I was able to find time to blog. One of these blogs eventually transformed into my first book, The Accidental Veterinarian, published by ECW Press in 2019. This became a national bestseller and was translated into four languages.
Because The Accidental Veterinarian had done so well, I was able to persuade ECW to take a chance on me as a novelist. I pitched a fictionalized account of my father’s childhood in Nazi Germany to them, and to my delight, they accepted.
The Willow Wren is a memory of memories – my memories of my father talking about his memories. I can’t know how much I have forgotten, but I was pleased by how many of his stories I did remember. Fortunately, my grandmother wrote her own memoirs, which was invaluable for corroboration, as well as being a trove of additional information about that time. My father’s younger siblings are still alive and helped a little as well. From all of this I was able to reconstruct the bones of my father’s childhood, but the flesh of the story, in terms of the conversations, descriptions, minor events and characters, had to come from my imagination. This is why I call it a novel, but it is really a bit of a hybrid: fact-based fiction, or fictionalized memoir.
For additional inspiration, in 2019, on the 70th anniversary of the family’s escape out from Russian occupation, my brother and I joined several cousins in retracing their route across the border. It was both a moving and surreal experience. Where we were able to stroll in sunshine across peaceful fields, our stomachs full, and with no fear of being shot at, 70 years before, our family fled at night, half-starved, trying to evade Russian and East German patrols. So many others died in the attempt.
One final piece of the writing puzzle was bringing my father to life as a child. He was an odd person. I often felt like he was the least cool dad in Saskatoon. He was brilliant, but such an introvert, and often so out of step with everything around him. I didn’t have a way to explain this until my son was diagnosed as being on high functioning end of the autism spectrum, what we once called Asperger’s Syndrome. That was a lightbulb moment. Suddenly I understood my father so much better, and suddenly I knew who he would be as the principle character in The Willow Wren. I now heard his small boy’s voice so clearly.
With that epiphany, once I sat down to write it came very easily. There were only two hard parts. One was simply organizing my factual notes properly in advance and trying to clear up discrepancies in differing accounts. The other was confronting my grandfather’s Nazism. Many people were in the party, but not many were as fanatical as he was. I knew I was breaking new ground. There is little if anything published in English from the perspective of the child of a Nazi.
The journey to bring The Willow Wren to the world has been a profoundly moving one for me. Nothing sits as deeply in our soul as family. I was in tears when I wrote the last paragraph. Fathers and sons. Extremism and heroism. Suffering and joy. Conformity and non-conformity. Violence and peace. These themes inspired me to write The Willow Wren. It may have been conceived as a tribute to my father, but it is also a tribute to the human spirit
This memory stands out above many others. A glinting nickel in a fistful of pennies. I can feel my mother’s hand gripping mine, a thin leather glove squeezing my thick woolen mitten, squeezing it maybe a little too tightly. And I can smell the smoke — sharp and somehow metallic — mixed with the dry smell of powdery cement dust and the tang of brown coal fires, and something else that I didn’t recognize at that age, something charred. I did not like the smells.
But this is principally a visual memory. The picture is detailed and clear in my mind’s eye, like a large format photograph taken by an expensive camera. The front of our three-storey building had been neatly peeled off, as if by an enormous can opener wielded by a fairy-tale giant. The only evidence that there had ever been an outside wall was the still lightly smoking pile of debris on the street out front. But then debris was everywhere in the city, so it was difficult to connect this particular debris to the wall that had once defined the outer limit of our domestic life. It was more as if the wall had magically vanished or had been excised and carried off.
We stood and stared, wordlessly, just staring. Bomb damage was not surprising given the air raid the night before — we’d seen plenty enough of it as we hurried from the train station — but what was surprising was the precision. The wall was gone, but just a metre beyond it the interior was absolutely intact. Nothing was out of place. No chairs had been knocked over. The paintings on the walls still hung straight. We were looking into our living room as if into a life-sized doll’s house.
This doll’s house impression was so strong that it distorted my sense of perspective. I remember suddenly feeling very small, as if my mother and I had been shrunk to doll size. I longed to grow to my full ten-year-old boy size again so that I could reach into the living room and delicately pick up a wooden chair between my thumb and forefinger. I even made the pinching motion inside my mitten with my free hand.
“Where is Papa going to sleep now?” I asked, when I finally found a way to make words.
“Don’t worry. The Party will find something for him.”
I nodded solemnly in response, trying to visualize Papa sleeping on top of his desk, papers pushed aside, a blanket and pillow brought by an aide. He had one rigid leg, the result of tuberculosis in his knee when he was a child, so my mental picture showed that leg sticking out from the end of the desk while the other one was tucked up.
“He’s an important man, your papa.” She said this flatly.
“Shall we go to his office now, Mama? Is that where he is?”
“Yes, I suppose that makes sense. I’m sure he’s very busy dealing with this, but since we’ve come all this way, and you got special permission to leave the camp.” The whole family, except Papa, had been evacuated from the city. I was in a Hitler Youth camp, very much against my liking, and Mama was with her sister in Mellingen, also somewhat against her liking.
Just then an older teenager came rapidly peddling up the street on a bicycle, weaving amongst the piles of rubble. He was tall and very pale, with black hair slicked back above a high acne pockmarked forehead. His dark grey uniform was slightly too small for his long thin arms and legs. I recognized him from Papa’s Ortsgruppe office, although I did not have reason to know his name yet. Later I would find out it was Erich. I remember being envious of his bicycle as it was a relatively new dark red Kalkhoff. But honestly I would have been happy with any bicycle.
Erich waved to us frantically when he spotted us.
“Heil Hitler, Frau Schott!” Erich’s right arm shot up as he rolled to a stop.
“Yes?” Mama’s arms remained at her side. My mother was a solid and serious-looking woman. She was not large, but with her strong voice and her ability to wield an unblinking stare she certainly could be intimidating. That day she wore a very businesslike tan-coloured suit and had her hair pulled back severely in a tight bun.
Erich swallowed and blinked several times before continuing. “Ortsgruppenleiter Schott sends his regards and he also sends his regrets that he was unable to meet you at the train station or here at your home.” He paused for a response, but as there was none he went on, “As you can see the enemy attacked again with many bombers. It began at 3:15 this morning. Leipzig Connewitz was especially heavily hit. There are hundreds dead. Killed where they slept.” He stopped again, perhaps realizing that he was striking the wrong note. “But our Luftwaffe shot most of them down before they could do even more damage. So, I am sure they have learned their lesson.”
“I’m sure they have,” Mama said dryly. “I suppose this means that Herr Ortsgruppenleiter will not be available to see his wife and son at any point today?”
“You are correct, Frau Schott. I’m afraid that will not be possible. He has arranged train tickets for you on the 13:20. He is concerned there will be another attack. Please stay away from the city until you hear from him.” Erich reached into his satchel and pulled out two brown cardboard tickets that had red swastika priority stamps on them.
Philipp Schott was born in Germany but grew up in Saskatoon. He now lives in Winnipeg, Canada, where he practises veterinary medicine, writes, and shares a creaky old house on the river with his wife, two teenagers, three cats, and a dog. His first book, the nonfiction The Accidental Veterinarian, was a bestseller and was translated into four languages. The Willow Wren is his first novel.
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