In the film Phoenix, a concentration camp survivor returns to Berlin with the hope of rebuilding her life just as it was before the war. But of course, nothing is the same—not even her face—and she learns awful truths about her husband and people she thought were her friends. Through a clever (if slightly unbelievable) plot device, she is recreated, bit-by-bit, into her old self until she re-emerges into the light. But, she discovers of course, that nothing can be the same ever again.
So many people suggested I need to see this film, and, now that I’ve seen it, I am telling everyone else that they need to see it, too. It is an amazing film that works brilliantly on many levels to tell the story of the Holocaust, of World War II Germany, of guilt and complicity, of succumbing and of rebirth. My friends and family know that this is exactly the research and reading I return to repeatedly and these are subjects I can discuss for hours, which is why I am so much fun at parties. I found myself transfixed by the face of Nina Hoss, the actress who plays Nelly, the protagonist. She can communicate the most profound emotion with the slightest movement of her eye, or twitch of her mouth. I wondered how as a writer, I would communicate that same level of subtlety in expression. I don’t know if it’s possible but I am going to try. There is so much going on in every scene in the film, it is mesmerizing.
See this movie. I promise you won’t be sorry. (Also, watch Barbara, an earlier movie by the same director with the same actress and actor. It is streaming on Netflix and is also brilliant).
I am delighted to report that more than 8,000 Kindle editions of The Roses Underneath were downloaded during the recent five-day giveaway. What a way to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the art delivery to the Wiesbaden Collecting Point! Thank you to everyone who shared and retweeted the giveaway to help spread the word. It is thrilling to know the book has so many new readers.
Congratulations and thanks to retweeter @jennym1979, who will receive a free copy of the audiobook. If you are a new reader, please consider leaving a review on Amazon to let others know what you think of the book. And, for those interested, the audiobook is available to download at Audible.com, where you can also listen to an excerpt. A big thanks also to narrator Linda Joy, who does an amazing job of bringing the story to life.
The spark of the idea for The Roses Underneath came to me from the documentary, The Rape of Europa, which was my first introduction to the work of the Monuments Men. Because so many of the Monuments Men were architects and I work with architects every day, I had the germ of an idea about a theoretical novel I have always wanted to write about the end of World War II.
Reading about the events of August 20 1945 gave me an “in” to the story, where I could imagine my characters witnessing 52 truckloads of art being delivered to the Collecting Point in Wiesbaden, A building that only weeks earlier had all its windows broken and was filled with displaced persons who had taken refuge in every available space. Now it was to be home to more than $50 million worth of art. I tried to imagine what that would have looked like to the beaten-down population of the city, who had little food or shelter, nor any capacity for notions of beauty in their lives. The security situation alone was enough to turn anyone’s hair gray.
The workers at the Collecting Point worked to keep the art safe with tanks and extra guards, and the humidity in the galleries was maintained by putting wet blankets in the air ducts and placing bowls of water in the rooms. The Roses Underneath Anna can’t believe what she is seeing, that she is able to witness this moment in history. It’s the moment when her work shifts from the theoretical and abstract into the concrete; when it becomes real and meaningful.
There were thousands of masterpieces in the shipment, noted as Inshipment 1 on the custody cards, ranging from tapestries to antiquities, sculpture, and paintings. I chose the Rembrandt painting The Money Changer (also sometimes called The Parable of the Rich Fool) as the one that Anna and Cooper look at together in the story, because I wanted it to be a painting that was unquestionably valuable. The subject of the painting also makes a connection to the work the Monuments Men are doing: examining and account for things of value, as well touching on the ideas of greed and commerce.
In real life the Rembrandt, and all the pieces in Inshipment 1, were part of the collection of the National Gallery in Berlin, which Himmler had hidden in a salt mine in Merkers in March of 1945 in order to safeguard it from Allied bombing. The advancing Third Army came across it by early April of that year, before the Nazis could move it away from the Allied advance. The Monuments Men opened their own art gallery at the Collecting Point to the public in early 1946 with some of the most important and famous pieces, including the head of Nefertiti. on display to the public. My mother, who was five years old at the time, recalls going to Wiesbaden on the train with my grandmother to see the art on display. Given their straightforward provenance, the Monuments Men eventually returned all the pieces back to the Berlin National Collection, where The Money Changer still hangs today.
The trope that writing a novel is like giving birth has always irritated me. It’s not like giving birth at all, because when you give birth they give you nice drugs and to write you have to be pretty much sober. And birth, at least in my own experience, doesn’t take years (it only feels that way). But something strange does happen when you are writing a novel. You make up people, you put them in a time and place and you throw a bunch of stuff at them. Sometimes they go off on their own and you let them, thinking “How great. This is so entertaining!” But then, after a while you say, “Hey, who’s in charge around here?” You decide that no, the main character has to do this certain thing here, because after that, this has to happen, and then that has to go wrong, and then he’ll think she did when really she didn’t…Because there’s a Plan.
But she says no.
You ignore her and put her in the scene. You walk her around, tell her what to say and she says it. But you can tell she doesn’t mean it. The other characters look at her quizzically, as if she’s lost her mind or suddenly broken into Swedish. Then they all turn and look at you and say, “Do you have any idea at all what you are doing?”
But you are The Novelist and you say, “Come on, help me out here. Just do this one thing in this scene because…well, you’ll see what happens in the next one. Trust me.”
There is a scene in The Roses Underneath that I rewrote at least 15 times. Not revised, rewrote. I moved the location. I changed the secondary characters. I altered the start, the end, the middle. I changed the entire substance of the scene except for one thing. The scene required Anna to do something she would never do. That action was the whole point of the scene. Because I thought the book needed it. And, I thought she would talk herself into it. But no. And when I tried to make her do it, even Cooper couldn’t get on board. He just kept asking why the whole plot was falling apart.
I finally had to just listen to her.
And once I did, the scene rolled out in one take. It went somewhere completely unexpected and changed the ending of the book. And it didn’t come from me. It came from her. It just happened in front of my eyes and I wrote it down.
Lesson learned. Except, not. The same thing just happened again in the second book, the work in progress. I asked Anna to feel something she would not truthfully feel. And again, I got stuck, trying to funnel her into a plot pipeline I had devised, feeling all clever and diabolical and in control. But she said no. After weeks of trying to convince her, I am giving up.
Instead, I am having a meeting with Anna (in private, so people won’t think I have finally lost it). I think I’ll ask her how she is and how she feels about what’s happening so far. I’ll ask what she’s most afraid of. And what she wants. I’ll listen carefully and then I’ll go back to writing and helping her navigate her world.
Actually, writing is not like giving birth at all. It’s exactly like parenting.
Today, 70 years plus one day after D-Day, I turned to The New York Times Arts section and found three stories directly related to World War II and our ongoing processing of that horrendous time. Being a hopeless addict of historical ephemera was immediately drawn in to a review of “The Power of Words and Images in a World at War,” an exhibition just opened at the Grolier Club in Boston. On display are the iconic and memory tweaking images, posters, propaganda items as well as photos and other materials from the era. Just the kind of thing I can get lost in for hours.
Below that article I saw a photo of the writer Kurt Tucholsky, under the headline “Giving a Satirist of the Third Reich the Last Laugh.” Now, Kurt Tucholsky has been one of my favorite writers since I was a child, not because of any Nazi satire he wrote, but instead for his masterpiece “Wo Kommen die Löcher im Käse her?” (“Where do the holes in the cheese come from?”) My parents owned a recording of this short story—written almost entire in dialogue—that documents the hilarious descent of polite dinner party conversation into name-calling, disinheritances and dissolutions of business contracts over the replies to a little boy’s innocent question about his piece of Emmentaler cheese. I listened to it so much that I can still recite entire passages of it now. It is a brilliant take on conventions of politeness and manners, relationships among family members and friends, and our general social structure.
Of course the Nazis hated Tucholsky. He had them so perfectly figured out and his biting wit seared their hateful bombast and pretend culture. They burned his books and stripped him of his German citizenship. He fled to Sweden, where he committed suicide in 1935 at the age of 45. Happily, his works are now being translated and published in English by Berlinica, so I may no longer have to attempt to translate the hilarity of explaining where the holes in cheese come from to my perplexed and only slightly bemused husband.
Then, before I had even finished my tea, I found another short piece about a case of Nazi looted art – specifically two paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder that were taken from the Dutch dealer Jacques Goudstikker. The paintings are now at the Norton Simon Museum via a long story, but the dealer’s daughter-in-law persists in reclaiming them for her family. A court has now ruled that the case may proceed. True fact: in the first draft of The Roses Underneath, the painting of note found in the stolen stash was to be one by Lucas Cranach the Younger, but I changed my mind and opted for Philip Otto Runge instead. Just because. That’s one of the fun things about writing novels
It struck me that on June 7, 2014, 70 years removed from the allied invasion and 69 years after the end of the war, these three articles about World War II on a single day, related and yet not, were still imbued of life and activity – a court case, a new publication and a new exhibition— all advancing our attempt to comprehend and come to terms to with history. I know the stories of World War II will never run out, as long as we keep telling them.
With the release of George Clooney’s Monuments Men movie and the recent find of thousands of pieces of priceless Nazi-stolen art in a Munich apartment, much attention is being paid to wartime looting of artworks. Of course, the spoils of war have always been a side benefit of battle— a perk of the business of destruction, if you will—but the Nazis took looting to an extreme and methodical level. Hitler, a failed and ungifted artist, thought he cared about art and viewed himself as the arbiter of good taste for his people, an egomaniacal assumption of all dictators that comes as a surprise to no one. Under his rule, modern art was deemed “degenerate;” instead, patriotic and posturing art by sanctioned artists was the order of the day. The classics—Vermeer, Rembrandt, da Vinci—were acceptable also, and Hitler wanted those all to himself.
But, of course, it is a fact of life that no matter how the bad guys try, art will not be denied. The juxtaposition of preserving and protecting beauty amidst the hell of war, the story of finding beauty despite evil, of seeking keeping, preserving our artistic nature seems to continually resonate with us. It is an established narrative that seems to be enjoying a particular moment. In addition to the Monuments Men, there is the The Book Thief, the New York Times bestseller-turned-movie that is a Nazi-era tale of defiance and survival centered on the importance of the written word. Even Disney’s current hit, Frozen, is very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, a tale of one child saving her beloved friend from the clutches of an evil queen who covers the lands with shards of glass that pierce people’s eyes and allow them to only see ugliness around them. Both these stories are about the futility—the impossibility—of suppressing our desire and need for art and beauty.
I recently saw the American premiere of the Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera “The Passenger” at the Houston Grand Opera. The story, adapted from a 1959 play The Passenger in Cabin 45 by Zofia Posmysz, deals with a newlywed German woman traveling on a ship to South America with her ambassador husband some years after the war. The woman sees a fellow passenger, whom she believes to have been an inmate at a concentration camp at which she was an SS overseer (a fact about her history that is news to her husband). The German woman indulges in narcissistic throes of torment at the prospect of being revealed (she long ago rationalized away her own guilt) as the opera descends into darkly rendered scenes from the camp that are wrenching, horrifying, and intensely moving. Women, young and old, hopeful and despondent, console each other in the hellish circumstances they have been forced to endure. In this desperate, God-abandoned place, a young Polish violinist – the beloved of an inmate in the women’s camp who is himself imprisoned in a nearby men’s camp—is ordered by the commandant to play a favorite waltz for his entertainment. The piece the officer likes is a schmaltzy ditty that he deems to be the height of German art. But instead, the prisoner plays Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, searing, beautiful music that evokes the true power of art and man’s ability to summon beauty from the darkest void. Of course, the powerful defiance costs the young prisoner his life.
The choice to play the Bach piece reflects the human spirit’s will to survive, to connect to something eternal, even sacred, despite our own repeated failings to live up to the ideals our great art creates. We understand that need and the Nazis also knew the power of art and its role in our lives. After all, it was no accident that they built the Buchenwald concentration camp on the site in the forest where the great German philosopher, writer, and poet Goethe composed many of his great works. The so-called Goethe Oak, which he was said to have sat under when he was writing, was located near the center of the camp. The Nazis used it as a gallows.
As is shown in the Monuments Men, Hitler was prepared to destroy all the art if the Third Reich fell, so complete was his death wish for humanity. It’s for that reason that the story of the Monuments Men, only 70 years removed from the present day, is so worth telling. It’s the same reason any story is worth telling, through words on the page, paint on canvas, or notes floating in the air: Art endures, it must survive, it is the embodiment of our best selves. Art, says Clooney’s character, Stokes, in the Monuments Men, is “the exact reason that we are fighting.” Do you agree?
This idea, articulated by George Clooney in the upcoming film The Monuments Men (go see it February 7!) is at the core of The Roses Underneath’s plot. It’s what drove the work of The Monuments Men, not just during the World War II, but also afterward, when the work of restituting the millions of pieces of saved art began. When I first learned about the Monuments Men, it was through the documentary The Rape of Europa, which aired on PBS in early 2008. I happened on it while flipping through channels one night in the two hours or so I could stay awake after putting my then two-year old daughter to bed.
I began researching as much as I could about the Monuments Men, fascinated by this little-known story of World War II. I had never given much thought to how the great masterpieces of western art had survived the war; it never occurred to me that they would have been in play as the spoils of war. In retrospect, this was alarmingly naïve, but there you go. But when I saw da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine at the Museum of Fine Art Houston many years ago, or visited the Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery in London, I only glimpsed what stories these paintings had to tell. Not just about power and greed, war and destruction, but about beauty and humanity, endurance and resilience. There is something profoundly moving about standing in front of a great work of art and knowing it has survived centuries and hopefully will go on long after I am gone.
As Mark Rothko said, “A painting is not about an experience, it is an experience.” I imagine the canvases of these great works as sponges that absorb our humanity and our stories, and carry them along as they endure. They are the physical remnants of our collective story. That their beauty might endure despite our never-ending capacity for human savagery gives me hope. That the Monuments Men risked their lives for the sake of art deserves our admiration and gratitude.
Happy 70th to the Monuments Men! It was on this day in 1943 that General Eisenhower sent a letter to all commanders in the field instructing them to spare any monuments from destruction “so far as war allows.” This was a direct outgrowth of the formation in August of 1943 of the Roberts Commission, which was given the task of protecting and salvaging the the artistic and historic monuments of Europe. Eighteen months after this directive, the Monuments Men would find an enormous stash of stolen, looted, and hidden masterpieces in the Merkers mine. And so the work of restitution would begin…
This wonderful article in the Smithsonian Magazine inspired a key scene in The Roses Underneath. I deliberately started the novel on August 15, 1945 so that I could include it in the plot. The Head of Nefertiti also plays a role in the story. I just love this description from the article (a fictional version of James Rorimer is being played by George Clooney in the movie, natch):
“Lindsay was there to greet the first convoy on the morning of August 20, 1945, when 57 heavily loaded trucks, escorted by armed tanks, rumbled up to the Wiesbaden Collecting Point. Capt. Jim Rorimer rode like a proud potentate at the head of the motorcade, a bumper-to-bumper procession of artwork stretching miles from Frankfurt. As the first trucks backed up to the Wiesbaden storage areas and began to unload their cargo without incident, Rorimer turned to Lindsay. “Good work you’re doing,” he barked before racing off to his next crisis. “And that,” says Lindsay, “is the only compliment I ever got in my whole time in the Army.”
After the brutalities of a long war, those gathered at Wiesbaden were particularly touched when one old friend showed up that morning. Germans and Americans alike heaved a collective sigh of relief as the crate containing Queen Nefertiti rolled onto the docks. “The Painted Queen is here,” a worker cried. “She’s safe!” Having escaped Berlin, survived burial in the mines, rattled up the bombed-out roads to Frankfurt and endured seclusion in the vaults of the Reichsbank, the beloved statue had finally arrived.
She would have plenty of company in Wiesbaden, where the cavalcade of trucks kept coming for ten days straight, disgorging new treasures in a steady stream. By mid-September, the building was brimming with antiquities from 16 Berlin state museums, paintings from the Berlin Nationalgalerie, silver from Polish churches, cases of Islamic ceramics, a stash of antique arms and uniforms, thousands of books and a mountain of ancient Torahs.”
Read the whole article: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/monumental-mission.html#ixzz2l7rv8XLQ
Monuments Man and architect Captain Walter I. Farmer, the director of the Wiesbaden Collecting Point, is the only real life character to appear in The Roses Underneath. When I began work on the novel some four years ago, little information existed online about the individual Monuments Men or their work. After trying for months to research the Wiesbaden Collecting Point, which is the setting for the book, I located a copy of his memoir, The Safekeepers: A Memoir of the Arts at the End of World War II (Berlin & New York: de Gruyter, 2000), in which he details the challenges of transforming the bombed-out Landesmusem into the Collecting Point. This information was invaluable because it was the only reference I could find anywhere naming the Landesmuseum as the location of the Collecting Point. With this information in hand, my story finally had a place and I booked a research trip to Wiesbaden. Today the Landesmuseum is a lovely museum but displays no reference to its history as the Collecting Point. Captain Farmer’s account was my only detailed source of information.
Among his many distinguished post-war achievements, I was surprised to learn that Walter Farmer was a founder (and first director of the board) of the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston. He passed away in 1997 and his memoir was published posthumously. By all accounts he was an extremely honorable and principled man and I hope I have served his memory well in my story.