Julie Mayhew is ‘the girl least likely to write a book about Nazis’. But she did. In her series for Standard Issue, she shares what she discovered along the way…
Sometimes a photograph from history takes hold of me and won’t let go. It will usually be because of a face, an expression. The person will seem oddly modern, as if they could still be alive today. I will feel as if I know them.
In this photograph, that I returned to over and over again when researching The Big Lie, I am sure that I know the woman on the right.
I have hung out with her in a kitchen at a party and asked her how she knows the host, or waitressed at the same hotel, cooking up schemes to make sure we kept all of our tips. Maybe we’ve drunk badly made tea together in a church hall and shared stories about our growing babies.
Wherever it was, I quickly worked out that she was made of tougher stuff than me, and though I am sure in my conviction that we should be firm friends, I know that she may not feel the same way.
This photograph was taken during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, when Jews living in occupied Poland armed themselves and fought back against German soldiers attempting to transport them to Treblinka death camp.
The picture features in the Stroop Report, an official Nazi document of the doomed uprising – a souvenir album of terror put together to please SS chief Heinrich Himmler.
I cannot take my eyes off this picture because of the cool, even stare of that woman on the right. She seems so sure of herself and her actions and not scared in any way, though how could she not have been. Other images in the album show buildings on fire, bodies in the rubble, women and children lined up, faces to the wall.
And though it seems perverse to say – I like that. Because if a terrible regime calls you a ‘bandit’, isn’t that a medal to wear on your chest?
And every time I have met this woman it’s exactly how I would have described her – a fighter, someone not to be messed with, a member of a gang I would love to join.
I try to convince myself that her familiarity rises from a sense that she and I are essentially the same person, but I am unconvinced.
I have met that woman on the right and she is made of tougher stuff.1859 Views
Julie Mayhew writes radio dramas about love and novels devoid of romance, most recently Nazi alt-history The Big Lie.