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Mother truth

If you want to grow up to tell stories, you've got to start out by listening to them. The very first storyteller in my life was my mom.

She was the one who tucked me in every night, kissed my cheek, and told me bedtime stories.

Sounds sweet, doesn't it? Just like a scene from Norman Rockwell.

You don't know my mom.

The woman was a pull-no-punches, no-holds-barred, freestyling kind of storyteller who saw no need to borrow from amateurs like Mother Goose, Uncle Remus or Walt Disney. She had her own material, thank you very much, and felt it to be more edifying to her offspring than any lessons Mickey Mouse and his colleagues might impart.

My mom is German and a survivor of World War II. She grew up in Bremen, a northern port town that was heavily bombed by the Allies. While all my little pals were settling down for the night with classic fairytales like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, I was getting a first person narrative of life during the Third Reich.

My mom was a kid during the war and her stories were told from a child's point of view. One night she might describe how it felt to be eight years old, running for her life to an air-raid shelter under the drone of approaching bombers. And what it was like to come out again, to discover that what had once been her house was now a smouldering heap of rubble and ash.

On another night there might be a story about the neighbourhood snotnose, a boy who'd joined the Hitler Youth and who put his uniform on every time he misbehaved. In it, he was property of the state and no one - not even his parents - could touch him.

She might tell me how it felt to see the smashed windows of a Jewish shop, to ask where the shopkeeper was, and be given no answer. Or she might tell me about her friend Herbert, a boy with cerebral palsy who lived on her street. She and her gang wheeled him about in a wooden barrow, bumping him over the cobbles on their way to plunder bombsites, using him as homebase during games of hide-and-seek. Sometimes their hiding games became dangerously real. With his withered body and shaking limbs, Herbert was hardly a poster boy for the master race. Nazi health inspectors occasionally swept through towns and hospitals, looking to purge them of the disabled. Herbert's mother often hid him in a closet to keep him from being taken.

Some would say these stories of a war-torn childhood were not suitable fare for children, and I'll admit that a few of them were pretty harrowing - doubly so, because unlike Hansel and Gretel or Snow White or any of the fairytales I'd read on my own, they were true. I guess I should have been horrified, terrified, unable to sleep after hearing them. But I wasn't. I was galvanised, sitting up in my bed, asking a million questions: "Why? How? And then what? What happened next? What did you do?"

I wanted answers. Sometimes my mom had them, and sometimes she didn't, because sometimes there just weren't any.

Though the reality of my mother's stories was often harsh, I embraced it.

After hearing her experiences, I had no time for Red Riding Hood and her make-believe wolf. I wanted to know how real wolves - the kind who lived in Berlin and wore uniforms - were vanquished. But part of me resisted that same reality. Being a kid, I still longed for a happy ending. I wanted goodness and beauty to be only sleeping, not dead. I wanted the stolen children of Auschwitz and Treblinka to come home, just as Hansel and Gretel had.

That disconnect in my child's mind, that hunger for both reality and make-believe at once, is with me still. It's why I write historical fiction, I think. It's why I try to be a careful and precise historian in order to create a credible past, then take the novelist's liberties with that past, melding fact with fiction, hoping that in the no man's land between those opposing camps, I might yet find my answers. And something like the truth.

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