Catherine Hokin on The Girl in the Photo

Catherine Hokin

The novelist discusses her latest novel, which features the terrible story of Theresienstadt.
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Catherine Hokin, many congrats on the new book, the third in your Hanni Winter series. How hard was it to find inspiration for the plot of The Girl in Photo amid the horrors and misery of the holocaust?

First of all, thank you! Writing a series with all the extended story arc development that requires has been a fascinating experience. Although the Hanni Winter books are very much rooted in the events of World War Two, it was always important to me to continue her story after 1945 and explore the consequences of the war. Europe in the forties and fifties was a very challenging place. When I was young, I thought that the world re-set itself at the end of the conflict and that everyone who survived returned to where they had been in 1939 like pieces on a chessboard. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth: millions of people, including children, were displaced and desperate, or lost. Telling that story was what inspired The Girl in Photo.

 Your heroine Hanni is a photographer, but whose father is a significant participant of the holocaust. Have you based Hanni on a figure from the Second World War?

No, Hanni is completely my creation but she was inspired by a war photographer. A few years ago, I read a wonderful novel by Helena Janeczek called The Girl With the Leica. This is based on the life of Gerda Taro, a photographer in her own right and the partner of combat photographer Robert Capa. She died at twenty-seven while documenting the Spanish Civil War and, although they are very different characters, I think that is where the initial spark for Hanni came.

 Theresienstadt is a place where some of the Nazis most horrific crimes were committed. How did you find out about it?

Theresienstadt is an anomaly in some ways from the common perception of concentration camps because – although thousands died from starvation and disease or were transported to their deaths from there – it wasn’t set up for the purposes of forced labour or killing. I first encountered the town in detail when I was working on my earlier novel, What Only We Know, initially through research at The Wiener Holocaust Library in London and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I had been aware of it as the place to which Berlin’s elderly Jewish population was transported but I knew nothing about the cultural life there, or the way people were tricked into believing it was a comfortable spa town. Once I became aware of the truth as well as the propaganda surrounding Theresienstadt, I knew I wanted to set a novel there.

The Nazis produced a propaganda film about Theresienstadt of the same name, about which you’ve written for us. Did it ever reach its intended audience of the Red Cross and the Vatican?

No. As far as anyone knows, the film was never actually released and no full copy exists. It does appear to have been completed – there is a record of all the scenes which make up the film and a comprehensive set of sketches was made during the shooting process – but I couldn’t find a definitive answer as to what happened to the final film itself. A fifteen-minute extract has survived (see Holocaust Sources in Context) and it is essential that this is viewed with a thorough understanding of the film’s methods and purpose or – exactly as was intended – it gives a dangerously false impression of life in the town.

Was there anything about Theresienstadt that surprised you in your research?

The extent to which it was used to convince the Jewish populations who were never intended to survive once sent there, as well as non-Jewish observers, that Jewish life was not under threat from the Nazi regime. Theresienstadt is usually described as a ghetto town but it would be more accurate to call it a transit station on the way to the death camps. When the camp was ‘beautified’ in the spring of 1944 to trick a Red Cross delegation, the lengths the Nazis went to was incredible – they even built a fake cemetery with cardboard headstones. The whole operation was a cynical piece of falsehood, but it worked – the delegation was also due to visit Auschwitz but they were so satisfied with what they saw at Theresienstadt, they never went.

Why have you written about the holocaust and how much of a responsibility do you have in writing about the most sensitive subject of the Second World War?

I wouldn’t describe myself as someone who writes about the holocaust. I write about World War Two yes, but about its shadows and its long reach. I do agree that the holocaust is, and should be, a sensitive subject and my maxim has always been ‘get in late and leave early.’ In other words, the dreadful suffering that happened to real people inside Buchenwald or Auschwitz or any of the rest of the forced labour or killing camps is not a place to dwell. I am also passionate about doing painstaking research: nothing should happen in a camp in a novel that couldn’t actually have happened there in real life.

In writing a number of books about this difficult period of the Second World War, what have you learnt?

That the human spirit is an incredible thing. Reading accounts of survival by people like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, and the lesser-known names who endured unimaginable horror and can still demonstrate compassion and kindness, is a humbling experience.

 Finally, what’s next?

The final part of the Hanni Winter series which will be published in May 2024! This takes Hanni and Freddy’s story up to 1963, into a Berlin divided by the Wall and facing one final, and terrible, secret rearing its head up from the past…

Catherine Hokin is the author of The Girl in the Photo, published by Bookouture.