*While this post does not contain spoilers, it does refer to scenes that occur in the latter stages of the book.
By far the most emotionally taxing scenes to write and research in THE PARIS SECRET were those set in the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp – a Nazi labour camp that I first read about during research for THE FRENCH PHOTOGRAPHER. Not only was I shocked by the scale and horror of what went on at Ravensbrück, I also felt a sense of outrage that this passage of WWII history has not been given the attention it deserves. As I delved further, I also discovered important reasons as to why the women who survived the camp were reluctant to speak about it and this in itself forms an important piece of THE PARIS SECRET puzzle.
Ravensbrück was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps exclusively for women – 130,000 passed through its gates and up to 90,000 died there. While the majority of prisoners were from Poland and the Soviet Union, there were also a small number of French prisoners, including Christian Dior’s sister, Catherine and Charles de Gaulle’s niece, Geneviève de Gaulle – both members of the Resistance – and an even smaller number of British, captured as members of the espionage unit, the Special Operations Executive, which is how my main character, Skye, finds herself in the camp.
The fictional Skye and the real-life Catherine Dior were typical of the young French and British women who found themselves imprisoned in Ravensbrück and then, as the war ended, found themselves discouraged from talking about it. At that point, they were barely recognisable – skeletally thin and severely malnourished – and they returned home to people who didn’t quite understand why they’d been taken to the camp. After all, their activities had been highly secret. Espionage was assumed to be a man’s job and there was little understanding of the role that women had played in the resistance. There was also a common (and extremely unfair) belief that women in camps were ‘soiled goods’, as it was assumed they’d been raped by Germans. It is therefore unsurprising that the broken women who emerged from these torture camps were often reluctant to recount their experiences. Catherine Dior, for one, never spoke of it again.
Fortunately, there are a handful of women who did decide to write about their experiences and I relied on these memoirs to bring the Ravensbrück scenes to life. Geneviève de Gaulle’s memoir, The Dawn of Hope: A Memoir of Ravensbrück, makes for heartbreaking reading and is the inspiration behind the scene in which my characters create a birthday cake made of crumbs and decorated with twig candles. Geneviève spent much of her imprisonment in solitary isolation, where she drew on the smallest beacons of hope to sustain her – knocks on the walls from fellow prisoners passing by, and the presence of three cockroaches in her ‘cell’ – cockroaches she named and befriended. These connections are what sustained her and it is the resilience of these incredible women that I wanted to highlight in THE PARIS SECRET.
If you’re interested in discovering more about this important chapter of history, I can also recommend Sarah Helm’s haunting book Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp, and two further memoirs from survivors, Forgive, Don’t Forget: Surviving Ravensbruck by Jacqueline Pery d’Alincourt and An American Heroine in the French Resistance by Virginia D’Albert-Lake.