Two young doctors form a profound and loving bond in Nazi Germany; a bond that will stretch them to the very limits of human endurance. Catholic Max - whose religious and moral beliefs are in conflict, has been conscripted to join the war effort as a medic, despite his hatred of Hitler’s regime. His beloved Erika, a privileged young woman, is herself a product of the Hitler Youth. In spite of their stark differences, Max and Erika defy convention and marry.
But when Max is stationed at the fortress city of Breslau, their worst nightmares are realised; his hospital is bombed, he is captured by the Soviet Army and taken to a POW camp in Siberia. Max experiences untold horrors, his one comfort the letters he is allowed to send home: messages that can only contain Fifteen Words. Back in Germany, Erika is struggling to survive and protect their young daughter, finding comfort in the arms of a local carpenter. Worlds apart and with only sparse words for comfort, will they ever find their way back to one another, and will Germany ever find peace?
Fifteen Words is a vivid and intimate portrayal of human love and perseverance, one which illuminates the German experience of the war, which has often been overshadowed by history.
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‘Book Spotlight’ on Fifteen Words
He and the surviving troops are herded into cattle trains and imprisoned in a Siberian labour camp within the eternal gloom of the Arctic Circle. Max and his two fellow doctors Edgar, a homosexual, jazz-loving church organist and Horst, Max’s ebullient childhood friend, do their best to continue to care for the sick with no resources in a place where the climate is a cruel as their captors. This cruelty is embodied in the Russian Sergeant Volkov, who is jealous of the favour he believes Max’s expertise buys him with the inmates and the officers, and consequently he engineers tortuous situations for the doctor.
But far from feeling favoured, Max’s faith takes a battering as he witnesses a catalogue of horrors, and is kept from returning to his young wife Erika for four years.
Erika, also a newly qualified doctor, is pregnant with Max’s first child. As Max is hauled across Siberia, she hurtles across a decimated Germany as she tries to get to the safety of Max’s home town with the help of her father-in-law Karl. Unlike Erika’s parents, Karl’s duty to his family far outweighs his physical limitations, which leads to some comic and some terrifying moments on the chaotic rail network of the broken country he leads Erika across.
Karl, like his son and Edgar and Horst, is not a supporter of the Nazi regime, but for Erika things are not so clear. As a child, longing to escape her parents’ home, she was willingly recruited into the Hitler Youth and stuffed with propaganda. Her scientific anti-religious reasoning chimes with her own medical studies, leaving her floundering when she falls in love with the devoutly Catholic Max at Freiburg University.
But the increasing horrors of war soon begin to shake Erika’s faith in the Fürher, just as Max’s experiences in Siberia are enticing him to reject his faith in God altogether.
Both the physical dangers of war and unlikely new companions threaten to keep the two lovers apart forever: Jenny and Max become closer, whilst in Germany a lonely Erika is tempted by a local carpenter Rodrick.
So the question is will Max make it back to Erika and the daughter he’s never met? And, if so, will they both be the same people they knew and loved before they were separated?
For me this is a book about faith in all its forms. It is also about PTSD in a time when PTSD was not remotely recognized; as well as a study in how an ordinary life can be so surprisingly hard to stomach after such an extreme existence as many people endured during the Second World War.
I think it is safe to say all writers want their novels to be a critical and commercial success, so writing a novel in English (since I came to live in the UK in 1966) about two young Germans struggling to survive the war in Nazi Germany may seem to be commercial suicide when there has been a tendency in recent years to decry any depiction of the German perspective of the war as revisionist in the pejorative sense.
But my novel doesn’t seek to suggest a moral equivalence between the Axis and the Allies, or to minimize Nazi crimes, or deny the Holocaust. On the contrary. I felt compelled to write this novel now in an age when Europe is once again seeing how war can displace and tear apart the lives of families from so many different countries at the same time, just as it did in World War Two.
German concentration camps are synonymous with the war, but some people will be surprised to find out that the Soviets ran equally barbaric camps for their millions of German prisoners. In my novel Fifteen Words I hope the reader will find the many other truths told there eye-opening.
But I think my aim with this novel was to write a human story first and foremost. A story about two people in love, struggling to reconcile their different opinions, being swayed by all the powerful forces vying for their faith, be that friends, parents, religion or political parties; the kind of things anyone around the word can relate to. And the more stories we read and tell which show how similar we are, beneath all the wonderful and incredible cultural differences we possess, surely the better the world will be.
About Monika Jephcott Thomas
Monika Jephcott Thomas grew up in Dortmund Mengede, north-west Germany. She moved to the UK in 1966, enjoying a thirty year career in education before retraining as a therapist. Along with her partner Jeff she established the Academy of Play & Child Psychotherapy in order to support the twenty per cent of children who have emotional, behavioural, social and mental health problems by using play and the creative Arts. A founder member of Play Therapy UK, Jephcott Thomas was elected President of Play Therapy International in 2002.