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Novel revives true story of gutsy Jew who survived Nazis to marry German soldier

22 10 17

LONDON — In November 1943, Hedwig Bercu, a Jewish woman living in Nazi-occupied Jersey, faked her own death and went into hiding.

The 24-year-old’s near-miraculous escape was aided by a local islander, Dorothea Weber, who sheltered Bercu in her own home for 18 months. Beru was also helped by her lover — Lt. Kurt Rümmele, a German officer who smuggled food to the two women when Bercu went into hiding.

In a further twist, Weber, too, was in a relationship with a man fighting for the Nazis — her Austrian husband, Anton, had been conscripted by the Germans the previous year.

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Bercu’s true-life story is reshaped and retold by Jenny Lecoat in her new historical novel “Hedy’s War.” It is the Jersey-born writer’s second foray into the traumatic and contentious world of the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, following her 2017 film “Another Mother’s Son.”

Jersey is in one of the small clusters of islands — an archipelago which includes Alderney, Guernsey, and Sark — which lie in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. Semi-independent, they were nonetheless the only part of the British isles to be occupied by Germany during World War II. German soldiers in Guernsey. (Bundesarchiv Bild)

Lecoat’s novel draws heavily on extensive research conducted by Cambridge University academic Dr. Gilly Carr. Carr, an expert on the Channel Islands’ occupation, led a successful effort which in 2016 saw Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum Yad Vashem recognize Weber with the prestigious designation of Righteous Among the Nations.

The wartime story of Bercu and Weber (nee Le Brocq) was first revealed by Frederick Cohen, former president of the Jersey Jewish Congregation, in his 2000 book “The Jews in the Channel Islands During the German Occupation”. Cohen managed to make contact with Bercu, who died in 2009.

While “Hedy’s War,” which will be published in North America next year, is based on a true story, Lecoat readily acknowledges that her novel is a fictionalized account.

“Although there was a great deal that wasn’t known — because there’s really no one left alive who knows exactly how those people met, how those relationships formed and how they developed — I thought there’s enough fact here for me to tell a story which is fairly truthful, but also enough space for me to fictionalize it in a way that will dramatize the story effectively,” Lecoat told The Times of Israel.

Lecoat’s interest in the occupation stems from her own family history. Her mother’s family helped to shelter escaped Russian slave laborers — and paid a heavy price. Louisa Gould, Lecoat’s great-aunt and the subject of “Another Mother’s Son,” perished at Ravensbruck after it was discovered that she had taken in Feodor Burriy, a young Russian slave worker in his 20s. Lecoat’s great-uncle Harold was the sole British survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at its liberation. Jenny Lecoat, author of ‘Hedy’s War.’ (Mark Allsop)

Theirs was “a really tragic story,” Lecoat says. “It was about people who were incredibly courageous but also quite naive about consequences.” The family, she believes, “must have lived in a great deal of terror and anxiety for most of the time.”

It was, in part, the reaction to “Another Mother’s Son” which encouraged Lecoat to write “Hedy’s War.”

“I always wanted to tell the story of my family, but I didn’t realize that it was such an unknown period of history for so many people, even in Britain,” she says.

Given how much of Bercu’s true story is unknown, Lecoat likens writing the book to “putting the puzzle together and then trying to extrapolate something that seems realistic.”

Born in 1919, Bercu and her four siblings managed to flee Vienna shortly after the Anschluss, leaving behind parents who they would never see again. Three weeks after Kristallnacht in November 1938, she reached St. Helier, the........

© The Times of Israel

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