Woman on Fire: Nazi-looted Art – the Story that Burns Within

I’m delighted to have Lisa Barr on the blog today. Lisa is the author of WOMAN ON FIRE, THE UNBREAKABLES and an award-winning WWII historical thriller FUGITIVE COLORS. Lisa’s career includes being an editor for The Jerusalem Post, managing editor of Today’s Chicago Woman, and managing editor of Moment magazine. Today, she shares the story behind her writing. When you read it, you will realize that she too is a woman on fire.

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I try to imagine what would happen if my laptop and phone were confiscated, my ability to access research was quashed, my manuscript set afire, my editor and anyone in the writing world arrested for working with me – and anything I write would be considered a crime against my country. 

This was the fate for scores of writers, artists, teachers, architects, entertainers in Nazi Germany. The “idea-makers” were persecuted for their creativity and not complying with the Aryan ideal of “what is art”.  Hitler and his henchmen were determined to eradicate those he considered to be the “degenerate” and influential segment of German society. They went after the avant-garde – particularly artists – with a vengeance and cruelty never seen before.   

Why?

As a daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I needed to know what made someone both a murderous madman and an artist bent on destroying other artists. Through my research I discovered that Hitler before he rose to power was once a painter. He’d been rejected twice from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. His work was considered mediocre, uninspiring, behind the times. He resorted to selling painted postcards on the street and later house painting to make a living – his dream of living as a true artist was never realized.

I believe these early rejections paved the way for what would come later … payback. From 1933 – 1945, the Nazi “elite” destroyed thousands of artworks, confiscated the most valuable paintings for themselves, and sold major “Degenerate” works to anonymous buyers through secret Swiss auctions, and then poured the profits into the Nazi war machine. 

It was a cultural rape and robbery on an unprecedented scale, beginning in Germany and spreading like wildfire throughout Europe.

This period of history not only fascinated me, but also it found me … Flashback to 1991, when I was a young reporter and editor living in Chicago assigned to cover an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago called “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany”. When I walked into the museum and viewed the walls filled with artwork that the Nazis denigrated, chills covered my entire body. I knew right then that I was not simply covering a storyI had discovered the story that would forever change the course of my career. Soon after, I pivoted from journalist to author, writing about this aspect of Holocaust history that remains to this day front-page news: Nazi-looted art.  

Over a 10-year period – between babies, jobs, divorce, and remarriage — I researched and wrote what evolved into my award-winning debut historical thriller FUGITIVE COLORS, a suspenseful tale of stolen art, love, lust, friendship, jealousy, deception, and revenge on the “eve” of World War II. It is the story of what happens to young Julian Klein, who gave up his orthodox religion to move from Chicago to Paris to paint freely … and the price tag for following his passion. 

My second novel, THE UNBREAKABLES, while it is contemporary – still revolves around art. It is the story of Sophie Bloom, a sculptor who loses her marriage, herself, and her passion, only to rediscover her joie de vivre – a lust for life, love, and art – in the South of France. It’s sexy, empowering, and artful. 

My new novel, WOMAN ON FIRE (HarperCollins, March 1, 2022) combines it all. It marks a return to both my stolen art and journalistic roots. The novel is a gripping tale of a young, savvy journalist who gets embroiled in a major international art scandal centered around a Nazi-looted masterpiece – an Expressionist painting by an artist murdered by the Nazis – forcing the ultimate showdown between passion and possession, lovers and liars, history and truth.

The novel is historical, contemporary, and suspenseful – and of course, filled with strong, fiery women and risky journalistic pursuits. As a writer, I have tried repeatedly to choose a different historical path  … but then, like a woman fighting an undertow, I’m pulled back in, unable to relinquish my Bohemian painters and their provocative brushstrokes set against a WWII canvas. For me, this is the most powerful, destructive, and compelling period of history that has cleaved to my soul. Like an Expressionist painting, it evokes all my emotion, stirs my imagination, and just won’t let me go. 

Thanks, Lisa, for sharing your passion. The compulsion to understand history and the people who launched such horror upon individuals and ultimately, the world is a powerful force. I wonder what will be said about our time and some of those using their power to destroy others?

Lisa’s new novel, Woman on Fire, is available for pre-order. It will be published in March 2022. You can contact Lisa on social media at her website www.lisabarr.com on Instagram/Twitter: @lisabarr18, or on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/FugitiveColors

Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr ~~ After talking her way into a job with Dan Mansfield, the leading investigative reporter in Chicago, rising young journalist Jules Roth is given an unusual–and very secret–assignment. Dan needs her to locate a painting stolen by the Nazis more than 75 years earlier: legendary Expressionist artist Ernst Engel’s most famous work, Woman on Fire. World-renowned shoe designer Ellis Baum wants this portrait of a beautiful, mysterious woman for deeply personal reasons, and has enlisted Dan’s help to find it. But Jules doesn’t have much time; the famous designer is dying.

Meanwhile, in Europe, provocative and powerful Margaux de Laurent also searches for the painting. Heir to her art collector family’s millions, Margaux is a cunning gallerist who gets everything she wants. The only thing standing in her way is Jules. Yet the passionate and determined Jules has unexpected resources of her own, including Adam Baum, Ellis’s grandson. A recovering addict and brilliant artist in his own right, Adam was once in Margaux’s clutches. He knows how ruthless she is, and he’ll do anything to help Jules locate the painting before Margaux gets to it first.

A thrilling tale of secrets, love, and sacrifice that illuminates the destructive cruelty of war and greed and the triumphant power of beauty and love, Woman on Fire tells the story of a remarkable woman and an exquisite work of art that burns bright, moving through hands, hearts, and history.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Living Historical Fiction by Elinor Florence

Elinor Florence lives in small town British Columbia. After a long and varied career in journalism, Elinor now writes historical fiction and has a passion for WWII. With Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day less than a week ago, it’s fitting to feature her latest novel Bird’s Eye View, set during WWII.

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Historical fiction doesn’t necessarily mean ancient history. The broadest definition of the genre includes any novel written at least fifty years after the events took place.

Fifty years ago we were living in 1969, so somewhat alarmingly, even fiction set in my high school years would fall into the historical category.

Since I began my wartime novel Bird’s Eye View just six decades after the Second World War ended, I was able to do “living research” — that is, I didn’t have to resort to dusty tomes in a library to find out what happened. I could simply ask the people who were there.

That, my friends, was a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, I gathered colourful details of personal experience from people who lived through the war, either as participants or observers, and wove them into my novel for authenticity.

On the other hand, it meant that I was figuratively mopping the perspiration from my forehead with a hanky while writing, because I knew that every page would be scrutinized by real live people who knew what I was writing about!

Bird’s Eye View tells the story of a fictional Saskatchewan farm girl who joins the air force in the Second World War and becomes an aerial photographic interpreter in England, searching for bomb targets on the continent. Letters from her family and friends keep her in touch with the home front back in Canada.

It is the only novel ever written featuring a Canadian woman in uniform as the main character. To gather information, I interviewed many veterans, both male and female. My lifelong career as a journalist assisted greatly during this process. I included so much genuine historical detail that I call my novel fact-based fiction.

The combat stuff was fairly easy to garner, since much has been published about battles and military strategy (all of it written by men, I might add.) However, my novel isn’t a mere recitation of dry facts.

I wanted to bring the power of human emotion into my story. I interviewed male veterans for their feelings of fear, and grief, and homesickness, and their tremendous longing for the war to end. Many readers have told me that the book moved them to tears.

The research got more difficult when I turned to women in uniform. In spite of the fact that 50,000 Canadian women served during the war, very little has been written about them.

That’s not an exaggeration — I couldn’t even find an accurate description of a Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division uniform, let alone the training they received and the jobs they performed.

So I relied heavily on personal interviews, and it is here that my living research really bore fruit — not only for the basic information, but for the wonderful anecdotes that women told me.

For example, a Canadian air force veteran named Lou Marr who trained as a photographer told me that when the weather was hot, and the darkroom was sweltering, the girls would strip down to their undies while developing their photos because nobody could enter the darkroom as long as the red light over the door was turned on. That’s exactly the sort of detail that never found its way into the written record — the men didn’t even know it was happening!

Another example: a British air force veteran named Eileen Scott who worked at RAF Medmenham, the beautiful stone mansion in England that served as the headquarters for photo interpretation and the setting for my novel, told me that although pets were strictly forbidden, the girls had a secret cat who climbed up the wisteria vines late at night and scratched at their windows. Hence the cat’s name: Wisty.

These details and many others gleaned from oral history made their way into my novel — that the new female recruits drilled so long and hard that many stopped having their periods; that servicewomen often threw away their gas masks and used the containers as handbags; that women back home on the farm had trouble controlling the horses and cattle while the men were overseas.

My mother, who lived near an air training base in Saskatchewan as a teenager and therefore had a bird’s eye view of the home front, was extremely helpful. Almost every day I phoned her to ask questions like this: “What was a post office savings account?” or “Did you ever dance The Lambeth Walk?” In gratitude, I dedicated my novel to her.

Finally, I wove a poignant true life story into my novel. My mother was engaged during the war to a young airman from Tasmania named Maxwell Cassidy, who was accidentally killed while still training in Canada. He never saw home again, never even lived long enough to see combat overseas. His body still lies in a cemetery in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, a huge air training base during the war and my hometown.

Through the internet, I tracked down the Cassidy family in Australia and asked permission to use Max’s name in my novel. They were overjoyed to learn that my mother was still alive and remembered this fine young man with great fondness — living history, indeed.

And because I wanted their stories to be preserved, I have written the true accounts of Maxwell Cassidy, plus all the other male and female veterans I interviewed, on my website here: https://www.elinorflorence.com/blog/category/wartime-wednesdays/.

Some of these veterans are still alive. I’m so thankful that I was able to record their living history, and more importantly, for the opportunity to thank them in person for their contribution to the Allied victory.

Note: I have since written a second novel, Wildwood. It’s a contemporary novel with a strong vein of 100-year-old prairie pioneer history running throughout. For this novel, I wasn’t able to interview living pioneers but instead relied heavily on dozens of personal memoirs written by homesteaders.

Many thanks, Elinor. Stories about women serving during WWII are an important reminder of those whose wartime service we honour on Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day.

PS: I love your story about the Australian Cassidy family.

Bird’s Eye View by Elinor Florence ~~ Rose Jolliffe is an idealistic young woman living on a farm with her family in Saskatchewan. After Canada declares war against Germany in World War II, she joins the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an aerial photographic interpreter. Working with intelligence officers at RAF Medmenham in England, Rose spies on the enemy from the sky, watching the war unfold through her magnifying glass.

When her commanding officer, Gideon Fowler, sets his sights on Rose, both professionally and personally, her prospects look bright. But can he be trusted? As she becomes increasingly disillusioned by the destruction of war and Gideon’s affections, tragedy strikes, and Rose’s world falls apart.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeMy husband recommended All The Light We Cannot See in January, and again in February. I began reading it then, but was waylaid by other reading obligations. Having fulfilled those, I escaped back into Doerr’s novel a week ago and COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN.

There, got that off my chest. Now that you know how much I enjoyed this novel, perhaps a few words about why.

As Goodreads reviewer Melinda said so succinctly, All The Light We Cannot See is about “A blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.”

The intricacy with which the novel is constructed contributes to its success as Anthony Doerr builds our interest, raising the tension chapter by chapter while switching back and forth between Marie-Laure and Werner with occasional stops with other characters. I never lost the thread, even though the story also switches time periods as it unfolds.

Let’s have a look at the 7 elements of historical fiction as a frame for commenting on the novel.

Characters: characters should “behave in keeping with the era they inhabit” which includes the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of their time and station in life. Werner is an orphan sent to a German school training boys to be soldiers. He’s smart, intellectually curious, and a whiz with anything electronic. We see the German military regime and fanaticism through his eyes and his journey to understand his purpose in life and the goodness life offers. Daughter of an expert locksmith, Marie-Laure is defined by her blindness, yet sees so much. Trapped in St. Malo with her reclusive great-uncle, his housekeeper and a secret some would kill for, it is Marie-Laure who learns how to survive and is brave enough to participate in the fight against Germany.

Beyond these two, other characters are illuminated: von Rumpel, Frederick, Etienne, Volkheimer, Madame Manec.

Dialogue: Anthony Doerr dispenses dialogue sparingly and effectively. He spends much more time on the inner dialogue of Werner, Marie-Laure and others.

Werner: “Why, even at the moment of his escape, must some inexplicable warning murmur in a distant region of his mind?”

“Every part of him wants to scream: is this not wrong? But here it is right.”

“Open your eyes and see what you can see with them before they close forever.”

Sergeant Major von Rumpel: “Waiting, thinks von Rumpel, is a kind of war. You simply tell yourself that you must not lose.”

Frederick” “Your problem, Werner, says Frederick, is that you still believe you own your  life.”

Marie-Laure: “Who knew love could kill you?”

Setting: Ive read and written about WWII. Doerr creates not only scenes of war unfolding in all its gritty devastation, but he also immerses the reader in the atmosphere of living the hell of war as both soldier and citizen. The siege of St Malo is one set, another is the inside of a vehicle designed to find enemy radio transmitters, and a third is Etienne’s house where Marie-Laure lives on rue Vauborel.

Theme: Doerr explores themes of love, power, destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, patriotism, redemption. A huge canvas compressed into 531 pages.

Plot: step by step, the plot unfolds. Relentlessly Doerr guides us to the climax. Back and forth in time, back and forth between characters, yet we are never lost. Each scene comes alive. Tension builds.

Conflict: and there is so much conflict. At several points I wondered how the characters could possibly handle another day without falling apart.

Asked why he reveals much of what happens in August 1944 intermingled with the main storyline progressing from 1940 to 1944, Doerr said in an interview with Publishers Weekly:

If I have dinner with you and then at the end I pull out a gun and shoot you, that’s surprise; if I put the gun on the table at the beginning of the meal, that’s suspense.

World Building: an aspect that deserves specific mention is Anthony Doerr’s ability to make us see and feel the life Marie-Laure experiences in blindness. We are with her every step as she taps her way along the streets of St Malo. We feel what she feels, hear what she hears and taste what she tastes. A remarkable feat. Beyond that world, is that of World War Two, seen from both German and French points of view. The school Schulpforta is another part of the world Doerr constructs and here we experience the deviancy of training young boys to be German soldiers. Evil reigns in this world and few refuse to go along.

Beyond these seven elements, I should comment on the author’s superb imagery and prose.

My only caveat — you knew there would be something, didn’t you? — is the ending. To this reader, the novel should have ended soon after the siege of St Malo. The chapters in later years detract from the impact of the main story.

A great read. Highly recommended.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.