Monday, 16 March 2015

A story of survival in Nazi Europe

It’s 1942, you’re in Nazi-occupied Europe, your marriage to a Reich citizen has broken up and you’re a British woman, alone. What do you do? And how do you explain it to your own security services when the war is over? Julian Gray’s Interrogating Ellie is a true story, well told

I should start by saying that I know the author, and when I was young, I knew Ellie. Julian Gray is a pen-name; this book, although written as a novel, is substantially true. The people in the book are mostly now dead, but their children are not, and he has preferred to respect their privacy.

Ellie, taken in Austria in 1940 (courtesy J. Gray)
Interrogating Ellie is both well-researched and extremely readable. It is the story of Eloise, or Ellie, Picot (not her real name). She was born in St Helier, in the Channel Islands, in 1915. She and her brother were the illegitimate children of a teenage mother, who had been banished to Birmingham by her family. Ellie was brought up by foster-parents, and eventually found a job as a waitress at a local hotel. In the early 1930s she met a fellow hotel-worker, and in 1938, having just had their first child, they migrated to his home town in Austria and moved in with his family. Ellie took Austrian (actually by now Reich) citizenship. Before long, her marriage broke down, and her husband and his family kept her baby daughters.

Eloise Picot was 27, alone, with no means of support, in a country of which she was nominally a national but which was actually at war with her own. But she had two things on her side – she was attractive, and she was not a fool. After some ups and downs, she made for Vienna. For the next five years, through the war and the post-war occupation, she would live on her wits.

Ellie did – after some difficulty – return to Britain (although not to Jersey) in 1948, and in the 1950s she remarried, this time to an Englishman, and settled in the south of England. She had several more children, of which Gray was one. She died in 1973, aged just 58. She was a complex individual, and her life had not been easy. My own memories of her, for what it’s worth, are good; she was capable of great personal warmth, and was always good with me when I was a child. But I was only 15 when she died, and I never got to know her as an
adult. Reading this book, I am very sorry that I did not. I knew virtually nothing of her life in wartime Austria. Gray and his siblings, of course, did know the bare bones of her life-story, and also that they had half-sisters in Austria. But Ellie did not talk about the war, except to blurt out the odd fact. It was a story that might have been forgotten had her eldest British daughter not chanced to be on the website of Britain’s National Archive in 2013. She casually entered Ellie’s name, using her earlier married surname, and found that there was a file.
She was taken aback by its contents. It turned out that, in 1947, Ellie had applied to be renaturalised as British. In response to her application, she had been interviewed by the British Field Security Service (FSS) in Klagenfurt, the capital of the British zone of occupation of Austria (she had gone there after the war; Vienna, now largely under Russian occupation, had got too hot for her).

The FSS were an odd bunch, rolling into occupied countries with the British Army and quietly taking care of business. Their story has slipped away and is now little known. Their one member who is remembered is the great travel writer and novelist Norman Lewis, who would go on to highlight the oppression of indigenous people in the Amazon basin, and whose reports would lead to the founding of Survival International. Lewis served in the FSS in Algeria, where he was alarmed by the behaviour of French settlers – an episode he recounted in his autobiography, Jackdaw Cake. Later he served in Italy, an experience which was the basis for his most famous book, Naples ’44. One’s impression from Lewis is that everything was a big mess, and that the FSS were bumbling British amateurs who rather muddled through. It is true that they were not, or not all, professionals, and many were (like Lewis) simply soldiers. However, in recent years allegations have emerged that they tortured suspected Communists in postwar Germany. In Klagenfurt, they must have been wary. At war’s end there had been a determined attempt by Tito’s troops to wrest control of Carinthia, which had a Slovenian minority, from Austria.  This had led to a tense standoff between British and Yugoslav troops in Klagenfurt’s town square.

Moreover postwar Europe was full of people who were anxious to secure visas for somewhere more congenial, and therefore claimed to have behaved honourably under the Nazis. Of course they sometimes lied, and the FSS must have been suspicious. Their report established that Ellie had been conscripted into the Luftwaffe early in the war, despite her protestations that she was British. However, when a report was received from Austria confirming that she was indeed British, she was kicked out and impressed as forced labour in a factory in Graz, where she slept beside slave labourers on a concrete floor. She seemed to have used her femininity to get her out of that, and then went to ground in Vienna. Exactly what she did there was not clear.

In Klagenfurt in 1946 or 1947 (courtesy J. Gray)
The FSS transcripts, however, were damning. Their report (which Ellie likely never saw) suggested that she had had liaisons with both German and Russian soldiers and thus slept her way to survival. An internal Home Office memo stated that: “The interrogation report from Klagenfurt ...FSS  is not very satisfactory and presents the subject as an impulsive and irresponsible person. ...This woman is of bad character and requires her British nationality for convenience sake. I submit that we refuse to grant a renaturalisation certificate.” In November 1947 Attlee’s Home secretary, Chuter Ede, recommended (apparently personally) that she not be renaturalised. However, in a curious and very English compromise, the Home Office stated that her bad character was not sufficient to bar her from being granted a visa.

So what had Ellie been up to in wartime Vienna that so upset the FSS? Using their reports on Ellie (parts of which are still redacted), Gray has pieced together the story of a hand-to-mouth life. Best not to give too much away; suffice to say that Ellie learned how to handle herself, and got through the war, although not without trouble. And although she may have used (but not abused) men, she also had a genuine gift for friendship, if Gray’s account is to be believed.  It is a gripping story, and Gray has written it very well. I found myself on the edge of my seat as I read it, and totally forgot that I was reading a real person’s story; it reads more like a thriller. It helps that Gray’s style is simple and unsensational. This is a tight, clean account.

How much is true? It mostly fits the facts Gray has – from the FSS transcripts, and from his own enquiries in Austria in 2014. However, he has invented or changed some things in order to construct a narrative. Thus he has Ellie in a relationship with one Mayer, an Austrian Wehrmacht officer who is part of the anti-Nazi underground. In fact, Mayer is based on a man called Carl Szokoll, who was real enough, and was in Vienna at the time; but there is no reason to believe they met. (There is also no proof they didn’t.) In real life, Ellie and her Austrian husband had not two but three daughters before they split. A friend who, in the book, is killed in an air raid, a Dutchwoman, was also a real person and in this case Ellie did know her, but in real life she didn’t die that way. Is all this all right?

I think it is. There is little here that could not have happened, and Gray is clear about what he knows, and what he has had to invent (he explains all on the website he has set up for the book). In any case, like all good books, Interrogating Ellie is about more than the story it relates. Eloise Picot wasn’t the first person to move to a foreign country, have children there and then find herself separated from her children after a marriage breakdown. Neither was she the last. In this more global age, it’s probably not uncommon. In her case, the separation was further complicated by the fact that she was, in effect, in an enemy country.

There is a further dimension to this book that makes it oddly contemporary. As Gray has said (on the website, not in the book):  “When I first read the file that delivered the British government’s verdict on my mother’s moral character, it upset me ...But as I say in the book, I realised I had to just try to understand what led up to those judgements. ..I do still wonder, though, about the people who wrote those judgements in the file ...What were their lives like, I wonder?”

It is a fair question. Ellie was one step away from forced labour or a concentration camp. She may have slept with those who could protect her, but there is no evidence that she hurt them, or anyone else. Today, more than ever, one could wonder about the lives of those who grant or withhold the right to remain; and how they would fare were they to seek it.

Julian Gray’s website for Interrogating Ellie is here. The book can be purchased as an ebook or paperback on the site or through the usual online and retail channels.

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Mike Robbins’s latest book, Three Seasons: Three Stories of England in the Eighties, is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Scribd and other online retailers, and can also be ordered from your local bookshop. 
Requests for review copies should be sent to thirdrailbooks (at), via NetGalley, or to the author.


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