Sunday, 27 October 2013

A different Kind of Courage by Claudia Strachan. Book review

It was only recently when I wrote a post urging people to talk to their mother before it was too late. To ask her about her life, what she did, where she came from, and how she lived. I knew very little about my mother when she was a young girl, she told me stories but I have forgotten them, or I wasn't listening properly. My mum was born in 1918 in Hamburg, she was a young woman who lived through the war, in terrible conditions, she saw some terrible things. All I remember is that she lost her house in the bombings, she wandered the streets with her small son in a pram when Hamburg was flattened.
It was by chance that I saw this book in the library. The blurb on the back said it is the spellbinding account of the life of a young woman in Hamburg during the second world war. I had to read it.   
Gretel Wachtel was born in 1915 and was 24 years old when war broke out, so she was three years older than my mum. The book is written by a close friend of hers, Claudia Strachan, who was also born in Germany, but moved to England in 1993. She spent the next nine years researching the historical background to Gretel's story.  
Gretel was a free spirited young woman living in a world where few dared to speak up. She was forced to work in an ammunition factory but she didn't lose the desire to fight the Nazi party. Gretel allied herself with the resistance, passing on secrets learned from her work, sending and receiving messages via the Enigma encryption machine. She was finally arrested by the Gestapo in 1945 and taken to an internment camp. She was liberated as the British Army advanced towards Hamburg. After the war she fell in love with a British officer and moved to England.
While I was reading this book I could picture my mother living in similar conditions. The graphic descriptions of  the bodies lying in the street after the bombings. Walking through the rubble. The struggle that she must have had to find food for herself and her son. Gretel had a thriving black market business where she bartered all kinds of things, and sent food parcels to the church for the Jews which were hiding there.
My mum came to live in England. After meeting my dad, a British soldier, she thought England would be a better place to live, better than Hamburg. There wasn't much left of it. 
This book has painted a vivid picture for me, of the times and places where my mother grew up. It has sort of filled a few gaps. I was hooked to the end, and it's very easy to read.
Gretel died at the age of 91 after a long marriage to Patrick, she lived in the south east of England. I am so pleased that she shared her story.
This is a review I have copied from the Amazon site. It's from her son, Patrick.
This review is from: A Different Kind of Courage: Gretel's Story (Paperback)
I am biased, it is about my mother but the stories told to me as a child are all the more remarkable when written in this way by Claudi. A moving story, one I am personally proud of and grateful to the Author for her efforts in making it public. Read it, it's good!
My review, it's a fascinating insight into the life and suffering of the German people during the war. Her courageous acts of defiance and bravery as she went about her everyday life, were amazing. I found her story inspiring.  


  1. H Ilona, my mother is from the north of Germany too and also lost her home, in Bremen, in the war. She was only a little girl so remembers but at the time didn't really understand the horrors.

    She migrated to Australia and eventually married an English boy whose family had also migrated. His family were horrified by the marriage at first as they had lost everything in the Blitz. But they got over it.

    I will have to see if my local library has this book.

  2. My mother isn't from Hamburg and didn't marry someone from England but I'd still like to read the book!

  3. I would love to read it too. Being a wartime baby, WW2 interests me. It sounds a very moving story.

  4. I must see if my Library has this book it sounds like my kind of read.

  5. Oh thank you for sharing this. These are the kinds of biographies I find worthwhile. Real people are so much more interesting than celebrities and politicians. I will look for this, thanks!

  6. I am going to try to find this book. I have also been reading books about this era. I didn't listen to my dad's stories about the war and now it's too late. My brother knows the stories though and I have a new interest. Thanks for the review! Martha from Kansas

  7. I will look on Amazon for the book, As I was a Kinder-Train child along with my cousin coming to the UK during the ww2 I will enjoy reading it I am sure. I have many memories of how I got to England and eventually into the care of my grandparents who were German Jews and lived in Sundrland. I am sure it will be a riveting read

  8. I`ve seen a short clip of an interview with Gretel on the TV some time ago where she was talking about the encrypting machine. A fascinating woman. I`m sure this book is equally interesting to read.
    You are quite right. We should all have asked our parents about their lives during the war. I`m very fortunate that both my parents and my grandparents had told me lots about it. I had learned an awful lot about my maternal grandmother and her own bravery during the last years of war. I also handed all these stories on to my own children, in the hope that they will never forget. Continuation is so important.

  9. Thanks for sharing this...I'll have to track down a copy...I am fortunate to still have both parents and have always encouraged them to share their life Dad I'd 90 and failing fast...but I can still get him to tell tales of the cats and kittens from his youth...


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