The Heart-Wrenching True Story I had to Keep Alive
When I started researching the Second World War for my new novel, An American in Paris, I was blown away by the accounts of so-called ‘ordinary’ people who heroically risked everything to try and defeat the Nazis.
The women who became undercover operatives, being trained in how to parachute into occupied territory, send coded messages, blow up bridges, and undergo the most brutal interrogation without cracking.
The men who fought for the resistance in France, sabotaging the Germans and smuggling people to safety.
And then there was the story of Leo Bretholz, a young Jewish man who managed to escape from a train bound for Auschwitz.
I discovered Leo’s story when I was about half way through writing An American in Paris. I’d reached a point in the plot where one of my main characters had been interned in a camp just outside of Paris. I wanted my character to be able to escape but for authenticity purposes I needed to make sure that this would have been possible.
I searched and searched online for an example of someone who had managed to escape from the camp and finally came upon a short video of Leo Bretholz, being interviewed as an old man, about what happened to him during the war.
In the video he talked movingly about how he’d escaped from a train from the internment camp in Paris bound for Auschwitz. I did another Google search for his name and discovered that he’d written a book about his experiences, called Leap Into Darkness.
The book was out of print but I managed to find an old second hand copy on Amazon, which to my delight, had been signed by the author!
The account of his daring escape in the book moved me to floods of tears. One detail in particular really got to me. When, after huge amounts of grit and determination, Leo discovered a way to leap from the train while it was moving, he was met with some resistance from his fellow prisoners. They were worried that if the Germans discovered he’d escaped they would all be punished.
He was about to give up on his plan when an old woman spoke, urging him to jump from the train. ‘If you jump maybe you’ll be able to tell this story,’ she said. ‘Who else will tell this story?’
‘Who else will tell this story?’
Those words kept echoing around my mind, long after I’d read them.
I’d never heard of Leo Bretholz before. I’d never heard the story of the heart-wrenching and deeply moving things that had happened on that train. And I’m guessing that you haven’t either.
His book is now out of print, but I was writing a brand new novel. Maybe I could grab the baton and keep the story alive by sharing it with a new generation of readers...
And so I wrote a fictionalised account of the train escape, making the real source clear in the Acknowledgements of my novel.
This to me, is the most important aspect and responsibility of writing historical fiction.
It’s an invaluable opportunity to keep true stories of bravery, love and inspiration alive.
When I received my advance copies of An American in Paris I felt a shiver run down my spine as I placed a copy of the novel beside Bretholz’s book and imagined the story of what happened on that train weaving its way from his words into mine. And from his lived experience into the hearts and minds of everyone who reads it.
An American in Paris is on sale now, for just 99p / 99c.
“What makes this debut historical novel a spectacular read is Curham’s meticulous research. She has masterfully captured the nuance and danger of the resistance movement as well as life in occupied France.’ Goodreads Review
‘This book has it all – historical information, action and intrigue, friendship and most importantly, love.’ Goodreads Review
‘I loved every second of this book. such strong characters determined to make a difference in the face of evil.’ Goodreads Review
‘This book made me fall in love with reading and writing! An absolutely delightful read.’ Goodreads Review